Libertarianism, Feminism, and Nonviolent Action: A Synthesis

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Murray ROTHBARD'S contribution to libertarian ethics was to outline a theory prohibiting aggressive violence (1978, p. 27-30). The influence of Rothbard's ethics, (1) combined with a decades-long political alliance with conservatives based on anticommunism, has produced a debate within libertarian circles about whether libertarians qua libertarians must take positions against certain forms of repression that do not involve aggressive violence. The non-aggression principle is as good a libertarian litmus test as has been suggested. Often, the voices who levy allegations of non-aggressive (or at least not exclusively aggressive) oppression come from the political left, and have un-libertarian (read: aggressive) solutions in mind, even if they do not conceive of those solutions as violent.

Despite these considerations, I do believe that libertarians qua libertarians are obligated to say something about the kind of non-aggressive oppression that these voices from the left have raised regarding issues including, but not limited to, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Making the case that libertarians have these obligations irrespective of their libertarianism would be an easier task. Libertarianism is not, my view at least, a complete ethical system. Acts may be right or wrong for reasons outside of libertarianism; in these cases libertarianism will only come into play as offering side constraints on acceptable solutions. (2)

My argument here is different: some forms of non-aggressive action are nevertheless problematic on libertarian grounds. I have in mind the type of social problems described by Roderick Long and Charles Johnson in their essay "Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?" They write:

Libertarian temptations to the contrary notwithstanding, it makes no sense to regard the state as the root of all social evil, for there is at least one social evil that cannot be blamed on the state--and that is the state itself. if no social evil can arise or be sustained except by the state, how does the state arise, and how is it sustained? As libertarians from La Boetie to Rothbard have rightly insisted, since rulers are generally outnumbered by those they rule, the state itself cannot survive except through popular acceptance which the state lacks the power to compel; hence state power is always part of an interlocking system of mutually reinforcing social practices and structures, not all of which are violations of the nonaggression axiom. (Long and Johnson, 2005, [section]2)

I shall, for the rest of this paper, take patriarchy as the model case of a repressive social relation often considered beyond the scope of the libertarian project. In doing so, I will examine those aspects of patriarchy which would not already be condemned under libertarian ethics. Libertarians need no help condemning rape, yet they often hesitate to condemn expressions of patriarchy which stop short of violence.

If libertarians are serious about transforming the way humans interrelate, they must take into account more than aggression, and especially, must take into account more than aggression by the state. In doing so they must go beyond the (relatively) obvious observations that we have natural rights against both state and non-state actors, and that all individuals, male or female, possess these rights. As Long and Johnson argue, 'libertarians who are serious about ending all forms of political violence need to fight, at least, a two-front war, against both statism and male supremacy" (Long and Johnson, 2005, [section]2). This entails condemning and combating acts which are not, in themselves, rights violations. It means reconciling libertarian sociopolitical tolerance with an urgent understanding that some opinions are ethically intolerable.

This makes many libertarians uncomfortable because it seems like a speedy way to end up with political commitments that are not libertarian in even the remotest sense. …