What’s In A Label

What's In A Label

Andrew Sullivan calls out Jonathan Chait for arguing that libertarianism is inextricably linked to racism.  Chait’s view, in a nutshell, is that in practice, libertarianism is a gateway doctrine to racism:

“I am sure Paul’s motives derive from ideological fervor rather than a conscious desire to oppress minorities. But the relationship between the abstract principles of his worldview and the ugly racism with which it has so frequently been expressed is hardly coincidental.”

Sullivan fires back and draws a distinction between private and public coercion:

“The social power of homophobia and hetero-sexism in a free culture is crushing. I oppose it; and recognize it. I have spent a great deal of my life pushing back culturally and intellectually and morally against it. But I do not want to compel it into submission. I want to persuade it into toleration. And that is the core difference between power exerted by the state and power exerted by non-state actors: the former is ultimately backed by physical force deployed by the government; the latter by public opinion, economic and social power, and the willingness of minorities to buy into the ideology of their oppressors or haters.”

In conclusion, he articulates the balancing act that free societies must endure:

“Freedom means evil, as well as good, will flourish. And a conservative, properly understood, is someone who understands that evil is eternal, but that evil backed by a monopoly of physical force is the only one that can be restrained by a political order, without undermining the freedom it requires to breathe and grow and think for itself.”

I give the above summary of the exchange only to provide context in order to make a more subtle point about the semantics of the dispute which I think dovetails nicely with Erik’s recent post and longtime obsession with political labels. 

I wouldn’t delve into this seeming minutia if I didn’t think Paul’s possible victory tonight might make arguments like the above all the more prevalent in the days to come, and thus their clarity all the more important.

There is an important difference between “the libertarian,” and “a libertarian,” and which some people note by distinguishing between Libertarians and libertarians.  And, with the knowledge that there are plenty of people here to correct me on any inaccuracies that ensue, I will attempt a brief listing of the differences.

“The Libertarian” is not racist, and in fact, according to Ron Paul, “Libertarians are incapable of being racist…because racism is a collectivist idea, you see people in groups.”  “The Libertarian” does not see people as encumbered selves but rather as unencumbered individuals.  People are not simple manifestations of complex social, cultural, and political relations, but rather separate, self-motivating, and free.  According to the very ontology of “the Libertarian,” racism in the way it is currently understood by liberals and postmoderns is not a possibility.

“A libertarian” on the other hand, can be racist, and libertarianism as an American social movement has certainly been very reliant on racist elements for political support often enough.  But that doesn’t mean that Libertarianism in practice necessarily leads to or even enables racism, or other forms of bigotry and prejudice.  The very fact that I can reasonably imagine a world in which no one is racist, and, at the same time, every one subscribes to Libertarian principles is proof that far from being necessarily intertwined, Libertarianism and racism are actually exactly co-incidental.  One could occur without the other.

But the reason why this confusion persists is because of the desire by those discussing what “the Libertarian” thinks to, at various points in the conversation, substitute for it what “a libertarian” thinks.  And this is why labels are important.  Because the book keeping required to organize sets of beliefs is important.  It helps to distinguish a set of beliefs from those who believe them, and who are at anyone time distorting one or more of those claims.  If I am arguing in favor of Liberalism, studiously maintaining the label helps save me from having to defend or denounce every other claim made by every other liberal.

“A libertarian” is a person.  “The Libertarian” is not.  Just as Chicago is a city, but Socrates’ ideal polis is not.  One can be pointed to, the other can only be thought of.  Which is why, when arguing with the tenets of Libertarianism or any other worldview, it’s necessary to engage with ideas rather than individual adherents. 

Now I’m not wholly of the above view.  That is, I’m not certain that such a clean or pure discussion is possible, even if it’s preferable.  I’m certainly not certain if it is, in fact, a more accurate way for seeking the truth of things.  After all, this form of discourse does require that we remove from the discussion those very particulars that cultural liberalism is so concerned with.  It presupposes the unencumbered view of individuals that Paul advocates.

But I do believe it is important to realize what discussion about Paul’s racism, or association with racists, actually comes down to.  It’s not about Libertarianism, Conservatives, and Liberals.  Or even about the role of proceduralism in a democratic republic.  In the end, it’s a very fundamental argument over which ontology (and whether it should be whose) will set the terms of the debate.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

24 thoughts on “What’s In A Label

  1. Very nice, Elias. The distinction gets to the heart of my frequent intemperate criticisms about blanket statements about libertarianism.  If only I possessed your eloquence.

    I’m not certain that such a clean or pure discussion is possible,

    Like most such things, if it’s phrased as a dichotomous variable–pure/not pure–then of course it’s not possible.  But if seen as a continuous variable–more pure/less pure–then it’s easy to see that we can move closer to or further from from that perfection.  I think in keeping with the League’s raison d’etre, our goal here should be to strive to move closer to it, even if we never quite reach the goal.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. So, the shorter version would be:

    “Nothing about Libertarianism, as a philosophy/idealogy/governing concept is racist. However, a lot of people claiming to be libertarians are. Something about the actual concepts tends to bring those morons out of the woodwork. I wish people would stop believing that Libertarianism is racist just because a lot of racist whackjobs like it.”

    I can get behind that. I’ve never actually met a racist libertarian in person (i’ve met the other sorts — “privatize the sidewalks” sorts, and “By Libertarianism I meant I hate taxes but don’t want guys sleeping together” sorts and my personal favorite of “I’m really a Republican or a Democrat, but don’t want to admit it because being third party is so much cooler and non conformist, man”) and nothing about it demands racism.

