The rhetoric of libertarianism, as well as the rhetoric of liberalism (which libertarianism has an overlapping relationship with, particularly liberalism in the capitalist sense of the term) tends to be focused on individual choice and consent. While carving out a position against “aggression”, it’s taken as conventional wisdom in libertarianism that in the absence of aggression (generally aggression associated with the state and blatantly obvious violent threats between individuals) each individual is free to make whatever choices they please because it necessarily is consensual – and how dare you, as a social critic or a judging human being say anything about other people’s consensual choices.
This enables libertarians to take a kind of meta-level ethical high ground of neutrality in which their philosophy is presented as allowing individuality and diversity, even if it means the defense of choices that many find taboo or socially questionable. Of course, this defense is usually primarily on capitalist grounds under the pretenses of free markets. In libertarian ideological discourse, it is not uncommon for non-libertarians in general to be categorized as busybodies who want to control other people’s choices, even when non-libertarians are motivated toward the benefit of the individuals in question (“the humanitarian with the guillotine“). This is a big part of the criticism of the left by libertarians (including the left-libertarians).
To give libertarians a bone, there may indeed be various areas in which it makes a lot of sense to be defending people’s consensual choices if there really is the threat of an imposition and it really is a meaningfully consensual choice. I fully recognize that there are contexts in which it does make sense to advance individuality against the very real repression of choices. But for the purpose of social analysis and critique the libertarian’s notion of consent is both too broad in concept (in that it often creeps into areas where consent is either submission or in a clash with the consent of others) and narrow in practice (in that since its supposed to be the foundation of a moral code, that moral code ends up being shallow). It can’t account for the reality of people’s choice-making, as much as it’d like to be all about it.
The problem is that American libertarianism largely appears to be embedded in a liberal capitalist narrative of individualism. This functions to rationalize aspects of social life that depend on a flimsy sense of consent and ignore cultural-psychological critique. Libertarians can be found doing this to the point of rationalizing terrible things – whether it’s vulgar/brutal libertarianism (with folks like Walter Block and Robert Nozick defending slave contracts) or left-libertarian utopian naivete (such as rationalizing hardcore porn as empowering). It ends up looking to me like sometimes in order for libertarians to “defend the undefendable” they have to whitewash social reality with individualist and free market narratives of society, and that consent and choice itself is insufficient as a moral standard.
When you fetishize individual choice (especially “on the market”), the consequence is that submission is rationalized as freedom, that there can be the internalization of dubious or harmful social norms that become reinforced through choice, that people think they can circumvent socially ingrained problems by choosing to participate in them, and that one’s personal antisocial psychological tendencies are entirely justified (such as is the case with some libertarians I’ve known who held to especially crass individualist views that lack basic concern for the well-being of others, who would let people die or suffer greatly for the sake of an individual’s choice).
With the liberal narrative of consent, voluntary slavery is the social norm because it does not really recognize or care about the social-psychological reality of our choices – we are characterized as free even when we are submitting to power and following social conditioning. When internalized, it is also the ideology of slaves to rationalize their own enslavement. Just start criticizing capitalism in your workplace (and how it affects your workplace) and see how most of your co-workers are likely to react – it’s as if it’s an attack on them. Much of society rationalizes its own enslavement under the illusion that it’s relatively free. Yet much of what you choose is highly influenced by social-psychological factors outside your control.
Oddly, a philosophy that names itself after liberty is trapped in a paradox in which actualized liberty clashes with its notion of consent.