Solving Cultural Conflict Through Liberty – Misconceptions

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A popular claim nowadays is that we’re more divided than ever. Research shows that, at least in very recent American history, this is true. Americans are moving away from the center and taking one side more consistently. In 2017, people rioted in the streets to protest the inauguration. After the 2020 election, 82% of Trump voters see Biden as illegitimate. 

Yes, there is a growing divide, but this is nothing new considering the last century of protests and riots, a civil war, and colonists that couldn’t stand the sight of the other religious communities.

The question is, what do we do? How do we solve these deep divides in ideology and culture? Quite a few people have tried to figure out how we all can get along under the same government. But this is already getting ahead of ourselves. Why do we have to live under the same government?

The American founders designed a somewhat decentralized federal system that allowed many different groups of people to live under one federal government. Its decentralized nature allowed each community to continue holding their shared values within their locality and state. Even though communities held very different values from one another, they could each coexist separately.

It would’ve been nice if it really worked out that way.

Various groups advocated for legislation at the state and federal level that would enforce their own views by law on other communities. Heterodox Christians advocated for mandatory public schooling across the US not because they wanted everyone to be educated, but because they wanted their religious views taught in orthodox Lutheran and Catholic communities. As the federal government grew more powerful and enacted legislation that affected the entire United States, communities had to use the power of the state against other communities in an effort to make sure their views had power.

If a Catholic wishes to send his children to a Catholic school and reside in a Catholic community that reinforces his values, does he not have that right if others wish to join together with him? The same, of course, applies to Protestants, atheists, Muslims, etc. And this is not limited to religion, of course. Why must it be the case that libertarians, conservatives, and leftists all live under the same rules of the same government? This means that whoever wields the power of the state is protected, and is allowed to enforce their views on others. If any group does not fight for control of the state, they will surely lose. 

An “unbiased” middle ground does not work either. If we determine that the state must remain unbiased and treat everyone equally, this does not solve the problem. What middle ground between pro-life and pro-choice will satisfy everyone? What can taxpayer-funded schools teach that will satisfy everyone? Once the state controls a function of society, that function is determined by the majority, not by each community or individual. 

A system like this fuels tensions. Whereas the market allows various organizations and businesses to establish their own way of doing things and to coexist together, the state demands uniformity. In a state with multiple different cultures and communities, one will prevail as state-enforced orthodoxy. 

Perhaps the root cause of the political divide today is our increasingly-centralized system. Why should I care what some dude’s political views are when he lives two hundred miles away? Maybe I should if he is lobbying the state to enforce his views on me. But if he isn’t, then it doesn’t really matter at all. His views are not my concern in a more decentralized society. If we are both able to coexist, supporting businesses and organizations that we value, then there is no reason for tension. 

The only way to solve the political divide today is to decentralize. How can we all get along when the state is mandating one set of views? Either those with different views must submit to the prevailing view, or we can all agree to coexist peacefully.

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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]