what a libertarian commune says about political socialization and freedom

The Citadel will be a community of 3,500-7,000 families, surrounded by walls and towers amid Idaho’s mountains. Its organizers say it will be devoted to “Our proud history of Liberty as defined by our Founding Fathers.” The “patriotic Americans” who choose to live there will pledge to own, bear, and train in the use of firearms. It’s optional to move there, of course, but “Marxists, Socialists, Liberals, and Establishment Republicans may find that living within our Citadel Community is incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles.” This comes on the same day that the Dallas Observer reports, “Glenn Beck is Planning a $2 Billion Libertarian Commune in Texas.”

Conor Friedersdorf, who’s an excellent, libertarian-leaning writer, thinks that Americans have the right to create such communities, whether “made up of extreme gun enthusiasts or hippies or Scientologists or Trappist monks.” But he denies that The Citadel would embody libertarian values. Real freedom is compatible with, and generates, pluralism. If you want to see a libertarian community, Friedersdorf says, look not to The Citadel but to LA County, with its

happy residents from most nations on earth; people of most every ideology; mountain and desert and city and rural people; the religious and secular; and parents whose kids are different kinds of people than they are, but live close by because all kinds of people are happy here, except perhaps the types that feel impelled to order the lives of everyone around them to correspond to their own preferred lifestyles.

I think this opens a deep and serious point. Our beliefs, values, and identities are profoundly shaped by our parents and other formative influences. Even if we rebel (as many people do) we still structure our thoughts in response to our parents and other influences from our childhood.

As Americans are raised today, they do not turn out libertarians. Less than one percent voted for the Libertarian Party, and on policy questions, most libertarian positions do not poll well. Libertarians might like to think that the state uses the public schools to brainwash kids, but the evidence suggests schools have very limited influence on ideology.* Also, schools are not mere arms of the state; they are assemblages of teachers who reflect the values in their communities and have some latitude to present politics as they see it. If young people are being raised to be non-libertarians, that is not the state’s doing; it is the people’s.

So what is to be done, from a libertarian perspective? You can secede from the corrupt, liberty-forgetting society around you and raise your kids in a setting where they will turn out to be libertarians (unless they rebel against you and define themselves as anti-libertarians, but even then you will have shaped them). If you succeed, you will have forced them to be free.

That is obviously a contradiction. It points to a deeper problem about freedom. Individual liberty is a high principle, not to be neglected or negotiated. But the liberty of embodied, evolved, social animals like homo sapiens cannot be defined in a way that ignores the overwhelming influence of parents and communities on individuals. We are what our predecessors make us.

The best classical thinkers on liberty, people like J.S. Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, recognized that peer pressure, parental influence, and majority opinion were threats to freedom–probably worse dangers than the state is, if the state is limited by law and popular votes. There is no such thing as a neutral setting for growing up; Los Angeles may be more pluralist than The Citadel, but both teach their own implicit lessons. But LA broadens the mind more than The Citadel will by offering a greater variety of lifestyles and perspectives. Friedersdorf is right to see the advantages for freedom.

*E.g., Yates and Youniss find that a powerful dose of Catholic social doctrine does not convert predominantly Protestant African American students, but provokes them to reflect on their own values. McDevitt and colleagues (in a series of papers including this one) find that political debates in school stimulate critical discussions in the home. Colby et al. find that interactive political courses at the college level, although taught by liberal professors, do not move the students in a liberal direction but deepen their understanding of diverse perspectives. Evidence of the effects of college climates is ambiguous because of students’ self-selection into friendly environments.

(See also “schools’ role in enhancing liberty,” “why libertarians need a theory of political socialization,”and David Friedman on education.”)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.