Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cranick Fire Fund

Tom Knapp has just alerted me to the existence of a PayPal account, CranickFireFund@Yahoo.Com, designed to help the victims of the Tennessee fire that’s received so much attention of late. I would encourage readers to consider supporting this fund.

The Fulton Fire Fiasco

The decision by a Tennessee fire agency to deny service to a family with a burning house because the family had failed to pay the agency’s subscription fee (the agency was operated by the city of Fulton but provided service to non-residents on a subscription basis) has prompted sustained discussion throughout the blogosphere, with repeated claims that the incident demonstrates inherent difficulties with the fee-based provision of fire services. Implicitly, then, statists are inclined to see the incident as supporting an argument for state provision of such services, and thus for statism more generally.

The story is complicated, as such stories always are, by the facts. The incident happened, it appears, because the homeowners’ grandson started a fire too close to their home. The decision not to provide service was evidently a long-standing city-council voted policy, and the fire-fighters’ insurance apparently wouldn’t cover them if they provided service to a non-subscriber. On the other hand, the homeowners had apparently received fire service on a previous occasion when their service subscription was similarly unpaid (they evidently paid the day after they received the service), and so might reasonably have expected that they would in this case, too. It would be easy to become engrossed in the details of this particular story; but I’d like to take a step back and think about the big-picture issues it raises. I don’t believe it has to be seen as offering any support for statism.

Fire Service Is Not a “Public Good”

Characteristically, statists maintain that the state needs to deliver a good if it is “public” or “collective”—roughly, such that, if it is provided to anyone in a given public, it is effectively available to all the members of the public, including those who opt not to pay. The standard public goods argument for the state suggests that public goods will be undersupplied on the market for this reason.

There are all sorts of interesting things to say about this argument, but the important thing to notice is that it doesn’t apply here. Fire service is, in general, a private good: providing it to one person doesn’t entail providing it to everyone. So it’s not clear why it shouldn’t be provided on the market, even on the statist’s own preferred criterion.

Fire Services Should Not Be Tax-Funded

The statist answer, in this case, seems to be that the consequences of not providing service are so devastating that it is better to de-link fee payment and service provision. For the statist, this means funding services via taxation.

There are three obvious objections to the statist’s solution to the problem. First, the extraction of taxes at gunpoint by the state is itself unjust. Second, even if tax extraction to fund fire service provision were legitimate, a state powerful enough to extract taxes to be used to support fire service provision would obviously be powerful enough both to extract taxes for other, less desirable, purposes and to engage in other sorts of mischief. Third, if funding for fire service provision is delinked from expressed consumer demand for fire service provision and is instead set politically, funding levels are likely to be inefficient and unrelated to actual need or demand.

Why It Might Seem Reasonable to Deny Service to a Non-Subscriber

If fire service is not funded by taxation, does that means that it needs to be funded by subscriptions? And, if so, must a subscription-funded agency deny emergency service to non-subscribers?

Tom Knapp has made a very plausible case for denying service here and here. (Art Carden’s comment on the story is not altogether conclusive, but might be read as a case for something like Tom’s view.) Tom argues that subscribing to a fire service is like placing a hedged bet. If the odds are low that one will need the service, it will always be tempting not to pay one’s subscription. However, providing fire service is a capital intensive business (trucks and fire houses are expensive) and one with ongoing operating costs (firefighters need to spend long periods on-duty, even when they’re not fighting fires, so they’ll be available when fires actually occur). If people don’t subscribe to a fire agency, the agency will lack the resources it needs to function in a consistent manner on an ongoing basis. And the only realistic way to ensure that they will subscribe is consistently to deny service to non-subscribers.

Duties and Consequences

This approach raises concerns of two kinds.

(a) It seems to involve support for arrangements in accordance with which firefighters will stand idly by and allow their neighbors’ homes to burn, thus violating what would generally be regarded as a moral responsibility to eschew indifference to the vulnerability of others to harm.

