In general, a libertarian society would be hospitable to people’s cultural roots and collective identities.
Placing one’s life story in the context of a larger, more inclusive narrative can help to give one a sense of meaning and direction. Some of the tales we tell for this purpose are religious, some metaphysical, some scientific, some ethnic, some cultural. Political libertarianism would not deprive anyone of the sense of identity conferred by any of these stories—unless, of course, it could only be preserved by force—and would doubtless contribute to the flourishing of a significant number. Cultural libertarianism might undermine some of these stories, but would certainly leave many undisturbed.
Varieties of Libertarianism
Political libertarianism opposes aggression—the initiation of force—by individuals, including those acting under the color of law. Cultural libertarianism seeks peacefully to undermine hierarchies in workplaces and other social institutions; to promote individual freedom of self-development, self-definition, and self-expression; and to foster an ethos of openness, dialogue, and critical reflection on social norms. Proponents of cultural libertarianism argue plausibly that their position emerges from the same respect for the value of freedom that underlies political libertarianism; that people who are not consistently skeptical about positional authority will find it difficult to sustain a free society; that the assumptions that ground some cultural arrangements are inconsistent with those embraced by political libertarianism; and that aggression frequently makes possible the maintenance of hierarchical social arrangements, even if those arrangements are not themselves aggressive.
Political Libertarianism and Collective Identity
Political libertarianism would leave people free to form whatever non-violent social arrangements they might like and to remember and celebrate whatever narrative sources of cultural identity they might opt to embrace. Do you claim the story of the Israelites following Moses through the wilderness as your own? Are the Cluniac monks your spiritual ancestors? Do you see the Boxer Rebels as your forebears? Political libertarianism leaves you free to identify with them, to celebrate what you judge to be their accomplishments, to treat them as central to your own heritage.
Creating Space for Identity
Indeed, it is important to emphasize that your ability to preserve and share a cultural identity you cherish would be greater in a politically libertarian society than it is in societies dominated by states. By taxing people, states claim resources their subjects could have used to preserve identity-constitutive places, objects, and traditions. But the state poses more serious problems for those who want to nourish particular cultural identities.
The state’s haphazard identity-preserving projects are funded in part by taxes paid by members of minority cultures who may have little interest in preserving the artefacts or life-ways on which the state focuses the resources it has acquired. In addition, even putatively liberal states frequently suppress or relocate cultural minorities; and state-owned media and schools can operate to erase regional dialects and other signs of sub-cultural distinctiveness. At the same time, because governments overseeing increasingly diverse societies frequently wish to treat all cultural groups inclusively, state-funded cultural projects tend often to be instances of characterless pabulum, with little or no capacity to contribute to the transmission of any particular cultural identity. Further, when the state claims the authority to safeguard a majority culture, it almost unavoidably also claims a hegemonic role as interpreter of that culture—often distorting or reconstructing it in perverse ways, or co-opting its values and symbols as sources of legitimation.
The existence of state-owned property and employment by state agencies creates endless opportunities for conflict over cultural matters in statist societies. Which religious symbols may be displayed on public land? Will officially led prayers be permitted in state schools? Which holidays will be officially recognized? Which culturally significant dress codes will teachers, soldiers, judges, or nurses be allowed to follow? Different interest-groups with the ability to influence the state can engage in repeated contests over such matters, each seeking to ensure that the state works to preserve particular identity markers. The end result is that cultural, religious, and ethnic communities come into conflict with each other, and that pressure to avoid any expression of distinctiveness increases.
The problem is only exacerbated when the state opts to use force not only to manage affairs on the property it claims for itself but also to constrain people’s freedom with respect to admittedly private property in the interests of preserving or suppressing particular cultural identities. The French government’s bans on the public wearing of the burqa and on the wearing of the hijab in state schools are obvious examples—they prevent people from using their own property in relation to their own bodies. So are efforts in New York and elsewhere in the United States to use the state’s claimed power to regulate land use to prevent the construction of religious structures. In statist societies, people’s peaceable attempts to express their identities and nourish their traditions can be opposed by actual or threatened state violence.
In a politically libertarian society, by contrast, members of varying cultural groups would obviously be free to spend their money as they chose. They would not be required to subsidize others’ cultural preferences. They could erect monuments and houses of worship, put iconic images on display, at their own discretion on their own property. They could invest in efforts designed to preserve objects and practices and memories they cherished. They could operate schools that transmitted their beliefs and habits.
Obviously, conflicts over the proper uses of places and things with multiple cultural meanings will not go away in a politically libertarian society. However, by removing these conflicts from the realm of politics, by assigning responsibility for the contested sites or objects to particular people or organizations in accordance with outcome-independent rules, a libertarian society can in some ways localize their intensity, reducing the likelihood of spill-over clashes, and render them more manageable.
Aggression and Culture
In a politically libertarian society, people would be free to retain cultural roots and collective identities—and unlikely to confront many of the conflicts over cultural issues that the state unavoidably creates. Such a society would thus not only be free from state-related tensions that often prompt the suppression of cultural particularity but also provide more room for cultural expression than a statist society. At the same time, however, it would not and could not make room for any and all practices designed, even in good faith, to preserve deeply valued cultural mores. For a society that genuinely embodied political libertarianism would be one in which a norm precluding aggression was rightly understood as a necessary prerequisite to social peace and to both individual and cultural flourishing.
