The following article was written by Jim Peron, founder of the Moorfield Storey Institute, and Fr33minds, a libertarian book service. He has written for many publications including Reason Magazine, The Freeman, and The Huffington Post. This article was originally published at http://storeyinstitute.blogspot.com/.
Have you heard any of the following critiques of libertarianism?
Libertarians are just conservatives who like drugs!
Libertarians are only concerned about themselves!
Libertarians don’t care what happens to other people?
Libertarians are selfish!
This libertarian is dismayed by such comments but I have to admit that they are often true, at least about many individual libertarians, though they are not true about the philosophy of libertarianism per se.
I just spent a couple days at a libertarian conference. It is an experience that I find increasingly dismaying and disappointing because there has been a clear rightward shift in the libertarian movement toward some clearly anti-libertarian viewpoints, if not toward some pure nonsense from the fringe right. It is as if no libertarian today can critique the Federal Reserve without appealing to the pseudo-history conspiracy theories of G. Edward Griffin of the John Birch Society.
But what is interesting is listening to libertarians dismiss issues that are important to people who aren’t like them. Let us be truthful: the typical libertarian, and certainly the typical attendee at this conference, is a middle-aged, white, straight male. And they seem utterly incapable of seeing freedom through the lenses of anyone who isn’t the same.
Mention equal marriage rights for gay people and they simply dismiss it as unimportant. If they aren’t actively opposed—and some were—they see it as inconsequential. If you talk about guns they often are interested since so many of them own firearms. If you talk about pornography they are interested. But when it comes to the barriers to immigration they don’t give a damn since they aren’t immigrants. They hate tax laws but then they pay taxes.
They really are libertarians who only see liberty as an issue as it applies to white, middle-aged, straight men.
David Boaz wrote about the same thing by implication:
The Cato Institute’s boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, “Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded.” Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn’t seem quite that way to black people.
Clarence Thomas saw the fallacy in the claim because he views history through his own experiences as a black man. He realized that during the “golden age” of liberty, which so many libertarians pine for, that black people were held in slavery. And, even after slavery was eventually abolished, government policy actively discriminated against black people. They were subjected to laws mandating they be treated badly by public transportation. They were easily convicted of crimes, including those they didn’t commit and were happily lynched by rabid mobs of whites who would then slice them up and take body parts as souvenirs. There is a reason Justice Thomas questioned whether the trend in liberty was entirely in one direction—as so many libertarians see it.
Women certainly have it much better today than they did during any other period of American history. They can own property on their own. They can easily escape abusive relationships. They can sign legal contracts without the permission of their father or husband. They have control over their reproductive abilities which had previously been denied them by the force of law—and this doesn’t just mean the right to abortion but the right birth control which was previously illegal.
What about freedom of religion? Did you know that there were periods where the states made it illegal to be a practicing Catholic? No state does so today. The Pilgrim Fathers—you know the ones you were told came to America for religious freedom—executed Mary Dyer because she was the wrong kind of Christian. Virginia banned the Puritans, Quakers, Catholics and Jews. Maryland had the death penalty for anyone who challenged orthodox Christian beliefs and later made a crime of being a Catholic priest, with a life sentence attached. They also said only Anglicans could hold office and that Catholics were not allowed to vote. Today the main claim of religious persecution made by Christians is from those who feel persecuted when they can’t impose their religious beliefs on others through the force of law. They think that not being allowed to teach religious dogma in public schools is oppressive. But their churches operate openly, they still go door-to-door annoying the unwilling, and they enjoy something denied their secular opponents—tax exemption.
All of this is what I call “me” libertarianism. That is the tendency of individual libertarians to interpret the political trends only through their own experiences without caring what the broader reality happens to be.
Consider the Gadsden flag, popular with many libertarians, as another example. The motto is “Don’t tread on me.” Again the state of liberty is interpreted only in the self-centered way of how government impacts my life and my life alone.
Listening to libertarians who only see liberty as important to them infuriates me. I realize that their false perceptions of what it means to advocate liberty actually makes it harder to achieve liberty. First, they routinely exclude people who were oppressed from the liberty movement because they aren’t like them.
I don’t mean they actively tell women, gays, blacks, immigrants, Jews, etc., that they are unwelcome. They usually don’t go that far. But what they do is routinely dismiss the concerns of these people as trivial and unimportant. I defended Boaz’s comments to a libertarian who immediately dismissed it as worthless and then he recounted ways that white, middle-aged men (WMASM) are worse off today than before. That WMASM pay more in taxes today is more important than the fact that blacks are no longer routinely lynched. That WMASM feel hard pressed by affirmative action is a major issue but the fact that millions of gay people no longer dread imprisonment for loving someone of the same gender is inconsequential.
