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On 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 tolerance.)

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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