Bryan Caplan struggles to define tolerance. This seems to be what he’s searching for:

a disposition to allow freedom of choice and behavior, Thesaurus, Noun, 2

With that definition in mind, I’ll address the reasons given by Caplan for practicing tolerance:

1. People’s moral objections to how other people use their own person and property are usually greatly overstated – or simply wrong.  Think about how often people sneer at the way others dress, talk, or even walk.  Think about how often people twist personality clashes into battles of good versus evil.  From a calm, detached point of view, most of these complaints are simply silly.

The link points to a post in which Caplan confesses his own immature silliness. What’s missing are the “complaints” that are not “simply silly.” Take abortion, for example. It’s a practice that’s often defended on pseudo-libertarian grounds: a patently contrived right to privacy, for example. Caplan is cagey about abortion. If he is opposed to it, his reasons seem utilitarian rather than moral. In any event, opposition to abortion is not mere silliness; it is based on a profound moral objection to murder.

Nor should so-called personality clashes be dismissed as silliness. For example, during my 30 years as an analyst and manager at a major defense think-tank, I was a party to five conflicts (lasting months and years) that ignorant bystanders might have called personality clashes (and some bystanders did just that). But all five conflicts involved substantive differences about management methods, business ethics, or contractual performance.

Contra Caplan, I believe that differences about principle or substance give rise to most so-called personality clashes. It’s easy to dislike a person — and hard to disguise dislike — when that person reveals himself as incompetent, venal, manipulative, or corrupt. It seems to me that Caplan’s unfounded characterization of “most” disputes as personality clashes, and his back-handed dismissal of them as “battles of good versus evil,”  reflects his own deep-seated taste for conflict avoidance, as an avowed and outspoken pacifist.

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2. People’s moral objections to how other people use their own person and property often conflate innocent ignorance with willful vice.

I’ll have to compensate for Caplan’s vagueness by offering examples of what he might have in mind:

Al disapproves of Bob’s drunken driving, which caused a serious accident. Bob didn’t know he had been drinking vodka-spiked lemonade.

Bob was innocently ignorant of the vodka in the lemonade when he was drinking it. But Bob probably knew that he wasn’t fit to drive if he was impaired enough to have an alcohol-induced accident. It’s therefore reasonable to disapprove of Bob’s drunken driving, even though he didn’t intend to drink alcohol.

Jimmy and Johnny were playing with matches, and started a fire that caused their family’s house to burn to the ground. They escaped safely, but all of their family’s possessions — many of them irreplaceable — were lost. Nor did insurance cover the full cost of rebuilding their house.

Jimmy and Johnny may have been innocent, but it’s hard not to disapprove of their parents for lax child-rearing or imprudence (not keeping matches safely hidden from children).

Alison looked carefully before changing lanes, but a car on her right was in her blind spot. She almost hit the car as she began to change lanes, but pulled back into her own lane before hitting it. Jake, the driver of the other car, was enraged by the near collision and honked at Allison.

Jake was rightly enraged. He might have been killed. Alison may have looked carefully, but it’s evident that she didn’t look carefully enough.

LaShawn enjoys rap music, especially loud rap music. (Is there any other way to play it?) He has some neighbors who don’t enjoy rap music and don’t want to hear it. The only way to get LaShawn to turn down the volume is to complain to him about the music. It doesn’t occur to LaShawn that the volume is too high and that his neighbors might not care for rap music.

This used to be called “lack of consideration,” and it was rightly thought of as a willful vice.

DiDi is a cell-phone addict. She’s on the phone almost everywhere she goes, yakking it up with her friends. DiDi doesn’t seem to care that her overheard conversations — loud and one-sided — are annoying and distracting to many of the persons who are subjected to them.

Lack of consideration, again.

Jerry has a fondness for booze. But he stays sober until Friday night, when he goes to his local bar and gets plastered. The more he drinks the louder and more obnoxious he becomes.

