Shame: The Libertarian Imperative

Earlier today, Cathy Reisenwitz, a DC based libertarian writer and political commentator, wrote a somewhat controversial piece on shame.

The crux of her argument was that social pressures, particular shame, have no place in a libertarian society and is “unjustifiable coercion”

But individuals and groups threaten people who “misbehave” as well, with criticism, ridicule, shame, and sometimes complete ostracization.

Somewhere we’ve decided that the tools the state uses to influence behavior are “coercion” while the tools non-state actors use are cooperation. Where is the justification for this? I didn’t sign a contract with slut-shamers any more than I did with my government. I may find complete ostracism much more oppressive than a small fine…

But say my actions are completely and totally cooperative, but frowned upon. Maybe I’m doing heroin, or having sex with lots of dudes. What right then does anyone have to coerce me by threatening to criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize me?

And how is this private coercion any better than public coercion? It is safe to say that those who would criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize me do not have all of the information I have about my environment and behavior. The same knowledge problem which makes state planning inferior to markets makes other people shaming me into certain behavior inferior to me making decisions separate from that outside threat of shame.

A number of libertarian commentators have critiqued this view. Some have argued from a rights-based position, stating that that the absence of physical intimidation make it inappropriate to classify “shaming” someone as coercion, that there is a large difference between public and private spheres. Others have said that individuals who know other individuals intimately bypass the knowledge problem to a large degree, in the same way that a local shop performs better than a centrally planned distribution board. Some feminists have responded in puzzlement; when feminism depends upon shaming misogynists to force them to alter their behaviour, how can a self-described feminist argue against shame?

These are both valid critiques, however, I would take a slightly different, and no doubt more controversial, approach. I would argue that not only is “shaming” compatible with a libertarian society, it is, in fact, imperative for its success.

Ms Reisenwitz’s examples of the negatives of shame are those of drugs and sex. These are, however, relatively easy positions to critique. Shame, and social stigma (as do their converse: positive reinforcement and praise) play a far greater role in our lives in establishing norms of behaviour  than Ms Reisenwitz’s examples would seem to indicate.

It is these positive social norms that are necessary for a libertarian society to function, and will prevent a stateless society degenerating into a dystopia. For I would argue that it is vital that in a libertarian society, we treat each other with respect, we participate in civil society, and, well, generally, don’t act like the total egotist a**holes the left tries to make us out to be. It is vital that we try to ensure that we try to encourage better behaviour, and, while not allowing the state to do so, we attempt to do so privately.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than with welfare.

All libertarians (excluding, perhaps, some of the most doctrinaire Randians) would readily admit to the necessity of civil society and charity providing some degree of welfare. With the government no longer providing welfare, this will become imperative to ensure that people don’t, well, starve to death on the streets.

In the post-Christian era, where religious charities are certainly not what they once were, how and why would people contribute? What incentive would there be? How do we actually ensure that Nationalised Welfare will be replaced with private welfare? Well, the answer is rather simple: it becomes imperative that there are social pressures for people to participate and contribute. Whether these be shame for people who shirk, or praise for those to participate, this is an example of societal pressures being used that is absolutely vital for libertarianism to work. And how can a libertarian society function with these norms of behaviour?

For libertarianism to practically work, we need to do what we can – through voluntary means – to shame people into participating in things that are beneficial, and shame them if they do not.

If a white supremacist private organisation forms,  it should be shamed and shunned and ostracised.

If a a man practices misogyny , he should be  shamed and shunned and ostracised.

And if, in a society with no state-based welfare, people choose to do nothing to help others, then they should be shamed also.

This is the only way a libertarian society can function. Without social pressures to ensure people rise above and beyond some of their negative base desires, a dystopia will result.

So yes. Some shame can be negative, and have poor consequences upon society.

However, to go from this to to argue that all shaming is anti-liberty, is not only wrong, but if acted upon, will ensure that any libertarian society will quickly, quickly collapse.


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