My Personal Libertarian Hell: How I Enraged the Movement and Paid the Price
The most dangerous thing you can do on the Internet is to send your banking information to a mysterious Nigerian prince. The second most dangerous thing you can do is to write even the most tepid criticism of libertarians. I recently wrote piece about my trip to Honduras and how conditions in that country reminded me of a “Libertarian Utopia.” I was inspired not only by the trip but also from reading many articles that have outlined a failing libertarian experiment in that country (here and here, for instance). I focused on just this one small factor when, of course, I also realize that the problems of Central America are historical, entrenched, and above all, complicated. From the reaction online you would have thought I personally kicked Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek square in his wrinkled, decomposed sack.
Reaction was swift and personal, including widely circulated factoids that I’m both fat and bald (guilty on both counts). Some called for my utter, personal ruin. Fair enough. But there were comments that went too far, such as those that addressed my parenting skills or that examined my decade-old divorce. I was unprepared for the fire hose of rage and invective. In fact, it’s hard to overstate just how furious—and proud of it—this segment of America seems. I could provide links, but I’d rather not send them traffic. If you are compelled to see for yourself, feel free to take a refreshing dip into the libertarian cesspool, but try not to get any in your mouth.
I’m tempted to avoid this group altogether, but I think it would be chicken shit of me to back away because of some name-calling and an epic temper tantrum. Every badly written blog and hysterical, spittle-flecked Internet video only further proves the point that these people have serious problems.
I often write about libertarianism from my own personal journey through it. The biggest criticism I’ve heard while writing various pieces is that I was “never really a libertarian.” I was a Ron Paul delegate in Nevada and wrote about it for the Reno Gazette Journal (see above), and I supported other libertarian candidates and policies for years. The overuse of the “no true Scotsman fallacy” raises the question of what level of commitment is required to be considered a libertarian. Must I be branded or tattooed? Does it require ritualistic testicular shaving (nod to Dr. Evil)? Libertarians demand a level of unexamined commitment unmatched by any institution except perhaps church, which makes sense because the movement is less about what is good for society and is more a series of articles in an indefensible faith.
Although not all libertarians hate, a sizable number make the movement look both angry and unstable. They rage against the smallest loss of unearned privilege in society, while screaming about a “meritocracy.” Those who get ahead in our country do so more often from connections, family money and privilege than from any innate goodness or intelligence, and libertarians gloss over all questions of class, race and privilege in the hope of a return to a pure market ideal that has never existed. The history of America is an unending fight between untamed market forces and human beings, and when the free market gets out of hand, real people suffer, as so many did in the Great Recession of 2008.
I know that I do things that piss off libertarians, because I would have been infuriated by my own observations just a few short years ago. Most of all, I employ the shorthand of using “conservative,” “libertarian” and “Tea Party” interchangeably. Some libertarians think this is unfair to “pure” libertarians, but in reality the lines between these groups have grown fuzzy to nonexistent. They battle for the same insane voting bloc and bad ideas. Despite the constant demand for purity, individual libertarians hold divergent and even contradictory opinions in every imaginable topic. This leads to the troubling trend of otherwise decent libertarians giving intellectual cover for some of the most awful, mean-spirited ideas on the right.
Libertarians argue for eliminating Social Security right in the party platform, for instance, and this idea has been hijacked by far more aggrieved and intellect-free groups like the Tea Party. The only benefit I see to this unholy alliance is that there might be entertainment value in the war between social conservatives and libertarians over control of the Republican Party. The debate itself squeezes libertarians into an ever-shrinking, rage-filled, political ghetto.
I have often remarked that libertarians get a few things right, such as social issues. Yet this cross-pollination with other parts of the right has hurt their credibility, forcing them into cowardice or capitulation on some issues. My favorite example is gay marriage. Instead of supporting “freedom to marry” many offer this gem: “the government should not be in the marriage business at all!” This is not the party line for some libertarians, but I’ve heard it firsthand from too many. Aside from showing deep cowardice, it lets conservative-minded libertarians have their cake and eat it too.
I used to enjoy libertarian books and lively discussions. As time passed, I noticed the philosophy and resulting policy suggestions were miles away from the reality that I lived every day. Along with conspiracy theories and an increasing disconnect with reality, I saw growth of unreasonable rage. Purity is bad enough, but when you add levels of impotent, unquenchable rage, you create toxicity that has become the libertarian brand.
It was inevitable. Rage defines all right-leaning movements in the Obama era. The existence of this hate, vitriol and disgust is beyond dispute. You see it on Fox News, in talk radio and permeating the internet. When they lose, they’re angry and even when they win they’re still pretty pissed off. Some random liberal writes a little article for Salon and libertarians release a torrent of hate articles, personal attacks, and rage filled podcasts. What a burden it must be to walk around so furious all the time. It’s almost a shame, because diversity of ideas in a democracy is a good thing, but when they are poisoned with hate, they can’t be taken seriously.
As I said at the outset, the easy move is to ignore libertarians, because they have no hope of winning serious office. Even the strategy of reshaping the GOP has limits. Rand Paul has to pretend he doesn’t want to reverse five decades of civil rights law just to be considered a “serious politician.” In fact there is also an undercurrent of racial animus that infects many libertarians. From Ron Paul’s lost racist news letters to the most current movement leaders, they just can’t seem to help themselves.
After my Honduras article, Tom Woods, noted libertarian “thinker,” called me out on Twitter. I called him a “hate-monger” and blocked him. I regretted it immediately. I didn’t know him well enough to sling that insult, so I apologized. A few days later, I read up on his work, and found out that my apology was the real mistake. Woods seems to hold a buffet of outlandish opinions. He is a neo-Confederate and founding member of the League of the South. In 2005, Reason, the flagship libertarian magazine and one I still enjoy on occasion, called him out for one of his books which seemed to express sympathy for the slave-owning, antebellum south. The libertarian undercurrent of sympathy for slaveholders makes it hard to swallow all that cheap talk about “liberty.”
Although I did not always feel this way, I’m opposed to letting corporate rights trump every other part of humanity, be it labor, government or poor people. At the same time, engaging libertarians gives no return on investment. As a political ideology, it’s bankrupt. There are also far more odious statements coming from the religious right every day, and they have an actual, terrifying shot at power. Meanwhile, milquetoast Democrats have failed to stem corporate money in elections and haven’t managed to slow the great hollowing out of the middle class. Dealing with real problems of real people is way more interesting and important to me than the libertarian obsession of hoarding gold and assault rifles.
Movements, like religions, must face competing ideologies, actual facts and “turncoats” like me. Politics isn’t a religious cult where the penalty for leaving is death, or at least it shouldn’t be. I still believe in liberty, personal responsibility and, most of all, freedom. Libertarians don’t own these words, and they aren’t even that good at defending the values behind them. I don’t want to be “told what to do” any more now than I ever did, but I also recognize that we cannot live in a society of individuals without regard for anyone else.