Monday, March 28, 2011

Culture of freedom arguments not just for left-libertarians?

Ann Althouse has two long and interesting posts on an exchange she had with Bob Wright about the concept of free speech.

In some ways, this reads like a weird inverse of the much-debated "Are Property Rights Enough?" Reason magazine symposium a few years ago. There, Kerry Howley argued that defining freedom narrowly as the absence of state coercion isn't enough, and that one ought to think about it in terms of a broader framework of "cultural freedom," and Todd Seavey argued that no, focusing on the "absence of coercion" definition is more useful. My husband then responded here. In that debate, Howley (and her fiance, who eventually joined the debate) were cast as the left flank, and the Todd Seavey/Ilya position was generally considered the "right" side of the debate. Yet in the Althouse debate, the "culture matters" side somehow became the "right" position, and Wright's "coercion is what matters" is the left side.

I'm not sure what this observation means. The "Are Property Rights Enough?" debate focused largely (though not entirely) on the importance of building a culture open to freedom; Althouse was focusing on the importance of building a culture of freedom of speech friendly to right-of-center talk show hosts. It's possible that it makes sense to talk broadly about culture in one context while focusing on coercion and its absence in the other. I haven't quite puzzled that out yet. Or it could be that all parties in this debate tend to be opportunistic; that we favor broad culture of freedom arguments when they suit our ideological allies, but prefer to restrict ourselves to freedom= absence of coercion when that suits us best. Politics often makes us such opportunists. But the contrast between these two debates illustrates some of the difficulties inherent in adopting either approach too rigidly. Maybe that's why I found myself in the mushy middle on the first go-round of this debate.

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