The Trouble With Being A “Libertarian”

Normally I’ve always thought of ideology as revolving around a set of policy positions based on first principles. If you think that government should meddle in the bedroom but not the boardroom, you’re a conservative. If you think the opposite, you’re a progressive. If you think some of each, you’re a centrist. If you think neither, you’re a libertarian. Obviously that’s a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea. And by that standard, from a policy perspective, libertarians have no more in common with the right than with the left, and because of that, for many years now I’ve used it to identify myself.

What I’ve come to realize, however, is that the policy positions associated with an ideology are one thing, but the culture that develops within the movement that surrounds that ideology is a different thing altogether. That means that it is possible to embrace the policy positions of an ideology, and even the underlying philosophy that determines them, while not at all identifying with the culture of the movement that builds up around those beliefs.

A few years ago I started noticing a deepening divide between what I initially thought of as “Don’t Tread On Me” libertarians and “Don’t Tread On Anyone” libertarians. And in the last few years the negative feedback loop of social media has strengthened the former at the expense of the latter. More and more I see self-identified libertarians with large followings on social media who not only are trolls, but proud to be so. For a while I tried to push back against this trend by suggesting that the Non-Aggression Principle and Wheaton’s Law are each incomplete without the other. But that sort of argument doesn’t work on people who, to be blunt, seem to derive great happiness from being dicks.

Take the infighting happening now in the Libertarian Party. There’s always been back and forth between the purists and the pragmatists. As I recall, in the ‘90s the former were known as PLEDGE and the latter as the “Committee for a Libertarian Majority”. But despite their disagreements, they didn’t treat each other like the enemy. Today’s LP has become a textbook example of Sayre’s Law: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” To be clear, I say that not because liberty has no value, but because in a world of single member districts where the mainstream media has made it abundantly clear that alternative candidates will not be meaningfully covered unless they make a mistake, the LP will never, ever amount to anything, ever.

And it’s not my goal to hate on the LP. Like many people, the LP was my gateway into a world of interesting philosophical ideas. I want to hope it can still serve that purpose for other people. But in a world where, for example, the New Hampshire affiliate tweets “Libertarians suffer more oppression than black people” I can’t see how it would attract anyone worth associating with.

And that’s where I’ve increasingly found myself unsure how to self-identify. My “live and let live” views on free markets, civil liberties, and methodological individualism haven’t changed. My utopia is still a world in which anyone can openly be who they really are, where decisions are made nonviolently rather than politically, and in which people help one another and otherwise do nice things because they choose to do so, not because they’re forced to do so. In that sense, I haven’t left the libertarian movement. But these days, I feel more and more that the movement has left me. 

Bryan Caplan’s Simplistic Theory of Left and Right, states that “the left hates markets and the right hates the left”. (Tap the link for a short but very worthwhile elaboration.) And by that standard, it’s clear to me that more and more of those calling themselves libertarians culturally fit in just fine with the right, especially when so many of the trolls seem interested in using shock value exclusively to appeal to disaffected conservatives and populists. Well, I don’t fit in with that at all, and if that means that it would make more sense for me to self-identify as “market liberal”, then I can live with that.