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Sep 06 2013

It’s Not the Libertarianism

When someone says something particularly dumb about sexual harassment or assault, something that looks like that person is trying to justify doing nothing about the problems, I brace myself. It doesn’t always happen, but frequently these days, someone will pop up to declare that this person must be a libertarian.

Well, no. Not quite.

Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of libertarians do make very bad arguments on these topics. FIRE, which tends to be very good on the topic of free speech, is institutionally idiotic about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and civil rights, as are several of their libertarian board members individually. They appear subject to a severe status quo bias. They’re unable to see that current rules at colleges and universities already grant one set of individuals more civil rights than others. They can only see that balance would require reducing the assumed rights of that group.

Bumper sticker reading "Real Americans are Libertarians" over a picture of the U.S. flag.Libertarians anti-authoritarianism seems to go into overdrive on this subject. Not only should no one make any laws on the topic, no one should make any rules for governing their own private spaces. Doing so is–I don’t know–unconscionable interference with a deeply private matter like sex, I guess. Except that sex that isn’t masturbation involves another person, who should be allowed an equal right to set the terms of their own participation in another person’s sexual activities.

I did say the libertarians were making bad arguments.

However, libertarian arguments aren’t the only kinds of bad arguments that get made about sexual harassment and assault. Nobody has to be a libertarian to decide that a class of people doesn’t “count” or is confused about what they want, arguments we see frequently. Even people fighting for one sort of equality screw up on other sorts all the time. And when those attitudes are present, people are more likely to be harassed, more likely to be assaulted.

Nor is any political orientation free from equating power with entitlement–not even anarchists. Radical leftist groups in which power is defined only loosely still suffer from leaders who feel that status gives them rights others don’t have. Weiner didn’t have consent for all his sexting. Bill Clinton had very credible harassment claims made against him. Bob Filner anyone? I don’t even have to tell you about authoritarian Republicans. Being hypocritical, their offenses make the press all the time.

On top of that, I’ve yet to find a movement anywhere at any point in history in which some loud minority–sometimes majority–didn’t argue that there were “more important issues” to be dealt with. Confronting sexual harassment and rape in a culture that spends a lot of time condoning it takes resources. I can tell you from personal experience that it gets in the way of doing other things. It can be exhausting. No political perspective is immune from “Shut up already.”

There are so many kinds of bad arguments supporting sexual harassment and assault, it would be stunning if we didn’t hear them from people all over the political compass. Also, assigning someone to a political point of view based on their bad arguments doesn’t gain us anything. We still have to deal with the bad arguments.

So let’s knock this “They must be a libertarian” stuff off, shall we?

25 comments

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  1. 1
    Adamo

    Isn’t libertarianism just a demand for everybody else to leave me alone, demand nothing from me, let me behave any way I want to, and still enjoy all the perks and benefits that a hard working, cooperative, law abiding (well, law creating, anyway) SOCIETY of people have provided for everybody?

  2. 2
    Joey Maloney

    Side point – I challenge the assertion that there were credible harassment claims made against Clinton. To whom are you referring? I remember Paula Jones, who bragged before the alleged incident that she was going to bag the governor; Gennifer Flowers, whose alleged encounter took place in a hotel that had yet to be built at the time; Kathleen Willey, whose testimony was given under a grant of immunity from Ken Starr after she had previously perjured herself; and Juanita Broaddrick who contradicted herself so many times that even Ken Starr couldn’t find a use for her.

    Am I forgetting someone?

  3. 3
    changerofbits

    From my experience with family, colleagues, friend circles, there doesn’t seem to be any correlation of scumbaggery to political party. Here’s how it seems to me:

    Left: Acknowledgement and understanding that its bad, but they do it anyway.
    Right: Claim the problem doesn’t exist, blame the secularists/devil when they do it, then repent.
    Libs: Acknowledge that it happens, but argue its not bad when they do it because great freedomery and evolutionified brains.

