Two weeks ago at the International Students For Liberty Conference I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on Libertarians & the Left featuring my SFL colleague Barbara Sostaita, Zach Wahls of Scouts for Equality, and Jill Harris of the Drug Policy Alliance. The preparation for the panel and the event itself helped flesh out my conceptions of privilege, a concept that has been growing within intra-libertarian conversations lately. It was even prominent in a discussion between my friends Cathy Reisenwitz and Julie Borowski on the ISFLC version of the STOSSEL Show. At the heart of the discussion is the observed fact that the libertarian movement is overwhelmingly white, middle class, and male. This then leads to the question of if this is a problem and if so, what do to about it.
These are very important observations to make and I am glad the conversations are taking place. While the movement continues to grow we need to grapple with including new groups, especially oppressed groups, while maintaining our common libertarian identity. But I want to reflect a little on these observations and the various forms of analysis that can come with it.
The libertarian movement, and related movements such as Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, are predominantly white, male, and middle class. And yes, this is a challenge that we need to overcome, but it is not surprising or at all exceptional. It is to be expected.
As radical left organizer Saul Alinsky explained in Rules for Radicals, all successful revolutions start as middle class movements. Alinksy breaks down all of history as conflict between three groups, the Haves, the Have-nots, and the Have-a-little-want-more’s. The Have’s obviously have no incentive for change. The Have-not’s lack the means to enact change. The key factor in creating the conditions for radical social change is the size, wealth, and level of discontent among the middle class. If things play out right, the middle and lower classes can ally and change the world.
Viewed through Alinsky’s lense, of course middle class males would be the leaders in adopting a radical philosophy like libertarianism. Of course those who are in a position of privilege have experienced the blessings of liberty and promote its benefits the most. Those who have tasted liberty themselves want more for themselves and their brothers and sisters.
In this sense, I think the privilege analysis helps us understand where we are and where we need to go. But there are two veins of this analysis that I want to distinguish between: perspectival analysis and accusational analysis.
Perspectival analysis challenges you to step out of your own shoes and into another’s. To try to understand where other people are coming from and to appreciate how their reality informs their beliefs. We want to feel empathy for their experienced pain and frustration, internalizing these perspectives. It challenges you to consider where your beliefs come from and to unpack your biases. While necessarily imperfect, the goal is to use this analysis to expand and hone your own unique worldview.
Accusational analysis adds value judgments to the equation. These types of arguments imply that due to a person’s position of privilege (class, gender, income, etc.), the weight of their argument is lessened when discussing certain topics. Taken a step further, it implies that due to a shared group identity (race, gender, class, etc.), the privileged party is part of a shared injustice and, in many cases, blameworthy as a result of their membership in said group.
This accusational stance is particularly problematic for libertarians, and for good reason. Our worldview is robustly individualist
(which I have previously written is not incompatible with but necessary for forming authentic community). One of the strongest forces that originally pulled me toward libertarianism is its rejection of original sin. I grew up resenting a deeply ingrained catholic guilt and strongly rejected any worldview that would hold me guilty for the sins of another man. I was deeply taken with libertarianism’s ethical egalitarianism, the belief that we are all equal moral agents totally responsible for our own actions.
I make this distinction because understanding the privilege dynamic has made me more self-aware of my own beliefs, more humble, and better able to communicate with those from different backgrounds. I understand that my beliefs do come from a position of privilege, but that does not disqualify them. My privilege merely raises the bar for my own critical self-analysis and need for continual improvement.
The privilege dialogue is important, but we need to integrate it in a way that is compatible with the broader libertarian framework. If we
are going to talk about privilege, we need to make sure that we are not being, or perceived as being, accusational. Depending on the context, I can see how saying “check your privilege” comes off as hostile to other libertarians. It is as if we are holding them guilty of a sin they never committed. Like we are blaming them for the current racial and gender disparity in the movement.
These topics are complex. There is no easy answer to poverty, racism, or structural injustice, but we should recognize the complexity of these problems instead of trying to assert our moral superiority on the topics. Admitting our privilege is important to this process, but we cannot alienate our own by casting collectivist moral judgment upon them for committing the sin of being born a middle class white male ( I will admit my bias here since I am one).
This is why I strongly endorse the perspectival approach to privilege, and reject the accusational one.
A healthy approach to the question of privilege will greatly benefit our movement. It is a key to being able to build meaningful relationships groups and individuals who come from a diverse array of backgrounds, perspectives, and privileges of their own. This will take engagement with minority and historically oppressed communities. But I see so much animosity between my libertarian friends who push the privilege discussion and those who defend libertarianism’s individualism.
Yes, the libertarian movement is largely composed of white men. This is not because any of our predecessors or contemporaries have done anything wrong. It just simply is the case, as would be expected. We should not be pointing fingers, trying to figure out whose fault it is. But we do need to be humble enough to admit we do not have all the answers, and we should not try to tell everyone else what they ought to do to fix it.
But we should embrace the challenge of privilege on a personal level. Question our own assumptions, think critically about factors in our lives that influence our beliefs, and try to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. Only by making ourselves better can we hope to change the world. Once we do that and stop trying to tear each other down, the rest will come naturally.