Truth carries within itself an element of coercion.
Identity politics has come to the freedom movement. But does it fit?
Many newly minted libertarians have come out of America’s indoctrination factories feeling a mix of guilt and sanctimony. They’re still libertarians, but they admonish you to “check your privilege” and caution that you may unwittingly be perpetuating a culture of oppression.
Libertarianism alone is not enough, they say.
Our tradition, they urge, needs now to find common cause with various fronts in the movement for “social justice”—struggles against racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, weightism, classism, and homophobia. In that movement, the unit of injustice is the group. Still, joining up means libertarians can attract more young people while forging a more complex, ethically rich political philosophy.
In short, we ought to hitch our wagons to what one might call the “victimhood-industrial complex.” If we don’t, some warn, the millennials will all run to progressivism.
Now if you don’t think this victimhood-industrial complex exists, ask Jonathan Rauch. In his 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors, he argued that free speech was quickly being lost to politically correct censors—especially in higher education. Twenty-plus years later, Rauch says, free speech in the academy is virtually dead:
Unlike most workplaces, universities are at the heart of intellectual life, and so the bureaucratization of speech controls there is more disturbing. In American universities, the hostile-environment and discriminatory-harassment doctrines have become part of the administrative furniture.
And for their student bodies, so also have diversity training, sensitivity seminars, and entire majors devoted to inculcating the victimhood ethos—all of which allows victim groups to justify a dangerous promiscuity with power. That’s one reason libertarians should take caution.
To take any moral high ground on matters of subjection, we don’t need to adopt the language or agenda of the victimhood-industrial complex. Indeed, that complex (double entendre intended) is part of progressive intellectuals’ designs on power. It is intended to fragment people along contrived, collectivist lines. And we can do better.
I normally don’t make arguments based on ideological purity, but here’s an area in which pragmatic and philosophical considerations prompt us to look to our own tradition for answers. That is, we libertarians already have a virtue that works. It captures the best of our humane concern for others and discards the bromides, the claptrap, the unearned guilt of the dangerously collectivist “social justice” movement.
That virtue is toleration.
Toleration is what separates libertarianism from competing doctrines, at least when it comes to society and culture. If some principle of non-harm orients our political compass, toleration is a moral guide. I realize that might sound a little funny to anyone who’s spent five minutes on Facebook with a rabid Rothbardian. And, of course, self-styled progressives bandy the term about, too. But the classical liberal form is the original—and most resilient—sense of toleration (or tolerance), because it does not carry with it any baggage that might corrode the rule of law, or the freedoms of expression and conscience.
What has liberated great swaths of humanity is not just the idea that people should be as free as possible; it’s the idea that in order for this great pluralist project to succeed, we have to embrace a virtue that allows us to coexist peacefully with others who may not share our particular ideas about the good life (values, religion, ethnicity, culture, or lifestyle preferences). Classical liberals have always accepted the idea that people are seekers and strivers looking for something. Of course there are a billion paths to happiness, life meaning, and well-being. Accepting that, we have to put the pursuit of happiness first, which requires admitting that we’re all different, one to the next, and we will take different paths.
Toleration starts with conscientiously agreeing not to obstruct another’s path.
Our toleration is also dispositional. A more robust toleration involves a mien of empathy, respect, and open-mindedness. It requires us not just to leave other people alone in their pursuits, but also to consider their perspectives and circumstances. The toleration of social justice is often not so tolerant. It requires conformity, censorship, and consensus.
So, if by “check your privilege” one means try to imagine what life might be like for someone in different circumstances, then great. If by “check your privilege” you’re accusing someone of being part of an oppressor class just because she hasn’t been designated a victim, then you’ve thrown toleration out with the bathwater. This formulation seems to mean your rights and opinions are invalid and you have no real complaints or suffering because you belong to X group. Or, more to the point: You are obligated to pay because people who look like you in some ways did bad things at some point.
The Apparently Perfect vs. the Good
So what does it mean to coexist peacefully with others? And doesn’t toleration have limits? Toleration does not come without its paradoxes, real or apparent. It may be difficult to tolerate the intolerant, for example. But radically free speech and a thick skin are about the best we can do—though such may include fiercely criticizing others for their intolerance in a world without any bright line between disrespect and disagreement. As libertarians, we might draw our own line and not tolerate those who regard themselves as “entitled to force the value [they hold] on other people”—and we can use any peaceful means to thwart them in their attempts to disrupt others’ life plans.
No, toleration is neither a perfect virtue nor the only virtue, but it does the work of peace.
What Liberal Toleration Is Not
Our conception does not require envy or guilt to operate. Nor does it require state censorship or wealth redistribution. It doesn’t require that we adopt cultures and communities we don’t like, but rather acknowledges that those communities and cultures will emerge. Our conception of toleration requires only acknowledgement of differences coupled with that disposition to openness.
