Libertarian Liability: Why Libertarianism Fails to Impress


I am not a fan of Libertarianism. It does not appeal to me. I do not see the wisdom in it.

However, I find myself in an awkward situation when people whom I otherwise have a great deal of intellectual respect for, people with whom I am usually in moral and philosophical alignment, seem quite smitten with Libertarian ideals.

So I feel the need to explain why it is that Libertarianism fails to impress me, to suggest that perhaps it should not impress others as much as it does, or at the very least to explore what exactly it is about my own values that Libertarianism is in such irreconcilable conflict with.

When I start to think about the problems of Libertarianism, I am often reminded of Communism. I do not mean in a mechanistic sense regarding how the two systems operate, but rather the sharp contrast between Communism as explained in theory, and Communism as applied in practice. I am sure that many of you can relate to this experience. At this point Communism is practically a punchline to a very unfunny joke. It is the great 20th Century example of an idea that seems great on paper, but fares so poorly in practice. In Libertarianism I feel as though I see an adolescent stage of the same sad story.

When Libertarianism is explained to me, in sympathetic terms, in principles, in ideological mantras, it sounds great. How could it not? Individual Liberty above all else, Voluntarism, Freedom of Association, the Non-Initiation of Force. These seem like great ideals. Yet time and again, when I hear proposals floated as to how these ideas would be applied to actual communities, actual economies, actual people, I find myself in uncomfortable waters. Whatever spell the ideology cast on me is rapidly disenchanted.

There are a hundred examples I could give of such proposals not sitting well with me, but I would like to cut to my favorite: The example I give is from the 2012 Election Season, when Paul the Elder, Ron not Rand (and the better of the two Pauls in the opinion of this writer) was asked a question regarding using tax dollars to feed hungry children.

I want to take a moment to explain why this is the example I use, least some Libertarian apologist dismiss me as cherry-picking a particularly bad case to make a study of. Ron Paul is no poor representative of the Libertarian ethic, at least he was not at the time. He was well received by the Libertarians I knew as an erudite representative of their position. Furthermore, the kind of answer he gave to this question seems very much in line with the kinds of answers I have received personally from Libertarians when discussing similar issues. I also pick Ron Paul because, for as much as I disagree with him, during the 2012 primary debates, he proved himself to be the smartest man on stage, being the only one to consistently answer in meaningful and intelligent ways rather than in vapid talking points.

In 2012, Ron Paul was running for a spot on the Republican Ticket rather than as a third party candidate. The calculation was that Libertarianism had a much better chance of making its way into the White House if it attempted to hitch a ride, lamprey-esque, on the back of the larger, stronger, fish that was the GOP. The strategy was a good one, despite the fact that he did not ultimately win, and it was during one of those Primary debates that the following occurred:

Ron Paul, regarding a previous statement he had made critical of the practice, was asked to elaborate on his position regarding free and reduced cost lunches for economically challenged public school children.

He replied that yes, of course those children should be fed. Of course they should not go hungry due to whatever economically woe begotten circumstance had befallen their parents. That was not the fault of the children and for it they should not suffer. However (of course there is a “however”), it is not the role of the Federal Government to do that. It is beyond the proper role of Government to mandate support for those children by taking the money of citizens, through taxation, and applying it to that cause.

Paul acknowledged, as a point of Constitutional Law, that State and Local Governments might have the authority to intervene through taxation, but that ideally all mandates to aid the hungry would be removed and if those children were to be fed, it ought to be done via individual, voluntary, and per instance acts of charity by the local community.

That was his answer, and that is precisely the kind of answer you get from Libertarians regarding other similar issues.

So what is wrong with that? The problem with that reasoning jumped out to me immediately, as I am sure it did for many of you. However, for those not predisposed in the same manner as myself, allow me to elaborate:

The problem with Ron Paul’s answer, the Libertarian answer, is a simple truism if human nature: Charity is fickle.

