Friday, February 10, 2012

Libertarianism and the Dilemma of Bigotry

If you want to destroy the movement toward greater human liberty, there is no better method than to poison it. And the poison I refer to is bigotry. Now, bigotry takes many forms. Some people only hate gays. Others only hate Jews, immigrants, women, or black people. But, in my experience bigotry, like other forms of human ignorance, tends to come in clusters. Someone who tends toward bigoted thinking toward one group, tends to hold similar positions toward other groups.
What Ayn Rand said about racism applies to all forms of bigotry. She said racism means, “that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions.” She said it “negates two aspects of man’s life: reason and choice, or mind and morality, replacing them with chemical predestination.” She called it the “lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”
All bigotry, regardless of the objects of its hatred, treats the individual based on some collective trait, not their individuality. It denies the groups so targeted the same rights that are granted to others. It singles them out as somehow, inferior based on who they are, not on what they’ve done, or more particularly, not on what they’ve done to others.
That last part is important. Libertarianism holds that individuals are free to make their own choices and act provided they do not violate the equal rights of others.  This is what Herbert Spencer called the “liberty of each, limited by the like liberty of all.” This, he said, was the primary rule on “which society must be organized.”  Practicing Jews act Jewish. Judaism is not just a set of beliefs, but of actions centered around this faith and culture. But, acting Jewish does not inherently violate the equal rights of others. It doesn’t infringe on the life, liberty or property of other people.

Similarly, being black, or Mexican, or gay, does not violate the “like liberty of all.” There is nothing inherent in any of these collective identities that violates the rights of others. As such, none of these groups should be treated unequally before the law.

Another “collective” group we can speak of is criminals. That is a different matter, especially when we are properly defining crimes. Lysander Spooner defined crime as “those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.” Thomas Jefferson said something very similar to all these voices: “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of law’ because law is often by the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”
Criminals are those individuals who violate the life, liberty or property of others. These actions do allow us to treat them differently than we do others, in regards to their liberty and their rights. It is right and proper that a rapist be denied the same freedoms of others.

But denying equal access to rights on the basis of non-criminal collective identities: such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc., is a very different matter. This is not upholding rights, but denying them.
 One of the great attributes of the libertarian tradition, historically known as the classical liberal tradition, is that he was always bucking the status quo when that state of affairs was the enemy of equal, individual liberty and rights.  Classical liberals were in the forefront of abolitionism—the movement to end slavery. They supported civil rights and the woman’s movement. They championed equality of rights for the poor, in nations where social status often determined the amount of liberty one had.

Certainly classical liberals, while in the forefront of such crusades for expanding human rights, were often prisoner of their own culture. During the early abolitionist movement you would find classical liberals on the wrong side of the debate, or conflicted by it. But, that this was the case in the early years any justification for such culture bound “traditional values” becomes increasingly unacceptable as time goes by.
The tacit acceptance of slavery that was rampant in 1770 had long lost acceptability by 1860 and any purported “classical liberal” who would defend it today has lost the plot, and the right to call himself a classical liberal, or a libertarian.
As the moral consensus moves toward more equality of rights and freedom, the classical liberal who lags behind the culture is no longer a liberal, but a conservative clinging mindlessly to past prejudices.
Classical liberals fought to extend rights to Jews when “Christian traditionalists” were denying them their rights. Yes, the first steps were cautious ones, such as the abolition of the ghetto, or extending the right hold public office. But the classical liberal was pushing the culture in the right direction—toward greater respect of individual rights. If one were to advocate returning to ONLY those cautious first steps, that is not libertarianism, it is tyranny. Just because classical liberals of the past once held a position does not mean that it was the end of liberalism. The question was always: “In what direction do these policies lead us?”

