Thursday, August 01, 2013

Privilege, tolerance and a free society

If you spend all your time trying to reform the state, what will you have built to replace it with when it collapses?
Isaac Morehouse posted this on his Facebook wall this morning, which on my newsfeed put it in middle of various reactions to a recent article about privilege as a knowledge problem. The article suggests that because our experiences are limited - like our knowledge - we should be aware that they may leave us prone to lack empathy and understanding for people in circumstances different than our own.

This got me thinking.

Privilege, in this sense, is not a synonym for "desirable" or "successful," but acknowledges that in a given societal context, some people are more likely to succeed. Privilege emerges in a given society in the same way that certain companies become dominant in the market given a certain set of rules. No one ought to feel guilt because they occupy a position of privilege any more than they ought to feel guilt about being lucky or wealthy, so long as they have not rigged the game - something accomplished most easily through force.

Privilege is not only context-specific but also pervasive. Consider the following:
A prison in which all of the cell doors are locked, but the outside doors are open. It is normally staffed and filled with normal inmates.
Without warning, the outside doors lock and the cell doors open.*

Chaos and violence won't necessarily ensue but things are definitely going to change. Power relationships and perceived freedom will shift with the reversal of privilege and transform the range of possible actions for any given person. It's likely to affect a lot of things in a lot of little ways and to make everyone aware of (dis)advantages they'd never consciously acknowledged. Most importantly, it's going to change who makes the rules and how those rules are made.

Power relationships and social stigmas are ripe for exploitation by the coercive machinery of the state. When they're ignored we miss opportunities to call out vested interests seeking to entrench their advantages and opportunities to protect the most vulnerable from coercion. When privilege skews the results enough, or runs unchecked/unacknowledged, it creates an excuse for the state to intervene and entrench power relationships in an attempt to correct them.

I went to bed thinking about this last night and woke up to find that two people had posted an article on "White Liberal Dude Privilege Syndrome" with two wildly different reactions - one thought it was a cool example of introspective thinking, while the other thought it was so pathetic it was representative of why the Left can't be taken seriously. Articles like this act as a litmus test of our ability to separate positive claims about power relationships from normative claims about what they imply - something we must learn to do if we want to engage in meaningful discussion about how many oppressive regulations become so widely acceptable.

As individuals, libertarians who practice the inward-looking exercise of acknowledging privilege ought only to concern themselves with fostering understanding (and through that, respect and tolerance) for individuals' choices given the societal pressures and challenges they face.

But by encouraging a culture that acknowledges privilege, we can promote the same humility that ought to stop us from trying to plan one another's lives in the market in order to help discourage the idea that we can understand our social environment well enough to successfully manipulate it. In doing so, we take one more tool away from planners and lay an important part of the foundation for a tolerant and free society. We build something more lasting than any state.

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[*The prison scenario is at least a play on Sarah Skwire's example of "a businessman walking through a bad neighbourhood alone at night" reversing privilege, and possibly wholly her idea. Either way, I think it's neat.]

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