I am getting pretty tired of these “hit” pieces on libertarianism. First there’s Slate’s never ending pile of rubbish. Then radio host Derek Hunter’s piece on TownHall, Andrew Kirell’s response, and Hunters oh-so-mature retort to that. Now, we have another piece from The Huffington Post called “Death of a Libertarian” by Brynn Tannehill.

In some ways, I suppose we should be flattered. This, in a way, is progress. As they say, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” I guess we’re at the ridiculing stage, which is better than being ignored, but it sure does make me angrier.

The thing that I can’t get past in Tannehill’s piece is this bit:

There’s only two problems with libertarian philosophy:

1. It only works if you’re white, male, straight, and mainline Christian
2. The actual numbers don’t support any of their fiscal dogma

I love articles like these from “reformed” libertarians, because the fact that they are “reformed” gives them a kind of journalistic credence, yet they do not seem to be informed at all about what libertarianism actually is or how the libertarian movement works. Yes, libertarians are predominantly straight, white, and male. It’s a problem that Thoughts on Liberty is partially here to solve. I’d say libertarians are probably more evenly split among the non-religious, but that is neither here nor there. But the idea that freedom only benefits white, male, straight Christians is beyond absurd.

In the history of mankind, who has been the most responsible for death, destruction, and oppression? Government. States are the entities that wage needless wars to prop up their own economies. Governments are the ones that systematically hunt down and slaughter their own peoples. Governments were responsible for Jim Crow, and it was the laws of the day that condoned, regulated, and perpetuated slavery. Even in our country today, a liberal, Democratic government is responsible for the mass incarceration of millions of people who have harmed no one.  It is because of government policies that two people of the same sex can’t share property, have hospital visitation, or in some cases adopt children.

To my mind, and to the mind of many libertarians, the real enemy of the non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-Christian people in this country is not libertarianism, but the government. And when you greatly limit or even, dare I say it, abolish government, you free millions of  socio-political minorities.

I will freely, perhaps more freely than most, admit that libertarians royally suck at understanding the societal oppression that faces minorities in our country today. I am about to make a trip to a conference to make that argument to them. They outright deny it in some cases. But not all of them do. There are great websites and organizations, like Students For Liberty, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, the Center for a Stateless Society, the Institute for Humane Studies, who engage with these ideas and are encouraging libertarians to think of solutions to these problems for free people. I don’t deny that libertarians very often have issues recognizing these problems as legitimate, but there are also scores of them who do and who are developing free solutions for a free world—for everyone. This is not a problem of libertarianism, it is a problem with some libertarians, and it is a fixable problem.

Are there problems with libertarianism as a philosophy? Possibly—but that depends on what type of libertarianism you’re talking about. I’m not sure it ever occurred to these folks that libertarianism might have various nuances, sects, or people with different ideas about what liberty means. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who thinks that libertarianism is a single ideology never bothered to stick around libertarianism long enough to see all of our infighting, and therefore isn’t qualified to talk about libertarianism.

Libertarianism is a multi-faceted ideology, with a diverse group of adherents who all think different things about what liberty means and how best to achieve it. I would expect a writer deciding to write on libertarianism to know at least that—but they might have had to look on Wikipedia to find that out.

  • Helen Dale

    Having seen (and interacted) with lots of political groupings (I’m happier to work ‘within the system’ than many classical liberals), I will say that libertarians are probably more diverse than many other political groups when it comes to the quality and quantity of ideas. My standard joke on this is that it’s easier to herd cats than get a group of libertarians to line up and agree with each other.

    One of the reasons people in the bigger parties often unite more readily than us is the fact that they do actually agree among themselves across more issues.

    [This is just an observation, by the way; I'm not sure it's something to fix, or even that it needs fixing...]

    • Robert Kenneth Kirchoff

      I agree. Certainly some baggage comes along with that acceptance of diversity (I talking to you, Alex Jones/Adam Kokesh/crazies in general). Still, it keeps us fresh and intellectually challenged.

      What baffles me is that so many liberals seem to think our intellectual diversity (to the extent they even acknowledge it exists) is some sort of sign of weakness. Odd attitude coming from people who harp on diversity all the time.

  • Antiwar2

    Crediting IHS or any of the Koch funded groups with this sudden libertarian shift toward human rights is a bit of a historical re-write. If anything, the presence of IHS largess kept libertarianism the province of a very small group of white men. And while it’s all well and good that SFL & BHL respond to the market demands of the RonPaul hippies, this happened only after years of the Alliance of Left Libertarians and related groups (which became the core of C4SS) toiled in the antiwar movement which was considered too outre or in the words of one Cato don, “too un-American.”