  4. 4
    biogeo

    Isn’t libertarianism just a demand for everybody else to leave me alone, demand nothing from me, let me behave any way I want to, and still enjoy all the perks and benefits that a hard working, cooperative, law abiding (well, law creating, anyway) SOCIETY of people have provided for everybody?

    No. I have friends who are Libertarian, who have the same interest in a more just society that I do, but who strongly believe in the “law of unintended consequences.” They believe that most government interventions, however well-intentioned, end up making society less just. I think they’re wrong (hugely so), but straw man claims about their beliefs and casting aspersions on their motives don’t help anything. Some Libertarians can actually come around when they’re confronted with the real experiences of other people.

    Sure, there are a lot of people who are jerks who are Libertarian, and may find the philosophy attractive because it appeals to their selfishness, but apparently there are a lot of people who are jerks who are atheists, Skeptics, etc., perhaps for the same reasons, even if others of us see these ideas more as motivation for empathy and activism. Attack the bad ideas as aggressively as you want, but tarring core Libertarianism in this way ignores the real problems, which I think Stephanie Zvan has pointed to pretty eloquently in this post.

  5. 5
    Flewellyn

    Well said. I despise the philosophy that is called “Libertarianism” in the US, and note that a number of the most obnoxiously anti-feminist, pro-harassment atheists in the movement profess this philosophy, but it’s hardly the be-all and end-all of bad ideas floating around. The “women are not really people” idea lives in every political movement except feminism.

  6. 6
    thinksanddrinks

    This particular (field? interest? area? galactically important philosopic area?) isn’t the only one affected by this king of (thinking?).

    http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/09/penny-arcade-expo-dickwolves/

  7. 7
    Jacob Schmidt

    Doing so is–I don’t know–unconscionable interference with a deeply private matter like sex, I guess.

    You kinda hit the nail on the head. I have had people argue at me that saying you need to get consent rather than assume it diminishes freedom.

  8. 8
    R Johnston

    Libertarianism is sufficient, albeit not necessary, for the making of oppressively bad non-theistic arguments about sex and gender issues. The thing about libertarianism is that it is religion, based in unexamined and absolute religious style faith, it is a religion that specifically discounts the real world experiences of people as being irrelevant to policy, it is a religion based in an incoherent notion of liberty, and it requires that kind of religion to make the kinds of arguments being discussed, even if it doesn’t require a traditional notion of god.

    Yes, there are religious atheist activists who aren’t libertarians, but given a whiny childish anglophonic atheist activist who can’t stop making bad antiempirical arguments argument to save his or her life and who can’t shut the hell up about how having a sexual harassment policy is the end of liberty itself it is irrational not to presume libertarianism provisionally until presented with evidence to the contrary.

    Libertarianism is a very real problem within the atheist movement, and it needs to be named and shamed as the antisecular bullsihittery that it is, not brushed aside as a secondary issue. Furthermore, if you mistakenly label some sort of antisecular bullshittery within the secular atheist movement as libertarianism when it isn’t then there’s really not any harm done: you’ve properly labeled the antisecular bullshittery as antisecular bullshittery, which is the important thing when evaluating its place within a secular movement; the specific subgenre of antisecular bullshittery is not a major issue.

  9. 9
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    Those who say “harassers and their defenders must be libertarians” have it the wrong way around. Privilege-blindness doesn’t suggest libertarianism; anyone can be privilege-blind.

    But libertarianism is concentrated privilege-blindness, and to say that doesn’t lend itself to creepy and/or toxic behaviour…

    (I’m not very comfortable around libertarians. Can you see why now?)

  10. 10
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    (I should note, I once tried to make the same point as I made in comment #8, and got treated as though I’d tried to make the point Stephanie was fisking in her post. I hope no one makes that mistake today. It’s very frustrating, because it reeks of “let’s rush to defend the privilege-blind and privilege-defenders”.)

  11. 11
    Drolfe

    Look, we all know “All misogynists aren’t Libertarians”. Like Greta was saying, when you’re critiquing something like this you really ought to supply some example (so we can see it’s just some baseless bullshit, rather than an evidence based conclusion in context. E.g., of course Pen and Shermer and their defenders are more than likely Libtertarians — because duh, they are professed libertarians with a professed libertarian following.)

