Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Political Correctness

"Political correctness" (or "politically correct," as an adjectival phrase) refers to
language, ideas, policies, or behavior seen as seeking to minimize offense to racial, cultural, or other identity groups.
PCness exists at three connected levels: the individual, voluntary associations, and state action (which draws on and influences the other two).

1. At the individual level, PCness is an exaggerated case of good manners. A PC person refrains from speaking or behaving in ways that might offend or seem to denigrate an "identity group," even at the expense of stereotyping and patronizing members of such groups (e.g., singling out for special attention, heaping fulsome praise).

2. At the next level, we find voluntary associations (e.g., churches, charities, political parties, academic faculties), whose members, because they share -- or profess to share -- certain ideas about "equality" and "social justice," feel bound by those ideas to adopt language, ideas, policies, and behavior that stereotype, patronize, and give special treatment to certain "identity groups." Some voluntary associations are organized solely for the purpose of seeking legislative and judicial enactment of special treatment, under the guise of "equal protection."

3. This brings us to the "highest" level: state action. Here, individuals, members of voluntary associations, and government officials (armed with the power of the state) seek to advance the cause of special treatment through legislative and judicial processes, so that such treatment becomes a legal norm, even if it is not a social one.

4. Finally, state action is taken as a moral command by those who are easily led and eager-to-please, thus reinforcing PCness and legitimating its expansion at all three levels.

That PCness is a widespread phenomenon proves nothing about its rightness and a lot about human nature and the coercive power of the state. In spite of that, some libertarians, who (understandably) are anxious to distance themselves from Ron Paul and the Rockwell crowd, have become apologists for PCness. Will Wilkinson, for example, suggests that
most PC episodes mocked and derided by the right are not state impositions. They are generally episodes of the voluntary social enforcement of relatively newly established moral/cultural norms.
Wilkinson grossly simplifies the complex dynamics of PCness, which I sketch above. His so-called "newly established ... norms" are, in fact, norms that have been embraced by insular élites (e.g., academics and think-tank denizens like Wilksinson) and then foisted upon "the masses" by the élites in charge of government and government-controlled institutions (e.g., tax-funded universities). Thus it is that proposals to allow same-sex marriage fare poorly when they are submitted to voters. Similarly, the "right" to an abortion, even 35 years after Roe v. Wade, remains far from universally accepted and meets greater popular resistance with the passage of time.

Roderick Long is another "libertarian" who endorses PCness:
Another issue that inflames many libertarians against political correctness is the issue of speech codes on campuses. Yes, many speech codes are daft. But should people really enjoy exactly the same freedom of speech on university property that they would rightfully enjoy on their own property? Why, exactly?

If the answer is that the purposes of a university are best served by an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas -- is there no validity to the claim that certain kinds of speech might tend, through an intimidating effect, to undermine just such an atmosphere?...

At my university, several white fraternity members were recently disciplined for dressing up, some in Klan costumes and others in blackface, and enacting a mock lynching. Is the university guilty of violating their freedom of expression? I can't see that it is. Certainly those students have a natural right to dress up as they please and engage in whatever playacting they like, so long as they conduct themselves peacefully. But there is no natural right to be a student at Auburn University.
Long's argument is clever, but fallacious. The purposes of a university have nothing to do with the case. Speech is speech.* Long, a member of Auburn's faculty, is rightly disgusted by the actions of the fraternity members he mentions, but disgust does not excuse the suppression of speech by a State university. It is true that there is no "natural right" to be a student at Auburn, but there is, likewise, no "natural right" not to be offended.

Long describes himself as a "left-libertarian market anarchist" (whatever that is). Interestingly, he also writes for LewRockwell.com, which is intertwined with Rockwell's Ludwig von Mises Institute. It is ironic that Lew Rockwell, the Mises Institute, and those who affiliate with them are in bad odor with a long list of bloggers who characterize themselves as libertarians of one kind or another (e.g., here). Their displeasure centers on Ron Paul, his notorious newsletters (thought to have been written or co-written by Rockwell), Paul's supporters at the Institute, and (for good measure) the Institute itself.

In an earlier post, I noted my agreement with David Friedman's view of the affray:
There are a lot of different things going on in libertarian reactions to Ron Paul in general and the quotes from the Ron Paul newsletters in particular. One of them, I think, is a culture clash between different sorts of libertarians....

Loosely speaking, I think the clash can be described as between people who see non-PC speech as a positive virtue and those who see it as a fault--or, if you prefer, between people who approve of offending liberal sensibilities ("liberal" in the modern sense of the term) and those who share enough of those sensibilities to prefer not to offend them. The former group see the latter as wimps, the latter see the former as boors.
I added that "a bunch of moralist scolds have leaped at the opportunity to preach their respective, often contradictory, and sometimes wacky visions of libertarian purity." I now see that there's more to it. Here is Steven Horwitz, for example:
Yes, legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 involved some interference with private property and the right of association, but it also did away with a great deal of state-sponsored discrimination and was, in my view, a net gain for liberty.
Well, some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, together with its progeny -- the Civil Rights Acts of 1968 and 1991 -- did advance liberty, but many parts did not. A principled libertarian would acknowledge that, and parse the Acts into their libertarian and anti-libertarian components. A moral scold who really, really wants the state to impose his attitudes on others would presume -- as Horwitz does -- to weigh legitimate gains (e.g., voting rights) against unconscionable losses (e.g., property rights and the right of association). But presumptuousness comes naturally to Horwitz because he stands high above reality, in his ivory tower.

Will Wilkinson is sympatico with Horwitz:
Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited. But this is really an empirical question about what really does maximize individuals’ chances of formulating and realizing meaningful projects and lives.

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it.
Wilkinson, like Horwitz, is quite willing to submit to the state (or have others do so), where state action passes some kind of cost-benefit test. Wilkinson, unlike Horwitz, seems to ignore the fact that the state has tried already to do something about racism, sexism, etc., in the Civil Rights Acts. To the extent that balancing tests are relevant to the question of liberty, the Civil Rights Acts have been costly (both economically and socially) and, in the end, both futile and inimical to the comity of the races and sexes. Moreover, as both Horwitz and Wilkinson fail to acknowledge, state action is a blunt instrument, in that it penalizes many for the acts of the (relatively) few.

In any event, what more could the state do than it has done already? Well, there is always "hate crime" legislation, which (as Nat Hentoff points out) is tantamount to "thought crime" legislation. Perhaps that would satisfy Horwitz, Wilkinson, and their brethren on the "libertarian" Left. And, if that doesn't do the trick, there is always Cass Sunstein's proposal for policing thought on the internet. Sunstein, at least, doesn't pretend to be a libertarian.

O brave new world that hath such philosophers in't!
* Except when it really isn't speech; for example: sit-ins (trespass), child pornography (sexual exploitation of minors), and divulging military secrets (treason, in fact if not in name).