Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s column on “cultural libertarianism”

June 1, 2016 – 2:58 pm by John

I was bummed that I missed this tweet by Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown, because I would have responded to it.

Here is the column that resulted. It's a good, short read. I was surprised at the negativity, even disdain, that some of her libertarian respondents showed the concept. Or, at least, the term. Specifically, they associated it with the alt-right and people who mainly don't want to be nice, magnanimous, or welcoming to minorities and feminists and the general progressive/center-left.

I would have answered, "Laissez-faire on cultural/personal issues as opposed to economic or governmental ones." I would consider myself a cultural libertarian, though maybe I don't perceive the term the same way better-read people do. For instance, I had no idea the term had been used since at least 2001 to specify a subset of or alternative to regular political libertarianism. Brown links to a 2001 piece by Jonah Goldberg and a response by Reason's Nick Gillespie. She also links to a recent column at the Center for a Stateless Society by Daniel Pryor that lists some examples of people who would claim the label "cultural libertarian" using the same distasteful tactics as their "SJW" opponents, as well as scoffing at claims of non-governmental forms of oppression and persecution. He raises a good point: if cultural libertarians call themselves such in order to highlight important non-governmental, personal/social issues, then they should if anything be more attuned to the perils of private discrimination, sexism, racism, etc., even if they don't always oppose certain instances of them or think they even amount to discrimination, sexism, racism, etc.

I certainly wouldn't characterize my conception of cultural libertarianism as indistinguishable from civil libertarianism, as Julian Sanchez does. I think of civil libertarianism as defending and championing civil liberties—i.e., laws and constitutional limits on governmental power. A good example of the difference as I see it is the response to Curtis Yarvin's being invited to speak at coding conferences. Under his pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, Yarvin was the leader of the neoreactionary movement, which (as I gather from @ClarkHat, the only person I've read on the topic) opposes democracy and espouses constitutional monarchism, maybe? I think there's a lot about natural elites/aristocrats in there, too. Anyway, his protesters cited his overt racism and support of slavery or some such, but couldn't come up with a single quote to back it up, so we can safely conclude that whatever racist thoughts he has are safely contained and hidden behind more civil discourse.

This wasn't enough for the perpetually aggrieved, though, so they protested his invitation to speek at the Strange Loop conference in 2015 and LambdaConf in 2016. Under no definition I'm familiar with does civil libertarianism have anything to say on these matters. Cultural libertarianism, on the other hand, not only says that his socio-political views aren't nearly protest-worthy, it also says that directing protests, boycotts, and shaming campaigns at his inviters and supporters is misguided and counterproductive. He wasn't going to mention anything about politics at the talks, so his politics shouldn't have entered anyone's consideration. Actual hateful politics, advocacy of slavery or genocide or some such—those are worthy of protest, sure. I'm sure many outspoken communists have spoken at tech conferences, with nary a peep from these perpetual complainers, because their complaint isn't about hate, intolerance, racism, or violence, it's about right-wingers.

There are dozens more, and possibly even better, examples of the difference between civil libertarianism and cultural libertarianism as I see them. Most of them have to do with shaming and firing, because that's a favorite tactic of today's activists, most of whom are pretty hardcore leftists, and purging and entryism are well-worn mainstays of leftist activism.

You might counter, "You don't seem so non-judgmental of their politically correct, activist, protesting ways."

No, I'm not, because their activism amounts to illiberal, intolerant, conformist PC thuggery. I also don't think they should be fired, banned from anywhere, or disinvited from anything for it. I don't approve of Curtis Yarvin's politics, either. So what? My worldview espouses a culture of free speech and free expression, including open debate, civil disagreement, tolerance of people whose politics I abhor, and a generally live-and-let-live outlook on most private, personal matters. You know, like libertarianism, but for cultural issues.

I'm reminded of something I read on Twitter about "thick" and "thin" libertarians that I thought was spot-on:

Yes, libertarians who reject the labels "left-libertarian" and "thick libertarian" do value other concepts as being related or even prerequisite to liberty: a culture of free speech, a high-trust culture, strong and healthy family life, and tolerance to people with extremely different politics, to name a few. Maybe we have rejected the "thick" label because everyone who writes about "thick" libertarian values doesn't mention those at all.

I've never described myself as a "cultural libertarian" before and see no reason to start using the term now, but I do mostly agree with Caleb Brown and Grant Babcock about it, at least for now:

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