Jon Wong has asked me to write a post about my understanding of libertarianism, and I agreed to do it.* In retrospect, this was maybe foolish: I can’t think of anything interesting to say which hasn’t already been said by others. So rather than write 3000 words that have already been written, I will introduce those already-written words which best represent my understanding of libertarianism.
“Why Are Libertarians Mostly Dudes?”, by Jeet Heer.
Let’s not start with abstract and philosophical politics; let’s start instead with Heer’s quick look at the demographics and historical lineage of modern American libertarianism. What is it about libertarianism that seems to attract specifically white men? I want to start you off here because the libertarian thinking I’ve encountered often lacks this grounded, historical, specific character, opting instead for the broad strokes typical of nostalgia for a Golden Age.
“Porn Star Belle Knox Doesn’t Know What Libertarianism Is. Neither Do Libertarians,” by Elizabeth Bruenig.
This isn’t the only thing by one of the Bruenigs that I plan to list, but let’s start strong. Also written for the New Republic, Elizabeth Bruenig observes that libertarianism as actually practiced by libertarian groups today has deep and obvious contradictions:
In other words, libertarianism comes with a love of freedom but no consistent sense of what really constitutes freedom or who it is for. For libertarian politicians and their advocates, the sheer slipperiness of the concepts at hand may be a feature rather than a bug, allowing them to cherry-pick policies they personally prefer and shape malleable definitions around them.
That excerpt, from her final paragraph, would seem remarkably prescient if the last few Republican nominations had not been clear trial runs for Trump. Moreover, what the piece makes clear is that movement libertarianism is not so clean and straightforward as philosophical libertarianism. If you’re excited about the porn star connection, though, the article will disappoint you: an interview with Belle Knox is just the peg on which Bruenig hangs one of her blessedly innumerable socialist think-pieces. Sex work doesn’t come much into it.
“Property-Based Ethics: Environment Edition,” by Elizabeth Bruenig.
For my first turn toward treating libertarianism as a set of ideas rather than a historical and social phenomenon, I want to stick with Elizabeth Bruenig. Although her post here is about classical liberalism rather than libertarianism, the latter clearly derives from the former intellectually. And as Bruenig points out, classical liberalism is an atomistic philosophy that, just because it is atomistic, fails to account for the way in which all humans share an environment and have complicated interrelationships. Whether or not atomistic individualism would be ethical or unethical if it were possible, it isn’t even possible in the first place.
“What a World Following the Non-Aggression Principle Looks Like,” and “Can You Sustain an Economic Philosophy Solely by Begging the Question?,” by Matt Bruenig.
I’m grouping these two pieces by Matt Bruenig because the second part of the second post continues the argument of the first post. Again, looking at the intellectual basis of libertarianism indicates that it resides on several serious fault-lines. One of these is the role of violence in a just society: the justification libertarians give for reduced government (violence is only legitimate in response to prior violence) necessitates the abolition of private property (which relies on violence to function) even though libertarians typically enshrine private property as fundamental to a just society. Bruenig uses the hypothetical utopia Grab-what-you-can World to illustrate this point and I find that utopia delightful to think about.
“The Largest Study Ever of Libertarian Psychology,” by Johnathan Haidt.
Having looked at libertarianism historically and intellectually, let’s now look at it psychologically. Haidt is best known for his moral foundations psychology; he has attempted to distill all moral impulses and concerns into basic moral foundations, of which he has identified six: care/harm, fairness/equality, freedom, loyalty, obedience/respect, purity/sanctity. In his view all other moral concerns are combinations and elaborations of these six. He finds that libertarians, unlike liberals and conservatives, value liberty above all else. He also finds that libertarians are more rational, something which Matt Bruenig might find risible. But I think it is important to note that if all morality grounds out in values, not reason, it is impossible for anyone can reason all the way to a political position. Nonetheless, I think Haidt’s findings are plausible on the face of it, somewhat revealing of libertarianism, and therefore rather damning.
“Book Review: The Machinery of Freedom,” by Scott Alexander.
Up until now I’ve been entirely critical of libertarianism, and for good reason: it is a horrible monster of an ideology that is disfiguring North American politics. But in the interest of fairness I should link to something which makes a good case for libertarianism. Of anything I’ve read, Alexander’s review of The Machinery of Freedom most made me respect what libertarianism might offer. One of my biggest complaints with libertarianism was that it simply would not work; Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom seems like a pretty good answer to that problem and Alexander saved me the trouble of reading it by writing this excellent review. Political philosophy may not really be one Alexander’s greatest strengths but for some reason reviews of books about political philosophy is. I have had more than one opportunity to be grateful for this.
“The Topics Dystopian Films Won’t Touch,” by Imran Siddiquee; “The Hunger Games is a Tea Party Dystopia,” by Jay Michaelson; and “5 Things Movies Always Get Wrong About Dictatorships,” by Mark Hill.
These I lump together because I feel they only make the argument I want them to make when read in this sequence. “Topics” covers the absence of racism and sexism in The Hunger Games and considers the repercussions this has on youth’s political formation, given the important role YA dystopia novels can play in that process. “Tea Party Dystopia” explains how and why The Hunger Games is a specifically American libertarian dystopia; it also explains where The Hunger Games misreads both history and contemporary politics when it applies Jeffersonian politics to global capitalism. “5 Things” does not touch much on libertarianism explicitly but does show how the dystopian elements of The Hunger Games are unlike any real oppressive regime, historical or contemporary. Altogether, they show that libertarianism’s view of the American political philosophical tradition is dangerously ahistorical, that its fears for American society are roughly opposite the actual threats to American society, and that its proposed solutions are therefore deletrious. I also think you can build out of these commentaries an interesting discussion of the YA dystopia genre more broadly and how its formal features, and how the tastes of its adolescent audience, lend the genre to libertarian ideology better than to other political philosophies, but these articles don’t do that themselves.
Although these authors’ various politics do not reliably represent my own, their collected writing about libertarianism, especially the linked pieces, does a pretty good job of representing my view of the movement. To whit, the libertarian movement associated with the Tea Party and similar groups does not overlap precisely with the philosophical libertarianism associated with Ayn Rand, John Rawls, and possibly Thomas Jefferson; the libertarian movement is predominately white and male for reasons both philosophical and historical; philosophical libertarianism has a few different versions, but almost all of them are built on contradictions around the legitimate use of violence and/or on erroneous beliefs about the isolation and independence of human decisions; libertarianism in both the movement and philosophical forms is most attractive to people who value freedom above all else, who experience limits to their freedom most often from the government and not from inherited unequal economic relationships or various forms of discrimination and violence, and who are unaware that their experience is unusual; libertarianism is more attractive to people who have not had positive experiences of collective action compared to people who have had positive experiences of collective action; libertarianism does not take seriously enough what game theorists might call the cooperation problem; most, perhaps even all, of libertarianism’s strengths are better represented by some form of collectivist anarchism. Perhaps I should have said this earlier, but as best I can tell what is called libertarianism is contemporary North American politics is identified under the political compass as right libertarianism: it is libertarian in their authoritarian v. libertarian axis, but it is also “libertarian” (by which I mean deregulated) on the economic axis as well. I tend to consider left libertarianism to be more properly divided up into socialisms and anarchisms rather than libertarianisms. Going into the history of these words might be interesting, but is beyond my scope here.
* Yes, it’s true: if you request that I write a post on a topic, there’s a good chance I will write something in the same genus as the post you had in mind.