    Whatever the current modern libertarian movement has to offer in the areas of sexual freedom, gender theory and anti-racism was directly a result of many of us working toward universal human rights in the ending of US foreign policy. Many now suddenly enlightened libertarians were no where to be found when questions of a genocidal war based on racism and religious bigotry were the main moral issues of the day.

    Better late than never one supposes but like those moderate libertarians who need to remind everyone how they oppose chattel slavery. That’s great but don’t expect a cookie for it in 2013.

    • http://thoughtsonliberty.com/ Gina Luttrell

      I can only speak to my experiences in IHS. They don’t really have an agenda for those things themselves, but, rather, do have and have had a hand in generating those conversations among libertarians, largely in their conferences.

      I talked with an older gentleman at the Arizona RC who said that there were always, always left-libertarians (so-called) in the movement, but that they didn’t get as much voice because the paleo-libs were more controversial, more headline-making, and, sadly, more prominent.

      But none of this really counters my point. The problems with the libertarian movement are with libertarians as people, not with the philosophy of liberty. And those are improvements to be made going forward, not to ditch the philosophy in and of itself.

  • 7thPillar

    As a Pagan, White male I guess I fit two outta three of the stereotype, but as a Pagan, I also know that there are many female, non-white Libertarians out there, they’re just hard to spot needles in the haystack.

    • http://thoughtsonliberty.com/ Gina Luttrell

      Pagans represent!

  • Derek Ellerman

    It’s probably because libertarianism has nothing to do with private social interactions, and only concerns political power. For the millionth time.

  • Noah

    I’m shocked, shocked that such respectable sources like HuffPo and Town Hall ran hit pieces filled with straw-men against libertarianism.

    So long as libertarians make arguments like Gina made following her complaint, these pieces will continue. These poorly thought-out hit pieces respond to a standing inconsistency between libertarian thought and practice. While Gina’s claims about the immorality of government might have some superficial validity, they suffer from a fundamental inconsistency that undermines their validity within libertarian thought.

    They fail to apply the standard libertarian, personal responsibility analysis when it becomes less convenient. Just as people, rather than guns, kill people, people, rather than governments, do all sorts of nasty things to other people. Because libertarians fail to internalize this argument consistently, outsiders will feel freer to misinterpret and mischaracterize other libertarian arguments. Bad argumentation and fallacy normalizes the same in response. If libertarians want to stop this, they must put out only the most rigorous arguments, especially if they want to preach intellectual consistency so patronizingly.

    I am not convinced that, as Gina asserted, all governments are bad because some governments have done bad things. Blaming government, especially in general, for a particular government’s collective action or the likelihood thereof over-generalizes. If we applied Gina’s heuristic, we would condemn all humans based on the actions of a select group because they proved a generalized capacity for evil, even if some particular individuals outside of that group hadn’t engaged in evil deeds (yet, Gina might argue). This kind of over-generalization mismatches units of analysis and observation by conflating governments in general with the members and constituents of a particular governments. But we don’t condemn all Cambodians or Cambodian governments because of the Khmer Rouge, nor every human for the failings and harm caused by every other human (nonetheless, the former should legitimately assume the weight of history of the latter).

    Government can only be as good as the people running it and, in reasonably democratic or republican societies, the voters who elect representatives. Jim Crow, Iraq, and the war on drugs are examples of bad policies, enacted by bad individuals, and supported popularly by arguably bad individuals. Government has the power to amplify their effects, but we don’t blame the megaphone for the the drivel spewing forth.

    The problem with government that I think Gina meant to identify when she generalized about the evil of government in general by listing off examples of bad governments is that the state can make everyone complicit in those evils.. I think libertarians err in over-generalizing because of an attempt to wash their hands of their share of the collective guilt we all bear by rebuking the concept of government altogether. However, simply blaming the concept of government for the misdeeds of the state we now call home and calling for its abolition will not wash any of our hands of the collective guilt that we inherently bear for these evils, in which we may have had no say, but for which we remain culpable.

    This generalizing of complicity in societal acts could be viewed as unfair. It’s fair to be frustrated with being saddled with culpability for the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and asinine wars that preceded our majority and membership in this society. But this won’t assuage the guilt, mend the wounds, or solve the hard, underlying problem of bad individuals.

