Fellow libertarians, we need to talk.
We-yes, we-have a racism problem, and a civility problem, and the two are related.
No, wait! I can see a lot of you typing furious replies right now, posting things that range from “ALL OF YOUR FREEDOMS, ALL OF THE TIME” to “I don’t care if you install tits and chop off your dick, you’re cool” (that one’s a nigh direct quote from a recent thread), or “This is supposed to be about the individual, right?”. Some of you may be going “well I’m white and my life has been crap”, or possibly even pulling the black on black crime card. Some of you are probably preparing to link me to an Eric July post, or that FEE article. There may be some serious profanity ready to fall out of your keyboard.
Hear me out. Read the whole thing, and then decide if I’m full of crap or not.
If you’re not a libertarian, or just coming over from the right or the left and looking at libertarian ideas and candidates for the first time, you’re welcome to read, but this post really isn’t for you. It’s for the people that have been here for a while. This post is for the people that claim the title libertarian proudly and unequivocally.
I come to you as one of your own, not some SJW infiltrator or Trumpian spy. I’ve been a proud libertarian since the late 1990s. The first presidential vote I ever cast was for Harry Browne. I’ve served in my local LP and volunteered on a few campaigns. I was making 7-800 phone calls per month for a while in support of LP causes. I was lucky enough to go to a barbeque at Jeremy Sapienza’s apartment back in the anti-state.com days (and man, gay anarchists can bbq like no one’s business). I’ve read a decent chunk of Rothbard, Spooner, Bastiat, Jefferson, Justin Raimondo, and Rand, and a smaller amount of von Mises, Hayek, Bob Murphy, and others. I don’t have as much libertarian cred as some, but I have a pretty good knowledge of libertarian theory and positions, and the history and current reality of our movement.
I’ve long said that members of many groups, and fringe political movements especially, are often far happier jerking off in their own echo chambers and being right, or maybe at most screaming empty platitudes and cliches at someone who disagrees, than in actually getting anything done or changing anyone’s mind. Changing peoples’ minds only happens when you actually talk to people outside your own bubble and address their concerns-the substance AND the perception-in language they understand. It does not happen through insults, it does not happen through obscure Rothbard quotes, and it does not happen through simply saying “nuh-uh”.
And, while everyone is absolutely an individual first, when one claims membership in a group, especially in politics, one also assumes responsibility for the baggage of that group. If I say I’m a fan of Grover Cleveland (a member of that fandom, if you will) I’m also accepting his policies on labor and race unless I qualify my enthusiasm. If I claim to be a Brony and someone asks me about cloppers I need to have a good answer, because it’s a fair question.
With all of that said, why do I say that our movement has a racism problem-more specifically a white supremacy problem-and a civility problem? Many reasons. Let’s start with racism. This is a charge that the left still beats us over the head with on a regular basis. So…let’s take a look at both the substance and the reality of this charge.
Right now the United States is in a historical moment where we might finally be reckoning with one of the fundamental realities of our country-for all the good of it, it’s been built in part on stolen labor and stolen land, and the government has continued to abuse the people whose land and labor was stolen in varying degrees up until the present day. The libertarian movement is going through something similar in microcosm, where we have to reckon with what’s in our past, and present. As far as the libertarian movement as a whole, our bonafides on issues of race or just about any other bigotry are very good. In fact we’ve been WAY ahead of the curve-libertarians were screaming about police brutality and mass incarceration back when I first got involved in the late 90s, and we were very lonely voices in the wilderness at that time. And if you want a further history lesson, this Reason article and the responses in this thread are a great start. Libertarians have been on this since before there was a Libertarian Party, and many of our claimed ideological predecessors go back even farther. Hell, even Ayn Rand didn’t like racism, sort of 😛 We have a great many positions that would help everyone if implemented, but would especially benefit minorities-besides the drug war and mass incarceration, there’s occupational licensing, war, farm subsidies that jack up the cost of food, NIMBY zoning laws that make housing more expensive, and open borders that would go a long way to address the atrocities and inconveniences (and everything in between) perpetuated on people that just want to come here to work. These are core issues for us, and essentially always have been.
But…let’s acknowledge the other reality too. First, just because you own a gun and hate the government, it doesn’t make you a libertarian-which some people haven’t figured out yet. A couple of pretty well known libertarian figures went straight off the alt right and/or Trumptard deep end, most notably and sad to me Stephen Molyneux and L. Neil Smith. As to why, I’m not entirely sure, and I wish I knew. It could be a wrong turn of intellectual arrogance, it could be the cultural tension that exists in the libertarian movement between ex Republicans and ex hippies, or it could just be frustration with everything and hoping the outsider could shake things up…or it could be that they were assholes all along who just happened to write some good stuff for a while before it showed through. There’s also how a few of our leading figures went down parts of that road for a while. Murray Rothbard, Mr. Libertarian himself, wrote some bad stuff at the end of his life. No matter what his legislative record on racial issues was, or what his private and public statements were after, the Ron Paul newsletters happened, and we need to own it.
