Friday, January 24, 2014

Libertarians and 'Privilege'

By Bretigne Shaffer

Something’s been bugging me about the discussions I see in libertarian circles about class and “privilege.”  It’s not the fact that these things are being discussed - there’s nothing wrong with that - it’s what’s being omitted from most of the discussions.

Take the recent debate between Cathy Reisenwitz and Julie Borowski on the pages of FEE’s The Freeman.  Says Reisenwitz:

“Libertarians have a choice: They can stay silent on the topic of class and privilege, and simply support policies such as ending the drug war, extending marriage to gays, and opening up immigration from a limited government perspective. Or they can admit that in America, the State still extends privilege unevenly across lines of race, orientation, gender, and national origin, and that this privilege must be acknowledged before it can be fully understood or addressed.”

Reisenwitz never tells us why this unequal treatment needs to be addressed though.  Each of the problems she cites earlier in her essay (racially skewed enforcement of the war on drugs, attempts to “put the state between a woman and her doctor,” proposed legislation that would make it harder to hire even legal immigrants, anti-sodomy laws that are used to harass gays, etc.) is an example of rights violations by the state, and would simply go away if the state’s power to enforce these laws were removed - that is, if an actual libertarian solution were implemented.  So it is unclear to me why I need to understand or address the issue of “privilege” in order to oppose these laws that are inherently unjust.

There is of course nothing wrong with discussing or understanding issues of race, class or gender (although, as Julie Borowski points out, it can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing people only as members of these groups, of thinking of people only as one-dimensional members of a monolithic collective), but to assert - as Reisenwitz does - that libertarians “should” be more concerned about these issues is odd.

Libertarianism deals specifically with the question of when force is justified and when it is not.  It is hard to see how a discussion of “...the cultural attitudes, ignorance and prejudices that form the basis of (the desire to preserve unearned power)” is relevant here - unless of course someone is asserting that things like attitudes, ignorance and prejudices are themselves a form of force.  But nobody is asserting that, right?

Oh but hang on - someone is asserting that.  Cathy Reisenwitz is asserting that.  Here, in her article titled “Shaming Others is Unjustifiable Coercion.”  (No, the title is not tongue-in-cheek.)

So now it’s all starting to make a little more sense.  If Reisenwitz believes that things like “...criticism, ridicule, shame, and sometimes complete ostracization” constitute coercion, then perhaps she also believes that things like holding prejudices or discriminating along racial, sexual or other collectivist lines in one’s personal or business dealings are forms of coercion.  (The obvious question arises: Is it also “coercion” then, to shame those who hold prejudicial views or are discriminatory in their personal and business dealings, etc.?)

What gets left out of this discussion are the implications of declaring something to be “coercive.”  From a libertarian viewpoint, coercion implies force or the threat of force.  And force is justified as a response to force.  So when Reisenwitz asserts that “shaming” is a form of coercion, and doesn’t distinguish it from other forms of coercion (say, for example, actual coercion), then it should follow that some form of force is justified as a response to the “coercion” of shaming.  It’s funny how these things get left out.

Reisenwtz seems confused by the whole “force” distinction.  She writes:

“Lack of empathy for people with identities that differ from those that have traditionally been privileged in American society can be seen in our laws, from discriminatory marriage laws to punitive immigration policies to mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds to sodomy laws to selective enforcement of drug laws.

“But it’s only by listening to the people those laws disproportionately affect that we can fully understand why it’s so important for us to work to make it right.”

But this is complete nonsense.  It is not a “lack of empathy” that is at the root of these bad laws - it is the institution of the state itself, the fact that there is a group of people that is able to coerce others into doing what it tells them to and that it can have them thrown into prison, beaten or even killed if they don’t comply.  That is the problem.  And it is the specific problem that libertarianism addresses.  And no, I don’t need to listen to the people who have been violated by a law in order to know that the law is wrong.

And that’s the beauty of having a principled stance against coercion.  In a libertarian courtroom, it’s not the person for whom we have the most empathy who wins, it’s the one whose rights have been violated.  The non-aggression principle does not discriminate.  Not between black and white, male and female nor even between “likable empathetic person” and “absolute jerk.”  A free society tolerates absolute jerks - as long as they don’t violate anyone else’s rights.

Something else that seems to have been left out of this discussion is any meaningful examination of the word “privilege.”  Nobody seems to question how this word is being used.  But it should set off alarm bells for anyone concerned with liberty.  As I wrote two years ago:

“Certainly, those who do not experience discrimination may go through life blissfully unaware of the harm it causes others. And they did not do anything to earn their status.  It was something they were born into.  But does this constitute a “privilege”?  The word “privilege” connotes the possession not only of something one has not earned, but of something one really has no right to.  It implies a benefit that has been granted by someone else and that can and perhaps should be revoked by someone else.