    However, that said, R Johnston at 8 is right on. Libertarianism is denialist in the face of real history.

    So… All sexists might not be libertarians, but all libertarians are sexists.

    (Whether they are good buddies that “believe in justice” or not, they are demonstrably wrong until our society becomes egalitarian, non-discriminatory, etc. Libertarianism does not have solutions for: tragedy of the commons, rape, or discrimination against minorities — in the sociological sense therefor including women; and so advocating for it by definition harms anyone effected by those problems, i.e., EVERYONE.)

  12. 12
    Drolfe

    Or shorter, while I’m in moderation: What R Johnston said at #7. Libertarianism is bullshit.

  13. 13
    Bjarte Foshaug

    I think Ophelia came very close to hitting the nail on the head when she wrote that…

    …a skeptic who leans very liberal (in the sense of free-to-X) on sexual issues and very libertarian on rules and codes can seem to be bordering on misogynist, or if not misogynist at least rudely indifferent to what other people want, which, when the other people in question are women, is hard to distinguish from sexism (if not misogyny).

    Those of my friends who self-identify as libertarian really do tend to “lean very liberal (in the sense of free-to-X) on sexual issues and very libertarian on rules and codes”. They don’t seem to make any real distinction between what’s legal and what’s moral (and, of course, hardly anything other than theft or physical violence should ever be illegal): If my pursuit of personal gratification doesn’t directly violate somebody else’s property or bodily autonomy, there’s no problem (Don’t want to be sexually harassed in the workplace? Well, nobody’s forcing you to work anywhere. You could always chose starvation). As long as others are free to vote with their feet, they have nothing to complain about. If my behavior makes them uncomfortable, that their problem.

    It’s interesting to note that the same men (as all of them are) tend to be – as far as I can tell – very good on things like LGBT rights (and racial equality? Yes, or no, on the other hand… nnnyyyes, arrrgh!), but really bad when it comes to women’s issues. I suspect that that’s because they don’t see any conflict of interests between LGBT people and themselves, whereas feminism, with it’s insistence on enthusiastic consent and respect for women’s boundaries, puts constraints on their own behavior and must therefore be discredited at all costs. It gets harder to use women for personal gratification if you have to respect their feelings, maybe even accept that there are times when you shouldn’t be hitting on them at all.

    So while I certainly agree that you don’t have to be a libertarian to be sexist, and while it’s true that not all libertarians are, I don’t think it’s only an accident that there are so many libertarians on the other side of the rift and so few on this side.

  14. 14
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    I think Stephanie has this quite right, and it’s basic reasoning, too.

    If I’m bitten six times by poodles, it doesn’t follow that all biters are poodles; you might be able to make a reasonable case with that evidence that all poodles are biters, but you can’t make any generalizable statement about all biters from that specific evidence.

    So, as noted above @11, the large majority of libertarians are misogynist; that does not imply that the large majority of misogynists are libertarians. So it’s a basic failure of reasoning to say, “here is a misogynist, therefore here is a libertarian”, where it’s reasonable Bayesian logic to say “here is a libertarian, therefore probably here is a misogynist”.

  15. 15
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    So, as noted above @11, the large majority of libertarians are misogynist; that does not imply that the large majority of misogynists are libertarians. So it’s a basic failure of reasoning to say, “here is a misogynist, therefore here is a libertarian”, where it’s reasonable Bayesian logic to say “here is a libertarian, therefore probably here is a misogynist”.

    Don’t forget classist, cissexist, ableist…oh yeah and racist. Definitely do not forget racist. Libertarians hate the Civil Rights Act (though they don’t like it when that one gets out).

  16. 16
    Al Dente

    It’s my belief that many libertarians are atheists because of their “you don’t tell me what to do” credo. This “you” includes gods and religious hierarchs.

  17. 17
    Drolfe

    I want to go on record as agreeing with Bjarte and everyone following in 13, 14, 15, 16.

    It’s not that libertarianism is inherently misogynist, it’s just a result of libertarian policy positions in the actual world. Look at the platform on LP.org — it essentially denies privilege exists. Libertarianism doesn’t address it, can’t solve it. The libertarian position on the Civil Rights Act is a great example of that.

    When boiled down to its axioms of non-initiation of force, etc. and avoiding the paradox of land ownership (i.e., geolibertarianism admits you can’t own land without force) perhaps it seems mostly harmless. In a fantasy world where inviolable personal defense force fields, infinite robotic labor, Trek-style transporters and perfect egalitarianism exist then OK, perhaps it’s a reasonable thought experiment. Even now though, I’m thinking of “non-initiating” ways to oppress people (buy all the space around your house and build transporter proof stuctures there…? Is a law to prevent this kind of interference still libertarian? Who would enforce it? Who would pay?)

  18. 18
    Gretchen

    So let’s knock this “They must be a libertarian” stuff off, shall we?

    As a feminist atheist libertarian….thank you.

  19. 19
    Paul S.

    Regarding libertarianism – I used to be sympathetic to it, if not an outright libertarian, but eventually turned away from it for some of the reasons that previous posters have given. Libertarianism has no answer for the problem of systematically bad treatment of people based on prejudice, so as far as I can tell libertarians tend to either deny that this problem exists at all, or basically say that the freedom of individuals to do what they want is more important than the damage that it causes. Since I can’t accept either of these answers, I can’t be a libertarian.

    Having said that, I doubt that individual libertarians are any more likely to personally hold misogynist or racist views than people of any other political persuasion. As the original post points out, there has been no shortage of racism and sexism and discrimination and bad treatment in all kinds of political movements.

    As for the suggestion that libertarianism is a religion, I suppose that it is, but no more so than other political persuasions. I tend to think that any set of political views involves taking certain things on faith, so there is always a semi-religious element involved with politics.

  20. 20
    HappyNat

    Like Paul S I used to be a Libertarian, but thankfully I got better. In a perfect world it may make philosophical sense, but clearly this isn’t a perfect world. I was just telling my wife last night I cringe at the person I was when I met her 15 years ago. When she asked why my first example was I was a Libertarian then. *shudder*

  21. 21
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    From my observation, atheist sceptics come in two flavours: decent human beings with progressive humanist values (including feminism, even if they don’t identify as feminists), and libertarians who are generally sexist (and often racist) assholes. If you already know someone is identifying as an atheist or as a skeptic and they come out with misogynist crap, dollars to timbits, they’re libertarians. Exceptions may be made for British and European white guy establishment types (no, I’m not thinking of anyone in particular *cough*) who talk a good progressive game but who refuse to include themselves as part of the system of oppression, and whose own sexism or racism they rationalise to themselves because it’s zero not as obviously bad as that of others whom they are happy to criticise.

  22. 22
    SallyStrange

    As a feminist atheist libertarian….thank you.

    You shouldn’t be thanking her. She’s not saying libertarianism isn’t obviously wrong, just that there’s no AUTOMATIC connection between libertarianism and misogyny. There is, in fact, a causal connection between libertarianism and misogyny, and other bigotries, i.e., libertarianism proposes zero mechanisms to deal with such bigotries and in fact provides a great political platform for those who want their privilege to continue to insulate them from the vicissitudes of life.

  23. 23
    Cynickal

    I, too, was libertarian once. Then I ended up living on the streets for six months.

  24. 24
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    dollars to timbits

    Apologies for comment drift, but that’s just spectacular. :)

  25. 25
    Marcus Ranum

    I agree with respect to demonizing the label. It’s more effective, actually, to focus on the person’s actions or the consequences of their belief. Is it selfish? Is it sexist? Is it damaging others in some way?

    It’s hard to defend some of the specific ideologies of libertarianism, too; go after them individually and at a factual level and everyone may learn a bit from the process of airing the philosophy.

    As illdoctrine puts it:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc
    You don’t care about their beliefs or how they think of themselves to themselves, just make them defend their words and actions.

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