I do not wish to be dismissive of the level of charitable giving in this country. We can be relied upon to donate enormous sums to a vast array of worthy causes. However, we do not donate Proactively,  or as a matter of regular and dependable civic duty. We donate reactively. When the latest catastrophe strikes and we are shocked by the humanitarian need, we donate. When our employer or school has a canned food drive, we donate. When someone in our family or in our neighborhood asks for pledges for their charity walk-a-thon, we donate. We often even donate simply because it is the Holiday season, out of the simple benevolent atmosphere at the time.

But such charity is not reliable. Interest wanes, the walk-a-ton ends, the holiday season gives way to just another year. But the hungry are not only hungry during the holidays, or when your child happens to have a canned food drive. They are hungry during the other times as well, and will continue to be, month in and month out, decade after decade, for the reminder of our lives and far beyond. There will always be hungry people who need to be fed, or else left to perish. And these kinds of problems, regular, constant, mundane suffering and need, these are the issues that charity is woefully ill equipped to deal with. These issues require reliable, steady, and systematic attention.

So when Ron Paul, or really any Libertarian, offers such a solution to the insoluble problems of poverty and need, I am forced to one of two conclusions: Either they are stupid (which, for the record, I do not think Ron Paul is) and somehow failed to recognize this basic truth about the unreliable nature of charity, or they are fully aware that chastity is fickle, and as much as they may feel for those poor children, ultimately, they are willing to sacrifice the stomachs of the hungry on the alter of individual liberty.

That is calculus I cannot abide by. That is a prioritization of values that does not sit well with me. And it is the way so many similar discussions with a Libertarian will go. This philosophy seems to miss the basic truth of the social contract, the core advantage of being a communal species as opposed to a solitary one. It seems to forsake the glue of civilization, the idea that every person in the civilization, simply by merits of being in it, is afforded some level of protection and prosperity beyond simply what they have individually earned by their own merit. In this way, a community is greater than the sum of its parts.

And this leads me directly to my second major problem with Libertarianism; how out of touch with reality is seems. It has often occurred to me that Libertarianism is a political philosophy one can only preach from atop a mountain of safety, security, and influence purchase by the combined effort of millions that came before. Put simply, it is the political philosophy of the privileged and the few.

I recently came across an example that perfectly illustrates this: A friend of mine (again, a person who me I otherwise have a great deal of respect for) shared a Meme headlined, “Things that are none of my business (as a Libertarian), or the governments”. The list began;

1: What kind of love, or what gender of lover, consenting adults prefer.

-Sounds great.

2: What Political Party you belong to.

-Ok, I’m with you.

3: What restroom you choose to use or gender you identify as.

-Hell yeah!

4: What you choose to read.

5: What you choose to write.

-Yes, #agreestrongly

6: How you choose to spend your money.

-Well, that depends on….

7: Who you choose to employ or not employ.

-Ok, now wait a minute.

8: Who you choose to serve or not serve at your business.

-And, you’ve lost me.

As always with Libertarianism, what started out so good, plummets into a dark place where I cannot follow.

And then the Meme wrapped itself up by ending with the following caption: “I will treat you with respect and human decency. If you choose not to reciprocate, no biggie, I’ll move along.”

…If you won’t treat me with respect and decency….no big deal….I will move along.

I replied to that friend by quoting the above passage and saying, “If the core of White Privilege were condensed into a bumper sticker slogan.”

And while I don’t want to make this post about race, there is no way to ignore the privilege that statement drips with. There are really only two conditions under which a person can say such a thing with a strait face and not even a hint of irony.

The first possibility is that you have access to such great resources that it truly is no big deal to you if people treat you disrespectfully and indecently. Resources such that encountering such treatment really has no impact to your prospects.

Either that, or the second possibility, that you belong to a demographic, in a time and a place, where you can feel reasonably sure that this poor treatment will not be systemic enough to affect your earnings, employment, healthcare, housing, education, and treatment by the criminal justice system.

If you are not one of those two types of people, if you are a person of a group towards whom that poor treatment is systemic enough to have a very real impact, or a person with so few resources that finding a world disrespectful and indecent towards you would be devastating to your ability to prosper, then you could never make such a statement with a strait face.

