Caricatures of libertarianism


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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69 Responses

  1. Avatar North says:

    Life would certainly be less embarrassing for us center lefties if our further out leftie cohorts took the trouble of understanding what they were talking about before they went off on a tirade about some rightist subject.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    It’s refreshing to see a criticism of Libertarianism that isn’t “screw you, I’ve got mine” but disappointing to see one that is that inaccurate.

    There are libertarians who are huge fans of the market, or the Church (Christian Anarchism is a lovely subject), or the whatever but *NONE* of them think that you ought be forced (AT THE POINT OF A GUN) to worship at the market, or the Church, or the whatever.

    They may think that you ought to be forced (AT THE POINT OF A GUN) to stop forcing (AT THE POINT OF A GUN) other people to worship at the State… but (surely) that’s a different dynamic.Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

      @Jaybird, “…freedom’s just aother word, for nothing left to loose…”Report

    • Avatar Katherine says:

      If you don’t have government mediating things, then there’s a good chance you will have people forced at gunpoint to do what business wants. Ditch minimum wage, ditch regulations for safe working conditions, ditch requirements that businesses permit unions, and we’re back to the libertarian golden age of the late 1800s and the Pinkertons.Report

  3. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Rights exist because of people. Government exists because of people. Markets exist because of people, and if those markets stop working for people, they should be modified until they do.

    True, and I agree with all of it.

    Libertarians take an opposite view, which is that their institutions—free markets for seculars, free markets plus the patriarchy plus the church for Christian libertarians—have the right of way when they come into conflict with the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of The People.

    I don’t pretend to understand this.

    Pollution is no reason, in their view, to introduce environmental regulation. Economic crashes shouldn’t result in economic regulation. We’re all supposed to just see that as the way the cookie crumbles.

    Not even Murray Rothbard would have agreed with the above.Report

    • @Jason Kuznicki, You’re assuming that Marcotte even knows who Murray Rothbard is.Report

      • Avatar theotherjimmyolson says:

        @Mark Thompson, I don’t know who Murray Rothbard is. Is that bad?Report

      • Avatar Dave says:

        @Mark Thompson,

        No kidding. That would require Ms. Marcotte to have some grasp of the subject which she has butchered time and time again.

        I’ve seen this crap from her from a long time. I like that ED took the time to take it to task. Me personally, I find her to be nothing more than an annoying gnat and a stupid one at that.

        Nice post Br. Kain.Report

    • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

      @Jason Kuznicki,
      The idea is that because many libertarians don’t support government solutions, they don’t support any solutions, which is ludricrous. It’s amazing that people like her can be so blinded as to think, so it seems, that government intervention is the ONLY solution.Report

      • Avatar dexter45 says:

        @Mike Farmer, I live at the bottom of the Mississippi River with its giant amounts of fertilizer that most, if not all, reputable scientist believe is the cause for the ever expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. There are 27,000 abandoned wellheads in the gulf. Louisiana is losing, on the average, an acre of coast every hour and what I would like is a fix for these problems. I know the government is not doing anything. These problems are visible and can not be said to be the fantasy of anti-capitalist global warming people, so I would like to know what you would do. Also, is your problem with Marcotte’s essay that she is wrong, or that she gave the wrong name to those vile enviromental pigs, also known as the Kochs? Isn’t one of Rothbard’s theorys about bad government concern politically powerful people who use the government for there benefit only?Report

        • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

          Yes, Rothbard did think that, and it’s the point — we’ve relied on government for the solutions and look what it’s caused, the powerful sleeping with the powerful? It’s time to quit thinking government has the shit handled and take responsibility ourselves. It will take a major reform, the court system being one of the main areas of reform. We need a system of justice which doesn’t favor the powerful, but uses reason and fairness and equal representation to stop the violations of rights, like government regulators being bought and going blind — we can deal with these problems outside the corrupt world of political games and cronyism.Report

          • Avatar Katherine says:

