18 April 2011
The Disaster of Me Libertarianism - Part 1
by Moorfield Storey Institute
» Libertarian Theory - General
Have you heard any of the following critiques of libertarianism?
Libertarians are just conservatives who like drugs!
Libertarians are only concerned about themselves!
Libertarians don't care what happens to other people?
Libertarians are selfish!
This libertarian is dismayed by such comments, but I have to admit that they are often true, at least about many individual libertarians, though they are not true about the philosophy of libertarianism per se.
I just spent a couple days at a libertarian conference. It is an experience that I find increasingly dismaying and disappointing because there has been a clear rightward shift in the libertarian movement toward some clearly anti-libertarian viewpoints, if not toward some pure nonsense from the fringe right. It is as if no libertarian today can critique the Federal Reserve without appealing to the pseudo-history conspiracy theories of G. Edward Griffin of the John Birch Society.
But what is interesting is listening to libertarians dismiss issues that are important to people who aren't like them. Let us be truthful: the typical libertarian, and certainly the typical attendee at this conference, is a middle-aged, white, straight male. And they seem utterly incapable of seeing freedom through the lenses of anyone who isn't the same.
Mention equal marriage rights for gay people and they simply dismiss it as unimportant. If they aren't actively opposed-and some were-they see it as inconsequential. If you talk about guns they often are interested since so many of them own firearms. If you talk about pornography they are interested. But when it comes to the barriers to immigration they don't give a damn since they aren't immigrants. They hate tax laws but then they pay taxes.
They really are libertarians who only see liberty as an issue as it applies to white, middle-aged, straight men (WMASM).
David Boaz wrote about the same thing by implication:
The Cato Institute's boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, "Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded." Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn't seem quite that way to black people.
Clarence Thomas saw the fallacy in the claim because he views history through his own experiences as a black man. He realized that during the "golden age" of liberty, which so many libertarians pine for, that black people were held in slavery. Even after slavery was eventually abolished, government policy actively discriminated against black people. They were subjected to laws mandating they be treated badly by public transportation. They were easily convicted of crimes, including those they didn't commit, and were happily lynched by rabid mobs of whites who would then slice them up and take body parts as souvenirs. There is a reason Justice Thomas questioned whether the trend in liberty was entirely in one direction-as so many libertarians see it.
Women certainly have it much better today than they did during any other period of American history. They can own property on their own. They can easily escape abusive relationships. They can sign legal contracts without the permission of their father or husband. They have control over their reproductive abilities which had previously been denied them by the force of law-and this doesn't just mean the right to abortion but the right to birth control, something that was previously illegal.
What about freedom of religion? Did you know that there were periods where the states made it illegal to be a practicing Catholic? No state does so today. The Pilgrim Fathers-you know the ones you were told came to America for religious freedom-executed Mary Dyer because she was the wrong kind of Christian. Virginia banned the Puritans, Quakers, Catholics and Jews. Maryland had the death penalty for anyone who challenged orthodox Christian beliefs and later made a crime of being a Catholic priest, with a life sentence attached. They also legislated that only Anglicans could hold office and that Catholics were not allowed to vote.
Today the main claim of religious persecution made by Christians is from those who feel persecuted when they can't impose their religious beliefs on others through the force of law. They think that not being allowed to teach religious dogma in public schools is oppressive. But their churches operate openly, they still go door-to-door annoying the unwilling, and they enjoy something denied their secular opponents-tax exemption.
All of this is what I call "me" libertarianism. That is the tendency of individual libertarians to interpret political trends only through their own experiences, without caring what the broader reality happens to be.
Consider the Gadsden flag, popular with many libertarians, as another example. The motto is "Don't tread on me." Again the state of liberty is interpreted only in the self-centered way of how government impacts my life and my life alone.
Listening to those libertarians who only see liberty as important to them infuriates me. I realize that their false perceptions of what it means to advocate liberty actually makes it harder to achieve liberty. First, they routinely exclude oppressed people from the liberty movement because they aren't like them.
I don't mean they actively tell women, gays, blacks, immigrants, Jews, etc., that they are unwelcome. They usually don't go that far. But what they do is routinely dismiss the concerns of these people as trivial and unimportant. That sends the message that only what impacts WMASM is of importance.
I defended Boaz's comments to a libertarian who immediately dismissed it as worthless and then he recounted ways that WMASM are worse off today than before. That WMASM pay more in taxes today is more important than the fact that blacks are no longer routinely lynched. That WMASM feel hard pressed by affirmative action is a major issue, but the fact that millions of gay people no longer dread imprisonment for loving someone of the same gender is inconsequential.
There was a minor controversy in the on-line gaming community when Dragon Age 2 included some characters that are gay. One gamer complained because all previous games were designed for straight males and he didn't see why it had to change. He wanted an option to ban gay characters from the game. David Gaider, the writer of the game, responded. He said that the decisions he made were not about "political correctness"-a favorite scapegoat of the WMASM-but about how "privilege always lies with the majority." He said that that those who are used to "being catered to... see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don't see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what's everyone's fuss all about? That's the way it should be, as everyone else should be used to not getting what they want."
Many libertarians are guilty of this. They look at the privileged positions that WMASM have enjoyed for much of human history and then decide the fate of freedom only by how it impacts that privileged minority. That blacks and women and gays make up more of the population than WMASM is irrelevant because they only see history through WMASM eyes.