Bryan Caplan  

Tolerance and the Libertarian Penumbra

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Adaptation... Do Nick Gillespie/Matt Welch a...
A while back I wrote of the "libertarian penumbra":
Libertarians are famous for their internal disagreements, but they have far more beliefs in common than their core position requires.  For starters, even non-consequentialist libertarians generally believe that libertarian policies have good consequences.  Almost all libertarians think that free markets are better for economic growth, legalization of drugs would not radically increase drug use, and rent control causes shortages.

The more interesting fact, though, is that libertarians have many beliefs in common that have little to do with the consequences of liberty.
I remembered this post while reading David Gordon's critique of Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch's The Declaration of Independents.  It's hard to be sure, but David seems to reject the very idea of a libertarian penumbra.  Gillespie and Welch identify tolerance as "the most important social value," but David demurs:
This very much differs from the conception of libertarianism defended over a lifetime by Murray Rothbard. As Rothbard saw matters, libertarians are committed only to defining the permissible use of force. They are free to adopt whatever attitudes they wish towards people's lifestyles, so long as they respect rights. They are emphatically not required to be "social liberals".
"Required"?  Of course not.  But tolerance and libertarianism are highly correlated, and it's no coincidence.  Why not?  Most obviously: If you deeply hate another noteworthy group, coercion is the only plausible way to rapidly and decisively eliminate it.  The deeper your hate, the more tempting coercion becomes. 

Sure, we can imagine a "libertarian Trotskyist" who spends his life trying to persuade the bourgeoisie to voluntarily commit suicide.  But it's unlikely that such a person has ever lived, or ever will live.  If your end is the elimination of millions of people, the means of coercion will call to you like the One Ring to the Nazgûl.

The same point works at the opposite end of the continuum.  If you have a live-and-let-live attitude, coercion naturally holds little appeal for you.  Sure, we can imagine a "homicidal hippie" who reluctantly advocates the extinction of millions of people against whom he bears no ill will.  But once again, it's unlikely that such a person has ever lived, or ever will live.  In the real world, tolerance and libertarianism walk hand in hand.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
kurlos writes:

Tolerance exists only when someone encounters something he or she finds disagreeable. The Left protests vigorously over nearly every thing they find disagreeable. If you are indifferent to homosexual attitudes, tolerance never enters the equation.

kurlos writes:

edit: If you are indifferent to homosexual relationships, tolerance never enters the equation.

Matt writes:
If your end is the elimination of millions of people, the means of coercion will call to you like the One Ring to the Nazgûl.

Priceless Caplanism there.

8 writes:

Brazilians don't have a hatred for Tibetans because they don't live next to each other. If libertarianism allows people/groups to not interact with those they dislike, there's no reason for them to need coercion.

Scott from Ohio writes:

I disagree with the identification of social liberalism with tolerance. There is nothing tolerant about abortion, or unions, or affirmative action, or "social justice" of any kind. There are some socially liberal positions that coincide with tolerance, such as immigration, but these are the exception, not the rule.

As for whether there is such a thing as a "homicidal hippie," allow me to introduce you to some of my acquaintances in the Peak Oil movement, and I think you will change your mind.

Richard writes:

The problem with this Gordon/Reason debate is that the latter adopt a very broad definition of "tolerance," one that I would argue requires government coercion.

For example, I'm sure that there are a number of white people who don't want anything to do with blacks. Particularly in the South, if we allowed freedom of association these people would for the most part get their wish. Yet I'm sure Gillespie and Welch would find such people morally repulsive, and if they acknowledged their right for voluntarily formed racially homogenous communities they would only do so begrudgingly.

Vangel writes:

I am on Gordon's side of the argument. As long as I respect someone's rights I am tolerant of their activities even if I may not agree with them. I think that Gillespie and Welch seem to want libertarians to promote rather than tolerate certain social views. That is not a requirement for libertarianism. The only requirement is the recognition that the initiation of force is illegitimate.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Vangel,
I am on Gordon's side--and on Gillespie's and Welch's side. They're actually agreeing. See my take here.

steve writes:

I think the Amish might count as intolerant Libertarians. If you use the wrong technology, they will cast you out from their ranks and shun you, going so far as refusing to even talk to you. But, they will never lift a finger in violence.

John David Galt writes:

There are indeed both "political libertarians" and "social libertarians," groups which overlap but are not entirely the same people. It's easy to conflate the two, until you suddenly run up against a conflict like the early Institute for Justice case of a landlord who wanted to refuse to rent his property to an unmarried couple. No "social libertarian" would have taken his side, but IJ are "political libertarians" and did.

Vangel writes:

David

I did see your response a while ago while I was waiting for the kids to finish their lessons with their math tutor. I think that Gillespie and Welch have argued the need to go beyond tolerance and to move towards something similar to promotion. Which is why I believe Reason has taken a number of shots at Ron Paul, who is the most libertarian candidate for president in more than a century.

