Misconceptions of Libertarian Culture

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Libertarianism has typically been rather ambivalent on cultural matters. “Thick” libertarians extend libertarianism beyond nonaggression to issues of culture, typically social liberalism or progressivism, but not necessarily. “Thin” libertarians, on the other hand, limit libertarianism strictly to the nonaggression principle.

This is not to say that thick libertarians believe that libertarians should hold cultural beliefs and that thin libertarians oppose this. Rather, thick libertarians derive their cultural beliefs from libertarianism, while thin libertarians derive them from other sources. For thin libertarians, as long as someone supports the nonaggression principle, they are by definition a libertarian.

Within the context of this article, the latter and broader definition of libertarian will suffice. This is not intended to be about who is and isn’t a “real libertarian,” but instead to address the varying concepts of “cultural libertarianism.”

Murray Rothbard on Cultural Libertarianism

During a speech in Chicago in 1979, “Mr. Libertarian” himself, Murray Rothbard, addressed six different misconceptions about libertarians. Rothbard takes the thin approach, stating that “libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory.” In critiquing the view that libertarianism offers a whole way of life, he adds:

“There are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative lifestyles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of ‘bourgeois’ conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines and there are libertarians who cleave firmly to the disciplines of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation of rights. That is because libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory.”

To critique or assert libertarian culture, one must first define what they mean by such. Rothbard asserts that one can arrive at libertarian conclusions from any number of positions, and that libertarianism as an ideology does not include any particular cultural values. As stated earlier, this does not mean that libertarians do not hold cultural values, but rather that these values are not derived from libertarianism.

Jonah Goldberg on Cultural Libertarianism

In a 2001 article in National Review, Jonah Goldberg refers to cultural libertarianism as “chinese-menu culture,” claiming that “the libertarians think all ideologies – so long as there’s no governmental component – are equal.” He writes:

“Cultural libertarianism basically says that whatever ideology, religion, cult, belief, creed, fad, hobby, or personal fantasy you like is just fine so long as you don’t impose it on anybody else, especially with the government. You want to be a Klingon? Great! Attend the Church of Satan? Hey man, if that does it for ya, go for it. You want to be a ‘Buddhist for Jesus’? Sure, mix and match, man; we don’t care. Hell, you can even be an observant Jew, a devout Catholic or a faithful Baptist, or a lifelong heroin addict — they’re all the same, in the eyes of a cultural libertarian. Just remember: Keep it to yourself if you can. Don’t claim that being a Lutheran is any better than being a member of the Hale-Bopp cult, and never use the government to advance your view. If you can do that, then — whatever floats your boat.”

Unlike Rothbard, Goldberg is not a libertarian, nor does he consider himself one. His article critiques a certain type of libertarian, and he’s not wrong in thinking that some libertarians do actually believe in what he considers to be cultural libertarianism. He does cite a few libertarian figures advocating what he is opposing, and some libertarians today will (unfortunately) insist that as long as an action is not coercive, it cannot be criticized or judged.

Goldberg’s criticism is not unjustified. He does address beliefs that some libertarians hold. Though what he and many other conservatives often misunderstand is that to disagree with this position is not to disagree with libertarianism. Most libertarians would also disagree with what he defines as cultural libertarianism.

Hans-Hermann Hoppe on Cultural Libertarianism

In 2014, Hans-Hermann Hoppe published A Realistic Libertarianism, addressing libertarianism’s relation to cultural issues and other matters. He states that while libertarianism is theoretically compatible with any number of cultural, social, or moral views, a realistic libertarianism is right-wing, and it is much easier to reconcile libertarianism with the right than it is with the left. He does not argue that left-libertarians are not “real” libertarians, but instead that their views do not line up with reality in the way that right-libertarianism does.

Allum Bokhari on Cultural Libertarianism

In two 2015 articles, Breitbart journalist Allum Bokhari used “cultural libertarianism” as a term to describe the wave of pro-free speech and anti-political correctness that encompassed figures across the political spectrum. He described cultural libertarians as those who believe in free expression, resisting identity politics and public shaming, a sense of humour, an end to nannying and “safe space” culture, defending personal freedom, defending spaces for uncomfortable opinions, fact over feelings, standing up for consumers and producers over hand-wringing middle-class panic merchants, and celebrating culture in all its forms.

This definition is unique in that it is not closely linked to libertarian political philosophy, and few of the leading figures listed in his article would describe themselves as libertarians in the typical sense. In this sense, cultural libertarianism is opposition to political correctness and support for free speech.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]


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