In such a society, the claim that a given practice somehow supported the preservation of this or that group identity would obviously be insufficient to justify the practice if it involved aggressive attacks on persons or their justly claimed property. To take obvious examples, clitoridectomy, infibulation, and foot-binding could not be regarded simply as expressions of particular cultural preferences, to be treated with the same deference as habits of dress and efforts directed at the preservation of historically significant monuments. As instances of aggressive force, they would clearly fall beyond the pale in a politically libertarian society. (I prescind from those cases in which those who would otherwise clearly qualify as the victims of these aggressive acts indisputably render free and informed consent to them. Cultural libertarianism surely embodies a commitment to discouraging such consent and the beliefs and attitudes underlying it.) So, too, would the use of physical force to exclude people from trading relationships, prevent people of the purportedly wrong sort from living in particular neighborhoods, or keep people from destroying or altering their own property in ways likely to eliminate or distort objects of cultural significance.
Some kinds of collective identities might not survive if those who valued them could not use force to preserve them. To this, the advocate of a libertarian society will have no reasonable choice but to say: so be it. A politically libertarian society would leave room for many cultures and collective identities to flourish, but it would obviously not be equally welcoming to all. Only those which people were prepared to own without the threat of force would survive and thrive. Of course this would remove one means of preserving and transmitting collective identities. At the same time, however, it would ensure that those who shared those identities did so voluntarily and were thus more personally invested in them—and so more likely to preserve and transmit them—than might be the case in a society in which they were preserved by force.
The Limits of Libertarian Culture
While a politically libertarian society would nourish diverse collective identities, a society that was also culturally libertarian might be friendly to fewer such identities.
Individuality and Identity
Cultural libertarianism is fundamentally individualistic, so it might be thought that a fully libertarian culture would have no room for collective identities at all. But there is surely no reason to suppose this. For the sense in which libertarianism affirms individualism need not entail any deep-seated conflict with the affirmation of a densely textured cultural identity. It is quite possible to be an individualist who cherishes a sense of place, who treasures the contribution historical predecessors have made to his or her sense of self, who recognizes the importance—indeed, the inescapability—of learning about the world and one’s place in it from one’s traditions. Cultural libertarianism need involve no commitment to a Promethean view of autonomy, an existentialist vision of self-creation, or a naïvely foundationalist rejection of tradition. One can be a cultural libertarian without aspiring to be the deracinated individual of philosophical fantasy.
Cultural libertarianism is animated first and foremost by a desire, positively, to see the full range of human possibilities explored and put on display and, negatively, to avoid the suppression of dignity, freedom, creativity, and uniqueness that occurs when people are subjected to the whims of hierarchs, experts, blue-noses, busy-bodies, and paternalists. In short, cultural libertarians “don’t want to push other people around . . . and . . . don’t want to be pushed around themselves” (Murray N. Rothbard, letter to David Bergland, June 5, 1986, qtd. Justin Raimondo, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus 2000) 263-4). Seeking neither to push nor to be pushed is quite compatible with seeing oneself as part of a wider whole, with making sense of one’s own story in light of a more comprehensive narrative.
Rejecting Illiberal Identities
But if support for cultural libertarianism need not mean opposition to collective identity in principle, it is still certainly the case that it does mean rejection of particular sorts of collective identities. Cultural libertarianism will certainly prompt rejection, for instance, of racism and of multiple varieties of nationalism.
It is quite possible to be a peaceful racist—to avoid racially motivated violence against person or property while nourishing prejudice and fostering and engaging in unwarranted discrimination. One may quite non-aggressively develop and cling to a sense of oneself defined by identification with one group of people on the basis of their race and dismissal of others on the basis of theirs.
A narrowly political libertarianism may have nothing in particular to say about this sort of non-aggressive stance. But it seems likely to fall foul of a more broadly cultural libertarianism. Even if it is itself expressed non-violently, this kind of racism can prompt violence. Racialized distributions of wealth and social power are often rooted in past acts of violence—enslavement and dispossession are particularly clear instances. Racism features an implicit unwillingness to see people as particular, as individual, and a penchant for reducing them to sets of stereotypes. And the underlying sense of the moral equality of persons that grounds libertarianism’s rejection of statism is, at minimum, difficult to square with racial prejudice.
None of this means that the cultural libertarian will judge it appropriate to use force to punish the racist for thinking bad thoughts or to prevent anyone from catering non-aggressively to racist tastes. But the cultural libertarian will be quite aware that, without statist privilege to sustain it, racism in the context of economic life will prove to be prohibitively costly over time. In addition, the libertarian—here, the purely political libertarian will have no quarrel with the cultural libertarian—will favor remedies for past acts of injustice that may often serve to reduce the aggression-based power of the racist. The cultural libertarian will also strongly favor the use of non-violent forms of social pressure—shunning, public shaming, peaceful boycotts, and peaceful protests and strikes—to challenge the racist’s behavior.
