Since it’s election season in the United States, it’s time for the political parties to turn up the heat — get you excited (or better still, angry) about turning out and voting. And for some reason, whenever this time rolls around, libertarians get kicked in the butt.
Note I used a small-l. I’m not talking about the Libertarian Party, God Rest Their Soul, I’m talking about people who consider themselves advocates of personal freedoms and a society built on a healthy respect of those freedoms.
I suspect the reason libertarians get beat up so badly is that both parties play the libertarian card every so often, it’s just that the libertarians actually mean it, whereas the two parties are just using it as a trope to excite voters. For conservatives, yep, government should get out of your life — unless it’s abortion or legalization of drugs. For liberals, personal freedom is what it’s all about — unless you are doing something socially unacceptable like building your house on a wetland you own or legally avoiding taxes. For some reason, liberals seem to get really bent out of shape about libertarians, even more so than conservatives. Don’t know why.
After a recent thread on Hacker News that mentioned Peter Thiel, I’ve decided to set the matter straight about all this libertarian disinformation.
- Libertarians are selfish. No. Believing in cherishing the individual is not the same as being selfish. Many libertarians organize charities, participate in outreach programs, feed the poor — gasp — all kinds of selfless things. They just feel that such acts have the most meaning if each person decides to do them, not if the majority foists it on everybody else.
- Get your terms straight #1. Libertarians are those Ayn Rand nuts. Libertarians are not necessarily Ayn Rand followers. Those guys are objectivists. Yes, objectivism has influenced libertarianism, but the two groups disagree on many things such as foreign policy or the nature of the legitimate use of force by the state. Libertarians tend to start with political theory, ignoring ethics in order to be more inclusive. Objectivists come at the discussion from the opposite angle. There is no one school of thought for libertarians — they can believe anything. Compare this to the single thread of moral thought for Objectivists.
- Get your terms straight #2. Libertarians are a bunch of Tea Party wankers. Libertarians are not necessarily Tea Party advocates. Yes, they are in favor of lower (or no) taxes, but not because they’ve been “Taxed Enough Already”. They were that way 100 years ago. There wasn’t a Tea party then.
- Get your terms straight #3. Libertarians want to “get rid of all law enforcement [or government]” Wrong. Libertarians by and large want the minimal amount of government interference in their lives, not a zero amount. I don’t know any libertarians that want zero government or police forces. Those folks are called “anarchists.”
- (From the thread) “They’re a class of abstract thinkers stuck in an imperfect world where their theories will always be unapologetically shattered by complex and unpredictable realities.” Yes, there is a time in your life when you are young and just discovering libertarian thought where you try to construct a theory of life, the universe, and everything. Sometimes this period persists through later life. But libertarianism is not a religion, cult, or way to calculate the complexities of the universe: there are libertarians that believe all sorts of things. Some are very pragmatic. Some are very theoretical. It varies; just like it does with folks of any other party. Practical libertarian thought is a tool, not an ideology.
- “Libertarianism seems more like an elaborate, and status-reinforcing, justification for one’s own socioeconomic position.” This sounds much more like Objectivism or even Social Darwinism to me. Libertarians can feel quite compelled to help minorities and the poor. In fact, many people become libertarians after finally sitting down and seriously thinking through the best ways to rid our society of social injustices. They’d rather have something that works and might be unpopular than something that sounds good and creates more harm for everybody.
- Libertarians lose themselves in theory because they believe the world is “comprised of sets of well meaning rational actors.” Not at all. In fact, the strength of libertarianism is that it does not assume that people are well-meaning or rational at all: simply that all humans should have the dignity of being wrong, evil, or clueless as long as they do not harm others. The system of government in the United States, for instance, was created by mostly libertarian-minded people who specifically designed it assuming that actors would act in selfish and ill-informed ways. That’s why it’s lasted so long.
- Libertarians “Don’t [you] see the good things done by government? And you don’t see the damage caused by businesses and private individuals independently from and/or in the absence of government?” Yes, of course we do. Libertarians are all for government — in cases where it can uniquely help people. They are all against damage to others caused by businesses and individuals. There is no difference in what people observe or feel here. The only difference is choosing what underlying principle is used to help find ways to correct the bad things or enhance the good things, not whether these things or bad or good in the first place.
- Libertarians have no empathy. Wrong. Libertarians have as much empathy as any other person. At some point, these anti-libertarian arguments cross the line into just ad-hominem attacks. They become a way of convincing people not to listen to libertarians no matter what they say. Libertarians are selfish theorists who lack basic compassion for others and believe all government is evil. That’s not an argument, that’s name-calling and an attempt to assassinate the character of other people instead of listening to them.
Libertarians start from a philosophy that the individual is sovereign. They believe that sovereignty should be emphasized above all else as much as possible — not that all people are the center of the universe, but that we should be very careful about taking freedoms away from people. History shows they rarely get them back. From there they believe that the ability to own property is the ultimate freedom people have. They believe that freedom of association and communication allows societal change. Where do they go from there? All over the place. Libertarians are a wild and woolly bunch. You ask a Republican what he believes and he’ll likely parrot the latest Republican talking points. Same goes for a Democrat. You ask a libertarian what he believes and you could get any kind of response. It’s almost like we’re the last of the independent thinkers. (wink) Or a bunch of cranks. It’s a fun and exciting political group either way.
Libertarians are not Gordon Gekko types saying only the strong should survive and the weak should perish. That sounds much more like a Hollywood caricature. They do not think people should not receive help from others. They do not want the abolition of government. They are not all pointy-headed academics with little experience of the real world. They are not just Republicans who want to smoke dope. Surprisingly, libertarians come in all shapes and sizes and feel just as much empathy and compassion for their fellow man as anybody else does. Just to be clear: I like government — as long as it is in its proper place. I am not opposed to taxes where a libertarian argument can effectively be made for them. Hell, I’ll go so far as to support social programs as long as they are based in libertarian thought and principles. The proper amount of structure is a good thing. Too much or too little is really bad. Design only enough government as is necessary for a stable society, not a bit more. Libertarian principles give us the tools necessary to create better government. Without them all we’re doing is creating a nightmare our children will have to live in.
I imagine libertarian-bashing will get worse as the U.S. election approaches in November and folks start realizing that for all the wonderful speeches both parties have made, personal freedoms are at an all-time low and just getting lower. That’s a truth that’s much better attacked than acknowledged.If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.