It’s Time for Libertarians to Embrace Identity Politics


This weekend, I attended the 2013 International Students For Liberty Conference with, rumor has it, over 1400 other students. It was my first international conference, though I’ve attended a few regional ones when I was a student myself.

Over the weekend, I was surprised to find that there was not just one but two panels on women in the liberty movement. Naturally, doing what I do, I was excited and attended both. One even featured Thoughts on Liberty’s own Cathy Reisenwitz, who was, of course, stellar. Both panels addressed how to market libertarianism to women, and I found myself disappointed by the end of them.

At the end of the first, “Closing the Gender Gap,” (which had ReasonTV’s Kennedy, who is as cool in person as she is on TV) I positioned myself in line quickly to ask the panel my question:

Do you think that libertarians’ aversion to gender politics contributes to the lack of women in the liberty movement, and, if so, what do you think we should do to combat this?

I have to say, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the answers I got. The notion that libertarians can and should embrace identity politics is taboo, it seems. All other things being equal, our movement should be just as diverse as the country we live in. But it’s not. It is largely due, I think, to libertarians’ tendency to scream and shout over anyone who wants to talk about group identity.

I’ll be frank. Most libertarians are white, middle class, men. It was painfully obvious when you walked around the corridors of the Hyatt in Washington, D.C. White, middle class men are the people who, by and large, get to experience true individuality. Our culture sees white men as the “standard” or the “normal.” Thus, they are a “blank slate” upon which they get to write whatever they want.

Here’s the thing, though: Not everyone gets to be like that. Women, people of color, poor people, people who identify as LGBTQ, people of non-conforming genders, etc. are all “Other.” Unlike our friends who get to be a blank slate, we have attributes already ascribed to us that, whether we like it or not, people think identify us. From the moment we enter into the world, a significant part of us is pre-defined. We don’t really get to choose those characteristics, because, by the very fact that they are expected from us, they are habitually ingrained in us, and, if we happen to diverge from them as we get older, we are ostracized even more.

Being Othered inherently puts some people in a second-class position to others. We’re just deviations of the norm. We’re different. We’re foreign by our very natures. No one chooses to be Othered. We happen to be born with biological characteristics that our society deems are “different.”

A woman can’t escape the reality that she is assumed to be emotional, family-oriented, and gentle. Nor can she escape that people treat her differently because of those expectations. And this doesn’t even touch on the fact that she has been inundated with materials since she was a child that influence her to be this way or that she is negatively conditioned to not deviate from those expectations because every time she does there are negative consequences for her.

Putting our fingers in our ears and repeatedly insisting that she be an individual is an insult to the fact that she can’t escape it. We tell her that her lived experiences are wrong, despite the fact that most libertarians don’t have to deal with those kinds of expectations at all.

It’s wrong, but it’s the world that we live in, and libertarians are terrible at recognizing this. That we don’t have more sociopolitical minorities isn’t due to “marketing” problems, it’s due to our fundamental incompetence at even acknowledging that they may have different sets of needs because of how our society treats them.

Ignoring the fact that society creates group identities and pretending that everyone is already an individual isn’t going to make it all go away. If libertarians truly wish to see everyone have the ability to be an individual, then it’s time for us to stop ignoring the problem. Because we’re the only ideology that has a sure route to the solution.

  • My biggest objection to this way of thinking is the fact that it was the government (in almost every case) that created this issue, and we should never ever look to the government to resolve it.

    • Sure. And I can understand how saying “identity politics” could lean to that way of thinking. However, my point is simply that we have to recognize that our society outcasts certain groups of people, and libertarians are at times willfully ignorant of that fact. “Identity politics” here is being used here to loosely mean acknowledging group identity and that, in our society, those groups have certain interests.

      • You’re accepting various premises which have been taught to you in University without doing the intellectual labor of questioning them.

        I would kindly suggest to you that you actually begin with the premise that collectives do not exist; that is that they are perceptual creations of our own imaginations and ideologies. There exists only individuals.

        Further (though I do this only rarely due to most people’s closed-minded, knee-jerk reactions), I would suggest that you explore the objectivist critique of collectivism v. individualism if you want to truly question those premises which you have here taken so for granted.

  • wrothbard

    Sure feels nice to be generalized as a blank slate, due to my race and class.

    • Exactly. Identity politics is essentialy collectivism. It undermines the entire narrative of individualism, and obliterates the movement.

      This is suicide, people.

      • I think blatantly ignoring the forced collectivism that already exists in society is a great way to undermine individualism. There’s nothing more effective at furthering a problem than pretending like it doesn’t exist.

        • wrothbard

          There’s nothing more effecting at creating a faux problem than pretending that it does exist. If people can’t handle some bullshit non-existent ‘othering’, that is, if they can’t handle a society of people that have opinions regarding them and their actions, then they’re quite frankly not ready to be consistent libertarians, or any other kind of individualist, anyway.

          • Except othering makes them inherent second class citizens, keeping them from getting jobs, getting married, etc. It has real, demonstrable affects on people. It’s not a matter of not “handling” it.

