The Right Coast

February 06, 2004
Heroes of Liberty or License?
By Michael Rappaport

Reason magazine lists 35 people who it deems “heroes of freedom.” The list is interesting, both for the obvious selections, such as Milton Friedman, and the funny ones, such as Richard Nixon, who is said to have promoted liberty by making people suspicious of the government.

What is odd about the list is the inclusion of people like Dennis Rodman and Madonna, who are included because, in the case of Madonna, “they helped broaden the palette of acceptable cultural identities and destroy whatever vestiges of repressive mainstream sensibilities still remained.” In other words, they changed peoples views about what was appropriate behavior and decreased the degree of criticism for certain types of unconventional behavior.

My question is whether such people really promoted liberty. While they may or may not have produced a more varied and interesting world, which liberty can also produce, did they really promote liberty?

There is an old debate about what constitutes a limitation on liberty. John Stuart Mill believed that when A criticizes or refuses to interact with B because A disapproves of B’s behavior, A infringes on B’s liberty. By contrast, Nozickian libertarians believe that such criticisms and refusals to interact are merely the exercise of A’s liberty and does not infringe on B’s rights. After all, there is no violence or fraud.

Significantly, there is much more of an overlap between libertarians and conservatives under Nozick’s definition of liberty. People can voluntarily choose to follow “conservative norms” and libertarians should defend them.

But both conservatives and libertarians are often unwilling to accept this principled position. Some conservatives believe allowing legal freedom to act will lead people to behave in licentious ways. They view American freedom as leading to an MTV world of trash and therefore embrace legal restrictions on people’s behavior. While libertarians rightly criticize this view, they also are often unwilling to live with the principled position: they adopt the Millian view, embrace people who depart from traditional ways, and condemn those who criticize or refuse to interact with the unconventional. By proclaiming Madonna and Rodman heroes of freedom, Reason appears to be adopting this view.

But Reason is mistaken. Most libertarians recognize that it is the right, for example, of a landlord not to rent to Dennis Rodman because he disapproves of Rodman’s lifestyle. Why would Reason then believe that Rodman’s behavior is more worthy of praise as promoting freedom than that of a Christian conservative who pursues a more traditional lifestyle?

Lifestyle choices that do not coerce others do not influence freedom. They may make the world better and more interesting, but that is different than freedom. If Reason believes that the unconventional is intrinsically connected with legal freedom, then they have only themselves to blame when the Weekly Standard views legal freedom as leading to license.