This idea that the disrespect and indecency of other towards you is truly “no biggie” and something you can “move along” from, is an idea that can only be born of a disconnected and irresponsible privilege.

And for those reasons, Libertarianism does not impress me. It prioritizes individuality over communal responsibility to a degree which I deem to be both harmful and immoral. It stares down from a place of influence and strength to propose a system of governance in which those not also atop that rampart of privilege would be left to the wolves. It is both intimate in the way it disrespects the have-nots, while simultaneously distant and disconnected from them as well.

In short, it is, by my judgment, a terrible system for governing a population and lacking in its moral priorities. Unless or until someone can present to me a form of Libertarianism that takes those values of Individual Liberty and Free Association and Non-Initiation of Force, and balances them in a wise and moderate way against our shared responsibility to one another and to our community, until that happens, Libertarianism is a ship I just cannot board.

Bernie or Bluster: An Incredibly Frustrating Encounter with a Fellow Bernie Supporter

I want to start out this article with a kind of preface that I have never before in my political life felt the need to provide:

I support Bernie Sanders for President. I like Bernie. I voted for Bernie when the primaries rolled through Missouri. I even donated a whopping $20 to his campaign. I am attracted to his stance on campaign finance reform, history of front line Civil Rights activism, approach to affordable college education, and a populist tax plan that heavily favors the middle class.

However, and this is the part I feel uncomfortable having to justify, I also like Hillary. She is a shrewd, intelligent, and component politician, diplomat, and leader. She is not quite as ideologically aligned with me as Bernie, but she has the chops and know how to do the job. She is stronger on Gun Control than Bernie, which matters to me, has incomparably greater international experience, and also supports many of the same ideas that Bernie does (such as affordable college, tax reform, incentivizing state-side industry, environmental regulation to address Global Warming), albeit to differing degrees.

I like and support both of these candidates, I just happen to like Bernie more. Before Bernie announced, I was happily gearing up to support Clinton. Now that Bernie’s window of opportunity is rapidly closing, I am content to shift my stance back to Hillary with only a passing bit of disappointment. I feel Hillary has been pulled a few notches Left by her competition with Bernie, and I think Hillary is a strong candidate. So, while Bernie would have been ideal, I am confident with Hillary and certainly willing to go to the mattresses in support of her over her chief Republican rival.

That is the position I have held throughout this entire Primary. If Bernie is my 10, then Hillary is a 9. However, it seems that a lot of my fellow Bernie supporters do not feel the same way. A thick and noxious disdain for Hillary seems to have developed among some factions of Bernie supporters as the Primaries have carried on. These people do not just support Bernie, but speak about Hillary with the same tone, and using the same rhetoric, as you might a Trump, or a Cruz, or a blood-drunk warlord from a third world hell hole.

Where in the did this come from?

When this campaign started, prior to Bernie’s announcement, where were these people? Is it not true that if you scrub the Facebook and Twitter of many of these individuals you will find history of them liking and sharing pro-Hillary memes, or at the very least expressing indifference, in the early days before Bernie’s name started to crop up in the conversation? How did these people become so, dare I say it, radicalized? Did the very presence of a competition, the simple act of placing Hillary in an opposing position, ignite and stoke the natural urge to vilify the opponent, to transform a mere competitor into an outright enemy?

Image Credit: Politico

Isn’t the fact that I, in a what should be a conversation between sane rational adults, feel the need to justify the notion of liking both competitors while still having a preference, rather telling? Why does that, seemingly reasonable idea, need defending? Why is it that the notion of supporting Bernie without hating Hillary so bizarre to some people? Least you think I am exaggerating, I would like to share a story with you.

I recently had a rather frustrating encounter with one of my fellow Bernie supporters, who we will call Tony, while I was attempting to probe into the meaning behind the slogan of “Bernie or Bust”. This phrase has been bandied about for weeks now, but I find it frustratingly vague. Bernie or Bust? What exactly is it that is meant by Bust? Read along with me as I attempt to find out:

Names have been changed for the sake of privacy, and the language as been edited slightly for grammar, spelling, and flow. You’ll just have to trust me that I have not misrepresented anything.

