Friday, April 17, 2009

Correcting Misperceptions About Libertarianism

As posted on the Richard Dawkins forums (click the post title to visit the thread)

When I joined this “clear-thinking oasis” late last year, I was shocked to see such strong negative reactions to those of us advocating a libertarian position. The first couple incarnations of “How Bad is Socialism Anyway?” are rife with personal attacks triggered by nothing more than a statement of a political belief.

The more I involved myself in the discussion, the more I realized the vitriol was coming from unabashed prejudice. Even just mentioning the L word is enough to send some people into a tizzy. Once you’re tagged as a libertarian, it seems everything you say is sent through a distortion filter in these people’s minds. I’ve seen some seriously deluded people on this forum treated with more respect than libertarians.

I spent some time reflecting on and refining my own views and came back to the conversation about a week ago. With my new outlook I was pretty optimistic that I’d be able to garner a warmer reception. At least we could have some polite conversation even if they disagreed. No such luck. As soon as I indicated libertarian leanings, I was immediately subjected to the same vitriol as before. But this time I was able to examine it more carefully, and I started to see some patterns behind the reactions.

The more I argued, the more I realized I was pointing out an awful lot of straw man fallacies. When I actually managed to chip away some of the barriers to communication, I found that many people hold an extraordinarily distorted perception of what it means to be libertarian. I don’t know where the blame lies for this problem. Could it be lack of exposure? Could it be lack of investigation? Could it simply be something that’s been passed down relatively uncontested through the years? Who knows? What I do know is that challenging these misperceptions can only help to bring rational discourse back to the forefront.

The negative connotations around the word “libertarian” cause the same sorts of problems you see with the word “atheist.” Nearly every atheist in my youtube subscriptions has at least one detailed explanation of exactly what it means to be an atheist. This is because you can’t even begin to have a polite, rational conversation about atheism until people understand what you mean. The darker side of this is that people become hesitant to apply the label to themselves even if they fit the description. “I don’t really believe, but I don’t disbelieve so I’m neither atheist nor theist.” This is exactly how frustrating it is to deal with anti-libertarian prejudice.

Enough of my rant. Here are the misconceptions I have for you so far.

Libertarians are extremists

This is as silly as saying liberals are extremists or conservatives are extremists. Libertarianism is a category of political beliefs which places emphasis on liberty in both economic and personal pursuits, and attempts to keep the scope of government to a minimum. To be considered a libertarian, your political views simply need to lean in this direction more than in another. The chart used by The World’s Smallest Political Quiz gives a pretty good approximation of where libertarians place themselves on the political landscape.

Of course, there are libertarian extremists, but this is no more significant than that there are left-wing and right-wing extremists. Libertarian extremists may sometimes be seen as more extreme than other extremists, but this is really just a side effect of the fact that most people are so unfamiliar with libertarianism to begin with.

Libertarians are fundamentalists

As with extremism, some are, some aren’t. Strict adherence to the principle of minimum government would imply that every libertarian is an anarcho-capitalist. Many of their prominent figures and “role models” fit this description, but isn’t the same true for most other political philosophies? Moderate socialists still draw upon Marx even if they don’t agree with full-on communism. The idea here is persuasion with strong rhetoric, with pragmatism taking a back seat.

But this distracts us from the simple fact that not every libertarian is a fundie. Most of the libertarians I’ve met in person are a bit more left-leaning and minarchist rather than anarcho-capitalist. Again, libertarianism is a classification for a range of political views, not a strict set of criteria.

Libertarians are religiously motivated

I’ll be honest here. This was something I had blocked from my perception when I was deeply involved in the libertarian movement. I was raised practically anti-theist (though definitely pro-woo... luckily I grew out of that at a young age) so religion has never been a big part of my life. It didn’t strike me as significant that so many libertarians had strong religious views. But this also meant that I developed my own appreciation for libertarianism without this sectarian influence.

And that alone proves my point. There is nothing inherently religious about Libertarianism. Some people may be motivated by religious influences, but that doesn’t automatically discredit the philosophy.

Libertarians are dogmatically motivated

Some are, some aren’t (see a pattern? ;) ). I was when I was young. One of my childhood role models expressed his view of rights in a simple sentence: “You have the right to do anything you want as long as you do not infringe upon the life, liberty, or property of others.” This stuck with me through my high school years when I identified myself as “practically communist.” When I became interested in politics, I realized that communism wasn’t exactly compatible with this principle I held so dear. My first economics class was what finally did me in. Between learning about how economies actually work and investigating libertarianism after a fellow student asked about the teacher’s political orientation, I was hooked.