By referring to this responsibility, I’m not suggesting that there is a general duty to prevent any and all harms. Rather, my claim is that, per my preferred version of the Golden Rule, I ought to prevent or end a harm to you in a given set of circumstances if I would resent your refusing to help me in similar circumstances were our roles reversed. Also, to be clear: I’m also not arguing that force may be used to require people to fulfill the duty of limited beneficence that follows from the Golden Rule or to punish them or secure compensation from them if they do not do so.

(b) It obviously leads to a terribly undesirable result: someone’s home is destroyed, even though the cost of saving it is significantly less than the value of the home itself.

It is, of course, possible to respond to (a) by noting that there is a duty on the part of firefighters in the imagined situation to all those in a position to benefit from the provision of fire service and willing to pay subscription fees. It might be maintained that one would be ill-serving paid-up subscribers if one rendered assistance in this case, since doing so would increase the odds that potential subscribers would fail to pay their subscriptions, and so limit the ability of the agency to meet its capital and operating needs and protect existing subscribers. Paid-up subscribers willing to pay subscription fees might well have reason to resent the provision of service in this case if it prevented them from receiving service when they needed it. Firefighters might recognize, in turn, that their reaction would be the same as that of the subscribers, and that they would therefore act unreasonably if they provided services to non-subscribers.

This is not a silly argument, and I do not want to treat it dismissively. It is surely right that obligations to all subscribers might trump the responsibility to show limited beneficence to non-subscribers in danger of suffering severe fire damage. However, it is possible to imagine arrangements that would not require fire agency personnel to stifle their compassionate responses and to refuse to prevent immediate, proximate potential loss but that would simultaneously ensure adequate service to those willing to pay their fair share of service costs via subscription. And such arrangements are surely preferable to those that make adequate service levels possible while requiring a firefighter to suppress her or his desire to help someone else in serious danger.

Competition as a Guarantor of Emergency Service to Non-Subscribers

Perhaps the firefighter need not be concerned, because another fire agency would step in were one agency to decline to provide service. Roderick Long and Bob Murphy both see market competition as a crucial source of security here. And it surely would be as regards subscription fees, for instance. On the other hand, it seems as if a competing agency would confront the same incentives as the agency initially contacted by the fire victim: if the competitor agency operates with a subscription-based funding model, it runs the risk of discouraging the subscriptions it needs for ongoing, consistent operation if it opts to respond to a call from a non-subscriber. So it, too (if Knapp’s argument about the economic challenges faced by a solo agency is correct) might find it counter-productive to provide on-the-spot services to non-subscribers.

Imposing High On-the-Spot Charges as a Way of Ensuring Regular Subscription Payments

But perhaps this criticism assumes that the non-subscriber pays only the subscription fee. Trey Givens, David Henderson, Long, Murphy (see here and here), and Jacob Hornberger all suggest that an economically rational fire agency would have been willing to deploy and extinguish the fire for some appropriately high on-the-spot service fee—one significantly in excess of the standard subscription rate. Long suggests that the victim be asked to “pay full price.” Murphy proposes “a penalty rate.” Givens suggests “a premium for on-the-spot requests” and notes that “[t]he firefighter who negotiates a decent rate for . . . [on-the-spot service] would get praised for his initiative.” Henderson endorses an approach featuring an on-the-spot charge that is “a high multiple of the annual fee.” And Hornberger maintains that “a private fire department would have the incentive to have pre-written contracts in which an owner who had failed to purchase fire protection would be asked to agree to pay, say, double the costs of putting out the fire.”

I think it is possible to be more precise than this. If Knapp is correct, as I believe he is, that the hedged-bet analogy is appropriate, then a homeowner will be inclined to avoid paying the subscription fee as long as she estimates that it will be more efficient for her to pay the on-the-spot fee. The question, then, is: at what level should the on-the-spot charge be set to discourage homeowners from declining to pay the subscription fee? The answer seems relatively clear: at a level such that the on-the-spot charge, when discounted by the actuarially determined likelihood that a given homeowner will need fire service, exceeds the subscription fee. A safe estimate of this likelihood might be 0.25% (thanks to Tom Knapp for dialoguing about this and related matters). If this estimate is correct, the on-the-spot charge would need to be over $30,000. A rational consumer would judge that paying $75 on an annual basis would make more sense than paying, say, $32,000 in the event of a fire.