          • Ivan P

            This explains why libertarianism isn’t attractive to minorities. What kind of identity politics could libertarians even use to attract minorities? Only thing I can think of is excessive police force/the drug war, but that’s already covered by mainstream liberalism.

          • No, I don’t think that’s true. I think sympathizing and being able to recognize the real hardships of political minorities goes a LONG way. Additionally, when we know and understand the identity politics issues, we can say “Hey, this policy isn’t actually going to help you. Let’s try this policy/action that promotes freedom instead.”

            Additionally, libertarians actively working to combat harmful stereotypes changes our society for the better.

          • wrothbard

            The idea that people’s opinion of you keeps minorities from getting jobs but not white middle class males is so obviously bullshit that I’m surprised you tried to pull it.

            Nothing keeps anyone from getting married. Marriage is just a word. You can declare yourself married to your dog or your chair if you want.
            Just because people will refer to your spouse as a chair doesn’t mean you’re being ‘othered’.

            None of these things implies second class citizenship. Seriously, you think people having an opinion about you is oppressive then you’re not prepared to live in a human society, much less be a libertarian.

          • Uh. Someone’s opinion of you is the deciding factor of you getting a job. Someone evaluates your resume. That’s their opinion. You go in for an interview and they evaluate you there. That’s their opinion.

            Besides, there have been double blind studies that show that resumes with names people identify as “black” don’t get called in for interviews nearly as much as people with “white” names. Additionally, there have been the same rigorous studies that show the same thing for women and getting jobs in the sciences.

          • wrothbard

            “Someone’s opinion of you is the deciding factor of you getting a job.”

            And you’d have to be a complete idiot with a huge entitlement attitude if you think that’s somehow oppressive. And also, you’d not be a libertarian.

          • The evaluation itself isn’t what’s oppressive. It’s the way society shapes how people evaluate others to be more critical of those who are Others and less critical of those who aren’t.

          • wrothbard

            More bullshit. Society, being merely the end result of the actions of individual humans within it can only oppress if individuals are engaging in such oppression, and since you admit that such an evaluation is not oppressive, it becomes impossible for the combined evaluations of individuals within the society to be oppressive.

            And again with this Others bullshit. The mythical ‘othering’ you refer to would affect white middle class males as heavily as anyone else.

          • Testy McTesterson

            Are you anything other than a white, middle-class-ish male? Because if you aren’t, you should probably take a minute and recognize you’re running your mouth on about things you have never experienced.

            I’m not saying you can’t have an opinion; I’m saying you should take a minute to reflect on your ignorance.

          • wrothbard

            YOU should probably not reply to a 9 month old comment.
            Especially not when your own comment doesn’t really address the comment you’re replying to.

          • Ivan P

            And this is why most minorities will not be libertarians. It’s easy for most white males to tell them to ‘suck it up’.

          • wrothbard

            Suck what up? The fact that people have opinions about you? Yeah, if minorities can’t handle that, which is a bullshit idea, then they certainly can’t handle being libertarians.

  • Madfoot713

    I don’t see how women are othered in society. Races and sexualities are Othered, sure, but women make up half of our society, and it seems like stereotypes about (white) women are balanced by stereotypes about men. I also don’t get why you describe the “blank slate” syndrome as an inherently positive thing. If the Others have their own group identity, then aren’t the default members of society deprived of a group identity because they’re just default and boring? Can’t that be a bad thing?

    • If someone were to say to you “think of a human being.” What would your first conception be? For most people, it’s a male with Caucasian skin. Even if you’re talking stick figures, the “default” is man.

      That women are othered isn’t intended to say that men aren’t gendered, because I it’s pretty obvious that men ARE gendered. However, the ways in which men are gendered aren’t quite as harmful to their advancement in society. In fact, we, as a society, tend to laud the characteristics that we deem masculine and disregard those characteristics that we deem feminine. There is, of course, a lot of work that has been done to combat this, but the simple problem of men being the “Default” human and and women being the “other” is still there.

      • Madfoot713

        Well, I’ve heard this analogy before, but I once heard a different theory that sounds similar. A stick figure is not white, it is default. In western countries, a stick figure is assumed to be white since being white is the default. However, this is not the case in other countries where the dominant race isn’t white. This is why a lot of people assume anime has a lot of white people in it. Anime characters are not white, they are default. The Japanese project their racial identity onto those characters the same way we project whiteness onto our cartoon characters.

        Now, I like the romantic images of America being the “melting pot” nation, but obviously that’s not the reality yet. Whiteness is the default. My question is, why does that matter. That’s not to deny racism exists, but I don’t understand the relevance of the default/other frame of reference when this exists in every country and it always has. A colorblind society would be nice to achieve, but it’s obvious to me that that’s the end goal, not the minimum standard. Nobody calls for Japan to stop treating Japanese-ness as the default in their culture, because I don’t think that leads to a demonstrable negative effect on the Othered races in Japan. I’m not aware of any serious, systematic racism in Japanese society.

  • brett

    Leftist bullcrap! Yay!

