Why Libertarianism Is a Moving Target

Elizabeth Stoker BruenigI understand why libertarians get upset when people attack them. When I was one, I was something of a singularity. For example, although I know of libertarians who support labor unions, in all my time as an active libertarian, I never met a fellow traveler who agreed with my position. So usually, when I argued with people about libertarianism, I would agree with their criticisms — but it didn’t reflect on the libertarianism that I practiced. Of course, I was being silly. I didn’t define libertarianism. I called myself a libertarian, but really I was just a political eccentric with libertarian tendencies.

Matt Bruenig wrote about this recently, #NotAllLibertarians: an Illustration. It’s about how it is pretty much impossible to argue with libertarians because they always comes back with, “But that’s not what libertarianism is.” It is in reference to an article by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Porn Star Belle Knox Doesn’t Know What Libertarianism Is. Neither Do Libertarians. It is based on a Pew poll that I had wanted to write about, In Search of Libertarians. Because what it shows is that people who call themselves libertarians are not what I would ever have called libertarian.

Let’s just start with the fact that twice as many Republicans call themselves libertarians as Democrats. The first thing that I noticed when I started going to libertarian meetings was that almost everyone was a disaffected Republican. One of the big topics of conversation was what Rush Limbaugh had been talking about on the radio that week. At best, these were people who fully embraced economic conservatism and held their nose about social liberalism — the two pillars of what libertarianism is supposed to be. And indeed, the Pew poll bears this out. On most social issues, libertarians are distinctly more conservative than liberals.

Let’s take another issue that isn’t discussed in the poll. Libertarians, almost to a person, believe that local control is better than federal control. Yet it is almost always state and local governments who infringe on the rights of individuals. This is why libertarianism is so associated with racism and the neo-confederacy. A sizable portion of libertarians just want to be “free” to discriminate. Rand Paul might say that he would never discriminate against African Americans, but the fact that he thinks people ought to be able to do it is a big part of his appeal.

On foreign affairs, libertarians are more bellicose than the country as a whole. About the only place where libertarians deviate from the Republican script is that they are slightly more in favor of legalizing cannabis. But I don’t think that means anything. A lot of young people consider themselves “libertarian” for the single reason that candidates like Rand Paul are for legalization. And again, that isn’t even a libertarian position. Saying that people ought to be able to do drugs that the government thinks aren’t harmful is what we have now. The argument is simply about which drugs should fall in that category.

The Early Ayn RandI understand why more serious libertarians would bristle when we point out that most libertarians are nothing more than Republicans who are slightly less hostile to the LGBT community and slightly more in favor of cannabis legalization. The problem comes in with a general belief among serious libertarians that if only people knew what libertarianism was, they would sign up. And certainly, the Libertarian Party was attending Tea Party meetings and talking up the rise in “libertarianism” in the country. Well, they can’t have it both ways. Either roughly 10% of the country is libertarian, and by that definition, libertarianism is just a minor variation on the Republican Party; or almost no one in the country is libertarian, and it actually means what these defenders of libertarianism claim it means.

Of course, even among the more serious libertarians, there is fierce disagreement about what a libertarian is. Anti-Libertarian Criticism provides a Critical Map of the American Libertarian Movement, in which they list eight different kinds of libertarianism. But ultimately, libertarianism is a utopian philosophy. And it ought to be dealt with on that level. The question is simply if the world would be a better place if we moved in that direction. And we’ve seen over the last forty years that the answer to that is a resounding no.

But this is all part of the same thing. The truth is that libertarianism is not a serious philosophy. Although proponents claim that they come to it from first principles, they actually come to it because it gives them something: tax cuts, legal drugs, “states’ rights,” whatever. And as I’ve noted, proponents always start by arguing from a practical standpoint. When they find those arguments untenable, they change to theoretical arguments. But ultimately, there is really nothing supporting libertarianism. So it isn’t at all surprising that libertarians constantly change their arguments. Because the real arguments are much like the essays in The Early Ayn Rand.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Why Libertarianism Is a Moving Target

  1. I’m aware of the Anti-Libertarian Criticism blog you link to. I’m not a huge fan, mainly because the author (brainpolice2) seems to have traded left libertarianism in for a brand of radical feminism that is particularly hostile toward sex workers and transsexuals. If that’s not sad enough, the particular brand of hostility (in brainpolice2’s case) takes the form of denial of agency, or refusal to take people’s statements about themselves at face value. So the lines of argument degenerate to stuff along the lines of “I understand your interests better than you do,” or “your statements of personal opinion are actually the Stockholm Syndrome talking.” So, even being as antilibertarian as I am, I actually liked brainpolice(1) better than brainpolice2. At any rate, I find Mike Huben a much more cogent critic of libertarianism.

    90% of what claims to be American libertarianism today is actually paleoconservatism. Paleocons are usually isolationists, but an isolationist is absolutely not the same thing as a foreign policy dove, let alone a pacifist. As for gay rights, rights of religious minorities and non-religious people, and the other usual ACLU-type issues, those paleocons who are actually serious about small government will classify those as non-political issues. Basically it means non-persecution of those groups (or more precisely, their not being persecuted by the government). Being non-political on an issue is absolutely not the same thing as having a liberal opinion about it. Even their claim to the mantle of “classical liberalism” wears thin. Maybe they read Locke’s First Treatise and didn’t make it to the Second Treatise. Clearly they haven’t even started on Adam Smith.

    • I don’t know that much about Anti-Libertarian Criticism, but I did write a site review of it. I liked the way that the site broke down the different forms of libertarianism. I will check out Mike Huben. I’m very fond of the libertarian critiques of Noah Smith and Matt Bruenig.

      In my experience, most libertarians in America are neo-confederates. But I suppose the more serious ones go back to Locke, Smith, Hume. But it is strange, because we’ve learned a few things over the last couple hundred years. Well, some of us have.

    • To clarify, I actually do not subscribe to radical feminism or really any form of feminism very much beyond the 1st wave, and have become a pretty big critic of much of feminism and social justice warriorism in general despite, being radical left in some of my tendencies. But I have expressed some sympathy over criticism of the realities of commercialized sexuality. My angle when it comes to social criticism of sex work is really primarily an extension of my anti-capitalism, and a touch of pragmatism about the reality of sexual relations.

      As for the issue of trans identity, I just have the position that it is a harmless personal delusion (based on an inherently subjective self-identity question) rather than an established biological fact about male/female brains (I’m merely a pretty consistent social constructionist about gender). I think that it has been overblown by some into something more ideological. To me, I fully support trans rights and think they’re as worthy as respect as anyone else. I don’t support feeding or enabling people’s personal psychological quirks or identity crisis issues though, and I am somewhat weary about profit-minded opportunism of the medical industry.

      I don’t believe people’s subjective statements about themselves are something for any critical-minded person to simply take at face value. I don’t see that as a denial of agency so much as trying to put some realism into the discussion. If I believe I am a non-human animal in my subjective self-understanding, I am objectively still a human. If someone believes they were born with the right gendered brain in the wrong sexed body, I can be accepting that that’s their psychological quirk and move on, but I don’t actually believe their claim is true at the level of biology. I just consider gender as such altogether to be subjective cultural sludge.

      • I’m pretty much with you. I don’t have a problem with people identifying any way they want to. My concern about transgender issues is that it will reinforce gender roles. I consider myself very much a man, but I’m not a “traditional” man at all. But I don’t know what it is to feel like a woman so I would never stop someone from managing their lives how ever they see fit. I also share your concern about the medical and psychiatric community profiting from all this.

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