“There is something insidious about this.  It is an upside-down way of looking at discrimination.  Instead of seeing behavior that ends up marginalizing groups of people as the problem, it turns our attention to those who are not marginalized.  To declare that they are thereby “privileged” is to hint that they are somehow culpable in the harm that has been done -- whether or not any specific individuals ever actually engaged in discriminatory speech or actions themselves.
“Using the word in this way is also to accept bigotry as the default.  To assert that not being harmed by discrimination is some kind of “privilege” is to assert that oppression is or should be the norm and suggests, in a manner reminiscent of (Political Correctness)’s Maoist roots, that those who do not suffer from discrimination ought to.

“To declare that non-oppression is a privilege is to lay the intellectual groundwork for bringing everyone down to the level of the oppressed.  Wouldn’t empowering everyone be a more noble goal?”
Language matters.  As George Orwell said, “...the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”  This is nowhere more evident than in the current discussion of “privileged” classes.  Quite apart from the collectivist thinking that underlies much of this discussion is the fact that it diverts attention from the real issue (for those concerned with liberty) and places blame where it does not belong.  What needs addressing from a libertarian standpoint are not the attitudes, thoughts and feelings of our culture.  What needs addressing are (at the very least) the evil laws that violate the rights of people who have committed no real crime.  Get rid of those laws and you’ve also gotten rid of their unfair application.

Bretigne Shaffer blogs at On the Banks.


  1. Brilliant!

    This debate is a perfect example of "muddying the waters" as to what Libertarianism actually means. Thank you, Bretigne, for filtering out the muck by analyzing the issues properly from the true (non-coercive) libertarian viewpoint!

  2. "What needs addressing from a libertarian standpoint are not the attitudes, thoughts and feelings of our culture. What needs addressing are (at the very least) the evil laws that violate the rights of people who have committed no real crime."

    Is it possible that attitudes, thoughts, and feelings influence what laws stay and what laws go?

    Example: is it at all possible that racism influenced state Jim Crow laws, and in order to combat such laws people needed not only a legal remedy but a cultural change of mind?

    The racist or whatever other type of person has a right to free association under the NAP, fine; but I've heard some racists or let's say war hawks speak of people different than they are as less than human, i.e. their cultural notions tend to dehumanize folks because they look different than the racist or are from a different country the hawk wants to bomb. You may scream "no aggression against other persons whatsoever!" To which the racist or war hawk says, "well, I agree. But they aren't "persons" I'm invading, they are less than person's in my eyes and I have the law on my side."

    In my mind Shaffer's points aren't wrong, just incomplete and wee-bit short sighted as to what changes people's minds and what is necessary to foster peace and bring the NAP to full fruit as the basis of people's dealings.

    1. "Is it possible that attitudes, thoughts, and feelings influence what laws stay and what laws go?"

      Yes, it is. But, this is man's evil morality not based on libertarianism. Libertarianism would get rid of all intrusive laws, specifically, based on race. If a libertarian is ignoring such laws or just not addressing them, though his neighbors are hindered by them, then it's simply he, as an individual, that has made that decision to not address those laws, for whatever reason, not libertarianism.

    2. "The racist or whatever other type of person has a right to free association under the NAP"
      i would have stopped there.

  3. Well said. I quit listening to Cathy soon after she appeared. She sounds like a liberal here, not a libertarian.

  4. Some libertarians, call them clever-silly libertarians, think that without a state there would be no morality, and upholding standards of morality is repugnant.

    Cathy Reisenwitz, in her about me section on her blog "Sex and the State," writes "I was a Bitch and Bust-reading feminist NeoCon Southern Baptist who saved herself for marriage. I’m now a sex-positive feminist Anarcho-capitalist libertarian."

    She wants to be able to be a slut without people shaming her. The use of shame and shunning is perfectly legitimate in a free society - there need not be government laws against being a slut.

    Cathy and other clever silly libertarians want to pooh-pooh traditional bourgeois morality as provincial and backwards. But in a free society, traditional bourgeois morality would likely become the norm, with outposts of bohemianism and cosmopolitanism in major cities.

    Right now the state is shoving tolerance of homosexuals, transsexuals, and extreme feminism down the throats of middle-class Americans and middle-class Europeans with public education and innumerable laws denying freedom of association. Cathy's insistence that society voluntarily "check their privilege" is wishful thinking at best. At worst, these Utopian ideals require a totalitarian state to implement.

  5. The only way shamming violates NAP if such shamming are laws of the state and shamer is violating that person's rights to live the way they wish to. Last time I checked we libertarians want to end the state. Outside of that shamming is perfectly acceptable in the guise of NAP.

  6. The "clever sillies" remarks seem to be a twisting of this post of mine that indicted both sides of the argument as "clever sillies" :

    "Some people like their libertarianism (or, in my case, classical liberalism) ala Rothbard.
    Other people don’t. Intellectual tastes differ. Why is that a problem?
    Word to the wise.
    Tempting as they are, these kinds of intellectual food-fights are better left to what Bruce Charlton calls “clever sillies.”

    There seems to be a lot of that kind of recycling of phrases, posts, and ideas from my blog....into the defense of the very thing I'm criticizing when I use them.