The conversation takes place in comments section of a meme stating “Bernie or Bust”:

Me: What does the “or Bust” mean?

I have been taking the “or bust” to mean “or I don’t vote”, is that not the case? Does the “or bust” mean “or the situation will be less than ideal, however I still clearly care about the differences between Trump and Hillary and would still vote.”

If the or Bust part means the former, then I oppose that idea. If it means the latter, then I am totally on board and am, myself, a Bernie or Bust person.

Tony: “Or Bust” means to get him in by any means necessary. If we have to march at the convention, so be it.

Me: Ok, but obviously that’s not a real answer. You can’t just make him President by force of will, you being there marching might make a difference, might not. Bernie or Bust cannot possible mean “Bernie or try harder and get Bernie anyway”

So, what I am asking you is, if you and other supporters try your very hardest, but Bernie does not win the nomination, for yourself at least, what then?

Tony: Do you really not know what “or bust” means? Well if Hillary is not arrested by then, or Bernie loses California by some voter suppression, then we will worry about it then but I can tell you who will not be getting our vote if she happens to survive the next few weeks and it’s your fav woman of all time Hitlerey. You seem to be a fan. Tell me why she should get my vote?  (Note: I thought this was just a type-o during this conversation, only know when writing this do I realize me was making a Hitler pun. Comparing her to Hitler? Really?)

Me: I dunno why you are saying that. I voted for Bernie, I donated to his campaign. I prefer Bernie, I just don’t hate Hillary, and if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination then I will obviously vote for the Hill.

And, I have no idea how you keep spending all of these words and not actually answering my question. It’s very simple. If Bernie does not make it, and the candidates are Trump and Hillary. Will you vote Trump, will you vote Hillary, or will you not vote?

Please, just stop beating around the bush. Or Feel free to explain if there is some other option I have not considered.

Tony: I’ve answered your question twice.

Me: Then please repeat it because I must have missed it. If Bernie doesn’t make it, who will you vote for, or will you not vote?

Tony: I can’t vote for Hillary or trump. “Or bust” means by any means necessary like protesting at the convention.

Now tell me why Hillary should get my vote.

Me: Ok, so you would not vote? Assuming that he does not win, by whatever means you try? Ok, that answers my question. Jesus man, was that so hard?

And, to answer your question, Hillary should get your vote for about 90% of the same reason Bernie should, since they are aligned, or very close to aligned, on most issues. If the 10% of issues where they differ matter so much to you that you cannot in good conscious cast a vote for her regardless of who the GOP candidate is, then by all means, stay home.

Tony: Do you think Bernie doesn’t stand a chance right now? Do you think Hillary is more of a democrat than Bernie?

Me: I didn’t say either of those things. I think Bernie still stands a chance, but it’s a slim one. And I don’t think Hillary is more of a Democrat than Bernie, I prefer Bernie, I voted for Bernie. I want Bernie to win.

Tony: If you are a Bernie supporter I would hate to see what a Bernie hater would say? Lol u don’t have to pretend you support Bernie over her. Are you talking to yourself? I honestly figured you knew what “or bust” meant. But this all makes sense cuz you are a fan of hers too.

You are the first person I’ve talked to that has said you like Bernie over Hillary and you will most certainly vote for Hillary if Bernie doesn’t win. You can live with yourself knowing you voted for that person?

Me: Why is this nuance just so mind blowing? I like Hillary and Bernie, but I like Bernie more. I want Bernie to win, but if he doesn’t I am content with Hillary. My support for Bernie does not manifest itself as hate for Hillary.

That should be normal. That is sane. That is wise. Just because two people are in a contest I don’t have to hate the other side, especially when the contest is between allies competing for the best representation against the actual opponent.

