Damon Linker Still Doesn't Seem to Know What a Libertarian Is


If I judge these cuff links as tacky, am I no longer a libertarian?
Credit: Oberazzi / photo on flickr

In July, Damon Linker over at The Week wrote a piece claiming that "libertarian dogma" is ruining liberals based on some weird idea that libertarian influences on the left were somehow resulting in the left wanting bigger government and restricting freedom. It didn't make a whole lot of sense and Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown explained the many ways he didn't know what he was talking about.

This week, Linker has written two more pieces at The Week about how America is, indeed, having a "libertarian moment." No, this is not in response to the outrage this week as the public realized the consequences of the militarization of the police force as it played out in Ferguson, Missouri, something libertarians have been warning about for years.

No, Linker, still not quite understanding what a libertarian actually is, argues that our libertarian moment is entirely a transformation of morality and culture, not politics or economic policy. He is arguing that libertarianism is simply about being non-judgmental hippies, man. From Wednesday:

Americans now inhabit a world in which increasing numbers of individuals find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine submitting to rule by any authority higher than themselves on moral and religious matters. Sure, people continue to accept that one will be judged harshly and punished for violating another individual's consent (the only libertarian moral consideration). But beyond that? Don't be ridiculous.

Who are you — who is anyone — to judge my behavior?

That's the rhetorical question we increasingly pose to ourselves, our family members, our neighbors, our church leaders, and our fellow citizens as a way to put a stop to any conversation that threatens to veer into moral evaluation and condemnation.

Consider the phenomenon of Miriam Weeks (Belle Knox), the Duke University undergrad who's become a breakout celebrity (and something of a libertarian folk hero) for proudly admitting that she works as a porn actress to pay for her education.

Pornography is obviously nothing new. But what is new — aside from its easy and costless availability online in effectively infinite quantities and varieties — is the claim that we shouldn't judge Weeks' decision to earn a living by having sex for money and in public, which is often the subtext behind discussion of her job choice. At least when the discussion isn't explicitly framed to make her look like a saint for "empowering women and sex workers."

In our libertarian paradise, moral judgments are perfectly acceptable, as long as they praise and never blame.

Libertarianism is a philosophy based on what power the government does and does not possess or should or should not possess. It is not a philosophy about how we, as individuals, judge each other's choices. It is about the manifestation of government authority over the individual's choices. It does not mean individual choices are correct (whatever that might mean). It does not mean individual choices cannot be judged as terrible by individuals (or groups of individuals).

Then today he thinks he hit on something in his further musings about Belle Knox by going around asking people how they'd feel if their daughter started working in porn. Unsurprisingly, most people are opposed to their daughters working in porn. He wants to try to pull together what he sees as a contradiction. He states:

One reason could be that we don't want to be ruled by any higher authority. That's what makes us libertarians (albeit superficial ones). We want to be free not just from political tyranny but from the rule of external moral standards, which can feel tyrannical in their own way — ruling us, as it were, from inside our own heads. The libertarian urge to overthrow this tyranny is what leads more and more of us to seek escape from traditional constraints as well as the vertical moral judgments that can leave us feeling low, base, and degraded. It seems easier and more pleasant to pretend that the very distinction between high and low is an illusion, even if our own thinking and convictions demonstrate that we secretly believe otherwise.

None of this has anything to do with libertarian philosophy and not wanting to be ruled by a higher authority is actually the least superficial component of being a libertarian. He concludes:

None of this should be taken to mean that I favor banning porn or making it illegal to work in the industry that produces it. In the end, I'm a libertarian, too.

But only in politics. Not in morals.

You're probably actually not a libertarian, but "only in politics" is the part that matters to us. There are extremely religious libertarians (who would object to your claim that they don't want to be ruled by any higher authority) and there are extremely atheistic libertarians who each cast their judgments on the moral choices of others. What they have in common is the "only in politics" belief that the government should not be forcing their moral choices on others.  

Brown has been writing this week over at Andrew Sullivan's blog. She has her own response to Linker here.