The dogma got me in, but the thing is, there are piles of literature justifying libertarianism in myriad ways. From utilitarian, to philosophical, to religious, to rationalist. Even when the literature is marginally well-known, though, it may not be well-understood (hence many of these misconceptions).

Libertarians are greedy

There are several reasons for believing this. Libertarian literature often uses the term “self-interest” in a positive light, and many people equate this with greed. However, the two terms have a specific differentiation: greed is acting in self-interest without regard for the rights of others. Libertarians believe that acting in self-interest generally promotes win-win situations. But acting greedily creates win-lose situations.

Another problem is that greed is associated with free-market capitalism (addressed next), so libertarians are guilty by association.

But the real problem is in the nature of the misconception itself: you’re making a statement about an individual’s personality based on their view of how the government should be structured. This is a blatant non sequitur. A libertarian could be the most generous person in the world and still believe that the state shouldn’t be providing universal health care. Libertarians simply feel generosity is better manifested by giving away your own money rather than giving away other people’s money.*

“Libertarianism” = “Unregulated free-market capitalism”

This isn’t a misconception so much as it is a misrepresentation (intentional or otherwise). Yes, libertarians do support deregulation and free-market capitalism, but making this statement gives a few false impressions.

First: There are plenty of perfectly rational defenses of free-market capitalism, even from non-libertarian types. This isn’t the place to get into that discussion though. ;)

Second: Many people assume everything about our current capitalist system would stay the same except for the regulations, therefore corporate greed and excess would be the new law of the land. I agree that if we suddenly dropped all regulations, all hell would break loose. However this ignores several important factors. All the power corporations have is derived from the government. The very idea of a corporation is a legally fictitious person, independent of the individuals who own it. Combine this government fiat with limited liability and you have a recipe for disaster. Another aspect of corporate excess is their grip on the government via lobbyists. With a libertarian system, the government wouldn’t have enough power to make it worth their while. These are just a couple examples. Regardless of whether you agree with them or not, I hope you can see we’re not dreaming dreams of sweat shops, dormitories, and oppressed masses.

Finally, and most importantly: Deregulation and free-market capitalism are conclusions drawn from a libertarian starting point, not core ideologies of the libertarian position. The core of libertarianism is minimizing the interference of government in the lives of its citizens. Capitalism is simply an emergent property of human interaction given the rights to liberty and property. Minimizing regulations follows from minimizing government interference.

Libertarians are all alike

This may seem a bit redundant, but I really feel it’s necessary to drive this point home. I’m sick and tired of being cornered into a little box and having to blow down straw man after straw man over many pages just to get in one meaningful argument. We are not just a mindless herd of sheeple. We are all individual people with unique thoughts, feelings, and motivations behind our libertarian beliefs. It’s been said that a libertarian is simply a liberal who understands economics. It’s been said that a libertarian is simply a conservative who’s had his ass kicked by a cop. All a libertarian really is is someone who values freedom over government interference, whatever their reasons may be.

* In fact, by some objective measures, libertarians (fiscal conservatives, in this case) are MORE generous than their liberal counterparts.


  1. This is actually due to the way people think once they lock themselves into a mindset. You can explain and compromise all you want, they're not going to change their outlook. The same thing happens with just about any label you can apply to large groups of people- be it political orientation, religious views, sexual orientation, your favorite football team, and the list goes on.

    The problem is that most people don't think with an open, critical mind, so as I said you can explain all day without changing anything because those people simply aren't receptive to certain ideas.

    For this reason I don't agree with placing such labels at all, instead I think that people should be judged by their directly expressed views and their actions instead of their (perceived) belonging to a certain group. While grouping together with like-minded people is likely to improve ideas, a side effect is the development of misconceptions and the unwillingness of some people to agree with you because of your 'association'. For instance, a lot of people wouldn't listen to anything a communist would say, even if they were stating a non-communist view! They are afraid of agreeing because they think it automatically means they agree with communism.

    Oh well, good luck in the future making people think logically and critically. From my own experience I find that's rather hard to achieve, but YMMV.

    P.S. I took the test you linked and it placed me pretty deep into Libertarian territory, although I wasn't at all familiar with the ideology until I read this.

  2. You did a fine job on the "what", sir. Allow me to tackle the "why":


    J. Gravelle