Why Culture Matters

In the little corner of the world occupied by libertarians of all stripes, discussion often ranges far and wide on matters that can be broadly labeled “culture.”  Posts and commentary can be found on issues ranging from those commonly labeled as “left-libertarian” (gay marriage, open borders, be nice to everyone, break down all hierarchical structures) to issues commonly labeled as “right-libertarian” (traditional lifestyle choices, managed borders, governance via family, church and community).

Why?  Why do libertarians find it necessary or valuable to comment on such matters?  Of course, a simple answer is that individuals who identify as libertarian have many other interests.  But it is clear that there is something more – the two spheres, “culture” and “libertarian,” seem to overlap inherently.  If it was random, we might expect to read just as many commentaries by (and passionate arguments amongst) libertarians on sports or cooking, for example.

What is it about culture that draws libertarian writers into its circle?  I will offer my thoughts on those traditionally labelled “right-libertarians.”  For the left – I have offered my thoughts plenty of times.

What Do I Mean by “Culture”?

Culture – in this context – is all of the behaviors in our lives that are not answerable by or even addressed by the non-aggression principle.  The non-aggression principle addresses when it is proper to use aggression; it is a political principle.  The NAP says nothing about many things: haircuts, clothes, religious affiliation (or not), car color, etc.  It speaks to the proper use of force, nothing more.

What is Libertarianism?

Libertarianism is the non-aggression principle built on a foundation of private property.  It is not appropriate to initiate aggression against the life or property of another; aggression is appropriate only in defense of life or property.

The definition is itself quite thin – I imagine in the abstract most people in the world would agree with this principle (one or both of the golden rule and silver rule, while not perfect matches, has/have a home in all of the various major religions of the world).

The application of the principle sometimes becomes an issue.  For the majority this difficulty begins with the intellectual or emotional inability to apply the NAP to state actors: for too many, initiating aggression is acceptable if the aggressor wears a badge (or uniform or any other state-sanctioned license).

For those of us in this more radical corner (both left and right), we apply the NAP to all individuals – state actors or not; in fact, by applying it to all individuals, most of us find the concept of “state actors” inherently to be in contradiction to the NAP.

How to Achieve and Maintain a Libertarian Order?

What do I mean by “libertarian order”?  A society that respects private property and the non-aggression principle.  As there is much more to life, the rest will be filled-in by individuals, communities, churches, etc.  Libertarian theory has nothing to say about any of this.

While there are many different variants, it seems to me that the most reasonable path to achieve a libertarian order is through education.  It strikes me as self-evident that the biggest growth in the movement came via Ron Paul and supported by the foundation built by Lew Rockwell at the Mises Institute and LRC.  But I won’t argue if you work through different means toward the same ends – the more, the merrier.

How is a libertarian order to be maintained?  There is the rub, there is where culture comes in – and it is here where I believe the commonly labeled “left” and “right” part ways, and where I maintain that the “right” has it…right.

Despite the fairy-tales floated by certain left-libertarians, in a world populated by humans there will always be prejudices, biases, and preferences.  Further, it is an inherent characteristic of private property that it is exclusionary, and the owner has the right to “exclude” on any basis he chooses – call this “discrimination” if you like.  For a private property order to mean anything, the property owner’s right to discriminate must be respected.

In other words, in order to maintain a libertarian order, it must be recognized that humans are…human.  To act on the basis that humans will ever be anything else is to ensure future conflict – the surest path to maintaining support for state solutions.

Despite the fairy-tales floated by certain left-libertarians, in a world populated by humans there will always be hierarchy and there will always be governance – governance, notgovernment (as that term is understood today).

There will never arise a human-populated world of a flat organizational structure – people will join organizations voluntarily, and those same people will voluntarily submit to the authority in these organizations.

Who – or what – provides the governance is the only question: will it be a monopoly provider, or will it be a decentralized and varied combination of countless voluntarily-joined, hierarchical entities?  In a libertarian order, there is only one acceptable answer.

The most ubiquitous governance-providing institution is the market.  The market provides governance – there is discipline necessary to effectively deliver service to customers, with pressure to improve coming from all sides.  Merely look around you every day – the order in a grocery store, the effectiveness of a bank transaction; consider the governance required to deliver such service.

The most important foundation for governance is the family – the government knows this, which is why they work constantly to destroy it.  There is no theoretical possibility of a world of 7 billion separately governing entities, but perhaps 1.5 billion (or however many households there are in this world).

Family as an organized governance structure is as old as recorded human history, and until it can be demonstrated that something even more decentralized can function reasonably well, this is as far down the decentralization path that I believe is feasible – in theory and in practice.

Beyond this is the community, the church, various volunteer groups, insurance companies, etc.  Each providing governance in different ways, in different spheres.

So what does this have to do with culture?  Culture is another institution that provides governance.

