Privilege or individual rights—which should libertarians be concerned with? The Foundation for Economic Education, which hosted the debate, should be lauded in their courage for hosting an open discussion on these issues. However, by pitting the two concepts against each other, they commit a fatal fallacy: the false dichotomy. The two ideas are not opposed to each other; in fact, those who want to achieve a society where everyone is considered by their individual personalities and merits cannot achieve their goals without first battling systemic privilege. The two are inexorably linked, and you cannot get the latter without defeating the former.

It is of paramount importance to define some terms. It is too often the case that people talk past each other in these sorts of debates. Many people, both Borowski and Will Tippens (writing on the Young Americans for Liberty blog) seem to want to latch on the phrase “check your privilege” as the beginning and end of discussions on privilege. They seem to feel that privilege is a system of thought designed to make people feel guilty. This interpretation of the privilege argument completely misses the point of what privilege is about. But let’s put those claims aside for a moment and start with basics.

Privilege, as Jonathan Blanks puts it over at The Blanks Slate, “is shorthand for the benefit an individual or group of people holds in contrast to another individual or group of people, particularly in relation to class, race, [gender, religion, sexuality, or whatever].” In essence, to say that someone has privilege is to say that they are a part of a class of people that either is given a special status in society or is not a member of a class that is systematically disenfranchised by society.1

In her essay for FEE, Cathy points out some ways that privilege manifests: that black people are arrested shockingly more often than white people for drug usage, despite almost identical usage rates; that there are hundreds of bills in state legislatures across the country that attempt to legislate decisions between women and their doctors; that not only are sodomy laws still on the books in various states, but they are actively being defended.

And these are just the myriad of ways in which the law and the state discriminate against different types of people. Cathy also points out that black students are much more likely to face punishment than white students for the same offenses. The treatment of professional football player Richard Sherman is just one small but prominent example of the reality for many people of color in the United States. The examples go on and on, and are not just limited to race.

Generally speaking, privileged classes in the United States include whiteness, maleness, middle class and above, heterosexual-ness, cis-genderedness, mental wellness, mental ability, and, according to some, conventional attractiveness and thinness. Basically, if you can think of a category that is largely genetic or out of your control, and how you present in that category affects how people treat you, that’s a way someone can experience privilege.

Now, there are two ways someone can misinterpret the implications of privilege. The first big mistake people make—whether they admit it or not—is assuming that because they have privilege that there is somehow the assumption their life isn’t hard. That because the person happens to be a white, heterosexual, male, man, that their life isn’t difficult. While some may say that, that position lacks a lot of nuance, and, as a result, is false. One of the best explanations I’ve seen of what it is like to be a person with a lot of privilege is that it’s like playing a video game on the easiest difficulty.

Second, privilege isn’t a have-or-have-not kind of deal—that a person is either privileged or he/she is not. That’s not true, and lots of people think that it is. The reality is that it’s complicated and multi-faceted. Many people experience privilege in some aspects and are disadvantaged in others. To treat a white person, cis person, heterosexual person, etc. as if they are a “privileged” person and that be the end of the story is folly, and it is a mistake that a lot of people make.

Lots of people suck at intersectionality (feminists, in particular). Because of the complexities of intersecting modes of privilege, there are many times when someone says “check your privilege” is just being ignorant or an asshole. But just because some people who work within a certain ideological framework are ignorant assholes, that doesn’t mean the framework is wrong. If it did, libertarians would be shit out of luck. But, as I’ve shown above, the concept is much, much more complex than that. If you’re going to talk about or rebuff it, start by treating privilege as the complex issue that is it is.

The great benefit of those who understand what privilege is and how it works is not that they have the ability to “make people feel guilty.” It’s that they understand how the world works. Individualists need to understand this. If we want a world where everyone is truly valued for their individuality and the particular aspects that they bring to the table, then we must first start by dismantling privilege—not denying that it exists.

The fact of the matter is that systemic privilege and the disadvantages it creates should be a priority for libertarians who value individualism. Not because we should value putting people into groups, but because we want people to be free of those constraints.

Thoughts on Liberty has done a lot of work on the issue of privilege in the past. If you’re interested, take a look at the following:

  1. It’s Time for Libertarians to Embrace Identity Politics” by Gina Luttrell
  2. A Primer on Privilege in 500 Words or Fewer” by Gina Luttrell
  3. Clearing Up Some Misconceptions about Identity Politics and Oppression” by Kelly Barber
  4. Privilege and Pride: Misconceptions about ‘Checking Your Privilege” by Elizabeth Robinson BeShears

1 There is some debate about which of these is framed most correctly. I don’t have a strong opinion, but I wanted both views represented.