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4.10.03

Where are all the communitarians?

Russell Arben Fox has a post from a few days ago lamenting the lack of voices from self-professed communitarians and authoritarians -- that is, people who believe that lassiez-faire is bad in both the economic and the cultural realm. A few thoughts occurred to me to explain this absence:

1. There are a lot of communitarians, but they lack the affluence to be blogging, and the education to be articulating sophisticated political theories. I'm thinking here of blue-collar social conservatives. This is the inverse of the well-known fact that libertarians (the opposite of communitarians) are over-represented in the blogosphere compared to their representation in the overall population. Take, as a more specific example, Christian environmentalism. There's a strong trend among many socially conservative Christians to support environmental policies that go against the libertarian economic policies of their allies in the Republican party.

2. Liberal cultural lassiez-faire is overestimated, by both liberals and conservatives. Liberals use a very strongly libertarian rhetoric when discussing cultural issues. To some degree, I think tolerance is the refuge of the disempowered. Liberals have been struggling for a long time against the particular cultural forms that conservatives defend. Thus, it's strategically advantageous to appeal to a lassiez-faire attitude, which gives liberal cultures space to survive and develop. But when liberal cultures become the majority view, they quite easily begin positioning themselves as dominant, through devices such as university speech codes. At this point it's the conservatives who cry for tolerance -- in part because they hope it will be effective at changing the minds of people whose cultural authoritarianism is built on a claim of "tolerance," and partly because they need a degree of lassiez-faire in order to survive.

Meanwhile, conservatives like to hype the cultural lassiez-faire of liberals, making us all out to be disciples of Derrida or Lyotard. I had a discussion with the pastor of my church about this issue a while back, and posted a version of the argument here. My basic point was that the apparent chaos of liberal culture is a transitional phase, and that a new set of cultural norms is coalescing (for example, the unacceptability of sexist attitudes in liberal circles, rather than the old requirement that women be domestic and subservient). I wrote a commentary on a similar theme, arguing that lassiez-faire about gay rights is not enough -- we need to create a culture supportive of gay relationships. I think these sorts of views are common, though disguised, in the culturally radical left.

This brings me to an issue that I have with the libertarian basis for the "political compass" quiz, which is the best-known example of the sort of framework Fox is using to divide up political ideologies (I tend to come out somewhere in the middle of the left-libertarian quadrant). In such systems, the only alternative to liberty is government coercion. On this basis, I'm fairly libertarian. This is consistent with the underlying principle of libertarianism that overtly coercive action is the prime sin. Yet it misses the distinction between full liberty and non-state social forces. For example, David Bernstein says that, while he disagrees with "hostile environment" laws that could be used to legally force a deli owner to get rid of an anti-Semitic mural, he is in favor of non-coercive measures such as boycotts and public shaming to enforce a cultural norm of not being anti-Semitic. This resembles my stance on speech codes -- I oppose making legal barriers to racist or homophobic remarks, but I find such remarks unacceptable and am in favor of non-coercive means to encourage people not to make them (while balancing that with the need for hearing a plurality of ideas and not simply driving bigotry underground. It's the complexity of the cultural negotiation that makes hard-and-fast rules of the legal-coercive type undesirable). I suspect that "pure" libertarians -- the kind who would say that there's nothing wrong with anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia, thus making non-coercive sanctions subject to the same limits as coercive ones -- are not as common as people with attitudes more like mine or Bernstein's. It's just that libertarian thinking tends to cast non-coercive communitarianism as a form of liberty.

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