Libertarians and Diversity (or lack thereof)
The forthcoming issue* of Reason features an exceedingly thoughtful essay by Kerry Howley, in which she argues that libertarianism would be well-served by widening its scope and paying far more attention to infringements on liberty that are the product of cultural forces. It’s an argument familiar to those of us versed in sociological or anthropological discourse: namely, that systematic cultural conditions can have just as much of an impact on restricting individual liberty as any expansion of the state’s power. In the process of defending Howley’s critique, Will Wilkinson notes that a fair number of libertarians don’t really seem to get the core substance of Howley’s point:
If you think cultural products such as political ideologies evolve over time, you won’t see the content of “libertarianism” as sharply defined and fixed once and for all. To assert, as Ilya does, that “some cultural issues might well be appropriate object of concern for libertarians as thinking individuals, but not a proper focus for libertarianism,” pretty much begs the question. The claim is that these cultural issues ought to be objects of concern to libertarians because they are matters of liberty that libertarian have overlooked. Kerry’s asking libertarians to care more about the conditions under which people develop the capacity to meaningfully exercise freedom. She’s asking libertarians to not so blithely assume that social relations of exploitation and domination enforced by state power for hundreds of years are no longer matters of liberty simply because the enforcement of longstanding racist and sexist norms was privatized a few decades ago. She’s not asking libertarians to save the whales.
As you’re wondering why it is that so many commentators have had a hard time getting Kerry’s core point, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that libertarianism – as a political movement – is overwhelmingly white and male. We tend to think of the racial composition of a political movement as just having electoral consequences, but it also has a profound effect on the core ideology of said movement. At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, marginalized voices – racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, etc. – are overrepresented among liberals and as such, the left that has been forced to grapple with the issues and concerns of marginalized communities in such a way as to make liberalism better equipped to deal with these issues.
It seems that insofar that libertarians experience oppression or constraints on their liberty, it is through the actions of the state rather than through culture, which makes sense. Libertarians are overwhelmingly white and male, and in a culture which highly values whiteness and maleness, they will face relatively fewer overt cultural constraints on their behavior than their more marginalized fellow-travelers. Or in other words, a fair number of libertarians are operating with a good deal of unexamined privilege, and it’s this, along with the extremely small number of women and minorities who operate within the libertarian framework, which makes grappling with cultural sources of oppression really hard for libertarians. After all – socially speaking – being a white guy in the United States isn’t exactly hard and that’s doubly true if you are well off.
*Has it already come out?