Then there’s what I’ve seen in threads lately, from the reactions of people (not everyone, but enough) to a trans person asking a legitimate newbie question to the furor over our presidential candidate having the gall to condemn police murder and racism. The nerve, right?! The first part of that is assuming bad faith, which is not something we can afford to do. I think it’s fair to say that almost everyone who claims the libertarian mantle came to it through a combination of study, research, frustration, and the genuine belief that libertarian solutions to problems would make our country and world better. But it shouldn’t be such a stretch to think that other people of good intellect and good conscience could come to other conclusions. We celebrate the individual, right? The individual that is free to choose? I find Marxism to be just as dumb and just as founded on weak theoretical underpinnings as most of you, but a lot of dear friends, having studied the state of the world, history, and the same available data as I have have come to conclusions that lead them to think one of the left wing ideologies explains the world better. I disagree with them, but it would be very stupid of me to assume that they aren’t motivated by the same desire to improve their own lives and the lives of others. These are desires worthy of respect. And, more importantly, we agree on a good number of issues. We can fight about what we disagree on, sure, but that shouldn’t blind us to what we agree on, and working together to fix what needs to be changed in the world. We also shouldn’t be so stupid as to be blind to wisdom just because it comes from a source that wasn’t published by Lew Rockwell.
Which brings me to the civility problem, and a major intellectual blindspot for a lot of libertarians that I wasn’t really aware of until I saw it in action over the last few weeks. For those of you that aren’t aware, there’s an idea that’s been floating in left wing circles for a long time called intersectionality. I know, I know, but again, hear me out, and stay with me to the end. This is all going to tie together. As I understand it, the basic idea of intersectional theory is that we all exist in different interlocking systems of oppression and privilege, so someone who is black and male and straight gets racism but benefits from sexism and homophobia, whereas a white gay woman deals with a different set of issues, and so on. Now…taken to its extreme, or used as the only way of seeing the world, it quickly gets nihilistic, and more importantly devalues the individual and the individual experience. But, used judiciously, it is one beginning of wisdom, even though it is not its end. And, for libertarians that drone on and on about the value of voluntary associations and how society is not government, it recognizes one essential truth: (individual) humans are part of groups.
I am about as radical an individualist as I’ve met. I believe in the power of the human being singular. I believe that the first time you say “I am” and mean it-the first time you assert your individuality in the face of a collective-is perhaps the most important decision you can make in your life. But once you say “I am”, what comes next? We are individuals first, but we are also part of groups second, some of which we get to choose and some of which we don’t. And I have seen this basic truth go over so many peoples’ heads in the last few days. Yes, we are individuals and should be treated as such, but that is not reality for a lot of people. Yes, racism is stupid, evil collectivism-but it exists. And no, no community is monolithic, and there are always outliers, but in most of them you can usually draw trend lines, especially about what the big concerns are. This is what the left sees that a lot of us don’t. The left also usually has the sense to actually ask about peoples’ experiences (to a certain extent) rather than just assume that a blanket platitude will take care of everything. The groups that we are part of are huge parts of our identity and often have different concerns and issues than other groups. I’m me first. But I’m also a a teacher, a musician, a member of a couple of fandoms, half Hispanic, bisexual, a guy, and a number of other things of varying importance. That gives me a different set of concerns than Jolene Generic first, but also all the groups that they’re a part of.
To elaborate on this, it seems like so many in our movement have never even met a black person, or a trans person, or someone else that isn’t exactly like them. And if you did, you didn’t talk much about what they’d lived through, or if they’d ever gotten crap for what they were rather than who they were. Watching libertarians talk it seems like we’re not aware that not everyone has read Rothbard yet, not everyone is full ancap, not everyone lived the same life as you, and perhaps most importantly people exist in the real world, not as theoretical abstractions.
This hopefully leads to the next point that again, a lot of us have completely missed. I fully grant that we are all victims of the state. But some people get it a lot worse than others, often because they are part of involuntary groups. Black people are several times more likely to be murdered by cops. Trans people are much more likely to commit suicide. Iraqis are currently feeling the negative effects of awful American policy more than people in California. And as such people are going to have different immediate concerns and different questions, all of which are going to necessitate different answers. Not ideologically contradictory answers, but different specific details that address the real concerns of the person asking the question. This should not be a difficult concept for a group of people that usually likes to think of themselves as pretty damned smart, and who have been hammering that the drug war and police overreach disproportionately impact minorities for decades now. This is our chance to put our money where out mouths are.
What does this mean for us? It means that if we want to effect the changes we would like to see in the world, if we would like to win new voters for our candidates this year and to our camp permanently, and if we want to live up to the principles that we espouse, we need to change some things. We need to be welcoming, and we need to recognize that our individual experience is not the same as someone else’s individual experience. We need to ask questions respectfully when we’re faced with someone whose life experience is outside of our own. We need to give specific answers to questions asked of us, not generic platitudes or instant attacks. We need to recognize good faith from opposing viewpoints. We need to have answers for the objections. And we need to own and call out the bad behavior among our own long before someone else does it for us, just as much as we should celebrate the good. That absolutely includes racism and bigotry. Yes, we will defend your right to say stupid, repugnant stuff, but it doesn’t mean that we have to or should defend stupid, repugnant stuff. Right now, free speech is under much less assault than minorities. To not recognize this, and to let it pass without comment-or even worse, act like angry children when someone calls out what’s wrong in the world-is how we will lose voters, harm people, and not live up to the proud ideals of our tradition.
I implore you. Be better.