On Libertarianism

May 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

Libertarianism is a very appealing political/moral position.  To believe and accept that we are each on our own and we are each able to take care of our own business, without state interference is a nice idea.  To believe that we are each responsible for our own fates and destinies is something I could sign up for.  And, I have to say, the true libertarians I know are amongst the kindest people I know, in terms of giving their time, their money, their care to their neighbours and community, and even macro-communities.

But there are several fundamental problems with libertarianism.  The first problem is what I’d term ‘selfish libertarianism.’  I think this is what drives major facets of the right in the Anglo-Atlantic world, a belief in the protection of the individual’s rights and property and freedom of behaviour, but coupled with attempts to deny others’ rights, property, and freedom.  This, of course, is not real libertarianism. But this is pretty common in political discourse these days in Canada, the US, and the UK.  People demand their rights to live their lives unfettered, but wish to deny others that freedom, especially women, gays/lesbians, and other minority groups (of course, women are NOT a minority, they make up something like 53% of the population in Canada, the US, and UK).  So, ultimately, we can dismiss these selfish libertarians as not being libertarians at all.

My basic problem with true libertarianism is its basic premise.  If we are to presume that we are responsible for our own fates and destinies, then we subscribe to something like the American Dream and that belief we can all get ahead if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work hard.  I find that very appealing, because I have worked hard to get to where I am, and I feel the need to keep working hard to fulfill my own dreams.

But therein lies the problem. Behind the libertarian principle is the idea that we’re all on the same level playing field.  We are not.  Racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny: these all exist on a daily basis in our society.  I see them every day.  I have experienced discrimination myself.  And no, not because I’m Caucasian.  But because I come from the working-classes.  I was told by my high school counsellor that my type of people was not suited for university studies.  I had a hard time getting scholarships in undergrad because I didn’t have all kinds of extra-curricular activities beyond football.  I didn’t volunteer with old people, I didn’t spend my time helping people in hospitals.  I couldn’t.  I had to work.  And I had to work all through undergrad.  And throughout my MA and PhD.  In fact, at this point in my life at the age of 40, I have been unemployed for a grand total of 5 months since I landed my first job when I was 16.  And having to work throughout my education simply meant I didn’t qualify for most scholarships.  So I had to work twice as hard as many of my colleagues all throughout my education.  And that, quite simply, hurt me.  And sometimes my grades suffered.  And within the academy, that is still problematic today, even four years after I finished my PhD.  But that’s just the way it is. I can accept that, I’m not bitter, I don’t dwell on it.  But it happened, and it happened because of class.  Others have to fight through racism or sexism or homophobia.

So, quite simply, we do not all begin from the same starting line.  We don’t all play on a level playing field.  Mine was tilted by class.  And, for that reason, libertarianism, in its true sense, does not work.  If we wish to have a fair and just society, we require ways and means of levelling that playing field, to give the African-American or working class or lesbian or son of immigrant children the chance to get ahead.  Me? I worked hard, but I also relied on student loans, bursaries, and what scholarships I could win based on grades alone.  My parents didn’t pay for a single cent of my education, not because they didn’t care or want to, but because they simply couldn’t afford it.  I got some support from my grandparents each year, to go with the student loans/bursaries/small scholarships.  And thank god I did.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it.  I’d be flipping burgers at a White Spot in Vancouver at the age of 40.

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§ 4 Responses to On Libertarianism

  • I’m just reading Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith. The affect of religion in shaping not only American policy, but Americans self-identification with libertarianism, liberty and S government’s domestic policies. Plenty to think about…..

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Yeah, I saw that book in B&N recently. I’m completely fascinated by American politics right now, I have to say. So much so that I think I’m going to write a book.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    When I was younger, libertarians were fun to talk with. They were passionate debaters and reasoners who were by necessity open to unconventional views.

    But that’s not the majority of libertarians I run into these days. They are “fundamentalist” libertarians, people who equate liberty with lack of government power, people who DEFINE themselves as correct, and therefore believe all other opinions HAVE to be wrong. Arguing with them is like arguing with a religious fundamentalist, except they’re in denial about being fundamentalists.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Indeed, this is part of my problem with many libertarians I run into and know these days: they’re right, I’m wrong. End of story. Or, worse, they believe that, because they’re right and correct, their freedom from governmental interference is a necessity, but, oddly, they’re not that interested in the same equality and freedom for other groups of people. So you get either fundamentalists or these kinds of racist/homophobic/misogynists. It’s kind of depressing. Rare are the actual true, real fundamentalists.

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