Meditations on Cultural Libertarianism

Allum Bokhari, a liberal fellow writing for – of all places – Breitbart, has posited that we are experiencing a new cultural phenomenon, which he dubs ‘Cultural Libertarianism‘, and which has been somewhat discussed – critically – by the Centre for a Stateless Society, pointing it out as one side, or an emerging counter-revolution, in the increasingly vicious culture war.

Mr Bokhari defines this Cultural Libertarianism largely by defining what it is in opposition to, rather than what its values and positive characteristics are. He does cover, briefly, what he identifies as Cultural Libertarian values which I’ll use as the basis for this discussion.

  • Championing free expression.
  • Resisting Identity Politics and public shaming.
  • Defending and understanding humour.
  • Opposing nannying and ‘safe spaces’.
  • Defending personal freedom.
  • Facts over feelings.
  • Valuing consumers and producers over third parties.
  • Celebrating culture in all its forms.

Some of these seem redundant to me and the aspects which are oppositional to what is being called ‘progressivism’ often stem from existing values. In promoting that positive value you inevitably come into opposition with others.

If I were to identify what I thought of as the core values of this emerging phenomenon, I would identify them as such:

  • A belief in the inherent value of free expression.
  • A belief in the equality, potential and strength of human beings.
  • A belief in the power and value of personal liberty.
  • A belief in the power, utility and relevance of reason.

It is, probably, necessary to define ‘libertarianism’ (small ‘l’) before going any further. If you say ‘libertarianism’ to most people, they picture some some of Ayn Rand worshipping anarcho-capitalist with an absolute belief in the free market and no sense of fairness or life-goals beyond unbridled profit.

This isn’t necessarily an unfair assessment of many economic Libertarians (big ‘l’) but libertarianism is not so specific an idea. The toxic and specific definition is so pernicious it has even begun to infiltrate dictionaries. Scruton’s Dictionary of Political Thought includes the extreme laissez-faire economic perspective, but also describes more classical libertarianism as a form of liberalism which…

…believes in freeing people not merely from the constraints of traditional political institutions, but also from the inner constraints imposed by their mistaken attribution of power to ineffectual things. The active libertarian is engaged in a process of liberation and wages war on all institutions through which a man’s vision of the world is narrowed… …among them the institutions of religion, the family and the customs of social – especially sexual – conformity.

This doesn’t quite describe what we’re talking about here either, though you can see the spirit of it within it. You can see echoes of what we’re talking about in both economic and social libertarianism though. An economic libertarian advocates minimal – or no – societal (governmental) interference in the conduct of business, a social libertarian advocates minimal – or no – societal (governmental) interference in social conduct and, then, a cultural libertarian would advocate minimal – or no – societal (or governmental) interference in cultural conduct.

  • An economic libertarian might argue against business regulation.
  • A social libertarian might advocate for the legalisation of sex work and recreational drugs.
  • A cultural libertarian might advocate against any and all constrictions of free expression.

To me, much of this seems to be what I have often longed for in the past five years, a reassertion of Enlightenment values and of classical liberalism.

All of western society which, love it or loathe it, has been powerfully successful, derives in its modern form from Enlightenment values of reason, empiricism, skepticism, independence, individualism and, you might say, an attempt to bring about the maturity of society by separating it from political and religious tyranny.

Classical liberalism, to finish contextualising cultural libertarianism, has the asserted values of:

  • Belief in the supreme value of the individual, their freedom and rights.
  • Belief in natural rights, inherent and independent to society and government.
  • Recognition of the supreme importance and value of freedom, with the view that interference should be limited and minimal and only justifiable to the extent that it maximises freedom.
  • A humanistic view of human affairs, rather than a theological view.
  • Universalism, that rights and duties transcend place and time and that the human condition is our common experience.
  • Advocacy of tolerance in morality and religion.

I believe we can see a common thread, then, running from the explorations of the Enlightenment, through classical liberalism (and democratic socialism, much as that may shock and horrify some cultural libertarians) through to today’s new cultural libertarians.

That’s a noble tradition.

Of course, there are points of confusion where the values from this heritage also seem to be held by cultural libertarianism’s opposition, or where it seems to run at odds to some of the other values of people who might be dubbed cultural libertarians. I don’t want to dwell too much on the negative – as I stated at the start – but some aspects are worth pointing out.

It confuses many how people of such opposing values on other scores can find themselves in common cultural cause. I, for example, have little I agree with – say – Adam Baldwin or Katie Hopkins on, but however obnoxious I find them or they find me, I think we all would agree on one thing. That we each have the right to our opinions and the right to express them. Supporting a person’s right to free expression does not entail agreeing with their economic or social positions. People are so quick to slap an identity on someone – friend or foe alike – that nuanced discussion becomes impossible because you’ve been written off as a ‘conservative’ or a ‘misogynist’ or whatever else.

People are more than their identity tags.

Another point of contention might be the nature of freedom and of rights. There’s always a tension between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ and between a person’s right to do something and another person’s right to be free of something. ‘The right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose’, so to speak, but how much nasal protection is in order?

Cultural libertarians will tend to favour ‘freedom to’ and JS Mill’s formulation of the Harm Principle would seem to offer a good guide to where intervention is morally and ethically justified.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

‘Harm’, of course, is the centre of much of the modern debate, what constitutes actual harm, whether it includes emotional harm, whether it includes taking offence and whether it’s acceptable to take offence on behalf of someone else. I would argue that cultural libertarians mean genuine and actual harm – such as direct advocacy of violence – and not insult or offence.

Tolerance is the last arena I shall briefly touch on, where confusion might arise. Tolerance, in common parlance, has come to mean ‘strenuously not offending or upsetting anyone’, whereas tolerance in this sense – and more properly if I’m any judge – means putting up with and coping with running into contradictory views and being able to cope with their existence. Ironically the opposite of what ‘tolerance’ has come to mean.

These are some initial thoughts on a phenomenon and proposed ‘new’ social movement that I find fascinating and I shall probably continue to discuss and attempt to identify what it means as time goes on.

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One response to “Meditations on Cultural Libertarianism

  1. “A belief in the power, utility and relevance of reason.”

    To that I would add “evidence”. Reason alone doesn’t get you very far.

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