Libertarians can often be conflicted over movements and sparring with people who hold similar values, but whose political ambitions may be counter to ours. While this may be just part and parcel of the political merry-go-round, sometimes it leads to unpleasant moves.
At the end of 2013, noted libertarian economist, author, and professor, Walter Block, made some controversial comments about the gay and feminist communities. His post claiming “feminists are not libertarians; neither are gays” quickly caused a social media uproar in libertarian circles.
The wave of animosity towards Block and his article prompted him to take it down and post an edited version. Block tried to amend the situation by apologizing, and explained his last post was poorly written; he claimed he didn’t mean for it to sound like he was criticizing all feminists and gay people. Despite Block’s generous attempt to fix the situation, the rest of his updated post was not all that different from the original, and was barely an improvement.
Having a strong view on cultural issues doesn’t disqualify you from libertarianism
In regards to feminists, Block charged that while feminists have historically fought against gendered injustice such as rape, “many of them also oppose ‘leering’.” He explains, “at best, this video just muddies the waters; it takes time, effort, treasure, away from the only proper task, the elimination of rape.”
While this may well be true, it completely misses the point. It does not mean feminists who oppose leering are wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t libertarians. A woman’s personal preference to not be leered at because she thinks of it as objectifying her like a piece of meat doesn’t prevent her from embracing the non-aggression principle and being a libertarian.
After all, she isn’t holding a gun to a guy’s head telling him not to leer at her. It is perfectly legitimate and compatible with libertarianism for women to request not to be leered at as a matter of cultural and personal preference.
Furthermore, the idea that leering doesn’t deserve consideration because there are worse problems in the world, or because it is not a legal or coercive matter, is misguided. Block wrote a fantastic book on the privatization of roads and highways, but he would hardly say this is the most pressing issue facing society. We can’t just spend our time railing against the very worst ills of society. Sometimes we focus on lesser, but still important, issues and that’s okay.
Block’s only correct statement in the paragraph, in regards to libertarian conceptions of rights, is that “leering is just looking. People have a right to look at whatever they want.” He is right in saying leering doesn’t actually violate any inherent rights. No one has a right to not be looked at. However, this claim misses the mark, since just because women prefer not to be leered at, doesn’t mean they view not being leered at as their inalienable right.
It’s simply a request for respect. Just like when I request people I debate with to not call me names, it doesn’t mean I think I have a right not to be called names. People have every right to insult me, but I prefer they treat me with respect.
This is a perspective on cultural and social norms, not a legal matter. As such, it is surprising given that libertarians focus extensively on legal and coercive power and its effects, and indeed make very little claim on what happens outside of those boundaries.
Most people support un-libertarian policies, not just certain communities
Professor Block goes on to say, “now, of late, many in the homosexual community have been insisting that other people, who do not appreciate their lifestyle, and who wish to have nothing to do with them, be forced, against their will, to engage in commercial activities with them.”
He cited an incident in New Mexico where a photographer was discriminating against lesbians. While I, and most libertarians, agree with Block that private firms should be allowed to discriminate all they want, he, again, misses the mark and makes faulty conclusions.
While it’s true that many homosexuals support laws preventing companies from discriminating, it is also true that most Americans support such laws as well. There is no reason to single out gay people as being specifically or inherently un-libertarian, because the fact is that most people have this perspective.
It’s wrong to think groups all think alike
My final quibble with Block’s post is that it appears that he forgot one of libertarianism’s central tenants: methodological individualism. Libertarianism is unique in that it is one of few political ideologies that recognizes and stresses the fact that only individuals act.
It identifies that groups, societies, and states do not act; only the individuals that make them up act. It is bizarre and un-libertarian for Block to criticize or label entire groups of people and entire social movements as un-libertarian.
He briefly acknowledged this at the end of the article when he wrote, “certainly, I would not condemn on these or any other grounds all homosexuals or feminists. There are many homosexuals and feminists who are staunch libertarians.” Taken to its logical conclusions, this statement would invalidate the entire article so I don’t understand why he mentioned it. It appears Block conceded he made an un-libertarian argument, but then again refuses to admit it.
The truth is that there are some feminists and/or gay people who are not libertarians and some who are. There are also some people who are neither feminists nor gay who aren’t libertarians and some who are.
Block’s charges are rife with collective stereotyping, and ignores the fact feminist and gay movements are filled with unique individuals, all with their own views and opinions, just like libertarians. This is the kind of groupthink the libertarian movement needs to reject.
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Updated by Joseph Simnett
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