28 October 2009

Refining my Mill-ism

The reason article/debate from last week is getting quite a lot of circulation in my blog circle (it's heavily libertarian of course, so debates about libertarianism naturally should be of interest to other libertarians of their varying stripes). I wanted to circle back to a couple points as a result.

I think the structural argument of libertarianism is to say that coercion by force is the highest evil and that this is generally reserved to the state. So the state or the government is the first line of defence. But it would be fair to acknowledge, as Mill did, that there are a large variety of social forms that coerce people into conformity against their will or consent. The trouble becomes how to parse out the positive impacts of some of these (ie, the functional aspects of a society which has a large percentage of people who tend to agree on a few basic principles) from the negative impacts (ie, those social and non-governmental stigmas which are harmful to individual's rights and choices without any just cause, such as race, gender, religious affiliations/lack thereof, or sexual orientation rather than strict harmful behavioral issues such as criminal activity). So Kerry's point that many libertarians will tend to assume very often that people who are in fact oppressed by social forces are instead conforming by choice is probably valid and important. But again, it is a thin line to then argue that individuals should always be the tyranny of importance and that their choices should be totally free. Mostly because not all individuals subscribe to that set of value, even if it may or may not be to their advantage to do so. And partly because there are legitimate concerns, at times, about the ability of minority powers brought by individual choice (I would suggest that it is possible for too much to go on the plate at once and upset the fragile order that individuals could otherwise establish and maintain themselves). The way you escape this is then to have very decentralized power centers. So if the social conformity is in one place unacceptable to one's personal preferences, you can move and find a location which is more acceptable. Or you can advocate (supposing that the establishment of free speech is respected).

There are several concrete examples of these balance considerations that I go through regularly. Religion is one of the foremost. It is undoubtedly a powerful societal coercive force. It has in its history constructed powerful repressive agencies against social tolerance, expressed racial or sexist preferences, and been engaged in acts of repression and violence against people of other faiths, women, minorities, and so on. These acts are not in simple terms caused by "faith" however. They are largely caused by the societal coercion that the institutions of faith have created over centuries, and are used by an extreme few to justify acts of intolerance, bigotry, hostility, even abhorrent actions of torture and violence. None of which seem remotely consistent with the actual beliefs or tenets of the majority of religious peoples. It is easy for me as an atheist to express a preference that religion, in particular organized religion, be removed from its societal totem pole placement. But it is less necessary for me as an atheist to express a demand for a coercive removal of religious faith from those people that hold it. It's simpler instead to call on and appeal to those tenets that are likely to engage us in something positive (tolerance, love, relative obedience and fidelity rather than absolute and unquestioning, charity, and so on). The reason these are difficult to appeal to is in my mind because the individual beliefs of religious people are afflicted by organized religion to start with (tendency to groupthink, us vs them scenarios, and the ability of centralized religious authorities to abuse their position and advocate for silly things like slavery or sexism). Though it is possible that a central control over a flock of religious peoples has some benefits, it appears that many of the extremist movements are themselves a sort of reaction against such central control. Islam in particular works in this way, franchising out a radical interpretation of itself in direct opposition to a perception of a weaker faith. Christianists in Europe and America are, in my view, no different. At least if the movements of repression and retrograde society are limited to a fringe, they'd be easier to manage and counter with more reasonable approaches.

That brings us to how to oppose such forces while still retaining individual choices and liberties. There is, fortunately, little justification for using state coercive force on religion at all (reason being that such justifications could almost certainly be turned against reason or minority views such as atheism, all such views demand protection against the law of majority opinions and beliefs). So how do you create a force in opposition, or rather, is it necessary to? I'm not sure that it is necessary to create a homogeneous front opposing the plagues that organised social forces foment in society. I do agree that there is a need for individuals to express their preferences in a heterogeneous way and even to demand them. For example, I think that in the long run, the justifications for secular-basis of law, for movements such as feminism, opposition to racial stereotypes, acceptance of equal rights for homosexuals, and general charitable attitudes toward the poor or disenfranchised of any cause, are largely that the societies that have embraced such movements have benefited in a variety of ways over societies that have not. States with "expanded" rights for homosexuals have attracted the productive and intelligent homosexuals and benefited economically and culturally. Nations with relative equality between women and men have tremendous economic dynamism (though we're still shaking through the social choice problems and the roles of men and women in a world of nebulous gender roles, I think this is small potatoes relative to the gains of having more and more women, or people generally, who can be productive and influential in society). So it seems more likely that the best conception of libertarianism over the interests of individual libertarians is to expand and defend the individual rights that a society has gained and to ignore social constructs of the intended roles of individuals as a basis of irrelevant characteristics.

There's one caveat I make to all that: free speech. Advocating for an expanded protection of free speech is necessary, but as a consequence it means putting up with a wide variety of repulsive or irritating viewpoints that others will express. By "putting up with", I mean: allowing people the access and audience that will have them and be persuaded by them, for the very reason that allowing that access and audience gives the freedom to express your own controversial views, such as they are, in societies that do not allow for individually defended liberties against social forces or extra-governmental agency. In the long run, advocating a positive position against those who would demand a social negative is probably a better strategy. In that respect, I find a great deal of power to an argument like Kerry Howley's. But the reason for that power is that it is "limited" in its ability to create its own coercive authorities within society. Conforming to the cult of individualism is not for everyone, but defending the rights of other individuals is most certainly for libertarians.

Put another way, libertarianism, not the libertarians who subscribe to all or portions of its ideological conclusions, is simply another vehicle for conformity unless it is a message of anti-conformitity and permits people their egregious views, if only so they will permit us our radical individualism and expressions. Libertarians themselves are thus free to have pet causes, to express and advocate for views which liberate individuals where possible, but stops short of a conclusion that there are socially desirable outcomes for those individuals that they ought to choose instead.
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