Lord knows we’ve witnessed outrageous excesses, naked hypocrisy, and ridiculous double standards in the name of political correctness. What started as a plea for respect for marginalized groups on campus and for an end to police brutality has morphed into a collection of ridiculous demands based on absurd premises.
Contrary to what some seem to believe, whites are not inherently racist; men are not inherently patriarchal and intent on rape; straights are not inherently homophobic—and some dead white males are really worth studying (along with Western Civilization in general).
That assertions to the contrary are used to suppress freedom of speech and association is something that should concern us all. While concepts like “safe space,” “trigger warning,” and “micro-aggression” seem the stuff of parody, they threaten to undermine the marketplace of ideas.
But please: however absurd all of this has become, it certainly doesn’t justify an equally absurd and opposite reaction.
Introducing the Alt-Right
Outrageous and offensive excesses can be countered without engaging in equally outrageous and offensive excesses in the other direction.
But that’s the response we’re seeing from self-styled “alt-righters,” right-wingers who generally stand in opposition to tolerance or multiculturalism. As Brendan O’Neill writes:
[The alt-right’s] response to new and mad PC rules on how to talk about race and gender is not to criticise them dispassionately, or point out that it’s ironically pretty racist and sexist to suggest black people and women need protection from offensive words; no, it’s to say the offensive words, to say the N-word, as loudly as possible, and ideally to a black person.”]
For reasons I will explain, those who value freedom, individualism, and toleration should know this. That some who call themselves libertarians are seduced by the alt-right and its hero, Donald Trump, is frankly alarming.
Why You Don’t Want to Join the Alt-Right
Efforts to make racism, anti-immigrationism, sexism, and general intolerance cool are hardly something for us to cheer on. The same goes for declarations that cultural—that is, tribal—preservation should override individual liberty and the beneficent dynamism of social cooperation through freed markets and other consensual institutions. The answer to black or whatever “identitarianism” isn’t white identitarianism; it’s individualism, original liberalism, and cosmopolitanism.
Even if some alt-righters intend their antics only as comical stunts “to fluster their grandparents,” it should still concern those who value liberty and toleration. Taunting black people with images of lynchings or Jews with images of concentration camps is not funny.
How to Deal with the Alt-Righter (with Libertarian Ideas)
Libertarianism is nothing if not pro-toleration and anti-bigotry. But how can a political philosophy that seems concerned exclusively with restricting the use of force to self-defense, that is, with defending individual rights, have anything to say about bigotry not accompanied by violence?
Here’s how: the best case for freedom rests on certain values, principles, and commitments. While a bigot who abided strictly by the nonaggression principle—or what I prefer to call the nonaggression obligation—is conceivable, his underlying values would clash with those underpinning the strongest case for libertarianism.
Charles W. Johnson explains this general idea in “Libertarianism through Thick and Thin:”
There may be cases in which certain beliefs or commitments could be rejected without contradicting the nonaggression principle per se, but could not be rejected without logically undermining the deeper reasons that justify the nonaggression principle. Although you could consistently accept libertarianism without accepting these commitments or beliefs, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the commitments means rejecting the proper grounds for libertarianism.”]
The nonaggression obligation is not a free-floating injunction; it is rooted in something. There is a reason why I may kick a rock but not a person. (See my “What Social Animals Owe Each Other.”)
Therefore a society in which only nonaggressive bigotry were on the rise would reasonably disturb libertarians qua libertarians. This does not mean a violent response would be warranted or that state action would be justified. Force may only be used to meet force and only in proportion to the aggression to which it responds. But some nonviolent response—boycott, ostracism, publicity—would be justified and even called for, depending on the context, in the name of libertarian values.
Alt-righters should understand that individual freedom must be respected because individuals, possessing equal authority and existing as ends in themselves rather than merely as means for others, inherently deserve such respect. Charles Johnson perhaps states it best:
While no one should be forced as a matter of policy to treat her fellows with the respect due to equals […] libertarians certainly can—and should—criticize those who do not […] for much the same reasons that we have for endorsing libertarianism in the first place.”]
Sheldon Richman, who keeps the blog Free Association, is a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society.