A Defense of Classical Liberal Tolerance

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CXLII - January 31, 2008
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In this age of competing statisms, powerful coalitions on the Left and Right attempt to governmentally impose their beliefs and practices on others. One of these coalitions seeks to turn America into a fully Christian nation, while another seeks to transform it into a fully politically correct nation. A global environmentalist movement threatens our technological progress and high standards of living, while a global Islamic fundamentalist movement desires to impose Sharia law everywhere. If any of these efforts succeed, we shall witness the end of the American Founders’ vision of individual liberty, inalienable natural rights, and freedom of conscience. To preserve a free country, we need to embrace the classical liberal idea of tolerance and to guard against intolerable intrusions on individual self-sovereignty.

            The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, one of the most eloquent exponents of classical liberalism, wrote that “Liberalism proclaims tolerance for every religious faith and every metaphysical belief, not out of indifference for these ‘higher’ things, but from the conviction that the assurance of peace within society must take precedence over everything and everyone.” Under the classical liberal view, every individual should be free to espouse and to practice any religious faith, secular philosophy, or lack thereof. By permitting all religions and philosophies to coexist peacefully, a classical liberal society prevents the bloodiest of all conflicts: clashes over ideology. A Thirty Years’ War – driven by religious fanaticism – or a French Revolution – fueled by militant secularism – are impossible in a classical liberal world. Individuals are free to pursue whatever ideals they believe in, to discuss them, and to persuade others of their truth. They are not free, however, to use any kind of compulsion to promote their beliefs.

            Thus, there is a corollary to classical liberal tolerance. According to Mises, “Liberalism… must be intolerant of every kind of intolerance. If one considers the peaceful cooperation of all men as the goal of social evolution, one cannot permit the peace to be disturbed by… fanatics.” Thomas Jefferson concurs and sets forth the principle that “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him." So your right to espouse your faith or philosophy means that I cannot be allowed to force you to do otherwise; the same protection applies to my rights of conscience. But this restriction from initiating force is the sole restriction on human behavior that the law ought to enact. Hence, classical liberal tolerance limits not only the behavior of individuals, but also that of the government itself. Tolerance in the legal sense means simply that neither private persons nor the government can use force against others who have not themselves initiated aggression.

            But it is a grave mistake to think that laws can make people tolerant in their thoughts as well as in their behaviors. Dr. David Gordon of the Mises Institute notes that “If it is thought necessary to promote tolerance, a ‘hearts and minds’ approach is just what we do not want. This leads to totalitarian control: only an approach that confines itself to behavior is consistent with a free society."

      One of the most intolerant practices in our society is conducted by many publicly funded colleges and universities, which mandate “diversity awareness training” for students and faculty. A glaring example of this is a passage from a training manual released by the University of Delaware, which states that the term “racist” “applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists, because as peoples within the U.S. system, they [have no] power to back up their prejudices, hostilities, or acts of discrimination…." Not only does the University of Delaware’s program foment automatic intolerance for anyone who is not a “person of color” – whatever that means; it also violates the university students’ right of free association. The students chose to pay the University of Delaware to study academics, engage in voluntary extracurricular activities, and obtain a degree. They did not pay money to be indoctrinated in politically correct notions of diversity or in any other principles. But the University’s desires to change what its students think will necessarily force those students to act in certain ways – such as taking “diversity training” courses that they would not have taken otherwise. Any kinds of imposed controls on people’s thoughts will inevitably undermine the tolerance in action that a classical liberal society displays.

            It is true that certain kinds of attitudes and non-coercive behaviors can be justly considered reprehensible and immoral. Anything from racist beliefs to prostitution will fit this designation. But the law is powerless at effectively addressing these problems; if it tries to do so, it will only exacerbate their harms. In the words of novelist Frank Herbert, “Laws to suppress tend to strengthen what they would prohibit." Economist Milton Friedman saw this tendency in action with regard to the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s. He wrote: “Prohibition undermined respect for the law, corrupted the minions of the law, created a decadent moral climate—but did not stop the consumption of alcohol.” Indeed, the surest way to breed widespread contempt for both the law and for morality itself is for the government to legislate moral behavior.