If, at any time, the individual is pushing toward less individual rights, it is not libertarianism. This is true even if the position they currently take would have been considered radically liberal a century ago. Just because some opponents of slavery opposed interracial marriages doesn’t mean support for such laws can be considered “liberal” today. Any one who is pushing for less liberty, and for inequality of rights, in the culture in which he lives, is not a classical liberal, but a conservative. He is, in fact, an enemy of expanding human freedom and rights.
The bulk of the American people no longer hold these collectivistic views of people. They support the principles of individual rights and equality of rights before the law.  This hasn’t always been the case, but to a large degree it now is. Even on the issue of equality of rights for gay people the majority of the population is taking a position that 50 years ago would have been considered extreme and radical. It is really a minority who wish to deny rights based on sexual orientation.
Our culture has moved and it moved in the direction that was laid out by the Founding Fathers—toward greater respect for individual rights and toward equality of rights before the law. This is not to say that there are not trend in laws against individual rights. Such trends exist. But they tend to be the kinds of violations that impact all of us badly, instead of targeting one group over others. We are all less free because of the TSA, for instance. Such laws must be opposed, but we can still be optimistic that most Americans no longer want to disadvantage people because they are black, Jewish, gay, etc.
The position of libertarians on individual rights is clear. Not so clear, however, is what libertarians should do about bigots in their midst. And there are bigots who dress in libertarian drag and parade themselves before the public as libertarians.
There are people who argued that blacks are an “inferior race.” There are anti-Semites convinced the Jews are out to control the world. There are people who spit and sputter vile comments about gays when given half a chance. What should we do about them?

Some libertarians tend to argue that unless these people openly advocate gas chambers, lynching or “fag bashing,” then they should be welcomed. But, for instance, we have one “libertarian” theocrat that wrote homosexuals should be stoned to death in a free society because God’s law demands it. He even goes so far as to claim stoning doesn’t burden the taxpayers, fosters community spirit, and is actually “libertarian” because it wouldn’t be the state killing these sinners, but the good Christian people of the community. Another “libertarian” theorist, who hangs out with neo-Nazis and white supremacists wrote that in a free society homosexuals would have to “physically removed.” There is at least one local Libertarian Party official who actively supports racist organizations.
 Some libertarians will argue that one’s personal prejudices are immaterial unless the person is actually pushing for the violation of the rights of others. Yet, these same people turn blind eyes to the individuals just mentioned above, who clearly do recommend violating rights based on their own prejudicial viewpoints.
The problem with bigoted views is they inevitably lead to bigoted actions. How precisely can you argue that gay people are threats to the family, destructive of social order, etc., without actually having those views turn to actions at some point?

Bigotry today seems less toxic than it used to be because it constrained by the wider culture. When such constraints were absent—that is when those views were widely held—the actions taken were vastly different. That was a time when black people were lynched and gay people lobotomized or imprisoned.

Bigoted beliefs ultimately lead to bigoted actions, unless constrained by the wide culture, which means by the rule of law. When belief in witches was widespread the claim was that witches were malevolent individuals who harmed the greater society. When that belief dominated individuals believed to be witches were tried and executed. And the mob that did this believed they were acting in self-defense—something that almost sounds libertarian if you ignore the greater context. Today, “witches” are still routinely murdered by religious-inspired mobs in Africa; hundreds of such killings take place every year. The wider culture doesn’t restrain that belief and it is widespread enough that this happens.
What bigots want is to the removal of the culture of restraint. They want to return to some past time when a majority of the people supported their kind of prejudicial views about a group. Libertarians should remember, however, what follows when this is the case. When there is widespread acceptance of bigoted views, widespread violations of individual rights follow.
This is not to say that bigots should be legally constrained from speaking. I am still convinced that the remedy to bad speech is good speech.  But the question is what should libertarians do with such people. Nothing! They should do nothing with them. They shouldn’t give them forums. They shouldn’t allow them to hold positions in libertarian organizations. They should frequent they websites, donate to their organizations or do anything to give them legitimacy.
Libertarians need to draw a line in the sand. If someone is a bigot they should not be welcomed in our circles. They are not legitimate representatives of the libertarian, or classical liberal tradition. They are, in fact, trying to push us backwards in a more conservative direction, not forwards.

