Kerry Howley leads off a Reason magazine debate on the role of culture in Libertarian philosophy. She’s followed by replies from Todd Seavey and Daniel McCarthy onsite as well as posts by Ilya Somin and Will Wilkinson.

Howley is

disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends.

Her opponents point in one fashion or another that Howley is using Libertarianism as a platform to push a particular social agenda. To some extent this seems true. Howley exalts what feminism has done to free women from a life only as wives and mothers yet she doesn’t mention that aggressive feminism might also be culturally constraining for those women who want primarily to be wives and mothers.

The spirit of Howley critique, however, is right on point. While we should be careful not favor one set of values over another, it is clear enough when culture is oppressing the individual. Whenever there are threats of ostracism and stigmatization for living a certain lifestyle or making a given set of personal choices, culture is being used as a weapon.

Libertarians cannot ignore this because it is the primary engine of oppression. In practice laws that are not supported by cultural norms are less powerful than cultural norms that are not supported by laws. Libertarians make a big deal about the threat of the state but in the lives of ordinary people the threat of society is much greater.

What marks the difference between libertarians and more modern liberalism is that libertarians are not willing to use the state to combat cultural oppression. For libertarians persuasion is the proper tool.

Critics might argue that this is using the cultural oppression in our efforts to stop cultural oppression. To some extent this is how I read Todd Seavey’s response.

However, libertarians aren’t pacifists culturally or politically. If the state is oppressing individual freedom then there is nothing anti-libertarian about taking up arms against the state. If culture is oppressing individual freedom then there is nothing anti-libertarian about using cultural tools to combat it.

The ideal is that as much as possible, each person is able to define his or her own definition of the good life and seek it out.  To the extent this is limited by the government libertarians should oppose the government. To the extent this is limited by cultural norms, libertarians should oppose those norms.

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