Do Libertarians Necessarily Hate Tradition?


On the Center for a Stateless Society blog, Natasha Petrova attempted to explain some differences between conservatives and libertarians, arguing that libertarianism and tradition are incompatible:

As for defenses of tradition being compatible with libertarianism; I disagree with this. The essence of libertarianism is individualism and individual rights. This conflicts with obedience to inherited collectivist traditional social norms. Independent judgment and reason tend to undermine traditionalism.

The conservative’s tendency to favor the preservation of established institutions will also come into conflict with the libertarian. All institutions are subject to rational examination and change in a free society. This can’t be reconciled with a conservative defense of tradition or inherited institutions. Tradition also tends to require coercion or ostracism to maintain. Both of which are tools for controlling people. This is not to say that coercion and ostracism are always unjustified, but they are preferably used for something other than the continuation of existing social norms.

It would have been quite nice if Ms. Petrova provided some examples to illustrate her contention. Surely we can think of some “collectivist social norms” that are worth tossing by the wayside, but Ms. Petrova seems to be making a blanket statement regarding any tradition whatsoever. The fact that “all institutions are subject to rational examination and change in a free society” does not imply that ALL inherited institutions ought to abandoned. Indeed, she contradicts herself: disregarding something simply because it is an established tradition demonstrates a lack of rational examination.

She also requires us to take her word that “tradition also tends to require coercion or ostracism to maintain.” I don’t believe this is an obvious or self-evident statement, but rather just an unbacked assertion. Similarly, her preference that coercion be used for some other purpose “than the continuation of existing social norms,” seems unimaginative. One can easily think of some much more nefarious uses for coercion than preserving existing social norms. What were left with by Ms. Petrova in her blog post is not so much an argument for why tradition is bad, but simply her repeated assertions that it is bad.

Another way in which tradition and libertarianism are at odds is historical. History is replete with examples of tyranny and unfree societies. There is a dearth of relative freedom throughout history, so it’s strange to look to what has come before for inspiration.

To me, this statement is downright silly, but consistent with what she has said above. If we are to assume that what was in the past is always bad (or at least worse than what currently exists) then it would follow that all current institutions are preferable to what came before. But just because no libertarian utopia existed in the past does not mean we cannot look to the past for inspiration. We can look at the Anglo-Saxon tithes and hundreds for examples of justice systems that operated without the state. We can look at the history of turnpikes in the UK and US for proof that roads can be provided through private initiative. We can look to history to show that Americans could be relatively prosperous without a central bank, an income tax, a fascist health care system, and many other state enterprises. It’s not to say that all of these institutions (or lack thereof) were ideal, but that they present a picture of an alternative to the state. In terms of liberty, some things have gotten better, some worse. It’s ignorant to dismiss all of the past as some type of perennial Dark Age.



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