James Croft on The Varieties of Oppression

Last week Kaveh Mousavi talked with me on the topic of Liberty to inaugurate a new series of such interviews. Today he published the second in the series, an interview with James Croft. In the excerpt below James makes a point that is all too often not understood or internalized, to our detriment:

[T]here are many ways freedom can be limited which are non-governmental. It is a great fallacy of some forms of libertarian argument that only the government can oppress. It is equally a great fallacy of some forms of socialist/progressive argument that only corporations can oppress. This is very important to understand: wherever there is power, there can be oppression. Literally any form of power can in practice limit people’s freedom. There are no inherently pure forms of power. I, for instance, am oppressed in Missouri by the government: it enforces laws which expressly forbid me from marrying another man. Sometimes I find it amusing how quickly some progressives forget this when they advocate for government intervention in many areas of life: governments are often the mostoppressive institutions, historically and today. Even democratic governments. At the same time, corporations can clearly oppress by rigging markets, exercising monopolies, restricting choice etc. Unions can oppress by demonizing non-members and forcing people to join. Culture can oppress through many subtle mechanisms. Oppression abounds!

So, no, being a democratic nation is by no means enough. It is even conceivable that a technically democratic nation could be more oppressive than one which is ruled by an aristocracy or even a monarch. The challenge is to root out all forms of oppression, whatever mechanisms they use to stifle liberty. When it comes to “society” as an agent of oppression, you only have to look at how (for instance) women are portrayed in the media, people of color, minorities of all kinds to see that narratives are perpetuated in culture which limit people’s ability to live as they wish in safety and with the full respect of fellow citizens. Sometimes culture can be more oppressive than governments: we’ll see this as full legal equality for queer people rolls out across the USA. There will still be areas where it won’t be safe for a trans person to walk down the street, even though there’s no law against it. Other members of society will act to enforce the cultural norm, to the detriment of those individuals. Legal equality is never enough.

I’m actually quite skeptical of laws and governments in general. One reason I didn’t become a lawyer like my father is because the question “is it legal?” is not of primary interest to me. I’m much more interested in the question “Is it right? Is it just?” Some of my friends are often surprised by how libertarian/anarchistic I sometimes sound. But I know in history how all forms of power can be and are being misused.

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