    *shrug*. In general, I find libertarianism suffers from similar flaws as socialism. It’s a good concept that has it’s place, but reality just isn’t that black and white. It’s not an all-or-nothing solution. It’s part of a toolkit of government responses, and as such has to bow to actual realities.

    Like every other governmental idealogy to ever exist, ever.

    Then again, libertarians aren’t all that unusual in that regard. :) That’s just people.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3.  […T]hat doesn’t mean that Libertarianism in practice necessarily leads to or even enables racism, or other forms of bigotry and prejudice.  The very fact that I can reasonably imagine a world in which no one is racist, and, at the same time, every one subscribes to Libertarian principles is proof that far from being necessarily intertwined, Libertarianism and racism are actually exactly co-incidental. 

    You’re free to imagine all kinds of things, but since the libertarian utopia you imagine does not exist, we must rely on libertarian’s adherents here on Earth to advocate for their cause.  In so doing it is not unfair to hear the words they say and read the newsletters they publish, etc, to see what motivates them.  Your concept of “the libertarian” seems strikingly similar to that of “the communist”,  in that the motives of both are utterly pure, and  both dwell in a special realm where the real world never intrudes.  Libertarianism “in practice” would seem to me to have the same rate of failure as that of communism “in practice” : roughly 100% in groups over a dozen or so.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. To revise and extend my above remark:

    People will believe anything they want, some of it rather ignorant and counterproductive.  Among the many issues with centralized power is that there can be no true method of withholding said power from the ignorant and counterproductive, as even attempt at clear definition of such runs into the subject-object problem (that is, trying to analytically separate yourself from the society you are analyzing is impossible).  Libertarianism responds by simply attacking the concentration of power regardless of who wields it.

    On it’s face, nothing in particular is said about views beyond “concentrated power = bad”. Yet when you consider how often people with the worst ideas in society seek force to carry them out (stack the bodies attributable to state actions in one pile, and the bodies attributable to non-state action in another, see which one is bigger), an honest libertarianism will, IMO, tend towards rating some views of society over others, if only on the basis of which of those views tend to say “f*ck this tolerance sh*t, I want the gun!”.  How many cultural reactionaries are completely content to merely be left alone, as society passes by?

    Conservatism errs towards The Way Things Are.  The conflict between it and libertarianism is clear: sometimes resistance of concentrated power involves leaving things well enough alone, while oftentimes — MOST of the time, I would argue — it involves deliberately breaking the status quo.  Conservatives are fine with the former as they don’t have to lift a finger, and cry bloody murder at the latter.  What the assumed alliance between libertarians and conservatives did was attempt to paper over this by way of mutual denial.  The conservative told the libertarian that he would be left alone and told himself that his cultural preferences would win out by default, the libertarian told the conservative that he would not attempt to change his particular cultural sphere and told himself that the conservative wouldn’t try to spread it over his.  When “mainstream” libertarians make remarks dismissing racism and sexism as non-issues, it’s because they’ve confused conservative allegiance to the status quo with preference against force; one can think something is dumb without coming to the conclusion that violence can or should solve it.  The opposite is the reason why in the U.S. we have the peculiarity of conservatism being associated with “limited government”: conservatives aren’t in fear of concentrated power, they’re in fear of losing.

    If it weren’t for this completely boneheaded alliance, so much of what clouds both ideologies today would be gone.

    BTW: I wouldn’t quite go as far as the racism-as-collectivism remark.  That strikes me as Objectivist runoff, assuming that anything involving a group is evil.  Voluntary collective endeavors pose no threat to libertarianism.  The real problem with racism is that it defines people as lesser humans for factors they can’t control, which taken to its logical conclusion does not lead to lasseiz-faire, but to extermination.

     

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • ” Libertarianism responds by simply attacking the concentration of power regardless of who wields it.”

      Really?

      In my discussions with libertarians on this site, concentration of power in private hands is usually defended.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Indeed.  And the confusion in Libertarianism on this issue is partly what stops me from embracing it.  I’m more interested in decentralizing power in many places, labor, capital, and government.  There are certainly differences between public and private associations, the most salient being the former’s monopoly on legitimate violence.  But even that distinction has cracks in it. 

        Plus there is the problem of how to keep things decentralized without some central authority with the power to do so.

        Back to your point though Liberty, I’m usually encounter the same.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  5. I don’t think you can imagine a world without racism or one in which everyone is a libertarian. Imagining is not the same as specifying the conditions. To imagine a situation is to see how the pieces would fit, like we might imagine a chess strategy or chemical bonds. But you’re talking about incredibly vague pieces with incredibly numerous interlocking sides, constructing from that jumble a clear enough picture would be astounding even before considering the profound psychological changes which might be needed to even consider affecting the situation.

    In any case, libertarianism and racism aren’t mutually necessary because they are non-intersecting beliefs. That’s not really useful, though, since the real test of intersection is how people compose them, not the semantics of an exogenous definition.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. “Libertarians are incapable of being racist…because racism is a collectivist idea, you see people in groups.” “The Libertarian” does not see people as encumbered selves but rather as unencumbered individuals. People are not simple manifestations of complex social, cultural, and political relations, but rather separate, self-motivating, and free. According to the very ontology of “the Libertarian,” racism in the way it is currently understood by liberals and postmoderns is not a possibility.

    …and this is where it all goes horribly wrong, with the idea that Every Man Is An Island. This isn’t true for any individual libertarian of whom I’m aware, and certainly isn’t true of 99.99% of extant humans, libertarian or not.

    Humans love to group themselves and each other in various ways, and there are large evolutionary, social, and economic advantages to doing so. Pretending otherwise is pure silliness.

    The idea that racism, or other forms of coercive prejudice, is a liberal, statist illusion is one of the most pernicious bad ideas that infects current libertarian thinking.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *