Cathy Reisenwitz, whom I have not read before this, is a rising libertarian blogger about whom I have heard nothing but good things. She runs Sex and the State and, apparently, Thoughts on Liberty. I wish I could report that my first experience with her had been more positive (hey-o) but here we are. Her latest post at the latter blog calls into question either her motives or her understanding of liberty, and I hope it is the latter.
The post is titled “Shaming Others Is Unjustifiable Coercion,” and besides the sloppy title (I promise it is possible to justify this or almost any type of coercion; the president made a speech last night justifying, if you can believe it, unprovoked bombing of Syria!), there are several errors. These are errors from a logical standpoint, a libertarian one, or both.
We may as well start with the word coercion. As noted professional libertarian Stephan Kinsella pointed out in Reisenwitz’s comment section, libertarians are not opposed to coercion. If I get jumped on the way to the corner store and I take a swing at my attacker, I am using coercion. Libertarians have no problem with this. Libertarians have a problem with the initiation of coercion, of which only the attacker is guilty. So it is really a poor choice of words that muddies libertarian theory.
Using a word in an unclear manner is a forgivable offense; completely misusing it is another thing. Reisenwitz argues the libertarian’s aversion to state coercion should also apply to the crime of slut-shaming. She starts, “Somewhere we’ve decided that the tools the state uses to influence behavior are ‘coercion’ while the tools non-state actors use are cooperation.” This is partially correct. Yes, anything the state does is coercion because that is the only tool a state has–force or the threat of it. However, non-state actors are not limited to cooperation. This view is a complete misunderstanding of libertarian theory; one of the basic premises behind the non-aggression principle, for example, is that state actors are not to be treated differently from private actors. A state actor who engages in aggression is no more or less just in his action, from a theoretical standpoint, than a private actor who engages in the same act. Thus, for example, taxation is theft. But Reisenwitz’s strawman argument is that libertarians think non-state actors are incapable of coercion. Not so; libertarians denounce, or should denounce, aggressive coercion by everyone. It just happens that the state is a big priority.
Reisenwitz’s thought continues [bold in original]: “Where is the justification for this? I didn’t sign a contract with slut-shamers any more than I did with my government. I may find complete ostracism much more oppressive than a small fine.” First, oppressive? As an English major, sloppiness and incoherence bother me greatly but when they result in damage to liberty by appealing to the emotional left I start to lose it. There very well may be an alternative use for the word “oppression” as it applies to your mental state or social circumstances, just as “freedom of the mind” or “freedom from want” may be appropriate at times. However, these usages should never be part of a libertarian argument. The clearest and most useful way to discuss libertarian theory is to discuss the appropriateness of force, and being “oppressed” by ostracism is a different class from oppression in the way a libertarian understands it. That is, now matter how small the fine may be, a state actor who imposes one on you with the backing of violent force is oppressing you. That’s why we’re all in this fight, or so I thought.
Second, Reisenwitz’s argument from contract theory is baffling. She wants us to accept that we should sign a contract any time we want to sling verbal abuses at each other? Is my blog post coercing her in some way, because of the shame she might feel after reading my criticism of her logic (I realize this example would work better if my blog approached the popularity of hers)? If Reisenwitz’s rightful rejection of social contract theory were to become the law of the land, she would be disappointed to find that the free society that resulted would continue to include slut-shamers and slut-shaming.
Her sloppy libertarianism continues: “What right then does anyone have to coerce me by threatening to criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize me?” Once again, some libertarians see liberty through a different lens than others, but no libertarian who recognizes rights would argue that “threatening to criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize” is some kind of violation. A layman’s wording of the non-aggression principle would go something like, “an individual has the right to do whatever he likes, as long as he does not harm anyone else (i.e. violate another’s rights).” On what grounds is criticism, ridicule, shaming or ostracizing coercion, let alone merely threatening to do these things? One is coercing a woman by threatening to call her a slut? Coercing her maybe in an abstract sense, the way Reisenwitz feels “oppressed” in an abstract sense by ostracism.
Reisenwitz wraps it up by pleading with the reader to gently persuade her instead of “threatening” her with criticism, shame, etc. Once again, why is the threat worse than the actual criticism? Is she using the word “threat” because it sounds like something that her readers might consider aggression, e.g. a credible bomb threat? Anyway, gentle and friendly persuasion might be the better way to persuade someone to change her ways, but this has nothing to do with liberty, no matter how much Reisenwitz might want it to. The question is whether it is in line with liberty for a libertarian to criticize, shame, ridicule, or ostracize people for bad behavior, or even threaten to do so. If the answer is no, the word “libertarian” has no meaning.