Julie Borowski’s Buzzfeed listicle, “7 Popular Misconceptions About Libertarianism,” does what a listicle is supposed to do: concisely address its topic. But, alas, hers may be too concise. It adds misconceptions on top of misconception, at least in a few cases.
1. Misconception: Libertarians are all potheads.
Fact: Libertarians believe that you own your body and should be free to do with it as you please.
It’s an old and idiotic charge. Bob Black, anti-work anarchist from the 1980s, popularized the meme in his put-down, which went something to the effect that “a libertarian is just a Republican who smokes dope.” It was wrong then, it is wrong now.
I do not smoke marijuana, most of my libertarian friends do not smoke marijuana. And I am not a Republican. The fact is that only some libertarians use recreational drugs. Many are like me, who foreswear most inebriates other than alcohol. Some are like Penn Jillette, who is a teetotaler on all psychoactive substances.
Ms. Borowski rightly says that libertarians support an adult’s right to take whatever drug he or she wants to. But one can support someone else’s right without exercising it oneself. Conservatives and liberals often have trouble with this notion, apparently believing that everything not forbidden is compulsory.
As for me, I may disapprove of what you take, but will defend till your death your right to take it.
2. Misconception: Libertarians hate poor people.
Fact: Libertarians believe that voluntary private charities are better than government welfare programs.
The fact, of course, may be that some libertarians hate some poor people, just as the same can be said for any other ideological group, not a few libertarians became libertarian because they want to help the poor, and think that the welfare state cultivates an entrenched dependency that increases the ranks of the poor. Most libertarians (probably every libertarian I know) hates poverty. And we want poor people to learn to work and trade their way out of it.
The key is not charity, though. The key is poor people learning skills and eschewing dependency. The biggest obstacle to both is government, namely poorly run government schools and a plethora of state-aid to the poor. The welfare state is the greatest enemy the poor have. This belief is common to nearly all libertarians. Ms. Borowski should have mentioned it.
3. Misconception: Libertarians love big corporations.
Fact: Libertarians oppose corporate bailouts.
Yes. We oppose corporate bailouts. But that is somewhat orthogonal to the charge. I love some big corporations, such as Apple, and hate others, such as Microsoft. But I am not exactly trusting of any large organization. All need to be regulated by the rule of law. That’s what laissez faire is: a lack of subsidy and an impartial regulatory agenda, based on notions of liability and equal rights and responsibilities.
Those who think the state can regulate big corporations to defend “the little guy” with micromanaging edicts and requirements usually aid big corporations and hurt upstarts that would provide competition to the big guys. There is no bigger fool than a supporter of extensive regulation who thinks he’s not the useful idiot of a big corporation. Progressives are pawns to big business. They may hate the big businesses their agenda serves so well, but that doesn’t matter: serve them they must, for the policies of preference almost always wind up helping the rich at the expense of the poor. It is an old wisdom, this. It is as old as the fight against mercantilism, which is what protectionist measures — so beloved by progressives — amount to.
One has to go beyond intentions and look at the actual effects of policy, not just the politically attractive effects identified.
4. Misconception: Libertarians are isolationists.
Fact: Libertarians want to have good relations with other nations.
The libertarian policy is known as “free trade.” Protectionism, its opposite, puts up tariff and other barriers (such as prohibitions on trade), which is the very acme of isolationism. The word “isolationism” is, in the context of peace, a perversion of language. There are folks — and, historically, were folks — who combined high-tariff protectionism with a desire for no military involvement overseas. But these people were not libertarians, and tarring libertarians with the isolationist brush is, of course, quite dishonest.
That being said, the anti-imperialism of libertarian advocacy also cuts against those who wish to intervene in some foreign conflicts. Libertarians who support a minimal state could, theoretically, support some foreign interventionism. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s raid upon the Barbary pirates was probably justified, no? Most Americans would think so. But then, what “most Americans” believe, and what libertarians believe, are quite far apart.
5. Misconception: Libertarians hate old people.
Fact: Libertarians know Social Security is a bad deal.
At this point, the “hate” meme should be called out for what it is: rank anti-intellectual demagoguery. Charges of “hate” are such a brain-dead way of expressing divergence of opinion on policy. Of course libertarians do not hate old people. Many libertarians are old themselves. What libertarians do not like is predation and parasitism. We look forward to the day when people can save for their retirements without leaching off of others, enslaving whole generations in increasingly bad deals.
And it is worth mentioning: the chief apologists for socialized retirement, the progressives, are the ones who most object to rational talk of reform, despite the instability of the system they themselves support, and in honor of FDR, take as their badge of honor. Their unwillingness for rational debate — and, in politics, any debate other than name-calling — is what is undermining the Social Security program most decidedly.
6. Misconception: Libertarians have no morals.
Fact: Libertarians just don’t want government to enforce morality.
Here we get to a classic case of sub-intellectual nonsense. Libertarians regard their view of justice as a moral one, and do indeed want the institutions of “government” to defend some moral positions. Every time we defend against murder, we are using government to enforce morality.
The difference? Libertarians hold that the structure of morality is not simple and unitary. Some moral positions deserve coercive defense, others do not. The classic expression of this idea was in the writings of Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer, both of whom distinguished between justice and beneficence. Another formulation of the notion hails from legal scholar Lon Fuller, who distinguished between the morality of obligation and the morality of aspiration, with the former legally compulsory while the latter not enforceable at law, but, instead, in other venues only, where distinct social controls reinforce morality — social controls such as censure, shunning, remonstrance, entreaty, etc.
The cultural cliché that “you cannot enforce morality” is utter nonsense, of course, and this notion needs to be discarded at once.
7. Misconception: Libertarians are pacifists.
Fact: Most libertarians believe that self defense is justified.
Indeed, libertarianism as a political philosophy rests upon the notion of self-defense as the source of any plausible government’s delegated right to coerce in defense of peaceful people. This is bedrock. Pacifism utterly invalidates not merely the state, but also any institution of law, police, and corrective justice.
Of course, what most people mean by pacifism is a faux-commitment to refrain from personal use of violence, while free-riding on the defensive activities of others, including those folks who make up the state. This is a common pseudo-progressive ploy. It is the very opposite of libertarianism.
Indeed, self-defense is a better starting point for libertarianism than Penn Jillette’s agnosticism, quoted at top: “My whole take on libertarianism is that I don’t know what’s best for other people.”
I am sometimes as skeptical on moral matters as Mr. Jillette. But I am not as certain in my agnosticism as he. I suspect that I often do know what is better for others than what they apparently know themselves. I just do not believe that my confident knowledge would reliably remain after given control of their lives. Power corrupts. Power corrupts knowledge, too. But it tends to increase people’s confidence even as it undermines knowledge. So my take on libertarianism is that our limitations are many and varied, and that obtaining power over others often increases those limitations, even as it encourages the accumulation of more power. That is why we need something more than mere limitations. We need limits. Limits on power.