Column on Where Multiculturalism is OK

Where Multiculturalism is OK

Tibor R. Machan

It is reported that France’s, England’s and Germany’s leaders have issued an announcement claiming that multiculturalism is a failure. But are they right? Or perhaps it is more likely that implementing multiculturalism the way it has been tried in these and many other countries cannot work? Multiculturalism requires a particular kind of legal system. Not any will do.

What is multiculturalism? For political purposes it is the idea that members of different cultures can co-exists within a given legal order. But what order might that be? (There is an untenable philosophical idea of multiculturalism which holds that every culture is equally sound, equally well suited to human community life, which is clearly bunk.)

Now if members of different cultures are expected to co-exists as in the same family or fraternity or church, there will be serious problems, irresolvable conflicts afoot. Take those who believe in polygamy or who think women must not show any skin in public. Surely close coexistence between such folks and others who don’t share these practices is going to be difficult. But impossible?

In a society that strictly upholds the principle of private property rights the potential for conflict among members of even radically different cultures and religions is drastically curtailed. This is fairly obvious–if you stick to your own place as you practice your culture’s edicts and principles, you are not going to run into much opposition. Frank can do his bull fighting in his arena but you need not join him and can ban it where you are in charge. I can marry as many women as will have me where I am the owner of the realm while you can insist on the practice of monogamy where you are.

Crisscrossing the various cultures in such a society would be by mutual consent. No one would be required to admit into his or her realm those of whose cultural practices one disapproves. Catholics would not need to accept the practices of Jews or Muslims or atheists where they are the proprietors. And the examples can multiply endlessly.

Now it has to be admitted that there are limits to what a regime of private property can make room for as far as diverse practices are concerned. It would not be permitted to intrude upon other people who don’t consent to such intrusion. One could not trespass on to other people’s land and various spheres either. So if one’s culture demands that one invade the spaces of others, that would not be permissible. But that is a restriction that everyone should be able to live with since if one’s practices are important, they would be important mainly to oneself and one’s fellow faithful or cultural mates. To impose these on non-believers could not be necessary so as to be loyal to the creed.

It was the late Harvard political philosopher Robert Nozick who called attention to this feature of a genuine free society. He called it “experiments in utopia”–innumerable different approaches to community life carried out side by side with the only common requirement that everyone’s basic rights, especially private property rights, are respected and protected. In his powerful book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), he argued that while other systems demand a one size fits all policy for everyone to follow, in a free society there is room for a great variety of ways to live.

America in a way approximates this and has done so all along. Maybe more of that is what we need to create peace among people. And maybe that is one reason why some Americans hope that their ways are going to spread around the globe.

In contrast, consider the religious conflicts in Jerusalem where three different faiths are all laying claim to one realm instead of dividing it and living peacefully together. The public square can never be truly multicultural while a group of private ones definitely can.

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