I 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.
I 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.