Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 415, April 29, 2007

"How come our country is such a paradox?"


Liberty or Libertine?
by Lady Liberty

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

In a recent column, I mentioned that I considered the Libertarian philosophy to be the closest to liberty, but that Libertarians (and libertarians, for that matter) often exhibited the same kind of all-or-nothing intolerance—even for each other—that plagues other organizations. I lamented that it was my opinion that the inability to work together even on an overall strategy such as a campaign platform was the single largest obstacle to getting more Libertarians elected.

In response to that column, one of the notes I received was terse and to the point: The writer sniped that Libertarianism was closer to being libertine than to liberty. Although it was tempting to respond in accordance with my immediate reaction, I didn't. I suspect she didn't intend her message to be any more than it appeared to be on its surface, but in fact it actually was. And the truth is that I've been thinking about it ever since.

I firmly believe that if you don't support freedom for everyone, you don't really support freedom for anyone. When limitations are placed on the freedom an individual enjoys, a precedent is set that involves somebody somewhere being given the authority to determine what freedoms should be curbed. Then, too, there is oft-mentioned slippery slope analogy that is sadly all too accurate. In other words, once one incursion into one freedom or another is made, the second one and the rest that follow become all the more likely, not to mention more easily achieved.

The infringement of free speech more commonly referred to as "hate speech laws" is a fine example of just what can happen when people decide to put limitations on unalienable rights. Originally, the intent behind hate speech laws was fairly noble if not particularly freedom-oriented. Unfortunately, there's virtually no way to apply such a law with any even-handedness, and any kind of zero tolerance policy will only result in trouble, probably sooner rather than later.

It can be difficult to argue that the Ku Klux Klan ought to be able to hold a parade or burn a cross with permission on private property. Yet nowhere in the First Amendment does it suggest that the only speech that is free is that with which sufficient numbers of others agree, or which nobody finds in any way offensive. Even when the authorities do the right thing and work to protect speech the vast majority of us don't find particularly agreeable, the people themselves can rise up and demand that free speech ought not include speech they happen to find offensive. Those who are offended rarely realize that they're hurting themselves along with their targets.

In Toledo, Ohio a year and a half ago, for example, the authorities granted a neo-Nazi group a parade permit (I suspect they did so less out of any sense of honor or any respect for freedom than because they couldn't find a way to deny the group without getting sued). The neo-Nazis held their parade with cops in tow, and sure enough, a police presence was needed. While by all accounts, those participating in the parade did nothing but express their (admittedly hateful) message, those along the parade route were another story.

After incidents of vandalism, looting, and more, the mayor of Toledo eventually felt the need to impose a curfew. What made the entire story so ironic was that the neo-Nazis were basically marching to celebrate the superiority of white people, while those who shouted epithets, threw bottles and other items, and who looted, burned, and vandalized their own neighborhoods were black. Had hate speech laws been in effect in Toledo at that time, it wouldn't have been those who are known for their hate who would have been charged with a crime!

What caused all of the trouble in Toledo wasn't simply that the neo-Nazis marched. Instead, it was the demands that they not be allowed to march, and the reaction to the march being held in the end, that was the real problem. It was, in a nutshell, a complete lack of respect for the rights of others. Well, and there was one other factor: Those who rioted exhibited a virtual total lack of personal responsibility while demanding that others be stripped of the choice as to whether or not to exercise any of their own.

According to, the definition of "libertine" is any of several things. I suspect that my erstwhile "fan" would settle for whichever definition is the least flattering, but I'm going with "unrestrained, uncontrolled." And while she doubtless meant me to find her name calling offensive, the thing is that I don't. In fact, I see her point.

Look at what happened in Toledo when some people were upset that some other people actually got to make a point with which they disagreed. And now think of what goes through the head of a woman like the one who wrote to me when someone who believes in even more freedom than that suggests that we legalize drugs or prostitution, or that we eliminate all gun laws! All that she can see is heroin addicts on every front door step, hookers in high schools, and blood in the streets.

What I'd like to ask her—and every one of you as well—is this: If heroin were legal tomorrow, would you shoot up? No? Why not? If sex was for sale down the block, would you buy some? If you were carrying your handgun in Wal-Mart next Christmas and I got the very last Teenage Mutant Harry Potter action figure, would you shoot to kill? You wouldn't? Okay, fair enough. Me, neither.

We wouldn't do those things because we're responsible adults. But truly responsible adults would let other adults be responsible for themselves rather than making the misguided attempt to shoulder their responsibilities for them. People learn from making mistakes, not—as any parent will tell you—necessarily from being told something is a mistake. And even if they don't learn, the only truly pro-freedom stance to have is to let them continue to make whatever mistakes they like as long as they don't hurt anybody else while they're making them.

George Bernard Shaw said that, "Liberty requires responsibility. That is why most men dread it." He was right. And so I'm forced to look again at the accusation made by my correspondent. Since so many people are so irresponsible and are thus "unrestrained" and "uncontrolled," doesn't that mean we have to have laws in place to make up for their lack? It's tempting, so very tempting, to say yes. We are, after all, just trying to be helpful and to impose the order people would impose on themselves if only they were mature (or smart or good or responsible) enough to handle things on their own.

But I would submit that making that kind of law, even for the purest of motives (which, as we all know, won't stay pure for long), is wrong. Preventing people from learning and growing is wrong. Taking away their ability to choose their own way is wrong. And yes, even forcibly preventing people from suffering the repercussions of a bad decision is wrong when it's those repercussions and the lessons of them that will make the man (or woman) he (or she) is to become. In fact, the only restraint and control that ought to be imposed would be those necessary to prevent others from being hurt.

Artificial controls—various and sundry statues and ordinances—can be ignored, skirted, or repealed. But the natural controls of personal responsibility are integral to each of us who've had the opportunity to learn them. The problem is that each and every one of us takes our lessons from experience, and now we're working on putting together some kind of a system that tries hard to prevent people from getting that experience. After years of living under myriad laws, when we undergo any inkling of a genuine experience, we panic. We loot and burn. And it's all the result of an overabundance of coerced restraint and control.

An acquaintance of mine likes to say that freedom is the answer no matter what the question is. He's right, but I don't think that anybody else is going to be able to definitively learn what he and a few others already know unless they can understand that true freedom means freedom for everybody; that sometimes, it means you'll be offended; and that it even means other people might make mistakes and that you'll have to let them do it.

There's yet another meaning for the word "libertine," you know. It's the term for a freed slave. When I received the e-mail calling me (and every other American with libertarian leanings) a libertine, my knee-jerk reaction was, "I am not!" After some thought on the matter, I'm going to reluctantly admit that that's still true: I'm not. But I'd sure like to be, and that's what I'm working toward. If I can remove some of those needless (in most cases) and harmful (more often than not) restraints and controls along the way so that others can join us in becoming libertines themselves, so much the better.


Hanging In There

Violence Erupts at Ohio Neo-Nazi Demonstration

Macrame Award: CNN at the Toledo Neo-Nazi Riot

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