Cultural libertarians will actively discourage racism. And, more fundamentally, the widespread adoption of libertarian cultural values would make it difficult for anyone to sustain a sense of self rooted in racial superiority or exclusivity.
There is no obvious incompatibility between embracing cultural libertarianism and identifying with a particular place—provided one simply values its treasures for their own sake, or prizes its contribution to making one who one is, rather judging other places to be objectively inferior. G. K. Chesterton and Bill Kauffman provide obvious and appealing models for an admirable localism. Conventional nationalism is another sort of creature altogether, however.
Nationalism characteristically involves loyalty, not to a revered place as such, but rather to the nation-state. The libertarian can hardly welcome a willingness to cheer for “my country, right or wrong,” not only because to support wrong-doing is to risk moral corruption but also because “my country” really means, not people and places dear to my heart, but rather the implacable apparatus of the state.
Nationalism too often finds expression in violence, especially militaristic violence—whether of an irredentist variety or in support of state expansion. Of course it need not. But the cultural libertarian will be wary of its capacity to underwrite aggression.
He or she will also look askance at nationalism’s frequent valorization of state boundaries, which often fail to track culture or geography meaningfully. There may be little connection between the actual people and places on which one’s loyalty focuses and the borders of one’s state. Similarly: sensitive to individuality and diversity, the cultural libertarian will also recognize that the geographic territory claimed by nation-states is characteristically home to people with varied cultural identities. Loyalty to the nation often seems to mean loyalty to the majority in a particular region, or perhaps to a minority that holds the reins of state power. As a variety of collectivism, nationalism too frequently seems to involve the erasure of the particularity of those who don’t identify with the majority’s culture—including members of minority cultures, people who identify with multiple cultures, and people in some sense within the majority culture who seek in one way or another to transform it.
The territory claimed by an enormous nation-state may arguably be not only too arbitrarily demarcated but also too extensive to provide a manageable focus for personal loyalty. A genuinely local perspective may often prove more compatible with human-scale attachments. This does not mean, of course, that one can or should ignore the role of others who are not local in shaping one’s identity and experience. The Loiner may recognize London as a world quite different from his or her own while still acknowledging that Trafalgar Square memorializes events without which life in Leeds might be very different indeed. But this need not provide an opportunity to smuggle nationalism in through the proverbial back door, for we can reasonably treasure our connections with geographically dispersed people and places—ones it would never occur to anyone to link with us under the same national umbrella—that have helped to make us who we are.
Preserving Identity in a Libertarian Culture
Whatever the fate of national and racial loyalties in a libertarian society, tensions surrounding families will doubtless be unavoidable. A society that tolerated aggression against children would hardly count as libertarian, but families unavoidably shape children in innumerable peaceful ways, and there will surely be those of culturally libertarian bent who will seek to challenge what they see as illiberal indoctrination of children by parents. In a politically libertarian society, not only individuals but also families and other groups in search of mutually reinforcing support for their distinctive worldviews and life-ways could obviously craft communities, territorial or virtual, in which their critical mass could allow them to counter the effects on each other of what they saw as objectionable elements of the wider culture. At the same time, it is easy to see that a society that created space for diversity would, indeed, render it difficult for any sub-cultural group to ensure wholesale identification with its traditions by all of its members.
Cultural libertarianism will tend to militate against a range of habits and practices that might be seen by some people as integral to their collective identities. Identities of some sorts—I have already instanced racism and many sorts of nationalism, but there are obviously others—will not be likely to survive in a libertarian culture. Others will persist, and perhaps even thrive, while being transformed by libertarian attitudes that undermine subordination and exclusion. And it would be unfair to deny that the loss of some cultural forms is a genuine loss, in the sense that it deprives people of patterns of existence and ways of understanding themselves and others that offer meaning and order to their lives. Those committed not only to political but also to cultural libertarianism will need to remind themselves and others that there are costs associated with the embrace of freedom.
But this is hardly reason to treat cultural libertarianism as underwriting cultural decline. To repeat: no more than political libertarianism does cultural libertarianism require or promote the abandonment of all sources of collective identity. Those that respect freedom and individual particularity can thrive in a libertarian culture. To be sure, the very capacity of some life-ways to fostering meaningfulness and order may be seen as depending on their immunity to criticism and their appearance of inevitability, and they will lack both in a culture of liberty. But an awareness of possibilities for improvement and a denial of uncritical regard to previously established cultural authorities can be quite compatible with continued esteem for and identification with traditions and communities and ways of life that offer people meaning and identity.
Libertarianism and Identity
A politically libertarian society will create space for many different kinds of identity-maintaining ways of being human—more, in general, than a society in which aggression is legitimized. Only those collective identities maintained through the use of force will be excluded from such a society, and we will be, I believe, well rid of them. A society that is not only politically but also culturally libertarian will likely be free of such sources of identity as racism and nationalism. But this kind of society can still welcome local loyalty, and any number of other identity-conferring relationships compatible with regard for individual dignity and freedom and the diverse forms of human flourishing.