Monday, October 12, 2009


Until Kerry Howley’s very compelling and well-argued article in the latest issue in REASON magazine, I’d never truly considered that there was such a thing as “cultural” libertarianism. Me, I’m a guy who considers himself exceptionally “socially liberal” and “fiscally conservative” and a avowed foe of big government in all its manifestations, and if that makes me a libertarian, so be it. But Howley’s got something of a different take on things. She argues that a libertarianism that begins & ends with broadly-defined property rights or taxation only advances the cause of freedom and liberty in one or two, albeit very important, manners. This problem of government encroachment on the private domain is only one way in which the liberties of individuals are oppressed; culturally, there’s a much bigger, and often more important battle to be fought.

This rings very true to me, especially given that our lives are so short. Example #1: the global marginalization of women. Sure, we can pout and moan about equal pay for equal work and the burden of childbirth for working women in THIS rich, first-world country, but in many places in the non-Western world, all too often being a woman means being reduced to a mere vessel for raising children, a burdensome one at that, who can be beaten, raped and abused on a whim without ramifications for the abusers. I read the NY Times Magazine’s special issue on worldwide women’s issues, and I have to say I was quite moved by it. I’ve always spoken in the abstract about how ridiculous it is when Arab counties leave 50% of their population’s skills on the shelf, but I’m considerably more emboldened to make the case for massive female freedom & liberty on a global basis than I was previously. Other examples of cultural libertarianism in my own thinking abound: strong support for gay marriage; willingness to experiment with some drug legalization; and (a big one for me) actively speaking out against centuries-long human oppression stemming from religious beliefs formed & codified millennia ago.

In these cases the oppressor of liberty isn’t always the government. They are rock-solid cultural and religious norms. I’ve always abhorred cultural relativism, and those who argue that the norms of the world beyond our borders are just as well and good as those here have long bothered me. I personally take pride in the human liberty and material advances of western civilization, and I heartily applaud those countries of the East that have freed their peoples from years of cultural and religious tyranny as well. Howley’s argument is a good one because she recognizes that measuring true progress in our lifetimes is difficult and hard to see, and it’s better to frequently and routinely advance the cause of human dignity and freedom on an individual basis AND a culture-wide basis than to focus efforts solely on the bugaboos of taxation and property.

In the end, a woman being trafficked for sex or held as chattel by males in her society due to religious or cultural norms doesn’t really care so much about her taxation levels or property rights, but we lovers of liberty should certainly elevate her right to freedom from oppression at least as high as we do our own. I’d like to do my part to help spread the concept of cultural libertarianism as broadly as possible to help her and all others who want and deserve dignity, freedom and a life free from the oppression of others.

Make sense? It does to me. I’ll try and break it down a little better in future posts. In the meantime, here’s some talk about the article that spurred the thinking here.


D said...
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Eric O said...

...In the end, a woman being trafficked for sex or held as chattel by males in her society due to religious or cultural norms doesn’t really care so much about her taxation levels or property rights...

!!!! you think? really? OMG!!!!