Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Disaster of Me Libertarianism

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 was 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 eyes 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 (WMASM).

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,  black people were held in slavery. 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 to birth control, something that 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 it criminal to be a Catholic priest, with a life sentence attached. They also legislated that 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 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 those 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  oppressed people from the liberty movement because they aren’t like them.

I don’t mean they actively tell women, gays, blacks, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, 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. That sends the message that only what impacts WMASM is of importance.

I defended Boaz’s comments to a libertarian who immediately dismissed it as worthless and then he recounted ways that 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 because 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 are 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.”

Many libertarians are guilty of this. They look at the privileged positions that WMASM have enjoyed for much of human history and then decide the fate of freedom only by how it impacts that privileged minority. That blacks and women and gays make up more of the population than 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 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 though 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 who fought for the rights of black people before 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 because so many advocates of liberty simply don’t care about how others are oppressed today. These libertarians do care about the issues that impact their own 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.

(Please note only the first part of the above video illustrates Students for Liberty. The second part is just another intolerant rant by some conservative.)

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 chapters. 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 abolish “me libertarianism” and focus on "liberty and justice for all" instead. We can still lament the ways that liberty is being denied to WMASM, but we should also fight for issues like marriage equality, the rights of immigrants, and 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 concepts of freedom so that we are also trying to liberate others, not just those most 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 a refuge for the privileged few. Self-centered libertarianism gives precisely that impression.

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  1. This is an excellent blog post. As a left libertarian in the LGBTQ community who largely works on feminist and immigrants' rights issues, I've often had people tell me that I'm the first libertarian they've seen who advocates for the oppressed rather than the privileged. That's really sad, and should not be the case. Thank you for addressing this.

  2. Thanks for this post. As a woman libertarian I am often dismayed by the outright hostility that current libertarians feel towards gender issues and feminism in general. Libertarianism has been definitely infused with too much conservatism as of late.

  3. Nice post. The whole ME Libertarianism thing extends far beyond the liberty movement. In fact I feel the liberty movement is really one of the only places where people can give up the ME Politics.

    Case in point. I live in Downtown Riverside. A few months ago there was a demonstration about Planned Parenthood losing federal funding. A friend of mine was going, I wanted to hang out with her a bit, so I went to go check it out.

    After a few minutes I started doing my libertarian propagandizing. I would speak to people, get to know what they are interested in and ask them why they are demonstrating today. I came to the conclusion that for Planned Parenthood, it was all about ME. This was a service they use and they don't want to give it up. ME.

    One thing I brought up was that I don't feel the government should be administering Planned Parenthood, or should be taxing people who may not support it to pay for it. BUT I value something like Planned Parenthood in my community and if the government ends federal funding for Planned Parenthood, I will personally donate $100 per year, every year for the rest of my life so as long as I am living in the United States and am employed and if they also support Planned Parenthood, put down the protest sign, pull out the wallet, and give them something they need not something that just makes you feel good doing.

    To no surprise, I got no takers. No one. No one was willing to voluntarily pay for something like Planned Parenthood. They were willing to fight for it, they were willing to scream for it, but they were not willing to pay for it. I was. But for some reason I am the selfish one.

  4. I think a lot of so-called 'right libertarian's would be better classified as paleo-conservatives. Especially the ones who came into the movement via Ron Paul.

    Another fun (though unmentioned) barometer test among libertarians is dropping the name 'Henry George.' Some so-called 'right libertarians' are so offended by his ideas that they'll blast those that support them as communists, marxists, etc. So-called 'left libertarians,' though not always in agreement with George, are at least open-minded about him. Why? Because, as this blog notes, 'right libertarians' view history through the lens of their own demographic. They fail to see the land monopoly as feudal exploitation, especially since said demographic (WMASM) is of the group owning the most property.

    That being said, there are a lot of comments in this blog that aren't necessarily on par. For example, I think it's a bit skewed to try and say that libertarians have been ignoring the LGBT community, when historical evidence doesn't necessarily support this. I'd also note that some comments about the LP are a little off. For example: "seems to be dying"... um, it's numbers have been roughly the same for years, so no. It might not be growing nationally, but it's certainly not dying. And comparing it to an entity like S4L isn't appropriate, since college kids aren't forced into a plurality voting situation when choosing campus allegiance, etc.

    Overall, this is pretty solid, however. A lot of what this says is in line with what I've been harping on for years. Libertarians who try to speak of the past like it's a golden age are way off base - they're far better off selling libertarianism as a vision for the future. And those who actually believe the past was a golden age... well, I don't really consider them a libertarian no matter what they call themselves personally (again, paleoconservative is more apt).

