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A Conservative Irony

Summary:
An argument that conservatives often make against libertarianism is that libertarians are insufficiently concerned about virtue and good behavior. That argument isn’t empty. Conservatives can probably point to instances of libertarians thinking that certain behaviors should be legal but concluding, on that basis alone, that there’s nothing wrong with such behaviors. I’m a libertarian who thinks that, in Leonard Read’s famous words “anything that’s peaceful” should be allowed, but I can think of many peaceful things people do that I find disgusting and/or wrong. No, I’m not going to name them here because I guarantee that if I do, much of the discussion will be about whether those behaviors are indeed disgusting and/or wrong. Because I find some behaviors

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An argument that conservatives often make against libertarianism is that libertarians are insufficiently concerned about virtue and good behavior. That argument isn’t empty. Conservatives can probably point to instances of libertarians thinking that certain behaviors should be legal but concluding, on that basis alone, that there’s nothing wrong with such behaviors.

I’m a libertarian who thinks that, in Leonard Read’s famous words “anything that’s peaceful” should be allowed, but I can think of many peaceful things people do that I find disgusting and/or wrong. No, I’m not going to name them here because I guarantee that if I do, much of the discussion will be about whether those behaviors are indeed disgusting and/or wrong.

Because I find some behaviors disgusting or wrong, I like having non-coercive mediating institutions that give people incentives to behave well. I won’t always agree with the people who run these institutions about what is good and bad behavior. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have institutions making such judgments.

When Facebook or YouTube’s owner, Google, limit what various people may do on their sites, they are enforcing norms of behavior. One of the latest instances is the case of Steven Crowder. According to Kevin D. Williamson of National Review, Crowder mocked Carlos Maza as a “lisping queer.” YouTube at first looked at its guidelines and decided that however disgusting Crowder’s statements were, he did not violate the guidelines. But then Maza, according to Williamson, bullied YouTube into “deplatforming” Crowder. In other words, Crowder is allowed to post his content on YouTube but he can’t use it to make money. I don’t know enough about Crowder’s sources of income, but I can certainly imagine that this action is a big hit to his livelihood.

Williamson argues that “Steven Crowder is a lot of things, but a genuine threat to public safety is not one of them.” Williamson is absolutely right. But should public safety be the threshold? Facebook and Google are privately owned businesses. Not only, therefore, do they have the right to ban whoever they please but also it makes sense for them to enforce standards. And I’m disappointed that conservatives, given their traditional objection that libertarians don’t care about virtue, are not pointing that out.

It is true, of course, as Williamson points out in his article, that YouTube tends to discriminate against even mild-mannered conservatives such Dennis Prager. That’s awful. And I’m betting that people on Williamson’s side of the issue can point to left-wing people who are at least as disgusting as Crowder but who are not deplatformed.

But that’s separate from the issue about whether it’s legitimate for Facebook and YouTube to enforce norms.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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