            Er, don’t “the courts” count as part of government. Arguing for the judiciary to do more and the legislature and executive to do less isn’t the same as arguing for less government.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              Not necessarily — courts could be private agencies set up to settle disputes, but even if courts are under government control, the whole idea of limited government is to keep government limited to its basic original responsibilites — policing, national defense and courts — this is where a lot of people on the left get confused — when a limited government proponent calls for the courts to assume the responsibilities orginally intended, this is not against the idea of limited government and a free market — we’re not saying, at least not all of us, that there should be no minimal government designed to protect rights and settle disputes — but we are saying government should be limited to these responsibilities. But, no, courts don’t HAVE to be government courts. I’m always amazed at this confusion.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              The idea too is for citizens to take back the responsibility to ensure if we are going to have a central government that it works like we want it to work, especially with the courts — limits were the sine qua non of the Constitution, and courts were designed to do a lot which legislation and executive abuse of power are now co-opting.Report

    • Avatar cfpete says:

      @Jason Kuznicki,
      Sorry Jason,
      After reading the comments, and admitting that I can’t figure out if Marcotte is managed or management; I have to interject: Managed Ignorance.Report

  4. Avatar cfpete says:

    Seriously, is this just propaganda or is Amanda Marcotte really a closet Libertarian?Report

  5. Avatar MadRocketScientist says:

    The comments are even worse. Such a collection of people who have no clue what Libertarian means.Report

  6. Avatar Simon K says:

    This seems to be a left-wing example of a tendency that’s been more recently commented on on the right (although it exists everywhere): writing about your ideological opponents as if their main point was to oppose you, and all their other arguments are made in bad faith.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      @Simon K, dude, that’s a great way of phrasing it.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      @Simon K, Oh yes, quite so. Like the pervasive trope on the right that statism is an end in itself to the left rather than a means (perhaps too often sought but still incidental) to the left’s actual goals.Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        @North, Quite. That was the opposite caricature I had in mind.Report

      • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

        The motives matter less than the method. Liberals have to reassess the method if they want to be taken as serious and compassionate.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          @Mike Farmer, motives matter for the sake of accuracy Mike. Accusing the left of desiring state expansion or bigger government for its own sake is flat out false. The left wants to improve lives and social/economic justice. That they (often, maybe too often) see state expansion as a means to that end still does not make them statist for statisms sake.Report

          • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

            I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t know WHY the left wants to expand government — everyone I read understands and they don’t think the left wants to expand just for the sake of a big government — they understand the left’s desire for welfare and environmental issues and safety nets and all that — now, government officials might want expansion for the sake of power, but that’s another issue — You have set up a straw man.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              @Mike Farmer,
              As a matter of fact, most of the tension between conservatives, libertarians and liberals comes from the liberal narrative that anyone who disagrees with the method of statism doesn’t care about the poor, champions the rich and powerful, wants to destroy the earth, hates gays and don’t care about the plight of minorities. Most conservatives and libertarians care about social isssues, we just believe there are better ways to deal with these problems, and that the State is not really solving the problems, just giving the impression they are. You don’t hear conservatives and libertarians saying let the poor suffer, screw the planet, lock up the gay degenerates, and let the minorities worry abou their own problems. Many conservative religious oprganizations have done a lot of social work, and most libertarians belive the private sector will develope assistance programs for those who can’t help themselves, and just about everyone wants clean air, clear rivers and a healthy beautiful environment — hunters are some of the most avid environmentalists. If most of the beautiful land in America wasn’t being destroyed and mismanaged by tragedy of the commons, private ownership would make better caretakers.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              @Mike Farmer, If you’ll read a comment or two up Mike you’ll note that we were discussing the caricatures that each side hurtles at each other. The right (see for instance any day on NRO) typically accuses the left of one kind of caricature and there are a plethora of left wing groups that do the same back. The straw men so to speak were the subject.