And no, I am still not actually clear on what “or bust” means because it’s like pulling teeth to get a Bernie or Bust person to simply say in basic language what they will actually do if Bernie does not make it onto the ticket. Look, it took me multiple exchanges just the get you to say that you wouldn’t vote for either of the other two candidates, and even then you still insisted that “or bust” meant getting him onto the ticket by whatever means necessary.

Which of course is not a real answer. I asked you, “What will you do if Bernie does not win” and your repeated answer is “Do whatever it takes to make him win.”…No…no, that is not an answer to the question. It’s like you cannot even conceptualize, within your answer, the notion of him not winning. That is quite frustrating.

Tony: Well then I’ll write him in on the general ballot: but no way in hell she has earned my vote!

There was a bit more too it than that, talking about specific policy points between the different candidates, but that’s not really the point of this article.

This particular person may not have been the most measured or reasonable representation of the Bernie or Bust confederation, but to be honest, I haven’t had much more luck when speaking to others. “Tony” here just happened to be emblematic of problems I have encountered in several conversations over the last few weeks. This particular branch of especially…verbose…Bernie supports seem to think that everything is a conspiracy, part of the system keeping the people’s hero down. From the media coverage to the way votes are counted to very mechanics of the convention and primary process. In addition, Hillary has been made out to be the Great Satan, more or less. As you can see in the conversation above, she is considered equal to Trump, which is a silly thing to say, an even as bad at Hitler, which is an incompetent thing to say. Also, again as you can see in the conversation above, for these Bernie or Bust folks, it is almost impossible to even verbalized the possibility that he will lose.

But why is that? Why is it that for these people pivoting from Bernie towards the support of the Candidate that is clearly, almost as a mathematical certainty, the better candidate for this country than GOP nominee, is akin to drinking poison. While for me, repositioning to back Hillary is not only easy, but doesn’t compromise my integrity in the slightest?

I think the answer is, at least for many of them, that in their fervor to support and elevate their preferred candidate, they resorted to vilifying the competition. It was not enough to Bernie to merely be a great candidate and a superior option to Hillary, but Hillary had to be the devil as well. The could not be simply not as good, she had to be made to be bad. And of course the only way that Good could be losing to Evil is if the deck is stacked against Good, making him the underdog. Once you’ve committed yourself, loudly and proudly and publicly, to Hillary being the devil, it is difficult to pull yourself over to her side, to bridge the gap between being so strongly opposed, to eventual support.

And what do you get when you mix a belief that your side is the hero, the other side is the villain, the rest of the world is conspiring against you, and the idea that you might ultimately loose is taboo to even give voice too…? I am saddened to say it, but what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is reckless, reactionary, radicalism.

I want to be clear that I am not talking about radicalism in the extreme and violent sense, but radicalism none the less. Elevating and amplifying normal commonplace differences to the point of being utterly irreconcilable is the core of radicalism. Why would you do that? What does that accomplish? Besides hamstringing your political options and beating up on a perfectly fine and viable candidate preceding an important election.

Humans seem hard wired to do it, when the stakes are high. To make the opposition something bad, evil, unacceptable. Once you do that, truly nasty behavior just gets easier and easier, and the threshold for what is acceptable to say to do just keeps getting pushed back farther. And all of this, this lambasting and vilifying Hillary in the name of propping up Bernie, all looses sight of the real battle. The real fight is not the primary. The primary is when allies come together to choose their champion for the real fight. The real fight is yet to come, and I’d rather not see the supporters of one of our champions breaking the other champion’s knees.

And it is not hard to do, really. I have spent months arguing passionately in support of Bernie and all of the good reasons he needs to be our next President, all without saying a bad word about Hillary. I don’t need to make her into a Boogeyman, Bernie shines bright enough on his own. Just let him. Use a little strategy, moderation, and wisdom please, that is not too much to ask for. We are Liberals, we are Progressives, we are Democrats. Radicalism and hate is, we like to think, the fodder of the other side, the bread and butter of the Conservatives. A disservice is done to us all when we engage in that behavior amongst ourselves.

Please stop.