When Jerry gets drunk, he isn’t in control of himself, in some psychological sense. Thus his behavior might be said, by some, to arise out of innocent ignorance. But Jerry is in control of himself before he gets drunk. He surely knows how he behaves when he’s drunk, and how his behavior affects others. Jerry’s drunken behavior arises from a willful vice.

Ted and Deirdre, a married couple, are highly paid yuppies. They worked hard to earn advanced degrees, and they work hard at their socially valued professions (physician and psychologist). They live in an upscale, gated community, drive $75,000 cars, dine at top-rated restaurants, etc. And yet, despite the obvious connection between their hard work and their incomes (and what those incomes afford them), they are ardent “liberals.” (See the sidebar for my views on modern “liberalism.”) They vote for left-wing candidates, and contribute as much as the law allows to the campaigns of left-wing candidates. They have many friends who are like them in background, accomplishments, and political views.

This may seem like a case of innocent ignorance, but it’s not. Ted and Deirdre (and their friends) are intelligent. They understand incentives. They understand (or they would, if they thought about it) that progressive taxation and regulations blunt incentives to work, save, and invest. They therefore understand (or could easily understand) that the plight of the poor and “downtrodden” who are supposed to be helped by progressive taxation and regulations is actually made worse by those things. They certainly understand such things viscerally because they make every effort to reduce their taxes (through legal means, of course); they do not contribute voluntarily to the U.S. Treasury (even though they know that they could); and they dislike regulations that affect them directly. Ted and Deidre (and the legions like them) allow their guilt-driven desire for “equality” to obscure easily grasped facts of life. They ignore or suppress the facts of life in order to preen as “caring” persons. At bottom, their ignorance is willful, and inexcusable in persons of intelligence.

In sum, it’s far from evident to me that “how other people use their own person[s] and property often conflate[s] innocent ignorance with willful vice.” There’s much less innocent ignorance in the world than Caplan would like to believe.

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3. People’s best-founded moral objections to how other people use their own person and property are usually morally superfluous.  Why?  Because the Real World already provides ample punishment.  Consider laziness.  Even from a calm, detached point of view, a life of sloth seems morally objectionable.  But there’s no need for you to berate the lazy – even inwardly.  Life itself punishes laziness with poverty and unemployment… So even if you accept (as I do) the Rossian principle that a just world links virtue with pleasure and vice with pain, there is no need to add your harsh condemnation to balance the cosmic scales.

On what planet does Caplan live? Governments in the United States — the central government foremost among them — reward and encourage sloth through extended unemployment benefits, bogus disability payments, food stamps, etc., etc. etc. There’s every reason to voice one’s displeasure with such goings on, and to give force to that displeasure by working and voting against the policies and politicians who make it possible for the slothful to live on the earnings of others.

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4. The “especially strangers” parenthetical preempts the strongest counter-examples to principled tolerance.  There are obvious cases where you should strongly oppose what your spouse, children, or friends do with themselves or their stuff.  But strangers?  Not really.

Yes, really. See all of my comments above.

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5. Intolerance is bad for the intolerant.  As Buddha never said, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”  The upshot is that the Real World punishes intolerance along with laziness, drunkenness, and gluttony.  Perhaps this is the hidden wisdom of the truism that “Haters gonna hate.

Here Caplan makes the mistake of identifying intolerance with anger. A person who is intolerant of carelessness, thoughtlessness, and willful vice isn’t angry all the time. He may be angered by careless, thoughtlessness, and willful vice when he sees them, but his anger is righteous, targeted, and controlled. Generally, he’s a happy person because he’s probably conservative.

It’s all well and good to tolerate freedom of choice and behavior, in the abstract. But civilization depends crucially on intolerance of particular choices and behaviors that result in real harm to others — psychic, material, and physical. Tolerance of such choices and behaviors is simply a kind of appeasement, which is what I would expect of Caplan — a man who can safely preach pacifism because he is well-guarded by the police and defense forces of his locality, State, and nation.

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Related posts:
The Folly of Pacifism
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians