What Libertarianism Isn't



At my first real journalism job, I started off covering personal finance. Not having the first clue about financial topics going in, I ended up asking patient sources a lot of questions like, "So tell me who should consider an REIT—and also what are they?" In my naivety this seemed very crazy to me, that people would let you write professionally about a topic with no prior knowledge of it. Yet journalists cover complex things they don't know about all the time, and this is usually okay because they research and talk to people who do know about it.

Unless, of course, they're writing about libertarians. 

Not only do you not have to know the first thing about libertarianism to cover it for major news outlets, it is perfectly fine to a) decline to ask anybody who does know, b) make up your own version of what it is, and then c) lament the terribleness of this terrible philosophy or people you have just created. Cases in point: approximately every 10th article published by Salon, this piece by Damon Linker at The Week

Linker's recent piece is titled, "How liberalism became an intolerant dogma," which made my ears perk up because, duh. This is a topic near and dear to me, many libertarians, and many liberals right now. The indolent hubris so many on the left express toward social progress and the corrosive Twitter-mob effect on the leftist discourse is roundly upsetting. As Linker puts it, "liberals have begun to grow increasingly religious about their own liberalism, which they are treating as a comprehensive view of reality and the human good." 

Linker laments "liberalism's decline from a political philosophy of pluralism into a rigidly intolerant dogma," which he feels like has been especially evident in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby ruling. But then—after decrying this type of liberalism as one that "that threatens to poison American civic life for the foreseeable future"—Linker suddenly brings libertarianism into things. Apparently it's us pesky libertarians that have had this contaminating influence on the left: 

The rise of dogmatic liberalism is the American left-wing expression of the broader trend that Mark Lilla identified in a recent blockbuster essay for The New Republic. The reigning dogma of our time, according to Lilla, is libertarianism — by which he means far more than the anti-tax, anti-regulation ideology that Americans identify with the post-Reagan Republican Party, and that the rest of the world calls "neoliberalism."

So… libertarians (who are really just post-Reagan Republicans), with our emphasis on personal liberty and freedom, are somehow to blame for liberals who want to limit liberty and freedom? How does this work? Linker follows by noting that libertarianism "fuels the American right's anti-government furies, but it also animates the left's push for same-sex marriage."

Huh. That makes us sound more like good guys than folks driving the slow liberal poisoning of American culture. But what "makes libertarianism a dogma," writes Linker, "is the inability or unwillingness of those who espouse it to accept that some people might choose, for morally legitimate reasons, to dissent from it."

On a range of issues, liberals seem not only increasingly incapable of comprehending how or why someone would affirm a more traditional vision of the human good, but inclined to relegate dissenters to the category of moral monsters who deserve to be excommunicated from civilized life—and sometimes coerced into compliance by the government.

As you can see, at this point Linker begins conflating libertarians and liberals entirely, and not just in a using-liberal-to-also-mean-classical-liberal (i.e. libertarian) way. Rather, he is looking to the opinions and actions of modern, mainstream American liberals and then labeling those he finds wanting as libertarian. Observe: 

The latter tendency shows how, paradoxically, the rise of libertarian dogma can have the practical effect of increasing government power and expanding its scope. This happens when individuals look to the government to facilitate their own liberation from constraints imposed by private groups, organizations, and institutions within civil society. In such cases, the government seeks to bring those groups, organizations, and institutions into conformity with uniform standards that ensure the unobstructed personal liberation of all—even if doing so requires that these private entities are forced to violate their distinctive visions of the good.

The main problem with this paragraph is that, while describing an observable phenomenon in political thought or behavior, it has nothing whatsofuckingever to do with libertarians.

We are the people arguing against the government imposing any particular version of morality—be it based in religion or progressivism or anything else—on private groups, individuals, and institutions. We are the ones arguing against forcing photographers and bakers to take part in same-sex marriage ceremonies and against the Health and Human Services Department mandating what kinds of insurance plans companies must offer. We certainly aren't advocating (as Linker suggests in another example) "that academic freedom shouldn't apply to … conservatives" on college campuses. 

Libertarians are the ones who tend to both support same-sex marriage and people's right not to be compelled to work in service of one; to want to get both our bosses and the government out of birth control decisions; and to take free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and personal autonomy very seriously. For the benefit of future folks covering libertarians, here is a quick list of links (all from the past few months) to us expressing the exact opposite views Linker attributes to libertarians:

I hope I have helped clear up this misunderstanding. Linker also asks "where have been all the outraged liberals taking a stand against these and many other examples of dogmatism—and doing so in the name of liberalism?" Just a few, off the top of my head: "Sooner of later they're going to come for people you do like"; "We've Gone Too Far With Trigger Warnings"; "Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars". 

There's actually a rather lovely alliance between liberals, libertarians, and conservatives whom I think of as the anti-hysterics—people who would rather see intellectual honesty, good-faith arguing, and a plurality of ideas than watch (social) media become a wasteland of orthodox, hyper-partisan attack dogs. I think we all do admirably at putting aside ideological differences to agree on the fact that the center cannot hold, so to speak ("the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity").

Whether it's dishonesty or just dimwittedness, Linker and other conjurers of straw libertarians are part of the problem; it does no one any good to go around fighting enemies that don't exist. By definition, those who believe people with dissenting opinions need to be "sometimes coerced into compliance by the govenrment" are not libertarians.