And, we shouldn’t ignore that some of these people, who think themselves purists in libertarian circles, want a society that is both bigoted and one where individuals can pursue their bigotry with little, or no, restraint by the law. What they believe will happen in their “anarchist” paradise is that the prejudices they promote will dominate and blacks, Mexicans, gays, etc. will be driven out of the “tribe” or punished. This is precisely how one theologian argues that stoning gay people is really libertarian. There would be no state, the local Christian community will kill in the name of Jesus and that makes it “freedom.”

But the goal of libertarians is the protection of rights. Freedom is the means for protecting rights, but not always. We don’t allow rapists the freedom to attack women. We don’t allow the Klan the freedom to torch black churches. We don’t allow Nazis the right to push Jews into gas chambers. Freedom, in libertarian thinking, is that realm of action allowed when the rights of all people—even those you are bigoted toward—are respected. Many violations of freedom violate rights, but not all violations of freedom violate rights. Too many libertarians confuse the ends (rights protection) with the means (liberty). This is what all the great classical liberals quoted at the start meant by the “equal liberty” of others.

It is not a “libertarian” society that stones gay people to death, even if the state is virtually non-existent, or entirely missing. A libertarian society is measured by the respect of individual rights. Just because lynching in the old South were private affairs doesn’t mean they were consistent with libertarianism.
Individuals that advocate disparate legal treatment of individuals because of some collective, non-criminal trait simply should not be welcomed in libertarian circles.  We simply should not sanction their bigotry by giving them outlets for their views, or acceptance in our ranks.

We are, I fear, too willing to tolerate bigots because they are “good” on some other issue, or even on most issues. Being good on taxes is no justification for turning a blind eye to racism. Just because someone wants to “abolish the Fed,” doesn’t mean we should tolerate their demands that gay people be denied equality of rights. Someone with brilliant epistemology, who rails against the transgendered, should be ostracized. Anyone advocating intolerance and hatred for Muslim-Americans, not because they are radicals but because they are Muslim, should not be embraced even if they can expound the intricacies of Austrian economics better than anyone else in the world.

We need, as libertarians, to say that such collectivist, bigoted views are not welcome in our circles. We need to recognize where such views lead and the end results that would come about if we managed to created the kind of free society we want, but one where the bulk of the populace were bigots. It would be a culture not dissimilar to rampant violations of rights that we saw in the Deep South. A libertarian society, to lead to the enjoyment of individual rights, is tied to specific cultural values and bigotry is not one of those values. Bigoted values lead to the violations of rights, not their respect.
But there is another practical reason that we should not embrace bigots, in spite of their views on other issues. It taints our message with their poison. The problem with hugging pigs is you smell like dung.

Most Americans no longer hold to the bigoted values of the past and they are growing increasingly unaccepting of those that do. Long term a strategy of accepting bigots is counterproductive.
The long-term trends in this country do favor the bigots. Even in regards to gay issues, where hatred is often cloaked in theology, the trends are clear. Acceptance of equality of rights is a majority viewpoint nationally, with strong majorities in the East and the West, though the South is more bigoted. And the demographics show that this acceptance will only grow as older people die.

There is no long-term viability for a movement that embraces prejudice. Even religious based prejudice is dying out. The most intolerant religious groups are evangelicals and fundamentalists. Yet, young people in these sects are far less intolerant than their parents. And, more importantly, young people are fleeing those religions and they face massive declines in memberships. Mormonism, contrary to the PR image they like to promote, has seen no increases in members, in spite of heavy missionary attempts to convert others. Apparently the converts are just replacing the numbers those who are leaving it, which again seems to be the young.
  Church support for the antigay Prop 8 in California spurred thousands to publicly denounce their membership in the church.
Religious-based bigotry is on the decline in this country largely because religion itself is on the decline. All surveys of religious beliefs show unbelievers to be the fastest growing “religious” group in the country. 
Newsweek, in their cover story for April 13, 2009—The Decline and Fall of Christian America—said that the dominant, unifying ideology holding America together, is no longer faith, but liberty. The article stated:
Judging from the broad shape of American life in the first decade of the 21st century, we value individual freedom and free (or largely free) enterprise, and tend to lean toward libertarianism on issues of personal morality. The foundational documents are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (though there are undeniable connections between them). This way of life is far different from what many overtly conservative Christians would like. But that is the power of the republican system engineered by James Madison at the end of the 18th century: that America would survive in direct relation to its ability to check extremism and preserve maximum personal liberty.
Libertarians should be in the vanguard of this movement, not standing at the back of it with grumbling conservatives, looking wistfully over their shoulders at the good old days when blacks were lynched, gays were closeted and women were obedient servants of their master and husband. Leading the charge against bigotry is not only the right thing to do, but also the most practical in terms of long-term political influence. Bigotry is a voice from the past and it is one that increasing percentages of Americans are rejecting. Libertarians should do the same.


