When Hunter S. Thompson returned to Louisville in the early 1960s, he found a city proud of its progress on race relations. "Racial segregation has been abolished in nearly all white public places", he wrote. But even though many of the legal barriers to desegregation had been dismantled, the job was still only half done. Louisville’s blacks had "come up against segregation’s second front, where the problems are not mobs and unjust laws but customs and traditions."
Housing was at the centre of this "second front." According to Thompson, the builder of a new high end apartment tower assumed "that the prestige tenants he wants would not consider living in the same building with Negroes." Many libertarians have no problem with this. As long as segregation is not enforced by the state, these libertarians insist that it is a purely private matter. Some, like Hans-Hermann Hoppe, hope that the winding back the state will allow even greater levels of segregation.
In Hoppe’s libertarian vision, the state is replaced a ‘natural order’ where citizens regain their right to exclude. He writes that the natural order "is characterized by increased discrimination, segregation, spatial separation, uniculturalism (cultural homogeneity), exclusivity, and exclusion." Hoppe’s passion for discrimination is shared by other libertarian thinkers at the Alabama based Ludwig von Mises Institute. The institute’s founder, Llewellyn Rockwell, once wrote that: "State-enforced segregation was not wrong because separateness is wrong, however. Wishing to associate with members of one’s own race, nationality, religion, class, sex, or even political party is a natural and normal human impulse."
According to Rockwell, "Freedom means that which the government does not control." So as long as racial segregation and discrimination are not enforced by the government, Rockwell would say that they have no impact on freedom. Other libertarians have a different view. George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, prefers to think about freedom in terms of opportunity. His vision of classical liberalism regards: "positive liberty (‘what can I do with my life?’) as more important than negative liberty (‘how many regulations are imposed on me?’)". He argues that libertarians should pay more attention to the influence of voluntary norms in limiting opportunity.
Reason Magazine’s Kerry Howley takes a similar position when she argues that freedom can be limited by culture as well as law. She is particularly critical of conservatives who want government to reinforce traditional gender roles by creating incentives for marriage and motherhood. When it becomes more difficult for individuals to deviate from gender norms, they are less free, says Howley.
Libertarian writer Todd Seavey disagrees. He writes that, "We will be far freer once feminism, like all egalitarian, anti-freedom philosophies, is relegated to the ash heap of history" Apart from writing that "feminism is bunk", Seavey insists that social norms have nothing to do with freedom. The key to understanding freedom, he argues, is understanding the difference between genuine coercion and social pressure.
Todd Seavey accuses me of “rhetoric unbecoming a libertarian” and argues that “mere social forces” cannot be freedom-constraining. Thus, a black man who cannot hold employment by law is unfree, but a black man who cannot hold employment because social custom is such that no one will hire him is as free as any white man. A gay couple who must stay closeted to avoid social ostracism is as free as any hetero couple. A woman who has to choose between purdah and exile from her village is basically living in a libertarian paradise, so long as no one writes the rules down.
This may be true in some parallel world, or under some as-yet-unknown definition of the word freedom, but it’s pretty clearly not true given the world we have and the language we use.
As Will Wilkinson points out, some libertarians insist on defining liberty as the absence of coercion. Then, when they define coercion, they tie themselves up in knots to exclude forms of coercion they approve of. According to these libertarians, threatening to shoot trespassers isn’t coercive but a government ban on automatic weapons is. Will writes that "it is abuse of language to deny that many emotional or social threats are coercive".
This isn’t an unusual view in libertarian circles. After all, Friedrich Hayek defined coercion as "such control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another. (p 20-21). Hayek argued that is no realistic hope of eliminating coercion from society. As he wrote in response to Ronald Hamowy, to "prevent people from coercing others is to coerce them".
According to Hayek, "a morose husband, a nagging wife, or a hysterical mother may make life intolerable unless their every mood is obeyed" (p 138). And unlike Seavey, he regarded all these behaviours as coercive. This doesn’t mean he thought the state should intervene to protect hen-pecked husbands, but it does mean he defined coercion in broader terms that Seavey.
In his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty,’ Isaiah Berlin wrote that historians of ideas had identified over 200 different senses of the word freedom. Not surprisingly, libertarians have found many ways to disagree with each other about what it means to be a libertarian. Some insist that liberty means freedom from government, others that it means freedom from coercion. Others still, argue that it means opportunity or capability — the ability of a person to live the kind of life they value (or have reason to value). Sometimes liberty means freedom from the arbitrary will of other people.
Berlin is famous for making a distinction between negative and positive concepts of liberty. But equally important was his commitment to pluralism. Berlin argued that it was not always possible to reconcile the things we valued. Justice, happiness, security and economic efficiency are all potential competitors with liberty — however we choose to define it. He wrote: "To assume that all values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents, to represent moral decision as an operation which a slide-rule could, in principle, perform."
It is difficult to have a sensible argument with people who believe that liberty should never be sacrificed to any other value. Libertarian fundamentalism is usually accompanied by bizarre uses of words like coercion (shooting trespassers isn’t coercive but local government parking fines are) and implausible beliefs about the way the world works (abolishing the welfare state would abolish poverty).
But perhaps it’s not necessary to appeal to the concept of freedom to explain what’s wrong with a society where "some people’s lives are stunted or ruined by arbitrary yet systemic social exclusion, or by having the development of their interests and talents constantly discouraged and their aspirations and confidence constantly undermined".