Gordon is right. Libertarians are defined by their position on the permissible use of force. As long as they respect the rights of others they are free to adopt whatever social attitudes they wish. But the way I read Gillespie and Welch that is not enough. People like Ron Paul are not libertarian enough because they do not embrace certain lifestyles, even though they would never argue that the federal government should interfere with lifestyle choices.

What bothers me is the practical effect of the shots that the writers in Reason have taken towards Dr. Paul's positions. By trying to turn his natural constituency against Dr. Paul the Reason writers and editors are only helping the establishment candidates that are preferred by the corrupt party leadership and the corrupt mainstream media. As far as I am concerned, that requires that libertarians stand on principle and point out that the Gillespie and Welch position is wrong, even though you may choose to ingore the subtle differences and interpret it as the same as that taken by Gordon.

Chris Koresko writes:

Bryan Caplan: Sure, we can imagine a "homicidal hippie" who reluctantly advocates the extinction of millions of people against whom he bears no ill will. But once again, it's unlikely that such a person has ever lived, or ever will live.

Bill Ayers?

Tom West writes:

The only requirement is the recognition that the initiation of force is illegitimate.

I'd say "physical force", not just force. I believe the initiation of economic and social force to attempt to compel someone is legitimate under Libertarianism.

David Gordon writes:

Thanks very much for your comments. You seem to me right that people who hate sufficiently various groups and lifestyles will feel pressure to act against them in a non-libertarian way. I also do not deny a correlation between libertarianism and a live-and-let attitude. But my reading of Gillespie and Welch is that they go considerably beyond these contentions; they seem to me to require active approval of various cultural movements and patterns of life. But there is a great deal of space between approval and hatred, and there is nothing incongruous in thinking that libertarians can occupy various points within that space.

david nh writes:

Tolerance requires neither approval nor agreement. In fact, tolerance requires a difference of some kind. Tolerating only those you agree with or approve of drains any of the virtue out of "tolerance".

John David Galt writes:

@Tom West: I believe the initiation of economic and social force to attempt to compel someone is legitimate under Libertarianism.

Libertarianism expressly denies the concept of economic coercion. Both economic boycotts (and partial boycotts, AKA discrimination) and shunning are completely acceptable and are not force. If you feel that either method is being used unjustly, you can always start a return boycott and see which group suffers more.

If this became the law tomorrow, I am convinced the results would be entirely beneficial. If someone is a racist, gay-hater, or anything else I consider bigoted, I'd rather they be allowed to say so openly so that I can stay away from them.

Vangel writes:

But my reading of Gillespie and Welch is that they go considerably beyond these contentions; they seem to me to require active approval of various cultural movements and patterns of life.

That is one of the problems that I have noticed with Gillespie in his many media appearances. He goes beyond the basic principles on which libertarianism are based and seems to come on as a cheerleader of various alternative lifestyles. But why do the people who have those lifestyles require the approval or encouragement from anyone else? They have every right to make their own choices as they see fit and do not need any pretentious libertarians to cheer them on.

Rohit writes:

I am personally worried about

1) Tyranny of the majority.
2) Tyranny of the minority.

The first point has been discussed often and is well known but the second point is equally dangerous.

It is long been argued that the collective is not tolerant. The argument is not without reason. Most collectives show lack of tolerance for those who dare to differ.

But let’s give some thought to this so called correlation between tolerance and libertarians. Is this real tolerance or just ideology that is mistaken for tolerance?

Faith can in itself act as a collective. Most libertarians are tolerant to each other's idea because most have ideas which fall and adhere to a rough guideline that their faith allows them. Any thing outside this belief system is automatically rejected or branded as non rational, anti freedom and non libertarian.

To put it in more concrete terms, let us take three hypothetical economical systems

1) An individualist system in which resource allocation are decided by free market. There is no room for government.

2) An individualist system in which wages and prices and resource allocation are decided by free market. There is room for government but only to the extent of enforcing contracts.

3) A system of command and control in which a central control exercises and decides on all major matter of economics albeit with the consensus of individual participants.

4) A collective system in which there is no government. All individuals willfully decide as a collective on all economic issues.


The libertarian reaction to these systems would be to reject 3 and 4 as leftist and not in agreement with the belief system. 1 and 2 are plausible but different solutions which more or less confer to these beliefs. Those who hold preference to first view are in tolerant disagreement with those who hold the seconds view. The rest don’t matter.

Despite the fact that 3rd and 4th (Hypothetically speaking) may be freer than 1 and 2 still most libertarians will not accept them. Most of them are blind to the fact the real test of freedom is empirical in nature not ideological. The freeness of the 1st and 2nd solution can only be shown through empirical evidence not by keeping ideological preferences.

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