              I am bemused, though, by the biases you seem to be demonstrating by lumping libertarians and conservatives so closely together. Right now there is a horribly large gap between what libertarians profess and what the mainstream conservatives and right wingers desire. For instance contra your assertions there are a plethora of conservatives who would love to lock up people they don’t approve of (like drug users and abortion providers) and bring the whip hand of the law against social behavior they frown upon (like gays and abortion users).Report

            • @Mike Farmer,
              “As a matter of fact, most of the tension between conservatives, libertarians and liberals comes from the liberal narrative that anyone who disagrees with the method of statism doesn’t care about the poor, champions the rich and powerful, wants to destroy the earth, hates gays and don’t care about the plight of minorities.”

              Poppycock. I seem to remember a large number of people circa, uhh, yesterday running around screaming about how anyone who supports Park51 either wants the terrorists to win or is pro-sharia law being imposed on the United States, or is simply ignorant of radical Islam. I also seem to remember people who objected to [waterboarding, wiretapping, Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq War, the PATRIOT Act, the US’ Israel policy, etc., etc.] being accused of supporting terrorism, being anti-American, etc., etc. I could go back decades for similar examples during the Cold War. The people laying these accusations were not and are not liberals.

              Then of course, there is the caricaturing (really, outright lying) about the goals of SSM supporters and pro-choicers.

              And that says nothing about the ease with which phrases like “Marxism,” “Maoism,” and “Stalinism” get thrown about.

              Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that these caricatures of liberalism were so effective that the very word “liberal” became toxic in American politics in a way that “conservative” never has been. You do not generally see Dem politicians on the national level climbing all over each other to claim the title of “most liberal” during a primary race – the goal is to win the title of “pragmatic” or “effective.” But the entire point of a Republican national primary is to establish that one is a “true conservative.”

              None of which is to say that conservatives are of necessity more to blame than liberals.

              But if one really, truly, strongly believes that a particular means is the only way to solve a particular problem and that another means will only worsen the problem, the fact is that one will caricature advocates of that other means as either not caring about that problem or actively wanting to make it worse.

              It’s wrong and shouldn’t be done, and when it is done it should be opposed. But it’s also human nature rather than something that can be laid at the feet of a particular ideology.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              @Mike Farmer,
              I know this goes on with the right — but MOST of it orginated with the liberal narrative that anyone who doesn’t support the modern liberal narrative is a Neanderthal, racist, homophobe, ect — I witnessed it start in earnest in the 60s. So I stand by the claim. The liberal narrative has been a very strong influence, and they made it clear they want it accepted by everyone — the media, the universities, Hollywood — it’s obvious if you’ve lived and paid attention long enough.Report

            • @Mike Farmer, Joe. McCarthy. The campaign – with the support of J. Edgar Hoover – to portray the civil rights movement (which was fighting the worst kinds of racism) as unAmerican Communists.

              The point is not simply “both sides do it.” The point is that building a narrative in which you caricature the other side as “wanting” certain results that you think the other side’s ideas imply is human nature. It goes back to time immemorial. If it seems like it’s gotten worse over the years, that probably has more to do with the fact that the nationalization (and internationalization) of discourse now allows us to actually hear what people are saying outside our local newspaper.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              @Mike Farmer,
              But McCarthysim was discredited and demonized, not enshrined into the American philosophy. The Democrats/liberals were complicit in the Red Scare, also.Report

            • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

              @Mike Farmer,
              Actually, McCarthyism was an indictment of State power — a lesson lost on liberals who went on to fight for even more State power and control — the lesson being that with more and more power, the risk of an authoritarian rising, rescinding all freedom, and oppressing the undesirables is greater. Conservatives are the undesirables now. Like I’ve said a million times, I’m not a conservative, but I defend the rights of conservatives to be who they are ad believe what they believe without being demonized as bigots, when for the greatest part, it’s not true. It’s too bad the principle of tolerance is used selectively.Report