            Tolerance in the moral sense, then, is best left entirely to the private sphere. To say this is not to condone any and all non-coercive beliefs and attitudes. It is merely to recognize that private individuals and organizations can deal with immorality more effectively than government – just as they can deal with poverty more effectively than government. In a classical liberal society, it is perfectly legitimate for private parties to set conditions on their association with others. For instance, an employer may choose to hire only people who do not take drugs, or a charity may assist only individuals who show an active effort to recover from their misfortunes. A person may choose to shun the company of racists and bigots; practices like adultery and prostitution can be held in such widespread contempt as to render the social sanctions against them far more burdensome than anything the law can concoct.

            In a classical liberal society, people are also free to engage in immoral or imprudent conduct, provided that they accept the social consequences and do not initiate force against others. Only in this environment can the very question of morality even be relevant. As Professor F. A. Harper wrote, “A person cannot do right except… where there is also the option of doing wrong. In other words, moral considerations have no place except where liberty exists.” Without being able to choose the moral course of action, individuals are merely pawns subject to the impositions of others – like stones, they can only be moved by forces outside them. So a classical liberal society will allow private businesses to discriminate among employees based on ridiculous considerations like race and religion. But it will also allow these businesses to suffer the consequences of such discrimination – as highly qualified employees and customers of particular races and religions are used by the prejudiced businesses’ competitors to drive the discriminators out of business.

            Indeed, it has been known for centuries that the free market is the greatest foe of racial, religious, and tribal hatreds. When Voltaire visited England in 1733, he wrote, “Go into the Exchange in London… and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.” Professor Peter Hill notes further that “participants in a market economy – buyers and sellers – continually look for areas of agreement where they can get along, rather than concentrating unproductively on areas of disagreement.” It is no wonder that the widespread emergence of religious toleration in the 18th-century Western world followed from the advent of commercial freedom. The best way to ensure the optimal degree of private moral toleration is for the government to step out and let the free market relegate irrational superstitions to the dustbin of history. 

            Finally, with respect to moral tolerance, we must not forget that each of us is a private agent capable of making a difference. A classical liberal view prohibits us from imposing our beliefs on others by force, but it actually encourages us to speak out whenever we perceive private injustice. When we observe someone being insulted, mocked, slandered, or humiliated, we have a right to come to that person’s defense. When we see that one of our friends is engaged in wanton, unambiguous self-destruction, we have the right to counsel that friend to stop. We do not have to tolerate rudeness, injustice, and degradation in our own lives; however, only a strict limitation of government’s power to impose values will permit effective private moral agency – our moral agency – to flourish.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre,  Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. His most recent play is Implied Consent. You can also view his YouTube Videos. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

References Used

Friedman, Milton. 1972. “Prohibition and Drugs.” Newsweek. Available from http://www.druglibrary.org/special/friedman/prohibition_and_drugs.htm. Accessed 21 December 2007.

Gordon, David. 1999. “Review of Political Tolerance: Balancing Community and Diversity.The Mises Review. Available from http://www.mises.org/misesreview_detail.aspx?control=89&sortorder=issue. Accessed 21 December 2007.

Harper, F. A. 1957. [2007]. “Liberty Defined.” The Rational Argumentator, Issue CXXXV. Available from http://rationalargumentator.com/issue135/libertydefined.html. Accessed 19 December 2007.

Hill, Peter J. 1988. "Markets and Morality." Bozeman, MT: Political Economy Research Center. Available from http://www.perc.org/perc.php?id=820. Accessed 21 December 2007. 

Johnson, Johnson, and Johnson. “Quotes.” Available from http://www.shortydawkins.com/Quotes.html. Accessed 21 December 2007.

McElroy, Wendy. “The Origin of Religious Tolerance: Voltaire.” Zetetics.com. Available from http://www.zetetics.com/mac/volt.htm. Accessed 21 December 2007. 

Mises, Ludwig von. 1929. [2007]. “The Foundations of Liberal Policy: Tolerance.” The Rational Argumentator, Issue CXXXVI. Available from http://rationalargumentator.com/issue136/tolerance.html. Accessed 21 December 2007. 

Reed, Fred. 2007. “’Diversity’ Indoctrination: A Craving for Tyranny.” The Rational Argumentator, Issue CXXVII. Available from http://rationalargumentator.com/issue128/cravingfortyranny.html. Accessed 21 December 2007.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.