Our conception of toleration does not accept the murky idea of victim classes. The problem here is the term “class.” Some member of a class may not be a victim at all. Besides, and more to the point, accepting the idea of victim classes implies that there are perpetrator classes—that if group X has frequently been discriminated against, or abused outright, then all members of group Y are liable for those actions (and, indeed, it’s fair to assume their perspective is tainted).
What’s more, the common acceptance of the idea of a victim class can perpetuate a psychology of victimhood among the members of that class, which holds people back. Some theories of social justice go as far as to require that non-members of the victim class accept that they are victimizers by default. While it is possible to institutionalize mistreatment of a group, justice requires us to dismantle the rot in that institution and to stop putting people into groups at all, not to violate other groups for the sake of abstract redress, or to handicap the excellent, or to reward something irrelevant such as someone’s race.
Proponents of the idea of victim classes view “social justice” as a vague cluster of goods, words, and opportunities to be filtered and apportioned equally among people by an anointed few. What isn’t vague, though, is the power they demand and the privilege they mean to extract. By contrast, proponents of liberal toleration require only that you treat individuals with respect, and first, “do no harm.”
Our conception does not hypostasize or collectivize people—treating them as automatically deserving either special consideration or zealous sensitivity, which is supposed to accrue by virtue of the ascribed group membership. Such collectivism lobotomizes individuals. It robs them of their identities and pushes them to accept identities fashioned by others. It strips them of their individual circumstances. It thins their sense of personal responsibility. And it ignores the content of their character.
Our conception does not demand a perpetual pity party, nor invent reasons to be offended, nor cause one to contrive an invisible latticework of injustice that extends up and out in every direction. Instead, our conception embodies the liberal spirit of “live and let live.” The more people who think that way, the fewer victims—real and imagined—there will be. Toleration needs neither rectitude nor guilt, so demonstrations of piety are also unnecessary. It’s a position that can be held by those who think all people are basically good, or that all people are basically lousy. But that means setting aside the business of sorting out victims (the righteous) and oppressors (the sinful).
Finally, as our conception does not require the ubiquity of injustice, it allows for the flourishing of real community. Real community needs real toleration, free speech, and the inevitable frictions that come along with our colliding perspectives. It is from those frictions that better ideas and more favorable consensuses can emerge—at least if you believe John Stuart Mill and Jonathan Rauch.
Taking Back Toleration
The old adage says: To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To someone who has been educated in the victimhood-industrial complex, everything looks like social injustice.
Toleration might ask more of us sometimes, such as that we not only acknowledge the differences among people but to try to see things from others’ perspectives (empathy). Taking on that view helps us consider how we might reduce all the frictions and figure out the kind of people we want to be. This is not a political doctrine, however. It’s more like remembering the golden rule. It’s about respecting one’s neighbor—be he Sikh or freak or breeder. It’s about acknowledging what evil, intolerant people have done in the past, but also moving on from it.
Toleration even requires us to put up with—politically, at least—the ugliest forms of expression. As Rauch reminds us, “The best society for minorities is not the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities (and from majorities, too).” And that’s hard. One has to listen to different voices, taking into account the circumstances of time, place and person, as opposed to treating people as caricatures. Whatever one’s intentions, we must remember that a lot of evil has flowed from forgetting that people are individuals.
Of course, none of this is to argue that racism or sexism or homophobia doesn’t exist, or to deny that people have been mistreated throughout history for reasons that seem arbitrary and cruel to us. It is not even to deny that people are mistreated to this very day—often for those same arbitrary reasons. Rather, my argument is intended to show that a libertarian principle of respect for persons requires toleration, not identity politics.
The great thing about libertarianism is that it is a political superstructure in which most other political philosophies can operate. No other political philosophy features such built-in, full-fledged pluralism. The other basic political philosophies have built-in asymmetries. Progressivism does not tolerate libertarians living as they wish, but libertarianism tolerates progressives living as they wish (with all the caveats about voluntary participation.) And as Hayek said about the conservative: “Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.”
So progressives are intolerant of economic freedom. Conservatives are intolerant of social freedom. Only libertarianism maximizes varying conceptions of the good. Nothing under libertarian doctrine precludes embedded communities of any political stripe, and in a free society, we ought to tolerate these clusters as long as they guarantee a right of exit. Indeed, our only requirement would be that if any such community is to persist, it should do so in a matrix of persuasion rather than of coercion.
If we take back toleration, we have a moral high ground that is both appealing to younger generations and works to the benefit of all people. We don’t have to live with the contradictions of progressive social engineers or with conservatives’ half-hearted deference to individual liberty. By practicing real toleration, we can dispel all the various “isms” while leaving people their life plans.
And that’s good enough for libertarianism.
This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education.