    Attempting to wash our hands of guilt by rebuking government especially will not begin to repair the damage. It is not constructive. It only wraps the individual thinker in an inconsistently-woven shroud of moral self-satisfaction, so that the thinker may feel comfortable enough to exclude him/herself from the issue and free ride on the hard process of those taking personal responsibility for a guilt that belongs to everyone.

    One can argue that a system that ensnares all in the guilt of the choices of 50%+1 is immoral. That may be valid, but the Framers decided that this was the new, American way to do things. The Framers may have created an unfair and immoral system in the Constitution that many libertarians hold dear. Even still, the supposed immorality and failure of the Framers’ creation doesn’t invalidate the concept of the state; at most, it only invalidates this American iteration and, certainly, not categorically.

    While it can feel edifying and even cathartic to imagine the tearing down of the immoral, failed project, such would be a harmful overreaction. We have come so far and the cost of changing course would likely outweigh the cost of correcting our present one. I would agree that the electoral system could be amended to increase sensitivity or other democratic markers. Changing bad policy, like the war on drugs, is always in order, especially as we try to chose better representatives. The system could always benefit from tweaks, just as it will always require good people to steer the ship in the right direction.

    Of course, with bad captains, the ship of state runs aground, but running aground does not invalidate the concept of ships. That a ship running aground takes so many people with it and that those people may not have as much of a say are legitimate concerns, which democratic and republican organizational innovations attempt to address. However, ships remain our means to venture together to distant, new frontiers. Despite their errors, the legacy the Framers bequeathed us is a system open to popular change. We should not squander it and maroon ourselves for self-satisfaction. Running aground just means we need to keep working on improving ships and the people who run them.

    • Noah

      PS Gina’s point about libertarians–both in the breadth of their diversities and its increasing acceptance of it–is not only the morally right approach; it is the politically astute and rational approach.

      As a progressive, Jewish male, I am another odd-ball here. I am wont to quibble with motivations and justifications, but I admire good advice. Gina’s recommendations, and the underlying analysis, are quite fine.

      Hers is a solid strategy to position and shape an effective libertarian coalition in this lifetime. Libertarians must seek the center. Despite whatever rightward move some claim the center may have made in the last 30 years, re-positioning the generally rightward libertarian coalition to seek the center still means in some cases moving left. This is where libertarians have the most room to grow with the greatest marginal returns.

  • Addy

    As a non-white, non-male, non-christian libertarian (the “voluntaryist” variety), it’s kind of interesting to see how people talk around you because they assume things. They assume I’m a liberal, that I’m a christian and get shaken up when I mention that I’m against affirmative action. I haven’t come out of the closet to some relatives because it’s almost as bad as telling them I’m an atheist (which I am). I’ve gotten some nasty looks from people when they asked who I voted for (when Obama ran for president the first time). I voted for no one.

    Unfortunately, in real life I don’t know any libertarians. Most of the people where I currently live are liberal or conservative (I’m in the south). And good luck finding another anarchist. I feel like the pink elephant in the room that no one can see and those who can see it — don’t want to.

    The government can’t solve “societal problems,” just make them worse (in my opinion). Abolishing the government still won’t rid people of sexist/racist/homophobic/etc people or “societal oppression” either. Unfortunately, there isn’t a shortcut to getting people to think differently. And many suffer from a herd mentality and digest anything they media tells them. My greatest concern though is securing the maximum amount of freedom and liberty — but I’m a bit of an idealist and the current state of the our society isn’t making me hopeful.

    I’d like to get involved more (not with politics but more with “intellectual activism”) but not sure how. I’m sure there are more of us who don’t fit the libertarian stereotype of white/male/christian. But I don’t really care to try and say “I’m this this and this AND I’m a libertarian” I just want more freedom :D.

    • Chriswich

      I encourage you to write about libertarian ideas as much as you can if you aren’t already. If you don’t fit into the libertarian stereotype then all the better you’ll do for speaking up. It would be good for outsiders to see and good for other minorities in the movement.

      • Addy

        You are right. It’s really hard in real life to voice my thoughts to people who don’t want to listen. My friend said I should start a blog — better reach.

  • JPeron

    I largely agree, but I do not think that the abolition of government will necessarily liberate minorities. Governments tend to threaten minorities when the larger culture allows it to happen, if not actively encourages it. Similarly, governments may protect rights when the larger culture leans in that direction. A culture of intolerance, without a state, would still be oppressive. Cultural values are the core of all systems. Merely change a government, without a change in culture, will not solve problems. It will only change how the oppression is conducted.

    • http://thoughtsonliberty.com/ Gina Luttrell

      I think you’re right. That was a bit of an overstatement on my part. Good critique.