  • Linda Cheong

    Aside from being a bunch of victimization claptrap that is wrong, supporting of statism, and which is wholly unrelated to libertarianism, it is also entirely dumb from a practical stand-point for us to embrace because the only people who buy into this crap en masse WILL NEVER SUPPORT LIBERTARIANISM ANYWAY. Shaun’s right, this IS suicide.

    I can’t be the only one who sees a problem with complaining about how certain types of people ‘can’t experience individuality’, and that the solution to this problem is…More collectivism?

    “There’s nothing more effective at furthering a problem than pretending like it doesn’t exist.”

    Even if you think this crap is a real problem, libertarians have got way bigger sh*t to worry about, it doesn’t help libertarianism to embrace it, AND IT DOESN’T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH LIBERTARIANISM. We’re struggling for the slightest mainstream success, but then you expect us to piggyback a bunch of leftist crap in as well?

    Libertarianism will die mainly thanks to idiots like you. Great job!

  • This is a fantastic article with much to consider–and potentially argue with–but the responses in the comments are just so pathetic as to leave me hopeless about the future of the libertarian movement. Where to begin?

    It is not an insult to say that cisgender, straight, white, middle-class males are the standard by which our society determines what is “normal” and “abnormal” or “sick.” Some EPA policies even do this: they take into account only how chemicals and pollutants affect the bodies of white men, which tend to have different (not “better” or “worse”) capacities than white women and women- and men-of-color. Or how about the fact that if you’re transgender you have to spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating which bathroom to use so that you don’t get beaten up, while for cisgender people, this isn’t a problem. If libertarians don’t take these sorts of issues into account, and assume that equality is the norm and anyone who complains about inequality is a whining collectivist, they’ll be left behind in the political dust as even Republicans begin to change their tune.

    • I agree that cisgender, straight, white middle-class males are the standards by which our society defines normal and I don’t think that this article is arguing that this generalization isn’t somewhat oppressive (forgive me for using oppressive). It’s just that the other roles that society places other minority groups in are WAY more oppressive than being viewed as a “normal” white male are. I would argue that the people who deviate from the normal standard are viewed as a little different while the people who rise above their oppressed groups stereotypes are just viewed as an exception to their stereotype.

  • CoryH

    This article is the absolute best. I’ve brought up similar arguments like this, and I’ve been called a collectivist for even mentioning the fact that we should consider societal problems like the patriarchy, gender roles, LGBTQ issues, etc.

  • What exactly is an “aversion to gender politics?” What would libertarians do differently without this aversion?

    • I understand the role of identity politics within the collectivist paradigm, but what does it mean to individualists?

    • As I imply in my post, it would behoove libertarians to recognize that society (aided by government) puts people into groups. You can’t help everyone be an individual if you think that they already are.

      I admit that “gender politics” is a troublesome term, and I should have chosen mine better. I meant it to mean that, basically, acknowledging the grouping society does based on gender.

      • Alan

        The philosophy of liberty isn’t about helping people be individuals; it’s about allowing them to be. In the same way, the philosophy allows us to prosper, but it doesn’t propose a specific method by which to achieve that prosperity. Some people do have to overcome greater challenges to achieve the a similar station in life as others, but I’ve never heard of a person acheiving great success who focused much on their disadvantages. Those who have the mentality required to excel in life will go about it in spite of others’ doubting them.

  • johnwu

    I don’t understand all this hate and people calling her names. I voted for and campaigned for Ron Paul last year and I completely agree. Is “identity politics” collectivism? Sure. But I don’t see anything wrong with VOLUNTARY collectivism to further the cause of individual liberty. Now, I’m sure you think I’m being contradictory but hear me out.

    There is/was a Facebook group called “Vietnamese-Americans for Ron Paul”. I didn’t hear a lot of complaints from libertarians then about it being collectivist. And frankly, there’s no reason to complain about it. That was a great idea! It reaches out to a demographic that otherwise may not have been reached out to. They also in their area in California changed a lot of perceptions about the notion that libertarianism or voluntaryism is a monopoly for white males.

  • Shari Peterson

    “A woman can’t escape the reality that she is assumed to be emotional,
    family-oriented, and gentle. Nor can she escape that people treat her
    differently because of those expectations. And this doesn’t even touch
    on the fact that she has been inundated with materials since she was a
    child that influence her to be this way or that she is negatively
    conditioned to not deviate from those expectations because every time
    she does there are negative consequences for her.”

    I am a woman. I am head strong, not family oriented (46 and no kids and didn’t want them) and not what you’d call gentle. I have no issues with anything. As a child I played with erector sets and in the dirt and climbing trees. My friends were male, I preferred their activities to dolls and playing house.

    If society didn’t like me I didn’t care, and still don’t – that’s why I speak my mind and outrage people and am…utterly happy and “ME.”

    I think this article is pushing groups again – this special interest group, that special interest group and the other one. Make sure there can’t be anything in common – look out for the groups.

    I don’t care if people generalize about me as a woman – when they meet me and get to know me those generalizations are always thrown out the window and if they don’t who flipping cares, onto the next one hoping they are more open minded.