The Virtues of Leaving People Alone
A few years ago I encountered this hilarious video, where a scooping journalist wanted a juicy opinion out of a student. It might have been at an American university, and the topic was a school that had just installed gender-neutral bathrooms. Shocking, explosive stuff, sure to ruffle some feathers.
Unfortunately, the journalist had stumbled upon a libertarian — one of those ethically stringent and consistent types that followed the logic of their ideological persuasion to its radical end. The journalist asked his opinion on the new bathrooms and he responded: “I don’t care.”
“But what do you think about anyone, man or woman, use the same bathrooms?,” as if he hadn’t understood the question.
“I don’t care.”
“What if you’re in the bathroom and a woman is there too, doesn’t that bother you?”
“I don’t care.”
The journalist was noticeably flustered. She wasn’t getting anywhere with this guy. No juicy quote, no indignation capable of being broadcast as news elsewhere.
To most people, this is (a superficial interpretation of) nihilism — ruthless, awful, distasteful individualism that doesn’t care one straw for other people or the society in which they live. The kind of people who wants to see the world burn.
That’s probably not true. Our unruly libertarian probably cares — about his cat, his family, his loved ones, his favourite band, or football team. We all do. He just has enough intellectual decency not to let his personal feelings get in the way of his thoroughly decent ideological conviction: The lives that others live are none of your business.
What others do with their bathrooms visits is not his concern. Which clothes others wear, who they sleep with, what they mix in their coffees, what substances they put in their bodies, what they do for a living, what they eat, how that’s produced, where they travel and how they get there, is none of his business. To each his own.
This libertarian understood what so few people are willing to understand these days: other people’s opinions, beliefs, words, or convictions are not some indication of their societal value, reflecting their position in some cosmic battle between “us — the good guys”, and “them — the evil guys”. How much somebody pretends to care about meaningless or contradictory things is not some essential feature of their identity, crucial to others’ life. It’s none of your business.
Instead of snapping “I don’t care,” which sounds a little too detached for me, I normally use “You do you, girl.”
The sentiment is the same. To each his (her) own. De gustibus non est disputandum. There’s no accounting for taste. I don’t know what you like or want — in econ jargon, what your “preferences” are — or what your constraints are. If you want to sleep with men — or really don’t want to sleep with men — that’s on you. If you want to burn flags or books, that’s on you (I just demand that you voluntarily buy them first). If you want to have intercourse with a dead chicken before you eat it — be my guest.
And yes, I stole these examples from Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, if that wasn’t clear. It is human to have instinctual feelings of disgust to one or many of these actions. What Haidt was trying to do is conjure up scenarios where those feelings of disgust have absolutely no damage to anyone else.
What libertarianism is about is overriding those feelings with reason, accepting that nobody was physically harmed or nobody’s property rights violated, and so the practice may go on. None of your business.
This is actually explosive stuff. Revolutionary, even. Quite literally world-changing, as Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden outline in a new book coming out this month (distilling McCloskey’s great finding in her Bourgeois trilogy): Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World.
Don’t interference with other people. Leave them be. Don’t run around and police their divergent innocent opinions and tastes. Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff. Your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Until then (or when you can readily foresee such a swing), leave people alone. The Obviousness of Anarchy as legal scholar John Hasness remarked.
My life is none of your business; your life is none of my concern. You do you, girl.
This piece is part of my October Writing Challenge — check out some of the other articles and see if there’s anything that resonates with you. All my published material can be found at Authory.