I have verged on this idea previously, but it never came quite clear to me until this morning. Many of our most heated Left-Right battles are actually Communitarian-Libertarian questions. Nothing new there, but there is a kicker that tells me that the questions are essentially unresolvable unless they are reframed. As a society and as individuals, we assent to both communitarian and libertarian values, and we want it both ways.
Libertarian organizations are fond of a quick two-axis political test which purports to illustrate the interaction of these scales, giving examples of famous political figures and where they stand on the left-right and statist-individual scales taken together. There is a bit of a bias in word-choice there, using “statist” instead of something more attractive-sounding, but the test is good as far as it goes. It at least opens up the idea that there is an extra dimension to our political categories.
Here’s where it goes wrong. Many people do not fall along a continuum of communitarian-libertarian (for brevity, C-L), as the scale would suggest. They have completely independent pockets. This blows up the scale.
All this by way of introduction.
L’s want individual rights enforced by government. C’s want community norms enforced by government. To insist that each society should be able to define marriage as it chooses, or where life begins as it chooses, is a communitarian argument. The battle is fought along the entirely libertarian field of individual rights, but I think that both sides consider the communitarian battle more important. The phrases “what does this say about us as a society?” and “what message does this send?” are dead giveaways that a C argument is being put forward.
Anti-abortion people speak in terms of the individual rights of the child, because that’s the only place it can come to enforcement, given our legal structures. Pro-choice people speak about the woman’s individual rights, because that’s the only place that they can get enforcement given our legal structures. But both sides care deeply – I wonder if much more deeply – about the communitarian side. What does this say about how we view women? Doesn’t it fit it with all that history of treating them as unimportant/unreliable decision-makers? Versus: What does this say about the compassion of a society that won’t protect the weak? Doesn’t it say that we are selfish and uncaring?
Similarly, on gay marriage. It is fought out on the grounds of individual rights to marry and individual rights to not accept that. But even a rapid increase in rights of civil unions, domestic partnerships, and marriage – the issue was not even on the radar twenty-five years ago – has not proved satisfying to gay-rights advocates. They want the culture to accept them, not just the law. And opponents want the culture to be able to at least roughly define sexual mores.
Building a wall along the Mexican border – the questions what message does this send to Hispanics versus what message does this send to lawbreakers arise almost immediately in any discussion. (To see how close I came to understanding this 4 years ago, see my humorous take on this here.) Not law, but message, as if the culture itself were a human character communicating with other groups. Foreign policy questions quickly turn on whether we should send a message that we wish to be friends versus a message of we will not be trifled with. Gitmo discussions move rapidly from questions of individual rights to guessing what message other countries will receive about us. Sex education. Drug legalization. Welfare reform. Availability of health care. What message we shall send is what we really care about – but we disagree about it. Therefore we contest in the unclear battlespace of individual rights.
We all want it both ways on law versus custom; and none of us can have it, so we continue to fight on grounds we don’t prefer. When we agree on the C of something, we have usually worked out the L a long time ago. When we disagree, we fight about the L. And we will never resolve it – not because we are stupid, but because the thing is necessarily impossible – until we resolve the C.
A culture war tactic is to get something passed into law, to at least get one side to shut up until, over time, that side changes its cultural view. There is the hope that custom will eventually follow law if given enough time. Maybe so. There seems to be some success on that with racial relations. But regarding abortion, the cultural division seems to be greater now. (My own speculation is that people were disapproving, but not very exercised about abortions taking place when they knew there was no official message of approval being sent. The other side of that was women feeling that the message being sent to them – that we will allow this tacitly but still call you bad - was unfair.)
The more traditional method is that law eventually follows custom – smoking marijuana is a good example. Yet this is also unreliable, as some practices become unremarkable but remain technically illegal and occasionally enforced.
We sometimes regard culture warriors as being difficult people who get everyone stirred up and arguing when we could have gotten along just fine if people would just pipe down a bit. Culture warriors who are always relating individual political and legal disputes back to the C-battles are often regarded that way in comments threads. We sigh, and wish they hadn’t brought it up, so that we could go on with our more precise legal or political question. We are hoping, in those cases, that the tactic of custom eventually following law will work.
But it’s not likely to. Culture has no way to fight back against individual rights in our legal system. Disapprovals and social sanctions are all that can be mustered. The libertarian approach is the enemy of retention of culture – it is necessarily so. (Further discussion of this, including the fondness for individual rights being itself a part of our culture, are in this recent post.) At each specific point, we see the advantage of granting the individual right. But in the aggregate, we believe that if we have no culture, if we are not part of some larger social entity, individual rights matter little. Few of us want to live isolated, able to do as we please but without boon-companions. And voluntary association with the like-minded, not only allowed but encouraged under L-thought, has not yet proved to be enough social identity for most people. We want a shared culture.