Libertarians seem to hate Political Correctness (PC). A lot of them see it as a statist ideology that needs to be fought. Certainly, PC has become a political tool for censorship. There are now laws in place that punish people for speaking out politically incorrect thought and for discriminating against the wrong people. This is without any doubt a very bad development and indeed needs to be fought.
However, does this mean that everything about PC is bad? Does it mean that a Libertarian has to be anti PC? First of all one has to say that the term is not very clear. Different people mean different things by it. It can range from ‘taking care of your choice of words’ to being synonymous to an egalitarian political agenda. The latter can certainly not be defended by Libertarians. However, I think there is an important idea in PC that I find attractive and that is compatible with Libertarianism. That is not to say that Libertarians have to be PC, but they certainly can be. Here is what I like about PC.
I would like to live in a society that is polite and peaceful. In principal we can of course think of a libertarian society in which people hate each other, but nevertheless leave each other alone. However, if people really hate each other, the peace within that society would certainly be fragile. Besides, I personally simply do not find such a society attractive. I would much rather live in a society in which tolerance and mutual respect is the norm.
How are we going to get there? In social situations, humans, like many other mammals are normally playing tit for tat strategies. That means that you always tend to reap what you sow. If you are nice to people, people will be nice to you. If you are hostile, you will get hostility back. Of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that this works with every single human being. There are certainly truly bad people, social predators that will hurt you no matter what you do. Those people need to be avoided under any circumstance and if possible, removed from society. But there are not many of these people and there usually is a brought coalition across cultures and races against them. They should not concern us too much here, as they are not a vital part of society. The vast majority of people, everywhere in the world is basically decent. They don’t want to hurt you, even if they would get away with and profit from it. Ok, maybe if you make the incentive high enough, that changes. I would not necessarily trust every stranger with a suitcase full of my money, but for all practical circumstances this seems to be a good assumption.
However, if it is a good assumption, then how come people often end up in conflict with each other? One of the biggest sources of conflict is of course the fact that we live in a scarce world. One way of dealing with that situation is to start fighting over who is going to be allowed to use these resources. However, as David Friedman writes in his book ‘The Machinery of Freedom” this is such a primitive solution that it is only being done by small children and great nations. A much Better way of dealing with it is of course capitalism. The division of labour and accumulation of capital has reduced the scarcity of all essential resources to a degree that no one needs to fight for it anymore. Or at least no one would need to fight for it anymore, if only politics was staying out of it.
Another big source of conflict seems to be intolerance. There are two countries in Europe that have developed real freedom in the past. One is Switzerland, the other is England. Both of course in very different ways. However, what I find interesting about it is that both countries have developed similar ideas about politeness. From a German point of view, the English rules of politeness are probably the most confusing thing to deal with, when coming to this country. German politeness is fundamentally different from the English one. Of course, different parts of Germany have different mentalities. The Rhineland around Cologne is much closer to the english mentality then say the one from Bavaria or Berlin. But none is really close to the english.
Before I came to this country I of course did some research on it. I asked people who had spend some time here, how they liked it. I got confusing answers. Half of them really loved it and could imagine living here. The other half however was the exact opposite. They really hated it and told me I could not trust the English. The picture that they draw was the picture of a country of liars and crooks. Very confusing. How could these two extremes be explained? When I came her to study a Masters degree, I got an idea where these differences in opinion came from. One half understood english politeness the other one did not.
Germans have a very direct mentality. Honesty rules. The concept of telling white lies only exists in extremes. If you ask a German for his opinion, he will most likely tell you exactly what he thinks. And if you don’t ask him, chances are he will tell you anyway. In his criticism, he will most likely start by telling you what he does not like. I guess the idea is to prove that one is honest and trustworthy. “Look, I am not some slimy salesman trying to sell you a used car. You can trust me and to proof that to you, I am going to tell you the full nasty truth, because you deserve the truth”.
The English on the other hand seem to perceive direct criticism as a personal attack. Of course, the direct criticism of the Germans is an attempt to change things. Honesty might sound good at first, but what this is really all about is to put pressure on people to conform to a certain standard. Individualism and non-perfectionism is not welcome. The only way to escape this constant stream of brutal criticism is to do as everyone else does and to not make mistakes. A very humourless exercise.
Having been a free country, England on the other hand has developed a real sense of privacy. This might sound a bit ironic, giving that this country is by far the worst surveillance state in history. But on a personal level, people do respect privacy. That is why direct criticism is considered so rude. It is simply none of my business to criticise you, unless you explicitly ask me for it. Interestingly, although Switzerland is a lot closer to Germany, both geographically and culturally, it has developed independently a similar idea of politeness. In Switzerland privacy matters and German directness is unwelcome.
What does this all have to do with PC? It shows that tolerance is essential for a free society. In order to reduce conflict and make a peaceful society possible, people in England are willing to constantly outright lie to each other, whenever the truth becomes a bit inconvenient. They are not just willing to do this, but they are put under big pressure to do so. People who do not comply with these politeness rules are facing social sanctions. I have experienced this myself, by loosing some customers for being too direct with them. In my German mentality I thought, when someone hires me to fix the sound on a film, it would be best to start analysing what is wrong with the sound so that it can be fixed efficiently. Why waste time pointing out things that are already good. But starting out with negative criticism before saying anything nice was perceived as a slap in the face and they never came back. This, in my view is a good example of where politeness goes to far. It is just time and resource consuming. But that is the way it always is with social norms. They are usually simplistic and unable to differentiate between different situations.
Today we life in a very unequal world, with huge differences between poor and rich countries. These differences set in motion big streams of people of different cultures and races moving from unproductive to productive areas. That means inhomogeneous, multicultural societies will be the norm. In my view this is a very welcomed development. But even if you look at this with a bit of worry, it is clear that only states are powerful enough to reduce these streams in any meaningful way. Supporting these states is nothing Libertarians should have an interest in doing. We will need to find a peaceful solution to potential problems. The only way to make this work is by practicing some tolerance. You leave me alone and I leave you alone. We both don’t antagonize each other.
PC in my view can be seen as an extension of politeness from protecting the privacy of individuals to protecting the dignity of cultures or races. If we make it acceptable for people to spread hostility towards other people for being different we will saw more hostility. Once started, these hostilities can escalate more and more and turn into and outright war. Some might say we already are in the mids of such a war. I would disagree, but even if this was true the answer would be tolerance. Everything else would escalate this war and that is certainly in no ones interest.
I see two big problems with PC as it is today. The most obvious one is that PC is more and more enforced by the state. If the state was to enforce politeness it would turn into a nightmare. Sometimes negative criticism is necessary. Only individuals can decide where the line between being honest and being polite is. The same is true for PC. Sometimes differences between groups matter and need to be addressed. When an employer does not have the right to pay his female employee less for the real risk of her becoming pregnant, then PC has gone too far. Only state laws can enforce this nonsense.
The second problem of modern PC is that it is unequally applied. Only certain groups are shielded from criticism while it is open season on others. A PC like that will lead to power imbalances and a force for bad. So in a way, we are not PC enough.
A voluntary PC that restrains unnecessary, open criticism of groups via social pressure is a good thing in my view. I don’t think that this idea should be part of Libertarianism itself, but personally I find it very hard to imagine a free society without these forms of social rules. There is a reason, why similar ideas have emerged in both England and Switzerland. And I expect them to see in future free societies.