  5. There were actually more PhDs granted to women in the 1920s than there were in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and early 70s.

    Some of your individual facts about the fiction of a golden age are true, but I suspect your view is also misses a lot that contemporary state schools would not teach you.

  6. Excellent essay!! This deserves wide circulation and discussion in the libertarian community. I think virtually everything said here is spot on, including the critical recognition that it is not libertarianism as a philosophy which is at fault, but rather the priorities of many libertarians which ignore the concerns of others not like themselves.

    There is a major strain -- perhaps *the* major strain -- of "me libertarianism" which I think the author missed however, and that is nationalism.

    Indeed, the essay not only fails to notice the selfish "me" aspect of nationalism, but in several places reflects nationalist thinking itself, apparently unconsciously (as is the case with most such prejudices).

    For instance, the author writes of Moorfield Storey (1845-1929) that "he was a leader in the earliest civil rights movement". Really? Are we to believe that nowhere in the history of the world, prior to the mid-19th century, did a civil rights movement of any kind exist?

    The Wikipedia entry for "civil rights" ( ) appears to indicate otherwise:

    "The phrase 'civil rights' is a translation of Latin ius civis (rights of citizens). Roman citizens could be either free (libertas) or servile (servitus), but they all had rights in law.[1] After the Edict of the Milan in 313, these rights included the freedom of religion.[2] Roman legal doctrine was lost during the Middle Ages, but claims of universal rights could still be made based on religious doctrine. According to the leaders of Kett's Rebellion (1549), 'all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood-shedding.'[3] In the 17th century, English common law judge Sir Edward Coke revived the idea of rights based on citizenship by arguing that Englishman had historically enjoyed such rights The English Bill of Rights was adopted in 1689."

    Elsewhere, the author refers to millions of "our fellow citizens" being freer today than in the "golden age of liberty". But who are "we"? Although the essay appears to have libertarians as its intended audience, libertarians aren't organized by "citizenship", so it appears that the "we" being spoken of in this instance is Americans (or more precisely, people recognized by the organization generally known as the "United States government" as belonging to an artificial category called "citizens").

  7. But change a few words here and there, and much of the essay's language accurately describes the nationalist paradigm as well as it describes other forms of "me libertarianism". For instance, consider this rewording of one of the paragraphs:

    "They look at the fortunate positions that Americans have enjoyed for much of recent history and then decide the fate of freedom only by how it impacts that fortunate minority. That Chinese and Indians and Africans make up more of the population than Americans is irrelevant because they only see the world through American eyes."

    "We" (as libertarians) should not forget that only about 5% of the world's human population live in the region known as the United States. Libertarianism is a universal philosophy which applies to all people, but when we speak in terms that appear to be narrowly geared toward securing the liberty of Americans, we are ignoring and potentially alienating the 95%.

    "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."

    One way we might do this is to build more ties with groups around the world working for greater political independence, even if they do not identify as libertarians. The more contact they have with us, the more libertarian they are likely to become, and perhaps some day "they" may help do the same for libertarians seeking political independence somewhere.

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  9. I was also at that convention, and I talked to you (mostly listened to you actually) and I feel that while you have some valid complaints, are you perhaps using a brush that might be just a little too broad?

    Yes, perhaps a better motto would be the inexact quote I offered you "As long as someone out there is not free neither am I". You liked the sentiment while you thought it too was a little extreme. But there is a point to both versions.

    There are libertarians who concentrate on many areas, not just their individual trials and tribulations, and I'm not convinced they are a minority.

  10. Two quick replies.

    Starchild: First, nationalism is not mentioned there because it is outside the "me" libertarianism I was talking about. Me libertarianism is individuals looking at issues ONLY because it impacts them directly, their concerns are entirely individualistic and self-centered. Nationalism is inward looking but collectivistic, it is identity with a collective body as the source of identity. That is different from the "me libertarianism" I was talking about.

    Next, I am referring to the Civil Rights Movement in particular, not to civil rights broadly. By the Civil Rights Movement I am quite specifically referring to the efforts in the US to end the oppression of blacks after the abolition of slavery. The Abolitionist movement ended with the end of slavery (Storey was involved in abolitionism as well as personal secretary to Sen. Sumner). After slavery ended the Southern states started passing laws to restrict the rights of freed blacks, and even Northern states started to mimic the bigots in the South.

    The NAACP was founded to counter that movement and Storey was the first president. The Civil Rights Movement was in its infant stages at that time and Storey was one of the first leaders. So I am referring to what was known as The Civil Rights Movement, not to civil rights in general which is why the history you mentioned is not relevant.