(An aside: it appears that one reason the Fulton fire agency stopped providing service to non-subscribers outside the city limits was that it was difficult to get them to pay after the fact. I think Hornberger is right that “pre-written contracts” would help; and I share Nathan Byrd’s view that a contract providing the fire agency with a lien or other security interest in the property would help to ensure payment.)

The Claim That Letting a Home Burn Would Ensure Regular Subscription Payments More Effectively than Levying a High On-the-Spot Charge

Knapp’s objection to this analysis is, if I understand him correctly, that the odds of losing $32,000 will seem so low in a case like this that people simply won’t pay the subscription fee. Thus, the only way to ensure that subscription fees are consistently paid will be refusing to protect a non-subscriber’s home pour encourager les autres. I don’t want to deny the obvious motivational power of the image of a neighbor’s home burning. But there are at least two reasons why one might not necessarily accept this conclusion.

First, recall that the suggestion is that someone would judge paying a fire-agency subscription unnecessary in view of a possible $32,000 on-the-spot charge because of her estimate of the probability of actually needing fire services. But notice that she’s going to make the same estimate of the probability of a home fire without the possible availability of an on-the-spot alternative to a subscription. What’s going to change, of course, is her estimate of the cost of the fire. If her house is worth $320,000, the potential value of the $75 investment in fire service certainly increases. However, the potential pay-off for making that investment is still enormous even given the availability of an on-the-spot fee, and many of those not willing to make the investment in one case can thus be expected not to make it in the other.

Non-subscribers obviously fall into two groups: the lazy and forgetful on the one hand and rational calculators on the other. Someone who’s lazy and forgetful—who would have purchased a subscription but has simply neglected to do so—is not going to be affected by incentives. Ex hypothesi, she’s simply not thinking about the problem. Learning that someone else lost a house by not paying a fire agency subscription might awaken her from her neglectful slumbers, but so might learning that someone else had had no choice but to pay $32,000 because of having declined to pay such a subscription. By contrast, a genuinely rational calculator would certainly make the judgment that paying $32,000 in the event of a fire is less efficient than paying a $75 annual subscription.

Second, setting the on-the-spot fee at the level I have envisioned would enable the agency to cover its costs even if significant numbers of people chose to avoid the subscription fee and gambled on not having to pay the on-the-spot charge. Of course, this might mean that cash-flow was not as consistent as it would be in the case of subscriptions (and it is not clear that this is so, given that subscriptions would likely be paid at different points throughout the year, and perhaps somewhat erratically). But it would be considerably easier, with substantial payments by non-subscribers in hand, for the agency to opt for debt-based financing. It could borrow against its expected income, including income from on-the-spot charges. And it could build the cost of interest payments into the on-the-spot charges (perhaps increasing them from $32,000 to $35,000).

Alternatives to Subscription- and Debt-Based Funding for Fire Agencies

The conversation to-date has operated on the assumption that subscription and debt were the only mechanisms available for an envisioned fire agency to fund its operations. The fire agency has effectively been envisioned as (i) a member-funded cooperative (a reminder that “the market” need not mean the realm of for-profit commercial transaction) and (ii) a free-standing entity delivering only fire-related services. It is possible to envision at least three other options. Selecting any of them (and they could in some cases be combined) could make a fire agency that offered services to people who had not paid subscription fees more viable.

1. The agency could explicitly incorporate a charitable component in its operations. Community members able to do so could be asked to either to (a) cover the costs of subscriptions for particular persons or to (b) contribute to a fund designed to cover the emergency provision of services to non-subscribers. (Presumably (a) would be less subject to abuse, since it would be possible to assess genuine need on a case-by-case basis and exclude free-riders.)

