The great libertarian blind spot?

To Mark’s welcome comments about the focus and direction of this brand new (or is that reinvented?) blog, I want to add something about my own preferences. Actually, preferences isn’t really the word. I’d prefer not to write about pretty much any of the topics that move me to blog. That’s because, in my ideal world, we’d all heed the two sweetest expressions in the English language: “To each his own,” and “Different strokes for different folks.”

No doubt it’s a failing, and I wish it were different, but I appear constitutionally unable to ignore the armies of nannies who seek to tell others exactly how to live — from what we may and may not ingest to what we may and may not read.

Fair warning to libertarian purists: I see libertarianism as a really useful set of guidelines. That said, I can’t be counted on to reliably sign off on the movement’s full agenda (if there even is such a thing). For instance, I’m not implacably opposed to some Western-Europe-style checks on free-market capitalism; and I favor, in broad terms, a public-private national healthcare system such as the one that exists in the Netherlands, my country of birth. If that isn’t suitably consistent or sufficiently doctrinal for everybody, I can live with that.

It’s safe to assume that I won’t often be tackling economic topics here, by the way. I became a libertarian a dozen years ago mostly on the long-held principle that I should be free to make my own decisions as long as they don’t hurt others  — and I very much believe that the same should be true for my fellow citizens (if they even want those freedoms. Many don’t. That’s OK too). That conviction is still what drives me. The economic component of libertarianism holds a lot of appeal, but it’s often a bit above my pay grade, and I don’t find its study quite as attractive a way to spend my time as, say, trying to beat my top score in Tiny Wings.

Anyway, another instance in which I break with apparent libertarian orthodoxy (and I’m getting back to the ‘different strokes’ concept here) is that in my world, the offensive piffle that is nannyism isn’t necessarily imposed by the government. Frequently, readers commenting on the old Nobody’s Business (the blog I wrote solo from 2004 until a few months ago) asked why on earth I would write disapprovingly of private entities seeking to regulate the behavior of others. They were unperturbed by co-op boards that forbade the display of a peace sign, they said, or by citizens’ groups trying to get Harry Potter books banned from local libraries, or even by mullahs pronouncing fatwas on women whose hemlines were deemed fatally immodest. I was surprised (though hardly chastened) to learn that many libertarians shrug off such moralistic meddling simply because the nannies in question are not on some government payroll. This seems like an awfully big blind spot to me.

Surely it’s not too difficult to see the connection between private nannyism and official nannyism. Laws don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re brought about by widespread opinions and proclivities on the part of ordinary citizens, a.k.a. the electorate. Failing to stand up to scolds and moralists in the private sphere legitimizes their views in the eyes of lawmakers. So I think there’s value in speaking out when advocacy groups or action committees — or even ‘private’ bluenoses  — presume to ‘protect’ us all by determining which books we may not read, which billboards or TV shows ought to be banned, et cetera. I’ve never been inclined to give them a pass, and I’m certainly not about to start now. The new Nobody’s Business will continue to chronicle their misadventures.

About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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