    Ayn: The brush is a reflection of the people we had conversations with. If others were more traditional libertarians and didn't speak to us there is no way I can know how they felt. I didn't outline all the conversations that were had. This also reflects what I saw at the Denver LP national convention where conservatives were nominated by the party. Had I discussed all the conversations in detail it would illustrate my point. In addition the nonsense about the Federal Reserve (the nonsense being the conspiracy BS that the Birchers push) was very prominent. Numerous people mentioned it to me and I overheard others talking about it. That pseudo history was given prominent play by the convention organizers. It was shown at the film night and the producers of it were invited to address the entire convention. Promoting far Right psuedo history theories is a very bad sign.

    I hope that libertarians who concentrate on many issues are not the minority. In general they are not. In specific groups or organizations they may be.

  11. By the way: I appreciate all the interest the article has generated. The response has been much bigger than I would have expected, which indicates it hit a chord among a lot of libertarians, who seem worried about the same sort of me libertarianism that bothered me. I urge people to join our mailing list for our email newsletter. You can do so on any page of the blog in the upper right column.

  12. Wikipedia lists the dates of the Civil Rights Movement from 1896 to 1954. I don't know why it stops in 1954, I would have put that date up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act myself. Personally I would frame the movement from 1868, when the 14th Amendment was passed to 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed.

  13. it represents something about character/personality, maybe.......

  14. Libertarians are a breath of fresh air precisely because they've always seemed to avoid taking sides in the culture war. In fact that's part of what attracted me to the movement in the first place. This article would ask us to reconsider and come down on the side of the array of cultural issues that are of importance to what we'd broadly call "progressives." (Indeed, as per Starchild's comment, it privileges the American experience/audience.)

    But the problem I see is that this makes libertarianism far more parochial that it ought to be. In speaking up for disparate groups defined along racial, sexual, religious, etc. lines as they appear to be important in 2012, you end up running into certain contradictions*, not the least of which being that looking out for the "other" becomes a cliche of white people concerns (thus the Stuff White People Like crowd), which aren't always actually doing the supposed recipient of this concern any good.

    Indeed, be humble enough to say you don't know what (fill in the blank) group needs or wants - and that by siding with certain politically active groups you're necessarily excluding the voices of others in that (fill in the blank) group who disagree - and stick to the far less messy and universally observable phenomenon known as property rights.

    * "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."

    I'm pretty certain that nearly everyone reading this blog has more in common with each other than any one of them do with a devout Mormon female polygamist living in Chihuahua, Mexico. Does her life experience count? And if so, if it contradicts left-libertarianism, does that make the latter closed-minded and bigoted?

    Trying to speak in a way that will appeal to everyone on their own cultural terms - to appeal to the "situated self" - is a recipe for, well, disaster.

    1. Libertarianism is not neutrality in the culture war mainly because "culture war" is too broad a term to have much meaning. For instance, government controls on erotica is what the Right wants. Libertarians aren't neutral over that, they oppose it. Making it a crime to be gay, which 1/3 of Americans still yearn for (mainly conservative fundamentalists) is part of that culture war. Libertarians aren't neutral. They side with the rights of gay people and say that it shouldn't be a crime.

      The purpose of what I'm saying is that we can't simply define liberty by the issues that impact one demographic and ignore the rest. And that would include polygamists who are persecuted by the law. I would end their persecution and not make it a crime but there are still other things going on there that are clearly criminal when it comes to the children.

  15. Just found this and hope I'm not carrying it off on a tangent. Would fundamentalist polygamist groups be as likely to have developed abusive practices if they had been allowed to practice their polygamy openly? Imagine polygamy being legal . . . and therefore as easy to get out of as into.

    1. My guess is that they would be as abusive. Certainly Scientology can be very abusive to people and operates legally. Actually it operates precisely because it has the guise of a religion and gets privileges that a normal business wouldn't.

      I've studied the fundamentalist polygamist sects more than most people, having read a lot of personal accounts in various places. They would mostly continue to isolate themselves as that gives them control. Certainly the young males have no trouble getting out, actually they get chucked out as teens so the old men can have the young girls as wives, while the girls would rather go with the boys.

      Cults that are harmful exist in the open. I don't see the FLDS changing their practices much. Those that are more integrated do tend to mellow a bit. For instance, that is happening with one such group in Canada, but right next door is another group of the same sect that has closed itself off.

  16. Thank you for sharing - this describes perfectly some of my experiences with libertarians.

    I do think your description of the LP is unfair. There are a lot of old white men but there is a profound respect for LGBT rights, among other things. In general, I find the LP to have less "me-libertarianism" than lots of other liberty movement groups.