The Anarchy of Social Interaction




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A few weeks ago, I met a truly unpleasant person.

Of course, she may not have been universally unpleasant, but instead had reasons provoking her to dislike me ahead of meeting me, but the facts stand – she didn’t want to talk to me, about nothing and nobody.

As libertarians, we spend a lot of time embracing the unpleasant and the uncomfortable and the disagreeable because we either a) know they’re not enjoyable, but understand they’re necessary to a free society, or b) we’re not-so-secret perverts. I happen to fall into category A most of the time, but mazel tov to category B!

Of course I’ve already taken this slightly out of context, because being libertarian describes an attitude towards the government, not necessarily towards civil society. That’s why someone can be pro-legalization of drugs and still fastidious about people smoking outside of their home – that shouldn’t feel like cognitive dissonance to a libertarian, because those are two different realms of responsibility.

But we’re humans, and we often mix up the two, and frankly, there are times when I understand how liberals work. Because if life was FAIR, I wouldn’t be living in this compelled force state where ONLY I am being polite, and there is no similar accountability to other members of the social contract. There should be a LAW.

If we accept that a social contract exists, we could use free-market principles to understand what went wrong. For example, we sit down (i.e. engage in social contract), I have a drank, she has a drank, then I make a proposition (“Oh, you’re from California! Me, too! Where are you from?”) Now if this offended her and rendered the social contract undesirable, she could put her drink down, stand up, and walk out of the room. But this would lead to anarchy.

See, because there are outside forces imposing standards and expectations upon both engagers in the social contract (i.e. company), the risk is social shame. So what does said unwilling engager do? Exhibit passive-aggression. Imposing standards hasn’t eliminated her unpleasant feelings – she must merely express them around the limitations presented to her. This has caused her to say ridiculously unnecessary things, such as “I think as you get older you’ll understand.” (This may feel more like a terrorist action, but we must not negotiate with terrorists.)

Now, as a similar engagee in the social contract, I too am presented with social strictures. But I also have another set of strictures that I impose upon myself – let’s call them manners. This requires me to give said person the benefit of the doubt, continue attempting to engage her as if she were not behaving the way she is, and to drink copious amounts of my Tanquaray and tonic (mmmmm… lubrication).

The libertarian temptation here may be anarchy – God knows that’s my fervent wish. Space monkeys attacking – really anything would do. But we must not succumb. Because essentially, by sitting down at all, we must complete the contract to its full execution – which means sitting there, getting quietly drunker. Come next time, however, we can choose not to hang out with them. We can buck our native coils and say, “That girl was a total bitch, guys,” and move on with our lives.

Were there not some sense of responsibility from at least one party member, we would have a “Tragedy of the Commons” on our hands. We would both feel immune to responsibility, viewing our intended pleasant discourse between us with a “well I guess YOU will take care of it,” and chaos would ensue. Space monkeys; something pretty unexpected and terrible.

So while we libertarians may often feel restricted by the bounds of civil society, I beg of you – do not so hastily rid ourselves of the GOOD laws, like “be nice to people and don’t talk with your mouth full.” Some of them are worth keeping, even if there are criminals in our midst.


Lindsey Dodge is professionally contrarian and the editor-in-chief of, a blog where women can read about Beyonce and libertarian politics in equal amounts and free of judgment.


  1. York Luethje

    I agree on the importance of manners but am a bit puzzled why a libertarian society is supposed to favor unpleasant behavior?

    I think that a society where your reputation is your main currency would place a premium on agreeable, polite behavior. The word ‘courteous’ was coined to describe the informal rules that were developed to guide social interactions amongst lords attending the medieval courts.

    Those were feudal societies so the only time a nobleman would interact with his peers (literally) was at court. Central authority, the king, was weak and would rarely keep a lord from defending his honor so rules were developed to keep bloodshed to a minimum.

    I believe that in a system were your well-being, including your right to life, is put into your own hands, people would arrive at comparable behavior guidelines.

    • Lindsey Dodge

      Howdy, fair reader! I don’t think a libertarian society has to favor unpleasant behavior — trying to draw the distinction between attitude towards government and how we behave in society. As libertarians, we generally favor gov’t butting out, but in society, there’s sometimes a similar tolerance of bad outcomes just because we don’t want to seem like we’re imposing social constraints or anything. And I thought that was kinda funny, because it sometimes leads to cognitive dissonance while you’re drinking grumpily at a bar with some unpleasant person.

      To thank you for reading, here’s a medieval Tumblr called “Ugly Renaissance Babies” that I hope you enjoy.

      • York Luethje

        Love the tumblr.

        Otherwise, I thought I was agreeing with you that good manners are important. For instance, I don’t think the state should impose smoking bans in bars but I’d still hesitate to light up my smuggled Cohiba.

        • Lindsey Dodge

          Word. Your smoke is much more respectable than mine (Which would probably be a bummed Virginia Slim), but sounds like we’re on the same page.

  2. Henry Vandenburgh

    Currently, there are two levels to social interaction (this is cribbed from Herbert Marcuse, hardly a libertarian.) One is based on necessary repression of ones impulses (excess rudeness, impulsive aggression;) the other on surplus repression (being controlled by excessive norms to serve someone else’s political or social agenda.) I believe much of what we (correctly) call “political correctness” falls into this second category. Its “rules” are frequently used to end principled debate by insisting that one thing or another is “offensive” or makes people “uncomfortable,” even if the claim is against commonsense or is farfetched. In some ways, this type of social control is the “state” writ small. People, of course, shouldn’t be actually abusive to one another, but I’ve been dismayed in recent years at the way discourses of this sort have been used to end reasonable discussions. Current case in point: I saw a person abused on line for challenging others on a message board with the idea that the Zimmerman-Martin case did not indicate “racism.”

    • Lindsey Dodge

      I believe I agree with you! I think “manners” are what we call the informal rules of behavior that help put a stop to at least some of the inner impulses that are negative (i.e. excess rudeness, impulsive aggression). Of course, by imposing rules, we’re not completely solving the problem because that aggression still needs to go SOMEWHERE, often into either a) passive aggression or b) in my case, drinking. But in society, I think it’s acceptable to have some reasonable “laws of behavior” in a way I would shy away from in government, such as asking questions of new company, resisting negative prejudices, etc. This is simply because the former is enforced by nothing really except shame, and can be negotiated in different cultures on a very individual level, while the other is enforced by ze militaire (mon dieu … ).

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