The Myth of the Rational Blogosphere

Bryan Caplan has taken a lot of heat for his argument that on net, American women were freer in 1880 than they are today. While some of the pushback has been substantive, the majority has been disgustingly personal. Bryan, who is a pacifistic sort, has written a measured self-defense in which he points this out. Bryan is certainly capable of defending himself, but I am not yet as pacifistic or measured as he is, and therefore, I think he deserves a more forceful defense.

To be clear, I frequently disagree with Bryan, and I have no real opinion on the substantive question at hand; I know next to nothing about the laws and culture of the 1880s. But Bryan is one of the most intellectually honest people I know, one of the most willing to speak unpopular truths. He is also extremely well-read and knowledgeable. Claims that he is stupid or uninformed are, frankly, stupid and uninformed. Even more preposterous is the claim that Bryan simply hasn’t considered the effect of culture on individual liberty; Bryan has been at the center of libertarianism in America for two decades, and I am sure he is familiar with the idea.

The greatest irony is that some of Bryan’s most virulent detractors are these so-called “cultural libertarians,” who believe that culture counts as much as law in judging human liberty. Many of them seem not to realize that through their personal attacks on Bryan, they are condemning themselves, by their own standards, to whichever circle of Hell is reserved for those who impinge upon academic and intellectual freedom. Bryan will not lose his tenure for his unpopular views, but how many intellectuals are afraid to say what they really believe because of this culture of personal retaliation? Similarly, feminists do not advance their own cause (which I support!) by getting the vapors every time someone articulates an argument with which they do not agree. Many intelligent feminists, such as my wife, a former officer of a feminist organization, are rightfully appalled by this reaction.

Obviously, I cannot write an angry post every time someone, somewhere, is hypocritical on the Internet. But that hypocrisy is common does not make it acceptable. We who are academics and/or intellectuals should strive for a civil blogosphere in which people are free to articulate unpopular ideas and criticism is calmly directed at these ideas instead of their proponents. This is a proposition that all libertarians and indeed all decent people should find it easy to support.

6 replies to “The Myth of the Rational Blogosphere

  1. pjsw

    The self-defeating nature of cultural libertarian feminism is totally contingent upon the strength with which one holds the position. The logically strongest position would rule out people affecting each other in any way, which is obviously crazy. More moderate views accept something like – it is impermissible to affect people in such a way that has the effect of precluding alternate life possibilities for them (that’s very rough, but you see how it is different from the strongest possible position). None of this criticism floating around the blogosphere would seem to do that (and the burden of proof is on whoever thinks that it *does* have that affect on Bryan). So the self-defeating objection applies only to a crazy version of the view = straw man.

  2. Eli Post author

    pjsw, that does not address my argument at all. I am not arguing that all cultural libertarianism is self-defeating. I am arguing that it is particularly ironic that those who claim to value a culture that supports freedom are creating an environment in which some academics may feel constrained.

    My burden of proof is only that some people who claim to be cultural libertarians are personally insulting rather than engaging calmly with the argument. It has nothing to do with the effect on Bryan, who will in any case ignore any social pressure that is directed at him.

    If you reread my post carefully, you will see that I am not remotely vulnerable to any sort of straw man objection.

  3. pjsw

    My mistake, responded to this before I saw:

    The shaming is pretty bad. I agree with this: “I am arguing that it is particularly ironic that those who claim to value a culture that supports freedom are creating an environment in which some academics may feel constrained.”

    But their being cultural libertarian hypocrites isn’t really an indictment of the position (not that you said it was), just of those persons.

  4. Adam

    For what it’s worth, you’re absolutely right and I apologize for my juvenile remarks. I also disagree with Caplan on a number of substantive points but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect him as an intelligent and well read scholar.

  5. Contemplationist

    You’re right. But if you look broadly, you’ll see this was just red meat for so-called ‘Progressives’ to ridicule all libertarians with. Oh look what those silly anachronistic nerds believe. hyuk hyuk. Cue. Brad Delong, the vulgar partisan hack.

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