How Libertarianism Became A Home For My Compassionate Heart

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Thoughts on Liberty is thrilled to announce another new writer, Kelly Barber! In the usual TOL fashion, I’m going to let her introduce herself! 

Like Rachel, I used to be a Democrat, and like Stone, I consider myself a bleeding heart libertarian. My ideological evolution began five years ago when I gained an interest in African economic development and when I interned at a Congressional office in high school. By reading about the experiences and insights of economists working in Africa and by making my own observations while working on immigration cases, I gained an understanding of the unintended consequences of benevolent government action.

This basic paradigm of government failure helped me when I seriously confronted the ideas of liberty for the first time in college. There, I learned that I didn’t just have to swallow the bitter pill of the failures of government. The Students For Liberty literature I read and the Institute for Humane Studies seminar I attended convinced me that free markets do a better job than the state in alleviating suffering. Through a combination of theory and real life examples, I found a home for my bleeding heart.

The two character traits necessary for my transition from a liberal to a bleeding heart libertarian were compassion and humility. As a high school sophomore, I wanted to change the world, but I had no idea how to do it. I defaulted to the traditional view that government was the answer. I anticipated taking up my rightful place in the world as a cog in the political machine.

Thankfully, even then, this prospect didn’t get me fired up. I found the excitement I was looking for when I saw a television interview with Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian-born economist and author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way For Africa. I was struck by the unique ideas of economic freedom and African empowerment put forth by this young black woman. By calling out celebrities like Bono, economists like Jeffrey Sachs, and political leaders for their damaging attempts to “save Africa,” Moyo was offering an entirely different perspective: the power of the individual to effect change.

Inspired, I chose foreign aid as my research topic for a scholarship project. That summer, while visiting the breathtaking sights of the Neuschwanstein castle with my family, I looked forward to the hour I would have each night to pore over foreign direct investment charts. I came out of my research with a new hero: William Easterly. His discussion of the basic motivation of self-interest guiding human behavior and the unintended consequences of foreign aid instilled a rudimentary set of principles that I can only describe in hindsight as libertarian.

While I had lost faith in bilateral foreign aid, I hadn’t yet lost faith in government. That came months later when I interned at a local Congressional office. Living in South Florida, the majority of the work we did was related to immigration. During my time in the office, the devastating 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, killing over 300,000 people and leaving 1 million homeless. At a time when hundreds of people filed into the building each day trying to get help for their loved ones, the women I worked with complained about interruptions to the office’s daily work activities, which included reading Twilight and watching the Home Shopping Network on a flatscreen HD television that had been purchased for “security purposes” after 9/11. By coupling the knowledge I had gained from studying Moyo and Easterly with my experiences as an intern, I became convinced of the absolutely heartbreaking inefficiencies and irrationality of government—and that there was a better way.

I think my story is emblematic of the passions guiding the new generation of libertarians. Thirty years ago, if I had been exposed to pro-liberty ideas at all, it likely would have been through a book written by an old rich white guy. Here in the early 21st century, I was influenced by people of different races, genders, ages, and nationalities advocating for liberty through many different methods and institutions. I became a libertarian not because I always valued an abstract concept of liberty, but because I cared about people. Compassion and humility still anchor my beliefs and while I will probably always oscillate between agreeing with anarchists and minarchists, the Austrian and Chicago schools, and right and left libertarians, I will always have a bleeding heart.