Is social pressure illiberal?

LightningStrikesReading the mainstream press is almost always an exercise in spot-the-bad-logic.

I want to make a distinction that I think of as both straightforward (by which I mean, in this case, that it was clear to me even as a kid) and thoroughly libertarian. And yet I know that not all of my comrades think this distinction is as clear cut as I do.

Doug French pointed to this report on worldwide persecution of atheists. In several countries (primarily in the Middle East) not believing in God is an official thought crime. Elsewhere, the penalties are subtler — or at least gentler. The report ends with this very odd couple of paragraphs:

While freedom of religion and speech is protected in the United States, the report said, a social and political climate prevails "in which atheists and the non-religious are made to feel like lesser Americans, or non-Americans."

(I’ll come back to this one.)

In at least seven U.S. states, constitutional provisions are in place that bar atheists from public office and one state, Arkansas, has a law that bars an atheist from testifying as a witness at a trial, the report said.

At first it seemed like the report would end in confusion and anticlimax. After listing official state sanctions against believing the wrong thing — a list of thoroughly coercive and irrational penalties — it seems to be saying, "And in America many people are quite mean to atheists," as if noncoercive social sanctions are on a continuum of punishment, somehow quantitatively less harsh than capital punishment but not qualitatively so.

Then the kicker: it turns out that there are official government sanctions against disbelief in the United States. Maybe they are sanctions you don’t care about. Who wants to hold "public office," anyway? (Well, many left-leaning atheists probably do, not to mention plenty of Randians on the right.) I don’t want to work for any government, if I can help it, including testifying as a witness at a trial, but we have to recognize that any official categorization of the rights and privileges of citizens based on something involuntary, like sex, race, or creed ("creed in the literal sense of "belief": and no, one cannot simply choose to believe in God) is in fact on the same continuum as apartheid, however mild or selectively enforced.

Over and over again, we read in the libertarian literature of the distinction between social power on the one hand and state power on the other, of civil society versus the state.

When I was a civil-libertarian teenager, and Edwin Meese was launching his anti-pornography campaign from Reagan’s Justice Department, I felt like there was too little opposition to the campaign from the political Left. (You may recall that the Left began to split on First Amendment issues in the 1980s. We civil libertarians suddenly found ourselves abandoned by those who felt it was the proper role of the state to protect them from anything offensive.) But while I was firmly anti-anti-pornography, in the political sense, I found myself sympathizing with the organized protestors from the Religious Right marching outside their local 7-Eleven, demanding that Playboy and Penthouse be banned. I defended pornography to my leftist friends and relatives, but I thought the sort of social pressure being used against 7-Eleven was perfectly legitimate. I wanted more appeals to merchants and fewer (preferably none) to or from the government.

Later, in college, I met a socially conservative professor, someone who opposed abortion, who told me he wished his fellow pro-lifers would focus more on persuasion and less on courts and legislation. That still strikes me as a good, libertarian position. My pro-choice friends saw no great distinction between his position and that of the Meese Commission.

Around that same time I told a fellow college student that I was uncomfortable with the animal-rights movement’s attempts to get the government to legislate their particular morality. She replied that that’s precisely what she wanted: to get the government go impose the correct ideology on those who are incorrect. I’m not exaggerating. My biopsychology professor eventually persuaded me that the whole animal-rights movement was screwed up well before the legislation stage, but while I sympathized with him and no longer sympathized with the people pillorying him for experimenting on lab rats, I still thought the sort of social pressure he was being subjected to was appropriate, given the strength of the feelings, misguided or not, felt by the animal-rights champions.

So I ask this as a nonbeliever myself: What’s wrong with social pressure against atheism?

It’s not that I’m in favor of it. It doesn’t even really make sense to me. As I have emphasized, belief is not an act of will and therefore not a choice. Pressuring people into believing in or saying they believe in your preferred deity is silly. But I don’t see it as something that belongs on a list of persecutions.

I’m guessing that the supporters of "thick libertarianism" have a different take on this. I welcome your thoughts.


3 Responses to Is social pressure illiberal?

  1. Mike Reid says:

    I think social pressure is a necessary complement of liberal laws, essential for healthy social life.

    I’d like to live in a society free of rude jerks. But recently, a man in Ohio was sentenced to 30 days in jail for mocking a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. Once libertarian victory is achieved, and we abolish the ridiculous laws that put such jerks in jail, what am I going to do with guys like him?
    The right option is massive social pressure, an merciless campaign of condemnation and counter-mockery to convince this fellow to mend his ways or to convince others in the community to ostracize him. (YouTube would be a marvelous medium for this sort of thing.)

    Now, there’s no guarantee that social pressure will be used for ends that any particular libertarian approves of (mocking little girls with disabilities is itself a form of social pressure), but it’s the main tool available for the enforcement of etiquette.

    Does anyone really want to live in a society where there’s no social pressure at all? Where rudeness, adultery — or perhaps even gratuitous displays of animal cruelty for the sake of entertainment — are accepted without complaint?

  2. Scott Lahti says:

    The discerning of where, if anywhere, the “illiberal” social pressure lies in a piping oven-fresh textbook illustration of this post is left as an exercise for the reader.

  3. Scott Lahti says:

    A recent post by James Fallows on the just-deceased Albert Hirschman, author of one of The hundred most influential books since the war (per a 1995 article in the TLS), sketches how Hirschman took up one type of social pressure; Fallows reproduces a quote on Hirchman from Robert Kuttner:

    “To the extent that Hirschman is widely known today, it is mainly though a small book with a puzzling title, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, written in 1970. The book has a huge following among social scientists, mainly outside of Hirschman’s own profession of economics. His basic insight is elegant, simple, and original. Citizens and consumers have two basic ways of responding when they find anything from a product, politician, neighbor, or nation unsatisfactory. They can vote with their feet (exit) or stick around and provide constructive feedback (voice).

    “Though orthodox economics emphasizes exit–consumers shopping around, shareholders selling stocks, workers pursuing different jobs, emigrants seeking new shores, Hirschman was partial to Voice. It was Voice that made possible civil society, Voice that made business enterprises more than a collection of spot transactions, Voice that offered useful information. And to complete the trilogy of his title, it was voice that engendered reciprocity and Loyalty.

    “The small book virtually revived the field of political economy…. “

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