A Letter to Libertarians from a Former Libertarian
Yes, you read that correctly. There are those of us who once identified as libertarians and do not anymore. Revealing this fact always elicits shock and incredulity from libertarians, who have trouble grappling with the idea that someone found “the right answer” and then abandoned it for something that must be less true. I mean, I get it; that was also what I thought when I was libertarian and encountered people like my (current) self. “But, how?” they ask. The answer is fairly simple: I started reading things outside of the libertarian canon, primarily critical theory, which made me hesitant to uphold any particular economic or social structure. I’m not saying you can’t read critical theory and still be a libertarian, but damn if reading it doesn’t shake up your most fundamental beliefs about yourself and the world.
The pivotal moment for me was realizing that beliefs, ideas, and preferences don’t exist in a vacuum but are informed and created by the social, political, cultural, and material reality in which they develop. This doesn’t make our beliefs any less our own but rather individualizes them down to our particular perceptions of the world. It does not mean that we can’t find certain patterns of ideas and preferences that coincide (not coincidentally) with particular races and ethnicities, genders, income and class positions, etc. Too often libertarians’ hostility to framing things in terms of groups results in a failure to understand or even consider this point and its implications. In this case, “we’re all just individuals” is a cop out used to avoid confronting and interrogating why we think the things we think or why we like what we like. And that’s fine. Not everyone wants to go down that road or thinks it’s worthwhile and they probably have a lot less cognitive dissonance to deal with as a result. But those of you who are interested in social and political change should constantly be asking yourselves these questions because many of your interlocutors already are and are making judgments of you based on what you say or how you present yourself regardless of whether or not they scratch at any truth.
One way many libertarians reveal the context in which their ideas developed is by habitually siding with employers in discussions of employer-employee relations and especially with regard to discriminatory hiring and firing practices, which Ross Kenyon wrote about in his essay on class divisions within libertarianism. Other similar demonstrations can be found in the prioritization of reducing or eliminating corporate and estate taxes and an emphasis on eradicating or drastically reducing social welfare programs with hardly a peep about the far more nefarious corporate welfare, as well as the tolerance of racist, misogynistic, and anti-LGBTQ people both in the movement and outside of it. The tide is slowly turning against bigotry in most of its forms, but it saddens me that people who profess a love of liberty aren’t always ahead of the curve and still harbor and defend some of these elements in the name of individual liberty. To those outside of the libertarian movement and even some within it, these priorities indicate a desire to preserve and propagate the interests of wealthy, straight, white men. In other words, libertarians are seen as defenders of the status quo.
I know there are too many libertarians who do not fit that profile to let this perception remain the dominant one, but it will take more than your existence in the liberty movement to change it. You have to change the conversation with your fellow libertarians as well and make it perfectly clear that the libertarian movement will not serve as a platform for their hateful views, as much as you may defend their right to have and espouse them.
But why do I care what libertarians do as a non-libertarian? I’ve thought about this quite a bit over the past couple of years when I’ve found myself disproportionately frustrated with libertarian organizations and individuals compared to, say, neoconservatives and social democrats. The answer is partly that I spend so much time surrounded by libertarians and thus expose myself to more potential for frustration. More importantly, though, it’s that I know the revolutionary spirit is there with many of you but various forces (right fusionism and a relatively comfy life in the status quo, to name two) have led libertarians to reactionary priorities and goals that you hope to achieve primarily through reform of the current system. Instead I think your efforts are better spent helping to build strong communities of like-minded people (a strength already demonstrated in a broader form) and radical alternatives to present institutions. We don’t have to be comrades, but we can try to build space for constructive dialogue between libertarians and leftists and work together to dismantle those structures we both deem oppressive.