Freedom and Toleration

This post is inspired by the State of Texas’ recent abduction of 416 kids from a
polygamist compound

One way to measure the degree of freedom in a society is by
looking at the kinds of associations made by its members. A free people can choose
to enter into any association they wish, and are not forced into any associations
against their will. By associations, I include both social associations, such
as friendships, meeting, publications, and marriages, as well as material
associations, such as gifts, trade, business agreements, and common property.
Voluntary associations are those entered into by mutual consent to mutual
benefit.  Non-voluntary associations (the
status of minors aside) include taxes, crime, restrictions on trade and
commerce, and any other regulation of consensual behavior that is imposed on
individuals against their own judgment.

A free society requires a certain kind of tolerance for other
people’s beliefs and associations.  Because
the term is unclear, it is necessary to distinguish two kinds of toleration. Political toleration is equal treatment under
the law – the presumption that every human being has the same rights as
everyone else. A violation of this kind of toleration is only possible in
interactions that involve the threat or use of force.  Political discrimination includes
preferential or detrimental treatment of any group or individual based on any
criteria other than an individual’s respect for the rights of others.  Examples of political intolerance include
laws that favor the rich or poor (such any government tax or fee that is not
fixed), racial quotas, or limitations on contracts based on sexual orientation
or the market share of one’s business.

In contrast to political toleration, social toleration is
non-judgmentalism.  As applied to
cultural distinctions, it is known as multiculturalism.   A total commitment to social toleration requires
the presumption that no particular culture, way of life, or value system is
superior to any other. Practically everyone engages in various kinds of social
intolerance when they issue moral praise and condemnation, or choose to
associate or dissociate with various people or groups based on their beliefs or
identities.  There are many levels of intolerance
— we might buy our groceries from someone we would not necessarily want as a
business partner or spouse.

I believe that a free people must be politically tolerant,
but socially intolerant. Political tolerance is necessary because the freedom
of association requires that individuals be able to establish any voluntary
association they choose, including those that the majority disapproves of, such
as polygamous relationships.  A society
that does not respect this right will eventually succumb to pressure group warfare
followed by dictatorship, as conflicting moral views battle in the political
arena until one seizes power by force.  Social
intolerance on the other hand, is necessary because in a society that does not
use political means to prohibit destructive (but voluntary) behavior and ideas,
people must rely on their own judgment for moral guidance.  In order to live successfully in a politically
pluralistic society, individuals need to use their own judgment to decide which
associations are harmful or beneficial within the context of voluntary
associations.  (In this context, a
presumption of innocence is equally important in social as well as political

Politically, freedom means the freedom to disagree – to be
free to make choices regardless of the approval of others. A free people must
be free to create and join religious cults, no matter how absurd their beliefs
or how self-destructive their practices are. Socially, freedom requires an
ethic of self-reliance and independent moral judgment. To survive and thrive in
a free society, we must decide which people and groups to join and which ones
to condemn and avoid.

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