Should libertarians take strong stands on social issues?

Cathy Young has an interesting column on the tension among libertarians between the desire to be tolerant about other people's lifestyles and personal convictions about those issues:

Within the libertarian milieu, there is a tension between political libertarians, whose chief concern is limiting and reversing the expansion of the state and its powers, and social or cultural libertarians, whose central interest is maximizing individual opportunities and freedom of choice.

For some political libertarians, the centralized government is so unquestionably the greatest enemy that they not only oppose civil rights laws banning private race and gender discrimination but reject the post-Civil War constitutional doctrine that state governments must abide by the Bill of Rights. (That was the position espoused by the late Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne, who opposed Jim Crow laws but felt they should have been fought on the local level. State infringements on individual rights, he argued, posed a far smaller danger to liberty than expanded federal power.) Meanwhile, some cultural libertarians are concerned about constraints on individual freedom from government as well as from traditionalist familial, religious, and community institutions-the same civil institutions that conservatives see as necessary for ordered liberty to thrive.

In his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek wrote that his real quarrel with conservatives was not their opposition to drastic change in institutions but their readiness to use government force to curb such change. To Hayek, moral and cultural standards were the product of spontaneous order emerging from the interplay of economic and social forces, from evolution and experimentation unguided by any central authority. Yet noncoercive criticism of what some of us deem to be negative social and cultural trends is itself a vital part of that evolution. It's one thing to demand a federal virtue police; it's another to write and market a book about virtue and hope that its lessons will catch on.

As long as the Bill Bennetts of the world are intent on using not just persuasion but force (and public funds) on behalf of their favorite virtues-promoting premarital abstinence through federal programs, banning legal protections for same-sex unions, censoring sexually explicit materials, waging the war on drugs-libertarians can be forgiven for fearing even noncoercive moralizing on their part. But it's important to remember that cultural progressives have not hesitated to use the government on their side: to promote liberal attitudes toward sexuality and sex roles through public education, say, or to compel landlords to rent to unmarried cohabiting couples even if they have religious objections to such a lifestyle. The backlash from the social right is directed at such social engineering as well as spontaneous cultural change.

It is also true, of course, that even noncoercive moralizing can be egregiously misguided. If criticism of modern cultural trends is a part of the spontaneous order, so is anti-traditionalist countercriticism. But this is where libertarian discourse can benefit from a greater variety of viewpoints and a more calibrated approach to social issues.

Just because conservatives are quite wrong (in my opinion) to argue that young women are victimized by sexual freedom doesn't mean that only right-wing killjoys can have misgivings about prepubescent girls parading in T-shirts with vulgar messages and gyrating to music with sexually explicit lyrics. Just because I think the right is wrong to cling to a family model based on rigid gender roles doesn't mean I'm happy about the growth of single parenthood.

The Hayekian principle that "neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion" is one most Americans will readily embrace. But if libertarians are seen as championing not simply freedom of choice but a rigidly nonjudgmental attitude toward all choices-if we are seen not simply as tolerant but as indifferent to moral questions-then many people who might be sympathetic to liberty will be pushed into the arms of the authoritarians.

Read the whole thing.

It's interesting because this self-professed libertarian trips over this issue all the time. Personally, I'm relatively conservative in my social views. I would like to get married, have children, and have a relatively conventional family life. (Whether my wife has a job is her call, not mine; although I am unlikely to marry someone who isn't at least slightly interested in a career.)

On the other hand, I have plenty of friends who indulge in alternative lifestyles. Who am I to judge them? Still, it's tough though to have a conversation and be like "Hey, what you got going on, you have fun with that. Not for me, but I have no problems with that." Everyone thinks that because you aren't interested in participating, you disapprove of the choices that they have made.

It's a tricky line to walk.

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The best treatment of this I've seen of this issue is by Mill in On Liberty. He extends the "experiments in living" utiltarian argument for freedom from government social control to argue that private individuals have a moral, but not legal, duty to refrain from using their means to try to limit the actions of others. Mill particularly points out that actions intended not to simply express disapproval, but to specifically make life difficult for those whose lifestyle one disapproves of (for example, refusing to rent to gay couples), is immoral.

I'm pretty sure that Mill's consideration of "lifestyle" (though I'm also pretty sure he didn't use that word) was not intended to include sexual behavior. I suppose you can expand his point to include those concepts, but it might be worthwhile to question whether he would extend them that far himself.