  1. The problem is that a war on bigotry is also a war on speech.

    Brandenburg v Ohio is one of the most important libertarian cases in the history of our country, and extremely important for the promotion of our rights as citizens in this country. You have a right as a citizen in this country, even an evil bigoted one, to engage in 'terrorist speech' against the government, even if that 'terrorist speech' is based on bigoted ideology. It doesn't matter if you're a Muslim supremacist, a christian extremist, or a KKK member. You have a right to engage in prejudice and bigotry.

    We as liberty lovers have to defend these guys. We have to defend terrorists and the KKK and neonazis, because it's wrong to use the anti-bigotry cudgel as an excuse to deny them their rights. Far too often we see people attacking us because we defend the extremists, because we believe in speech. They say we hate black people, or women, or jews, because we defend people's rights to say bad things about these groups. We are attacked, shamed, from defending them, and guess what, these bad people are being hurt by it. Freedom of speech is being hurt by it.

    Right now, there are American Citizens who were killed for engaging in badperson speech. And because these people are bad and they choose to associate with foreign Muslim supremacists, it's OK to kill them. They're terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, the government killers say, just look at what they're saying! Who are we to defend them in their screeds against Christians and Europeans and Women? They're clearly Muslim Bigots and they should be put to death before they do something terrible against our country and our freedoms and everything we support in our civil society!

    You can't have it both ways. You can't fight a war on two fronts. You have to choose. Either love the bigots and the terrorists, or love the people who are bombing them. We are not powerful enough or important enough to fight both battles. Maybe there's a danger here, because if we defend these guys too much well, we might embrace them. We give them opportunities to voice their bad ideas. We might even, god forbid, target them with our writings, seek them out for campaign contributions, and ask them to support our political ideas. There's definitely that, that's definitely happened before, but you just have to engage libertarians when they do that and just ask them to stop. I don't think you need to establish this normative trend of anti-bigotry.

    Because, quite frankly, the bigots are the guys who need us the most, and they're the people we can use to advance our political goals the most. The cases that go before the supreme court are not going to be cases of upstanding white upper class men. The privileged have no need for civil rights. The privileged do not need liberty.

    1. The war on bigotry is not a war on speech. You are confusing two different types of things. I've not called for restricting freedom of speech in any way, even bigoted speed. But libertarians shouldn't befriend bigots. They should hold them out as representatives of our views, or as "libertarian" thinkers.

      It is asinine to argue that you must either hate free speech or love bigots. That is a false alternative.

      No one is recommending taking away their liberty, only our personal sanction on them as people. We are withdraw our support of bigots, even if they are good on some issues. Bigots are despicable and while they may need us, we don't need them. We will defend their rights to be assholes, but that doesn't mean we have to endorse their behavior or sanction their beliefs. They are enemies of liberty, just as communists are, and yet they are people whose rights we would defend as well.

    2. There's a pretty big difference between refusing to associate with bigots, as this article suggests, and supporting anti bigoted speech laws.

