Live and Let Live
By Pierre Lemieux
Although many contemporary phenomena would illustrate my argument, consider far-right nationalism in Europe. Nationalists disagree not only with nationalists in other countries (“With Mainsteam Parties Struggling, Europe’s Nationalists Band Together,” Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2019), but also with non-nationalists or other nationalists in their own country. This reflects the general problem of politics, which is the necessity of agreement on social rules, combined with the reality of individual diversity. I take “politics” in a very general sense, as the processes that determine rules of life in society (whether under zero formal government, or under total Leviathan, or somewhere between).
Whatever the causes of their diversity, individuals have different preferences and values. Preferences are defined by modern economics as a ranking of consumption activities. “I prefer wine and cheese to Coke and chips.” Preferences are subjective and non debatable: “De gustibus non est disputandum,” goes the Latin saying. We cannot trace all the factors that make individuals prefer what they prefer. I take values to mean preferences over states of the world, like in “Everybody should like wine and cheese.” Values can be moral or political, but they can be discussed—that’s the history of philosophy and politics—if they are not to be decided by violence. “Everybody must like wine and cheese” is the political-authoritarian version.
The reality of diversity is constitutive of a modern, complex societies. The more complex and rich a society, the wider the variance of individual preferences and values. Indeed, this diversity is necessary for entrepreneurship and prosperity to flourish.
Contrast this with primitive tribes, whose members had uniform tabus, preferences, and values. Identical individuals can agree on everything. Friedrich Hayek‘s political philosophy is built around the difference between the tribe and the “Great Society” (see especially Volume 2 of his Law, Legislation and Liberty). For example, he wrote:
The submergence of classical liberalism under the inseparable forces of socialism and nationalism is the consequence of a revival of those tribal sentiments. …
The possibility of men living together in peace and to their mutual advantage without having to agree on concrete common aims, and bound only by abstract rules of conduct, was perhaps the greatest discovery mankind ever made. (pp. 134 and 136)
In a non-tribal society, the problem of politics is to have individuals agree, one way or another, on some basic social rules. Nothing prevents voluntary tribes (along lines such as religion, culture, occupation, etc.) to exist within the Great Society, but exit must not be too costly. The essential social rules of such a society could be called the basic level of politics.
The more politics expands beyond this basic level, the less agreement there can be and the more confrontation there must be. In other words, the more politics there is, the less manageable it becomes. “Politics makes us worse,” writes Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy.
To keep politics at its basic level would seem to be the peaceful and efficient solution. Although this solution is more complex than it looks like (where exactly is the basic level of politics?) and difficult to implement, the essential bargain is simple (it even looks too simple to be true): live and let live. “I will let you have Coke and chips if you let me have wine and cheese. I will let you live as you want if you let me live as I want.” Isn’t this the fundamental political insight of libertarianism if not of classical liberalism?