  7. Avatar Ken says:

    Though Marcotte actually writes intelligently and well on some issues, and adheres to at least some admirable principles with which libertarians would agree (for instance, her rejection of the pro-censorship strand of feminist argument), I find a lot of what she says to be loathsome. Her hostility towards libertarianism (or more accurately, the strawman she erects in its place) seems to be premised, in part, on hostility towards mistrust of government and opposition of state-based nannying. I wrote about it not too long ago in the context of her comments about San Francisco’s stupid proposed pet-sale ban. this quote, to me, captured her government-knows-best, statist thinking:

    This would probably mean that people couldn’t get exotic pets, and that isn’t really the sort of thing that would keep me up at night, either. I understand the urge to have something like a pet ferret, but like with smoking, it’s an understandable urge that probably is best not indulged.

    The vibe I get from Marcotte is resentment that people are opposed to being limited by what she thinks should or should not be indulged.Report

  8. Avatar Lisa Kramer says:

    Wow, that is a stretch. And I’m certainly not saying that as any kind of defense of libertarianism.Report

  9. Avatar Katherine says:

    I don’t think libertarians believe people exist to serve institutions (that’s more like something libertarians would accuse their opponents of believing). However, they do seem to believe that a certain way of doing things (minimal regulation, minimal government action, maximally free markets) is ideal regardless of whether it makes people better or worse off materially.

    In short, liberals and left-wingers tend to see improving people’s lives as the goal and try to find policies that will achieve that, while libertarians have an ideological goal that, for them, takes precedence over whether people are actually better off.Report

    • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

      @Katherine, “In short, liberals and left-wingers tend to see improving people’s lives as the goal ..” er, well yes, but by way of state machinations which, given the nature of the modern state, nullifies the ‘good.’Report

      • Avatar North says:

        @Robert Cheeks, in some (and arguably too many) cases Bob, yes. But there are plenty of areas where the left wing is for less state intervention rather than more. Foreign invasions (Iran!), the War on Drugs, social issues and government/religious entanglements for instance are areas where the left is generally less friendly to state intervention than the right.Report

        • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

          @North, Left Wing “foreign invasions”: WWI, Vietnam and Korea? and “Social Issues”: abortion, gummint edumacation, wimmen’s rights, crippled rights? and “Religious entanglements”: WACO where gummint slaughtered…what, 80 people who didn’t worship an approved god? Me thinks the Left wing version of the governmental winkie is deeply in the soup, even more so with Barry the Vacationer!Report

          • Avatar North says:

            @Robert Cheeks, If we’re going to reach back that far for foreign invasions Bob then we can add Jim Crow to the rights’ list (plenty of statism there) and if we’re going to be specific all our latest wars have been right wing ones and Clintons little left wing interventions were mere temporary adventures by comparison.
            Say what you will about abortion but the pro-choice position is the less government interventionist one as are pro-women’s rights positions on the left (though thankfully that’s mostly bipartisan now).
            WACO is a counter-specific (though busting up cults is a bipartisan affair) but it was George W and the right in general that wanted to keep government and religion tightly wrapped up in bed together.
            I’m certainly not arguing that the left has many areas where it embraces government expansion, but the point remains unrefuted that there are several big areas where the right is the party of statists.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              @North, err that is to say “I’m certainly not arguing that the left -doesn’t- have…’ stupid double negatives.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

              @North, When you say ‘right’ the hair on my arm stands up because I fear you and most libruls see the right as a monolith, which of course it isn’t. We Paleos are righteous and pure and anti-statist, the evil Neos and RINOs are another matter.
              The thing about WACO was that sob Bubba opened automatic fire on people trying to escape, and save their lives and the lives of their children. There’s a special place in hell for that dick-wad and for the people who carried out his orders to slaughter American citizens. NOt even Nixon did that.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

              @North, …also, Jim Crow was a Democrat thing..and may the Grand Keegle rest in peace!Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              @Robert Cheeks, Dude, Kent State!Report

            • Avatar North says:

