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Libertarianism Needs to Change

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No, not in our basic beliefs and principles. The concepts of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace should remain the core of what we are.  Those ideas, after all, are essential to human flourishing.  If widely implemented they would make for a better and more prosperous world, one in which most people thrive.

But we do need to change how we express, prioritize, and apply those principles.

In part, this is simple pragmatism.  If we hope to achieve political, cultural, or societal change we will need to reach a much larger audience, an audience that is not predisposed to agree with us.  Libertarianism has been – and remains today – overwhelmingly a movement of middle-class white men.  But a majority of our larger audience, the audience we must reach to be effective, is made up of women and people of color.  White men currently make up just 31  percent of the U.S. population.  By 2050, that will be closer to 20 percent.  There is no way to become an effective political or social movement without attracting women and people of color.

It is not surprising that as a white male middle-class movement, we have tended to stress those issues of importance to middle-class white men, things like tax cuts, deregulation, gun rights, and so forth.  Of course, those issues remain important.  But too often the privilege we enjoy blinds us to other issues that have a higher priority to women, the poor, or people of color. Thus, we prioritize a change in marginal tax rates over police misconduct.  We treat the use of tax dollars for welfare as worse than the use of tax dollars to hold immigrant children in cages.

It is this prioritization of issues that are important to us – or to people like us – that makes it possible for some libertarians to say idiotic things like “Americans were freer in the 1800s than we are today.”   African Americans, women, and LGBTQ Americans, among many others would strongly disagree.

This is obviously not to say that high taxes or welfare programs are good.  I’ve spent my career arguing that most government programs are counterproductive, that high taxes reduce economic growth and leave us all poorer, and that social welfare programs fail to lift people out of poverty.  But on the vast scale of bad, even immoral, public policy, we should be careful in weighting our priorities.

Second, we should recognize how our policy preferences impact less advantaged groups, or at least how they will perceive that impact.  Property rights are clearly an important concern, as is the freedom of association, and free speech.  We should always be wary of government infringement of those rights.  But when we use those concerns to oppose civil rights laws or champion speech by neo-Nazis, we are missing the forest for the trees.

And speaking of speech, we should understand that words matter.  We should show empathy not contempt for those in need.  We should explain how government intervention has contributed to their marginalization, not criticize them for the situation in which they find themselves.  We should understand that the playing field is not level.  The poor and minorities don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else.  We should reflect this in how we talk about issues.

Along those lines, we should understand that just because government should not censor speech does not mean that we should therefore welcome racist, misogynistic, or other hateful speech.  Yes, we want a big tent, but there are limits to the size of that tent.  Racists, incels, and xenophobes have no legitimate place in our movement.

Perhaps we are so accustomed to being outside the political mainstream that we take a perverse pride in sticking it to that mainstream.  Or maybe, as a political minority, we instinctively feel solidarity with other political minorities.  But all non-mainstream political movements are not created equal.  We are not standing up for free speech or daringly transgressing social norms when we allow those who hate to use our movement and our platforms.   We can oppose government policing of speech, while also policing ourselves.

There’s a practical point to this, of course.  As my friend Adam Bates has pointed out, if you invite both Nazis and African Americans into your movement, you are not going to have very many African Americans.  But more important is the moral point: Our goal as libertarians should not be winning esoteric academic debates but in creating a society in which every human being can flourish.  That is not a society that openly tolerates racism and other forms of hatred.

I became – and remain – a libertarian because I believe in the inherent equal worth of every person.  Liberty is important, not as an abstract concept, but because it is key to the conditions that enable people to be all that they can be – to flourish.   But far too often we fail to speak to that ideal.  If we hope to become a successful political movement – if we truly want to change the world — rather than maintain an ivory tower status quo or ideological purity – we need to do so more often.

And, more importantly, we should do so because doing so is a measure of our own decency and humanity.



  1. Philip Boncer says:

    The CORE principle of libertarianism is that individual humans have individual human rights. ALL of them. All of the rights, for all of the people, all of the time. When you start deciding who gets to have rights, dividing people’s rights by ethnicity and citizenship and paperwork status, you are no longer operating on libertarian ethics. Period.

    This is not a minor issue, or a “small fraction”; it’s the *central* issue of liberty. Do you support liberty, or not?

    It isn’t libertarianism if it doesn’t stand for liberty. How to interact with other people is the secondary issue. If one doesn’t have an actual ethical position to interact FROM, how the hell can you make your point, or expect anyone to listen to you or be able to trust you.

    *First* we need to have a principle we stand for. If we stand for liberty consistently and ethically, then anyone we interact with can know that, and trust that to be the case, and make sense of what we say. If we are inconsistent, if we say liberty for all, except those guys, on these issues, then anyone we interact with knows that our advocacy is conditional, and not to be fully trusted.

    Indeed, that’s EXACTLY what’s wrong with our entire political discourse in this country, as dominated by the Big Two Parties — both of them have inconsistent principles, and advocate everything conditionally, and thus can’t be trusted to keep their word or to behave ethically.

    The liberty movement needs to be, *must* be, EXISTS IN ORDER TO BE, different from that.

    This is a matter of ethics and principle. Opposing liberty for some people, based on collective or group identity, is not an ethical position, or a libertarian one. If we don’t have inherent human rights, then the entire philosophy is invalid. If, OTOH, we *do* have inherent human rights, then we ALL have them, equally, by virtue of being humans, regardless of our ethnicity, color, religion, gender, citizenship status, papers in order, etc.

    Borders are (rightfully) limits on governments, not on the individual rights of people. The border contention is about the right of people to travel, vs. the “right” of some people to dictate who has the right to travel. It should be obvious what side the libertarian position is. And it’s *not* on the side of “Your papers, please”.

    Liberty is applicable to different opinions, viewpoints, ideas, etc. You’re allowed to have any of those you want, and we support your right to do so.

    But that does not mean that all of those different opinions, viewpoints, ideas, etc. qualify as being libertarian, or that we need to agree with them all, or accept and associate with people who hold all of them, or never argue against them — especially if they are different opinions, viewpoints, ideas, etc. that are in favor of denying liberty to other people.


  2. Michael H Wilson says:

    Mr. Tanner I could agree more, but getting the word out is difficult.


  3. Hi Mike, couldn’t agree more. I try to write my op-eds and give talks always from this perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sven R Larson says:

    Michael, this is a great blog article. What I hear you saying is that to preserve freedom, we must take responsibility for it. That is the essence of what libertarianism is all about.

    Now, as always, I have to remind everyone that while we fight racism and bigotry, we must not let government socialize our needs, wants and aspirations in other ways. As CS Lewis said, tyranny for the good of those oppressed is probably the worst tyranny of them all.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Eden Sarfaty says:

    Just imagine if the population of the United States, and of the world, were 1/4 of what it is now. How much easier would it be to determine the optimal level of government and regulation. We would not have an impending crisis of global climate change, we would not have the extreme constraints on the future of our energy choices, and that’s only to identify a couple of outstanding issues. The more people there are, and the more diverse they are in their ethnicity and religion, the more difficult to is to compromise their perceived priorities., and their “liberty” is inimical to mine, and mine to theirs.
    This, it seems to me, is the problem we need to address to maximize liberty for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

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