There was a minor controversy in the on-line gaming community when Dragon Age 2 included some characters that are gay. One gamer complained saying that all previous games were designed for straight males and he didn’t see why it had to change. He wanted an option to ban gay characters from the game. David Gaider, the writer of the game responded. He said that the decisions he made were not about “political correctness”—a favorite scapegoat of the WMASM—but about how “privilege always lies with the majority.” He said that that those who used to “being catered to… see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don’t see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what’s everyone’s fuss all about? That’s the way it should be, as everyone else should be used to not getting what they want.”
So many libertarians are guilty of this. They look at the privileged positions that WMASM had enjoyed for much of human history and then decide the fate of freedom only by how it impacts their privileged minority. That blacks and women and gays make up more of the population that WMASM is irrelevant because they only see history through WMASM eyes. The libertarian tradition was founded by people who were deeply concerned about the liberty of others. The classical liberals did want freedom of thought for themselves but they fought for freedom of thought for religious minorities even when they themselves were not religious. Jefferson defended freedom of religion even for the Calvinists who he despised. The great classical liberals were in the forefront of abolitionism. They wanted to free the black race from the shackles of slavery even those they themselves were not black, nor enslaved.
Our namesake, Moorfield Storey, is one of the great unsung libertarian heroes. Yes, he advocated free markets, property rights, and limited government. But he was a leader in the earliest civil rights movement. He was the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was a lawyer to fought for the rights of black people in the Supreme Court and who defended men who were railroaded by a white mob and sentenced to death. He fought these battles long before Martin Luther King was even born.
Two of the greatest classical liberals in England were Richard Cobden and John Bright. Bright and Cobden were relatively privileged men, a manufacturer and a mill owner respectively, wealthy by the standards of the day, who enjoyed all the birthrights of the freest Englishmen of the day. Yet these men poured their heart and soul into the fight to abolish the Corn Laws.
The Corn Laws were a plethora of legislation that protected the landed elite in England by banning the importation of grains from outside England. The people who suffered from the laws were the poor who were forced to pay higher prices for bread. Cobden and Bright had little to gain from repeal and managed to offend many of the wealthiest people in England because of their efforts. But they realized that freedom is indivisible. Freedom exists when it applies to all people, not just to the few and privileged.
We have millions of our fellow citizens who are freer today than they would have been had they lived in the golden age of liberty—whenever you think that might be. We have to be aware of their concerns as well. “Me” libertarianism references liberty only as it effects the speaker, without consideration of the freedom of others. It does send the message that libertarianism is selfish and about protecting privilege for white males only.
Others, who were not so privileged in the past, have trouble seeing how liberty will help them precisely because so many advocates of liberty simply don’t care about how others are oppressed today. They do care about the issues that impact their lives but everyone else is inconsequential. Is it any wonder that so many African-Americans don’t see libertarians as interested in them? Is it really a surprise that libertarian meetings are so overwhelmingly male? Why is anyone surprised when the LBGT community ignores libertarianism after libertarians have spent decades ignoring them?
Oppressed people everywhere ought to be our natural allies in advocating the extension of liberty. But for that to happen we have to prove ourselves advocates for the extension of their liberties as well. As long as issues that impact WMASM take precedence over all other groups libertarians will send the message that they don’t want allies who aren’t like them. I note that young libertarian groups, who often speak of libertarianism as it impacts others, are more racially diverse, have a lot more females (which ought to please straight males) and attract more support from their gay peers.
Alexander McCobin, the head of Students for Liberty, was invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference and made it clear he was glad that gay people had been included. He noted that liberty does not come in pieces but applies to all people. The libertarian students applauded and the conservatives heckled.
While the Libertarian Party has become a refuge for the WMASM, and seems to be dying, Students for Liberty has exploded on the campuses with over 400 active [student groups]. They can reach out to everyone because of the message that McCobin, and other young libertarians, are sending. The LP nominated the author of the Defense of Marriage Act for president and seems confined to political oblivion.
We need to actively work to change abolish “me libertarianism” and focus liberty for all instead. We can still lament the ways that liberty is being denied but we should also fight for issues like marriage equality, the rights of immigrants, reproductive rights for women (which is now again under attack by the Republicans). We need to actively acknowledge that the “golden age” of liberty treated black Americans badly. We need to listen to people who are not like us. We have to solicit the life experiences of people who are not our gender, not our race, not our sexual orientation, not in the economic conditions we experienced, and who had very different experiences from our own
Once we understand some of their life experiences and their views we need to expand our freedom concepts so that we are also trying to liberate others, not just those like ourselves. We need an outward libertarianism that focuses on the rights of all people if we ever wish to attract all people to our cause. Liberty is doomed if it is perceived as merely the refuge for the privileged few. And self-centered libertarianism gives precisely that impression.