When I was 19, I attended a lecture given by a prominent libertarian writer (ah, the indiscretions of youth). He gave his typical talk about the benefits of free choice and how the invisible hand of the free market guides society towards the best outcomes. Having just finished my freshman Economics class, I raised my hand to ask a question: “What about externalities?” (For those innocent of this lingo: an “externality” describes the effect some action has others who have no say in that action - e.g., if I litter, that negatively affects other people, though I am the one who decides to litter; if I plant flowers in my yard, that positively affects other people, although again the decision is solely my own. Externalities thus undercut the logic that society as a whole always benefits from individual freedom.)
Of course libertarians are used to this question, and the speaker had an answer ready: “You know what an externality is? I don’t like your tie.”
To be fair, looking back, that tie was truly offensive. It was among the first I had ever bought, specifically for the summer internship program of which this lecture was a part. It was shiny, red, and may even have born some logo at the tip. But this rejoinder wasn’t really about my tie - it was about the triviality of externalities. “Sure, externalities exist,” he seemed to say, “but they are so many and so minor that keeping track of them is useless and we should just forget about them.”
To my 19-year-old self, though, his comment taught a different lesson. First, I began a lifelong quest to acquire less offensive ties. But more importantly, it taught me that where there are externalities (and a bad tie is indeed one), society usually figures out a way to manage the conflict between individual freedom and public weal. In the case of that lecture, though I and my hideous tie were allowed to sit where I pleased, a few wayward scholars had either forgotten or neglected the professional dress code for the event, and shown up in shorts and t-shirts. They were forced to sit in the back row.
Exactly how much freedom of choice in dress is allowed varies from setting to setting, from generation to generation, and from society to society. The rules that govern these choices are almost never about function - although one justification for France’s laws against full-face coverings is that a criminal could wear one to conceal their identity - and are instead about how much offense one person has a right to give others with their clothing.
This brings me to the latest fountain of Internet outrage, the ban that some French towns (it’s not a national law) have imposed on the “burkini” - ladies’ swimwear that conforms to the norms of conservative Muslim cultures. Personally, I think these laws are silly. The beach is not a setting that suggests a strict dress code. Whatever offense anyone might take at a burkini seems to be both petty, minor, and driven by animus towards Islam. Switching to some other costume would impose significant hardship on some Muslim women.
But there is risk of over-extrapolation. Some have suggested that there is never any public interest in any sort of dress code, and that opposition to the burkini ban follows from this general rule. “Live and let live,” they say.
This would be the same suggestion that my irascible libertarian made - impose complete wardrobe freedom. I can see the appeal of this logic. But to paraphrase Burke, be careful about giving people complete freedom - they can do whatever they want with it. I’m pretty happy with laws against public nudity. I’m glad that some restaurants still impose a dress code, however mild. The point is, it does no good just to tell society not to care about what other people are wearing. It matters to some people. In some places - like nice restaurants, some religious spaces, important events - it matters enough that it makes sense to have rules negotiating the conflict between individual freedom and collective well-being. We probably don’t need these rules for the beach. But it’s still nice to have them somewhere, even if enforced by social norms rather than state laws.