              @North, Bob, I’ll happily recognize that the right is non-monolithic and that it has Paleo’s like you and libertarians like Mike around the edges if you’ll extend the same awareness to the left. It’s as far from a monolith as you can get.
              As to Jim Crow, granted it started out as a Dixiecrat thing, but then it was expelled from the party and adopted by the GOP. Which, frankly, says sad things about Republicans when their new ideas were the Dems old rejected ones. Thanks be that even the GOP has gotten rid of all that nonsense.Report

          • Avatar dexter45 says:

            @Robert Cheeks, The government did not slaughter 80 people in Waco. The government’s mistake was not arresting whats his name in town and, even though Jim Jones and others were there for the thinkers, underestimating just how psychotic religious people can get. I do agree whole heartedly with the stupidity of WWI and especially Vietnam and a little for Korea.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

              @dexter45, Dex Dude, why would the federal gummint arrest whats-his-name in ‘town?’ Molestation was alledged, but I’m not sure the county indicted him? But, the question is why were the feds involved..he and his crew were street legal, not violating fed law.
              North, the GOP passed the Civil Rights legislation over recalcitrant racist commie-dems.
              Jaybird, Big Jim Rhodes righteously called out the Nat’l Guard to put down the long-hair arsonist and those f*cking up downtown Kent. The shooting itself, has been the subject of a number of books, congressional investigations, etc., and certainly unfortunate however no one, no guardsman, ever was indicted. And, of course, Kent State/Jackson State signalled the end of the so-called hippy uprisings.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

              @dexter45, Dex you gotta see the FLIR film..dude, sad, very sad…it was a slaughter!Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              @Robert Cheeks, no one, no guardsman, ever was indicted.

              QUELLE SURPRISEReport

    • Avatar Will H. says:

      @Katherine, That would probably be better stated as:
      “Even though libertarians see the improvement of peoples’ lives as a laudable goal, they do not see this as a legitimate role of government.”Report

      • Avatar Katherine says:

        It can be equally well stated as, “Libertarians oppose government intervention even where it would improve people’s lives.”Report

        • Avatar MadRocketScientist says:

          @Katherine, And the Libertarian would reply, “Show me an example of government intervention improving people’s lives?”.Report

          • Avatar dexter45 says:

            @MadRocketScientist, Nixon signed the EPA law.Report

            • Avatar MadRocketScientist says:

              @dexter45, a good idea that has followed the path of every other government agency, e.g. political interference, naked power grabs, failure to consider policy impacts to the poor, wholesale economic destruction for questionable environmental goals, etc.

              Any good government idea that involves regulation and/or taxpayer money will step on peoples rights as it accumulates power. Government is never satisfied, because there are always people who demand that government “do something!”, even if it is only a small (but vocal) minority, and most regulators do not have to answer to voters, so they have no incentive to curtail abuses of power.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


      I tend to think that on the whole, and over time, a well-designed system of minimal interference in individuals’ lives will make people materially better off.

      If I did not think that this was the case, I would not call myself a libertarian.Report

    • @Katherine, I would argue that many (though certainly not all) libertarians simply have a different view of what constitutes “better off.”Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        @Mark Thompson,

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    • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

      What do you think the ideological goals point to? Making people’s lives worse off?Report

    • @Katherine,

      “In short, liberals and left-wingers tend to see improving people’s lives as the goal and try to find policies that will achieve that, while libertarians have an ideological goal that, for them, takes precedence over whether people are actually better off.”

      I think you’ve nailed the way liberals percieve the difference between themselves and libertarians. Defending against this caricature is basically what I do with my free time:

      In my opinion, the reason why this portrayal doesn’t really hold up is that liberals never seem to perceive the full extent of the consequences of their direct, goal-oriented policy. A policy may succeed in lowering a particular measured unemployment rate from 10% to 9%, but what is not discussed is how that policy did so. It may be that in some cases, the sum total of energy redirected to a particular cause outweighs the merits of that particular cause. Unanticipated negative effects of policy are always a strong possibility. A liberalism unconstrained by the knowledge that error rates exist is dangerous.Report