Thursday, August 23, 2012

Leaping, Liberty and Libertarians: A Thought Experiment

From 1989 to 1993 NBC aired the scifi show Quantum Leap starring Scott Bakula, who played time traveler Dr. Sam Beckett. Beckett was, as seems pretty par for time travelers, lost in time. In each episode Beckett would “leap” into a new period. But, he also became someone else in each episode, though to others he would still sound and look like the character whose persona he was occupying.
With this premise in mind try a Quatum Leap thought experiment for libertarians. You are about to “leap.” The dynamics of the leap are such that there are certain parameters. You know that you cannot leap to a date earlier than 1760 and no later than 2010—a period of 350 years.

The “leap” has certain geographical boundaries that are determined by the year in which you find yourself. You will only leap into American states, territories, or the original colonies and only during years when they were under American sovereignty. You would not end up in Alaska before the Seward Purchase for instance.

You have no control over the year or place. That is chosen quite randomly. Neither can you control your occupation, level of education, social position, wealth, etc. You will, in essence, leap into the life of an already existing person in that specific place, at that specific time. Unlike Quantum Leap, however, you may only leap once. You can’t move on. If you become a 1950s’ housewife that is what you remain. If you are a male hunter in rural Vermont in 1770, that is who you will remain.

Like most people, you want to optimize pleasant things in life. You would like to have a comfortable existence. You would like to have your rights respected. Yet, you have no direct control over whether those things will happen.

You can, however, control a few factors, which may help you rig the odds. Before your leap you can make three choices. You can control whether you will be male or female. If you choose male then the “computer” will automatically exclude you from leaping into the lives of all females, regardless of where you go or what time period you will occupy.

A second factor that you will be free to choose is race. You can choose to be white, African-American, Native-American, whatever you wish. Finally, you can choose your sexual orientation. Race, gender and sexual orientation will not be randomly chosen by the computer, they will be entirely your own decisions.

But, you don’t know where in the country you will end up, or in what year. You could be a black straight man in rural Alabama in 1840 or a white gay male in 1960s New York.

Knowing you could end up in any era of American history from 1760 onwards, and knowing you could end up in any part of the country, answer the following questions.
1. Do you choose to be male or female?
2. What race would you choose to be?
3. What is your sexual orientation?
Your choice controls who you will be. You can’t change the era in which you happen to find yourself. You can’t expect rights that were not granted at the time, or in that location. You will live out the rest of your life as a randomly selected person who fits the three characteristics you have chosen. All you can do is pick categories to optimize your wellbeing.

What did you choose and why did you choose it?

I know what I’d choose, and I think most people would choose. If I had no idea when and where in history I would end up, I’d prefer to be white. It minimizes the chances that others would harm me. I’m not saying it ought to be that way—just that this is how it was. There is a definite advantage to being white at virtually time in American history, in almost any location.

Similarly, I would have to choose to be male. Otherwise I could easily end up in an era when it was considered perfectly acceptable for my husband to slap me around. My labor and body might legally belong to him. I could find that my life was legally controlled first by my father, then by my husband. The husband I married may be the husband I was stuck with, depending on the era.

As for sexual orientation, I’d have to choose to be heterosexual. After all, I could end up in a time and era where gay people might be arrested, or end up in a mental hospital where electroshock therapy is used to “cure” me. I would be less likely to be beaten by “fag bashers” or harassed by cops. I’d be more likely to be able to live openly and keep my job, family and friends. 

The reality of history, up until today, is that outcomes are already skewed because of popular prejudices and attitudes. This doesn’t mean such attitudes aren’t changing. It is better to be black, female or gay today than to be in the same position 150 years ago, or just 50 years ago. But, whatever time period one randomly chooses, odds are you would be better off being white, male and heterosexual.

What does this say for today’s libertarians? Am I implying those who experienced status benefits due to their gender, race or sexual orientation ought to feel guilty? Or be punished? No, I don’t hold individuals responsible for the sins of their parents or grandparents—just for their own sins.
Nor am I saying that people shouldn’t be treated as individuals. In fact, this thought experiment indicates that the problem is that people HAVEN’T been treated as individuals. We may speak of individual rights, but individuals have had rights denied them due to some collective characteristic such as race, gender or sexual orientation. And, in some areas, such as marriage laws, that is still happening.
Too many libertarians, channeling their inner-conservative, remain in denial. They quite naively believe, or claim to believe, that in the last couple of decades all this was reversed—and to such an extent—that the real victims are now white, straight and male. There is a technical term for that: bullshit. While the status of women, racial minorities and gays has improved, things are not equal.

You don’t read about gangs of gay thugs hanging around straight bars and beating some poor heterosexual. Like it or not, if you want to get ahead in corporate America, in spite of all affirmative action programs, your chances improve dramatically if you have a penis, especially a white one. You are still more likely to be hassled by cops if you are black than white.

Centuries of prejudice and unequal legal status don’t disappear in a few short years. Slavery ended officially with the Civil War, but it continued under other names for almost another century. The Supreme Court may have said that you can’t throw people in jail for being gay, but that doesn’t mean gay people have the same rights as heterosexual people.

When libertarians deny that various groups suffer due to unequal legal status or social prejudices, they look naïve at best, and bigoted at worst. There are none so ridiculous as those who try to pretend that the real victims are white, straight males. I doubt many such individuals would willingly give up being white, straight or male, if those options were open to them.

Our objective is equal treatment before the law with maximum respect for individual rights. We are still a long way from that. Denying reality, in order to placate social conservatives or one’s own petty prejudices, simply discredits the greatest force for social good in human history: classical liberalism.


  1. As a long-time libertarian I haven't heard libertarians deny the reality of prejudice and its effects. Is there a particularly vocal libertarian prejudice-denier group or person you're thinking of?

  2. I have. I've been a libertarian for 40 years. I see no reason, however, to mention the names of these people or the outfits that they are usually associated with. It is the argument I am challenging, not the personalities.

  3. I have met several that deny the realities of prejudice and claim the bullshit nonsense that they are the ones now being oppressed...and I've only been a Libertarian for about a year.