The personal is not the political; why libertarians have no obligation to tolerate intolerance


I am a social liberal. As a known(ish) libertarian many would presume this to be obvious, but this is not quite the sense in which I mean it. When I refer to myself as socially liberal I mean that I personally hold the views that social justice for LGBT people, ethnic minorities and sex workers is something worth fighting for and I believe that alcohol, drugs and prostitution are not necessarily bad things in society. I would not merely take the state out of these areas, but actively promote them; in short, I want to cultivate a tolerant and permissive society. What I don’t want is the state to do it for me.

People on both sides often have an inability to comprehend these two positions. Left-wing social liberals will often make the classic error of assuming that because you don’t want something backed up by government force, you don’t want it to happen at all; nothing could be further from the truth. There are a few issues where my libertarianism directly overlaps with my personal social views, of course – police racism, the war on drugs, abortion and the ban on same-sex marriage spring to mind. But when it comes to laws restricting freedom of property, freedom of speech and yes, the ‘freedom’ to be offensive – which really should be rephrased as the freedom from incarceration after offending people – is something I am strongly against. After all, what does it really say about human nature if the only way we can build a tolerant society is by state violence? Humanity has taken great strides in its attitude towards women and different races and to some extent the LGBT community in the past 100 years. Whilst we are a long way off, there is no reason to doubt that through education, social pressure and peaceful debate, we can do it again.

Whilst the left and I have our differences on this issue, it is often the ‘right’ that can be even less tolerant. Many a social conservative will take an issue with a simple statement that actually, it’s actually pretty offensive to use this or that homophobic/transphobic/racist slur even if you personally have nothing against that minority, and can you please not do it. In their minds, this is synonymous with ‘the government should lock you up for saying that, you wicked conservative!’. Only the other day I was called a ‘liberal fascist’, an interesting position for someone who doesn’t believe in a state to hold. If I believed those two positions to be synonymous it may have been deserved; however, there is a fairly crucial distinction between telling someone not to do something and asking someone else to imprison them for doing so. If conservatives are so offended by the former, they may wish to rethink their position as defenders of the offensive.

I am of course not saying that libertarians can’t hold personally conservative views – my point is that libertarianism is a political, not personal, ideology. Libertarianism is about what you believe the role of the state to be, or lack thereof. Both conservative libertarians accusing liberals of trying to ‘censor’ them and liberal libertarians accusing conservatives of not holding progressive enough values are missing the point. The real enemy is the state. Without it, we are all free to say and do as we wish – and that includes my right to tell you to stop being so offensive.


  1. Well put. I’ve never understood why some libertarians think being ‘for’ freedom of speech is denying anything is ever offensive. Nor have I understood why stating that something being said is unacceptable automatically makes you some sort of fascist.


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