Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rape, Autonomy, Respect, and Liberty

Sarah Skwire has a great post on rape culture over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians that has triggered the latest round of Internet libertarian backlash against the suggestion that we consider paying particular attention to rape and rape culture in the way that we call attention to things like drone strikes or drug war raids.

Libertarianism deals strictly with the role of government and does not prescribe which moral stands we ought to take individually.

In spite of this I'll join Sarah and argue that rape culture, though there is not a libertarian position, is an issue that ought to become a more common concern for libertarians (and anarchists, objectivists, classical liberals, etc.).

There is a reason that Adam Smith devoted a book to morality, and that Larry Reed speaks about the importance of character. Respect for one another's autonomy and dignity is crucial to the flourishing of a free society. Taken to the extreme, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

We can't be angels. That doesn't mean we shouldn't push for a freer society, but the further we drift from ideals like respect for one another the more government becomes not just necessary, but expansive. We make possible laws like those that allow people who "know better" to lock us in a cage for choosing to put a substance they disagree with into our body. If we want smaller government, we need to push for values like respect. We ought to strive for the good.

Rape culture gets called "anti-woman." The use of the term leads to accusations of being "anti-man." Rape culture, though, is neither. It is anti-victim. It is anti-autonomy. It is anti-dignity. It is a dark, ugly pattern. It is the recurrence of a failure to show mutual respect. That it is not only perpetuated by government does not mean libertarians shouldn't see that there's work to do building the respect for autonomy generally that's needed to maintain a free enough society to allow for autonomy in other ways we believe are important. 

"Rape culture" is, some have argued, too loaded a term - a claim also made about "feminism." (I'll suggest making a distinction: these words have been abused, but are not (yet) loaded.) But the labels are beside the point - libertarians cling to loaded words like "capitalism" and "selfishness" and tolerate abused words like "liberal," "discrimination," and "rights" all the time. We have the capacity to determine when they are misused. Tossing an idea because of its label is a mistake.

There are horrifying examples of  government and government funded institutions that protect rapists and cause more rape. These abuses of government power ought to be a concern for libertarians, who care about the consequences of broken, incompetent, and abusive government, as well as for anyone who cares about civil liberties and human dignity. This is an issue on which libertarians were not first movers and don't stand alone. That doesn't mean it's not important - it may even mean it's more important.

The issue of rape culture goes beyond the scope of government and as such it is not, strictly speaking, a libertarian issue. But libertarians sure ought to care about its causes. Rape culture doesn't have to replace our other issues, it's just a new one. To echo Sarah, each libertarian need not make this their issue, but it's time to accept it as a valid concern for libertarians. Why has the response seemed so much like reflexive pushback against something that's grounded in respect for the autonomy and dignity of the individual?

Sarah's asked it before. I'll ask now: Why aren't we angrier?

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