A couple of months ago, I had a debate with a libertarian friend over whether cultural libertarianism is correct/good/necessary/whatever. At the time, I was sure that I was what you would call a “cultural libertarian feminist,” as specified in the Liberal Feminism entry on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a reputable source). Recently, Kerry Howley wrote an interesting piece on cultural libertarianism over at Reason (“Are Property Rights Enough?”), and there have cropped up a variety of responses to it there and elsewhere in the blogosphere. I really wish I had the time right now to wade through all of it, as there is a ton going on. But for now I’ll focus on what I find the most pressing question for people interested in this issue:
Is it somehow inconsistent for a libertarian to care about freedom from government control and coercion but not to care about freedom from socio-cultural control and coercion?
or, to rephrase:
Is cultural libertarianism logically entailed by political libertarianism?
I find this important because it seems as if Kerry says yes: that libertarians who think freedom is just a political matter involving freedom from the state are either just ignoring or implicitly condoning freedom-limiting social structures such as the patriarchy. But cultural libertarian feminism, as I understood it from the SEP article, didn’t seem to be that strong of a position. A claim that political libertarians must care about culture on pains of logical inconsistency is apparently not a necessary feature of cultural libertarian feminism.
Instead, one might simply think (as I do) that there are sufficient morally relevant similarities between freedom-limiting political institutions and freedom-limiting cultural practices for us to care about one if we care about the other. Not to do so might suggest a lack of sufficient moral imagination (to see that some lives could be freer otherwise) or a lack of appropriate moral concern (for certain groups of people with whom we might have difficulty empathizing), but it is not obviously an indictment of one’s rationality.
If a non-cultural, political libertarian wishes to show that (s)he need not or ought not to care about the effects of non-state actors (like cultures) (s)he would need to argue that there is some morally relevant difference between coercive state practices and coercive cultural practices. This is not an impossible task. Perhaps states are morally more problematic than cultures because they, unlike cultures, are comprised of specific groups of actors literally employed in their service, to whom the moral blame for coercion transfers. Maybe states are morally more problematic than cultures because they involve more coercion between people who are strangers, instead of between intimates with complicated and valuable (if deeply flawed) relationships. Or, one might argue that the (often) formal and readily observable nature of political institutions actually generates a moral reason (and not merely a pragmatic or prudential reason) to tackle their barriers to freedom first. That might be related to “ought implies can”: it seems that governments are more susceptible to deliberate change than cultures, so even if expanding freedom on both fronts would ideally be morally good, we ought to start in the place where we can actually do the most good.
Of course, all of those possible morally relevant differences between political and cultural limits on freedom are up for debate. My point is just that, if there is any such difference that is defensible, then cultural libertarianism is not entailed by political liberalism (contrary to what Kerry seems to think). There might exist a family resemblance between cultural and political libertarianism, and both could be morally upright positions. I still consider myself a cultural libertarian feminist (where “feminist” is not meant to rule out cultural concerns not having to do with patriarchy, but extends concern to all marginalized & oppressed groups). But I don’t think the case for cultural libertarianism needs to be made so provocatively. There may be moral or prudential reasons to focus on political freedoms first (and, indeed, cultural freedom might itself be promoted in the process). And there certainly are strategic, if not moral, reasons to avoid alienating oneself from those who are like-, if not identically-, minded.