I will begin with a simple example: any of you Yankees been to London?  What do you see in big letters written on the ground of every crosswalk?


Why is that?  The answer to this question starts one down the road of understanding the importance of culture in a voluntary-governance society.

The better that the “rules of the road” (only a slight pun intended) are broadly understood and accepted, the lower the likelihood for conflict.  Culture helps to answer questions about acceptable behavior in the spaces where the NAP is not a suitable guide; there are numerous questions that inherently the NAP cannot answer.

How much labor is to be mixed with land or other unowned resources in order to transform these from unowned to owned?  The NAP does not answer this question; local custom and culture will.  How much punishment fits the crime?  The NAP does not answer this question; local custom and culture will (save the extreme, bound by the NAP).

What are acceptable family relationships?  Absent clear violations of the NAP, the NAP does not answer this question.  What is an acceptable greeting between two businessmen?  No answer in the NAP.

Proper attire?  Greeting a person of the opposite sex?  Hand holding in the park?  All cultural questions.

Which way do I first look before I cross the street, left or right?  The words painted in the intersection remind visitors to London of the local culture, and by following the norms of the local culture the chance for conflict (your head aggressing against my bumper) is greatly reduced.

In many of these cases, a wide range of answers will be valid within the thin definition of the NAP.  But a common understanding and acceptance of the specific answer to each question “around here” will greatly reduce the possibilities for conflict.

So what does culture have to do with maintaining a libertarian order?  This, to me, is quite simple: the less conflict, the less chance that some self-proclaimed and self-pitying disadvantaged group will look to a savior to deliver them from their perceived suffering.

The less conflict the less chance that people will look for someone to do something about it.  The “someone” will ultimately be the monopoly provider of fixing all things for all people.

And there goes the libertarian order – or even the possibility of moving closer to one.

Culture Ain’t Got no Feelings, it’s Made of Rubber

As in Dumbo’s case, wrong.

Culture doesn’t like revolutionary change.  Culture evolves slowly and gradually – this has been true throughout history and such change is a very natural human condition.  It is the unnatural human condition that brings this topic to the fore; the unnatural human condition brings revolutionary change, not evolutionary change.

What do I mean by the “natural human condition” in this context?  Culture evolving via market forces, via introduction of the new via voluntary interactions and voluntary acceptance.  Day-to-day these are imperceptible changes, noticeable only when looking back over a period of years or even decades.  This is how a culture evolves naturally.

What do I mean by the “unnatural human condition”?  Much of the world today.

War, for example, is tremendously culture-destroying.  Of course, the Great War marked a significant turning point in Western culture.  War – certainly on such a scale – is only possible via the presence of the state and state control over much of societal activity.

But what of today?  I will expand on only one example, one issue very much in the news and in the debate between libertarians left and right: immigration and open borders.

The mass migration of refugees into Europe today is quite unnatural – they are moving by the millions solely due to the condition of a multi-decade war.  There is no doubt that the numbers of migrants would be merely a trickle if they were not fleeing their impossible condition.

Further, this is not a mass migration from and to people and places with common cultures – and absent a common culture, there is increased chance for conflict despite anyone’s wishes that humans behave differently than they have throughout recorded history.

Other examples are in the recent news – the state forcing the issues of gay marriage upon private property owners; (supposedly) bringing liberal democracy via war.

In any case, with increased conflict, there will be increased call for the state to take action.  And with increased call for the state to take action, the state will take action. And this provides the clue, the hint.  The chaos, brought on by the state, will result in further demands for solutions to be enacted and enforced by the state.

Which raises an interesting – and terribly important – issue: take the case of refugees and open borders.  There are many libertarians who offer that the borders should be left open.  There are others who feel the opposite.  Both sides believe they have libertarian theory on their side.

Yet only one of these positions greatly increases the possibility, to the point of certainty, of greater state intervention.  After all, the state already “manages” the border.  To continue managing the border does not increase state intervention.  To stop managing the border – as Germany has so far done – will not result in less intervention, but in significant increases in state intervention and power; this due to the significant risk imposed to the existing culture.

The issue is not one of “different” or “the other.”  The issue is the pace of change and the forces behind the pace; the issue is one of conflict certain to follow forced and rapid change; the issue is one of the state stepping in to provide a “solution” to the manufactured conflict.

If culture doesn’t govern, the state most certainly will.  And there goes any movement toward, let alone the possibility of maintaining, a libertarian order.


Libertarian theory is thin.  How to achieve and maintain a libertarian order?  Culture matters.  And I believe this is why libertarians associated with the right defend ideas of culture.

It isn’t an issue of right vs. left.  It is an issue of moving toward vs. away from a libertarian order; it is an issue of reducing the influence of the state.

Is it an appropriate objective to reduce the role of the state in society?  On the importance of culture, the so-called (and inappropriately labeled, for the reasons outlined above) right libertarians are right.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.