“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Here is a list of beliefs I think most orthodox libertarians hold:
- White business owners should be permitted to refuse service to black customers. Even if the result is that black people are unable to obtain groceries or other necessities, or even hotel rooms while traveling.
- White employers should be allowed to hang a “Help Wanted — whites only” signs on their doors. Even if the result is that black people are unable to find employment.
- Property owners should be permitted to refuse to rent to gay people. Even if the result is that gay people end up homeless.
- Neo-Nazis should be permitted to publish whatever they want. Even if the result is that Jews and other minorities are attacked in the streets.
- People should be permitted to sell and consume marijuana. Even if the result is that more people smoke pot.
- People should be allowed to purchase and inject heroin in the privacy of their homes. Even if the result is a greater number of fatal overdoses per year.
- Wealthy people should not be taxed to provide food for the poor or anyone else. Even if the result is that a certain number of children starve each year.
- All laws restricting immigration ought to be abolished. Even if the result is higher unemployment.
- Public education should be abolished. Even if the result is that many of the children of poor people will be illiterate.
- People should be allowed to own any kind of firearm, including machine guns currently restricted under U.S. law. Even if the result is more school shootings.
I could go on. But let us be clear about what I am doing. Each belief has two parts: first, a policy prescription (X should be permitted, or X should not be done.) The second part is a logically possible consequence of enacting that prescription.
Libertarians have many ingenious and empirically supported arguments for why the consequence for each policy is unlikely to arise. I can even see an orthodox reading my list rolling his eyes: “Any business owner stupid enough not to hire qualified black people would quickly be out of business.”
Okay. But most people, I would argue, do not adopt a position because of the consequences that are likely to result but also because of the consequences that could result. They should not necessarily be criticized for doing so.
Most every road-to-serfdom argument I’ve heard from libertarians and conservatives has a similar form: if we let the state do X, which looks mostly harmless, then that may lead to it doing Y, which is not harmless at all. Few see a need to ask for the data showing how likely it is that X will lead to Y. Oftentimes, we’re just asked to believe that higher taxes will lead to concentration camps, which is why I am waiting for Denmark to open its version of Guantanamo Bay.
The point, however, is that we all agree that the negative consequences that could flow from some policy are, for most people, a reason against that policy. This is not to say that everyone is a consequentialist; it is just to say that consequences matter.
All I have done is connect a smattering of libertarian beliefs to some of their worst possible consequences. Indeed, these consequences are more than possible. In a few cases, history and a rudimentary understanding of human nature suggest they are almost plausible (which is why I don’t want to hear about potential alien invasions in anyone’s rebuttal; alien invasions are possible, but before we had civil rights laws, ‘whites only’ signs actually happened. It is not crazy to think they might happen again if those laws were abolished.)
We should do this/not do this — even if –. That is the formula. And it is the “even if” part that is an obstacle, I think, to selling libertarianism to a wider audience. Many will nod along to the policy prescriptions — more freedom! less government! — and then shrink back in horror when they hear the “… even if” part, or figure it out for themselves.
What do we do then?
First, we don’t talk about the “even if.” One might even say that the first rule of the libertarian club is that you don’t ever mention the “even if.” We don’t mention that we want freedom even if the result is “whites only” signs and starving, illiterate children. Because if we said that, no one would listen to us. If pressed, present the empirical case. Argue that the negative consequence is unlikely to occur. But for God’s sake, don’t say that we would support the policy even if the facts were otherwise. Just be glad they’re not.
Second, we prioritize. Marijuana decriminalization has a great deal of public support. The people who oppose it tend to be unlikable fascists. Of all the items in my list, its “even if” is the least objectionable. We push that issue and talk about the others only among ourselves. We don’t mention that marijuana is only one drug among many, and that we want all of them legal.
We don’t say, “Anti-discrimination law is bullocks. Racists shouldn’t have to hire blacks and forcing them to do so is more objectionable than racism is!”
And make sure never to admit to the belief that it would be entirely wrong for the state to take a penny from Bill Gates to prevent children from starving. Never say that if a law did exist, requiring billionaires to contribute a small amount of money to keep orphans alive, that we — libertarians — would be the first to argue for its abolition. Even if.
Well, some of us will say these things. So I am not saying all libertarians are wimps.
What I am saying is that there is a wimpish tendency in libertarianism. A tendency to eschew certain issues and prioritize others, in a way that the position itself doesn’t require (or even necessarily support.) Libertarianism, as far as I can tell, does not require soft-peddling the consequences. It does not mandate emphasizing the popular over unpopular. Only politics, or maybe rhetoric, requires these things. But these are the wrong kinds of reasons.
First, they are the wrong kinds of reasons because they are not even politically astute. People are not so stupid that they are completely unable to understand the relationship between cause and effect. If they don’t immediately realize that illiterate, starving children are a possible consequence of your policies, they will figure it out eventually. And they will turn from you. They may even feel betrayed that you were too cowardly to point out the consequences from the beginning.
Second, setting priorities based purely on political considerations is grossly hypocritical. The worst infractions of liberty may not map perfectly onto the ones that can be sold most easily to the public. Injustice should not be allowed to slide just because it is politically expedient. Nor should it be allowed to slide because correcting it might result in starving children. If you’re an orthodox libertarian, you want public education gone, and if you are a thoughtful orthodox libertarian, you should have already considered the possibility that it might lead to a generation of illiterates.
Hiding the real reason you support some policy and allowing others to believe you support it for some other reasons is so close to hypocrisy as to be indistinguishable.
To let politics drive your priorities is to necessarily become more like a politician. And it is exceedingly difficult to object to politicians who do what is popular over what is right when you are, in your own way, doing the same thing. If you are an orthodox libertarian who wants to abolish all anti-discrimination law — even if the result will be a proliferation of “whites only” signs and a culture awash in hate literature – then you should say so.
Yes, it’s an unpopular position. Yes, the people on the other side who support anti-discrimination law are more likable than the fascists who tend to support U.S. drug policy. But you are just as much against them as you are against the would-be Javerts who work for the Drug Enforcement Agency. And you should tell them that; and, more importantly, tell them why you would have permitted segregated lunch counters and all the rest. Tell them that the federal laws that abolished discrimination were just as objectionable as the drug laws are now, and that you oppose both for the same reason.
To do otherwise, and eschew tough battles for easy targets, is dishonesty at worst. At best, it is what Ann Coulter said it is: cowardice.
* – It might be argued that I’m equating “orthodox” libertarian with “deontic” or “natural rights” libertarian. In a way, I am. Consequentialist libertarians are not orthodox libertarians; they are, I think, liberals who understand economics.