2. The agency could bundle services of various kinds (insurance more generally and protection against violence are obvious examples) and could obtain needed operating funds in connection with its other services. This might allow it to have larger cash reserves and, in effect, to borrow from itself rather than from an interest-charging lender, “paying itself back” from on-the-spot fire service charges. (Thanks to Kevin Carson for outlining a version of this option to me.)

3. The agency could operate on a for-profit basis, obtaining funds, therefore, not only from customers but also from investors. The investor-provided funds could obviously cushion the agency in cases in which subscriber payments were low.

In principle, it seems as if any of these options, or several in combination, would make it possible for a fire agency to provide on-the-spot services to non-subscribers (perhaps for less than the sort of on-the-spot charge I have discussed here) and still maintain the resources needed to cover its capital and operating costs.

Conclusion

Private fire agencies like this one (CHT David Henderson) operate successfully in today’s economy. But critics of the market have argued that the behavior of the Fulton fire agency, even though government-operated, is evidence that the market cannot be trusted with the provision of fire services and that these services must be entrusted to the state. There are good reasons to avoid giving the state responsibility for fire services or anything else. But anarchists must still acknowledge that statist critics are right to note the morally troubling nature of the denial of service to a fire victim who had failed to pay a fire service subscription.

There are, roughly, two possible, contrasting responses anarchists can offer to the charge that the market-based provision of fire services leads to morally disturbing behavior. On the one hand, they can argue that the actions of a freed-market fire agency that behaved like the Fulton fire agency would be morally justified, even if harsh, because only by denying service to non-subscribers could the agency ensure that it received the subscription payments it needed to operate successfully. On the other, they can maintain that freed-market fire agencies would have alternatives other than denying service to non-subscribers and trying to operate with wild cash-flow fluctuations.

While I believe that the first option could be a morally responsible one, and while the assumptions about human behavior that underlie it may be correct, I have sought here to argue that we are not required to accept it and that other alternatives may be preferable in that they might make it possible for a freed-market fire agency both to provide emergency services to non-subscribers and to maintain a satisfactory financial position. Charging sufficiently high on-the-spot emergency services fees could be sufficient to incentivize rational calculators (and at least some of the otherwise lazy and forgetful)—who might under other circumstances be inclined to gamble that they would be better off not subscribing to a fire service—to pay low annual subscription fees. Charging high on-the-spot fees would also make it possible for agencies to maintain operating reserves and would render it easier for them to cover their costs effectively with debt-based financing if they needed to do so. Delivering some services as a charity (supported by appropriate fundraising) would enable a fire agency to provide emergency on-the-spot services to non-subscribers while enhancing its reputation. Bundling fire and other services would make it easier for an agency to assist those charged high on-the-spot fees without losing needed operating funds. And adopting a for-profit business model would enable an agency to secure needed funds from investors, and so to depend less on subscriptions—rather than on-the-spot charges—for financial stability.

The behavior of a tax-funded agency operated by a monopoly government is not necessarily a particularly good guide to the likely actions of a freed-market fire service. But statists have enthusiastically pointed to the Fulton tragedy as evidence that the market cannot be allowed take responsibility for fire safety. The actions of the agency can be seen as an understandable, if imperfect, response to the need to ensure satisfactory ongoing funding. But rather than defending it on this basis, I think freed-market advocates should point to alternate business models that would enable a freed-market fire agency to thrive even if it provided emergency services to non-subscribers. High on-the-spot service charges set in light of the likelihood of needed service, debt financing, charitable fundraising, service bundling, and investor funding could all contribute to the success of such a model. Thus, it can reasonably be argued that a freed-market fire agency need not behave like the Fulton fire department, and that a key criticism of non-state methods of service provision, and so a key argument for the necessity of the state, therefore fails.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cultural Roots and Collective Identity in a Libertarian Society

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 na├»vely 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.

I submitted a version of this essay to the 2010 Chris R. Tame Memorial Prize essay competition. Stephen R. L. Clark and Kevin Carson both provided insightful comments on an earlier draft.