Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Libertarian Curse

It's no secret that libertarianism, in general, has a pretty malignant public image. From Ron Paul to Rand Paul, the verdict is in. As far as the general public is concerned we're snobs, elitists, and contrarians at our core, and we're wrapped in a candied shell of racism, greed, and social Darwinism. Any formal libertarian is all-too familiar with the pretense. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've had the term "self-righteous" personally thrown at me.

But no one is more surprised by their perceived political predispositions than the libertarian. We couldn't imagine that view of us as being any further from the truth. In fact (and as a staunch libertarian, I can openly say this) I think that most libertarians believe they are following the most humble and compassionate line of thought they possibly can. We could be absolutely wrong in our position(s). But that doesn't seem to explain the baggage of bad intentions that we seem to be anchored to when it comes to public perception. So what gives?

I think there are several factors that are bound to give us some undue heat as a pretext to any real discussion. I'd like to outline some of those factors here, and parse through some of that cognitive baggage. And I'd like to close with a simple thought or two regarding libertarian bewilderment in regards to how the public perceives them.

Libertarianism as Minority - This is probably the largest source of our collective frustration as libertarians; particularly as it pertains to the public perception of us being snobs or elitists. I think this phenomenon is too complex to sort through all of it here. But there is certainly a common line of thought that holds that centrism is optimally correct at the outset. I personally feel that this is the direct result of democratic institutionalization. We have a very real predisposition to hold the most average view as the most rational view. We use terms like rational, independent, and reasonable to essentially describe the cross-section of the political spectrum that represents the average of our collective views. And anyone who deviates too far away from that centrist view begins to suffer some serious social stigmas. The extreme left, the far right; this is the pejorative framing of the political opposition as fringe - unreasonable.

Libertarianism as Contrary - This is closely connected to the issue of libertarianism being a somewhat fringe view. But we are often accused of being simply contrarian. The reason for such an accusation is pretty obvious; we hold some of the views of BOTH major U.S. political movements in contention. In our current two-party system, it looks like we're just trying to stir the pot so to speak. Instead of being seen reaching out to either political party on the issues on which we agree, we're more often seen arguing with either of them regarding the issues on which we don't. I think this is an inherent fatalism built into the libertarian mindset. We feel like we have some common ground with both movements, and so, I think, we find ourselves trying to hammer out the non-libertarian positions - to essentially pull them closer to our own views. However, since it seems that we ostensibly can't seem to do much hand-shaking with either party in any serious way, we always appear to be simply trying to ruffle the feathers of the mainstream establishment.

Libertarianism as Ethical and Utilitarian - If there is anything that stands to hamper libertarians it's the fact that they openly volunteer to play by the rules of their opposition. The libertarian position, at its heart, is a completely ethical one (in the sense of argument, not conclusion). Thus, all of our justifications are rightfully within the realm of ethics. But we seem to be ultimately susceptible to the everlasting allure of utilitarian arguments. And, of course, this manifests itself most discretely in the realm of economic theory. Most other political movements argue their position in a strictly utilitarian sense if not nominally. But the libertarian believes that his position is not only ethically superior, but also that it can be framed as furthering the greater good as well. That mindset throws libertarians in to an assault of argumentative side-steps and half-steps that put dance routines to shame. Although it is perfectly consistent to believe that libertarianism is correct in the sphere of ethics AND utility, our tendency to bounce between the two spheres of argumentation for our convenience lends itself to serious cynicism.

Libertarianism as Language - Among all the things that tie libertarians down, this is probably the most subtle. I believe this may be the sole-source of the misconception of libertarians as being "racist" or "greedy." All rational action (in the Misesian sense) derives from a means-ends framework. The libertarian argues that, although the ends of any action may ultimately be ethical, often (especially in politics) the means are inconsistently unethical. So when the libertarian argues against any proposed action on the basis of the means by which it is to be employed, we find ourselves hamstrung by the background context of the ends. Philosophers like Stephan Molyneux have discussed this concept at length. Essentially, people tend to blanket their arguments with the sensible language of their intentions. Social Security, Medicare, National Security, No Child Left Behind - these are all terms that mask the reality of what actually constitutes such programs with the ethically sensible language of their ends. Libertarians don't suffer from this...and it makes their positions seem obtuse and dismissive. When the libertarian opposes social security, he is said to hate the poor. When he opposes war, he is said to oppose security. When he opposes public education, he is said to oppose children. When he opposes Medicaid, he is said to oppose the sick. The conflation of ends-means terminology is the bane of libertarian existence, and nothing invokes erroneous sentiment more in the opposition, nor pushes any truly intellectual conversation further away.


All of this being said, the libertarian is still ultimately bewildered by the extreme disposition of the general public towards them as opposed to other rival political views. It's true that some of us may be overly zealous about our convictions - but I've venture to say that libertarian zealotry isn't really any more profound than the zealotry of mainstream political positions. Yes, our views are in minority, but ALL VIEWS have been in minority at some point. Galileo, Locke, Copernicus, Aristotle, Hume; all of them have enjoyed the privilege of being in the minority at some point. And it rightfully might have made them look crazy or contrarian at some point. But it has NOTHING to do with the ultimate validity of their views. As libertarians, we need to become more adept at pointing out the obvious and shutting down logical fallacies at the offset.

Likewise, we need to be more steadfast in our convictions in light of the accusations of bigotry, selfishness, and lack of compassion. Obviously those assertions are intentionally inflammatory, and may be secondary, but it's important to really tackle them head-on nonetheless. We're often accused of being absolutist in our defense of liberty, and dismissive of virtue. But I think libertarianism is arguably the most subjective political ethos. In fact, we're so subjective that our only prime directive is the abolition of initiatory force. In other words we believe you should be free to adopt any virtue or moral code you wish, so long as you respect the freedom of others to do the same. In this sense, it is the various proponents of individual creeds and moral codes that are the absolutists - not the libertarian. The support of utilitarian means to reach morally "objective" ends - THAT is rigid - THAT is without compassion - THAT - is intolerant - THAT is selfish.

As libertarians, we must keep reminding people of this even if we are doomed to live with the political and social stigmas of our little corner of political thought. It's the curse of libertarianism. We find ourselves discussing the means of collective actions, and we find the majority arguing exclusively from the perspective of the ends of such actions. Never-mind our perceived pretentiousness. We need to focus the light of reason on the failed ethical frameworks of our accusers. If there is anything that reeks of self-righteousness or intolerance, it's force-feeding the public on ultimately subjective moral obligations, while turning a blind eye to the moral inconsistency of the means by which you wish to achieve it. How much more elitist does it get than that? Pot, meet kettle.

No comments:

Post a Comment