Review of Muldoon’s defense of tolerance of anti-libertarian views

This post is part of our month-long series of blog posts reviewing select essays published in the new Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism. In this post, we will review Ryan Muldoon’s excellent essay on “Reasons to tolerate.” (Professor Muldoon, a political philosopher at the University of Buffalo, is the author of Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance; see book cover below.) Although Prof Muldoon restates F. A. Hayek’s powerful critique of social planners as well as Hayek’s slam-dunk arguments for free markets and competition, Muldoon makes a strong case for tolerance of anti-libertarian views.

First off, Muldoon identifies three major moral ideals in the modern world–libertarianism, egalitarianism, and utilitarianism–and then formulates a fundamental syllogism of modern politics. Simply put, people espouse or gravitate toward different moral ideals; therefore, people disagree about a wide array of economic, moral, and political issues. Moreover, this disagreement runs deep; it cannot be resolved through appeals to reason or expensive empirical studies: “Libertarians, egalitarians, and utilitarians (amongst others) don’t merely disagree about what sorts of policies we ought to favor. Their disagreements run far deeper than that. They disagree about what the world is like, and what we should be measuring when we talk about what makes a policy better or worse.” Libertarians, for example, emphasize liberty and freedom from coercion; egalitarians emphasize equality and redistribution of income; and pragmatic utilitarians emphasize social welfare and aggregate wealth. Given this fundamental disagreement, Prof Muldoon argues that such diversity of views should not only be tolerated; this intellectual diversity should also be celebrated and encouraged, or in the eloquent words of Prof Muldoon: “No … theory captures everything that we have reason to care about–the world is far too messy. Instead, we need competition amongst various perspectives, bringing new insights to bear on how we can piece together rules for living together.”

For our part, we wholeheartedly agree with Muldoon’s diversity thesis and defense of tolerance, but nevertheless, there is a huge blind spot in Muldoon’s approach, what philosopher Karl Popper once called “the paradox of tolerance.” Simply put, what about those people who are opposed to tolerance and who are instead committed to oppression and acts of violence in the name of some higher ideal? (Political fanatics like Lenin, Mao, and Fidel, for example, come to mind.) In other words, as Popper once wrote, “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” How do we untie this Gordian knot? When should anti-libertarian views be met with force instead of reason? We have no idea where to draw this line, but here is what Karl Popper wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1994 edition, p. 581):

If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

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2 Responses to Review of Muldoon’s defense of tolerance of anti-libertarian views

  1. Pingback: Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism | prior probability

  2. Pingback: Review of Queralt’s defense of economic liberty | prior probability

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