  2. Brilliant piece. I have been approaching this issue of what is “libertarian” and what isn’t very gingerly, but it seems that there needs to be more done to differentiate, as this attempts to do. Anarchos vs. Objectivist vs. Classical Liberals; I don’t think we could put them all in a room and come out with a broad, big tent notion of guiding principles. I know I wouldn’t be welcome in certain circles, and there are some things out there I continually examine and at times struggle with (today's insurance, contraception, conscience thing, the abortion issue, the idea of property rights being the starting point for all discussion) but I would like to think we could all start from this idea of “like liberty of all.” I certainly agree that talking a good game in one regard is no reason to excuse someone’s very un-libertarian actions in another. Calling someone out on such things is certainly the most important thing we can do. Once again, great piece.

  3. This is actually different from the question of who is or isn't libertarian. We can even argue that some of these people are perfectly libertarian, by whatever definition we want. Hate-driven people are detrimental to our movement and it is in our self-interest to shun then.

    The point is that certain bigoted values are contrary to the spirit of liberty long-term and undermine liberty. I personally think that bigotry such as I discussed is a poison that kills liberty. Anywhere bigotry wins, freedom loses. We've seen that over and over. No society that allowed widespread bigotry didn't also repress the rights of the people against whom the bigotry was directed.

  4. good piece. reminds me of the back-and-forth between david gordon and reason over gillespie/welch's book.
    hhh and who's the other person you're referring to?
    also, where do you draw the line between bigotry and views you don't agree with? what about very conservative (libertarian) christians who don't believe in "meddling with (insert minority group)" but won't speak out against those groups either?

    1. This is about ideas, not specific people so names are not named.

      A view I disagree with is that asparagus doesn't taste good. Bigotry is also a view I disagree with but it is a view directed against an individual attempting to deny them either the same worth as other humans, or the same rights as other humans.

      If a group neither attacks the humanity or decency of groups based on their collective identity, nor wants to deny them equal rights before the law, then I don't see them as bigoted. There are very few fundamentalists who are libertarians. The few who claim to me conveniently make exceptions to their libertarianism for groups that fundamentalists tend to target for hate. So, for instance, they will argued that they while their right to marry is important they suddenly want to deny the same right to gay couples.

  5. I utterly agree. Does this apply to poor individuals? To sex workers? To polyamorous or nonmonagomus people? To bohemians and cultural nonconformists? To drug users?

    1. You paint with too wide a brush, mixing categories. There are things which are part of their nature, such as race, hair color, sexual orientation, where no choice is involved and where, in most cases this trait is unrelated to what jobs, friendship, etc. To then arbitrarily mix chosen behaviors in with innate traits is not extending the principle but making it meaningless.

      Take poverty "poor individuals" as an example. Is the person poor because he was defrauded or because he choose to drink his wealth away? Certainly it would be appropriate to discriminate in various cases depending on the reason for their poverty. If the man is lousy with money you aren't going to hire him to handle the bank accounts of your business. If he is drunk every day you may not wish to hire him for anything.

      Polyamorous, etc is unrelated to anything I can think of which would justify discrimination outside say churches and the like who have the right to hire according to their moral standards, no matter how ridiculous they are.

      With innate traits the general rule is that we should not discriminate and we should not associate with those who do. With chosen actions there is a huge range of possibilities and can not not be a general rule.

  6. But of course being a libertarian, you oppose anti-discrimination ordinances on the local level involving housing and employment, and fully support the right of bigots to enjoy freedom of association.


  7. There are some things which libertarians certainly must oppose; for example, stoning gays. Libertarianism is not merely against state aggression, but against private aggression as well; libertarians do not condone rape, murder, theft, stoning, or any other violation of the NAP.

    I am astonished that any one supporting the NAP could be a bigot, since I have never to my recollection been tempted to regard people as collectives. The most worrisome trend to me is not the oddballs who want to establish exclusive communes, but the war-tarians who want to punish entire populations because of the perceived crimes of the few. Am I really responsible for the war crimes of Bush and Obama, both of whom I strenuously opposed? Are all Iraqis responsible for the acts of a ruthless dictator? -- TerryMac