What’s In A Label
Andrew Sullivan calls out Jonathan Chait for arguing that libertarianism is inextricably linked to racism. Chait’s view, in a nutshell, is that in practice, libertarianism is a gateway doctrine to racism:
“I am sure Paul’s motives derive from ideological fervor rather than a conscious desire to oppress minorities. But the relationship between the abstract principles of his worldview and the ugly racism with which it has so frequently been expressed is hardly coincidental.”
Sullivan fires back and draws a distinction between private and public coercion:
“The social power of homophobia and hetero-sexism in a free culture is crushing. I oppose it; and recognize it. I have spent a great deal of my life pushing back culturally and intellectually and morally against it. But I do not want to compel it into submission. I want to persuade it into toleration. And that is the core difference between power exerted by the state and power exerted by non-state actors: the former is ultimately backed by physical force deployed by the government; the latter by public opinion, economic and social power, and the willingness of minorities to buy into the ideology of their oppressors or haters.”
In conclusion, he articulates the balancing act that free societies must endure:
“Freedom means evil, as well as good, will flourish. And a conservative, properly understood, is someone who understands that evil is eternal, but that evil backed by a monopoly of physical force is the only one that can be restrained by a political order, without undermining the freedom it requires to breathe and grow and think for itself.”
I give the above summary of the exchange only to provide context in order to make a more subtle point about the semantics of the dispute which I think dovetails nicely with Erik’s recent post and longtime obsession with political labels.
I wouldn’t delve into this seeming minutia if I didn’t think Paul’s possible victory tonight might make arguments like the above all the more prevalent in the days to come, and thus their clarity all the more important.
There is an important difference between “the libertarian,” and “a libertarian,” and which some people note by distinguishing between Libertarians and libertarians. And, with the knowledge that there are plenty of people here to correct me on any inaccuracies that ensue, I will attempt a brief listing of the differences.
“The Libertarian” is not racist, and in fact, according to Ron Paul, “Libertarians are incapable of being racist…because racism is a collectivist idea, you see people in groups.” “The Libertarian” does not see people as encumbered selves but rather as unencumbered individuals. People are not simple manifestations of complex social, cultural, and political relations, but rather separate, self-motivating, and free. According to the very ontology of “the Libertarian,” racism in the way it is currently understood by liberals and postmoderns is not a possibility.
“A libertarian” on the other hand, can be racist, and libertarianism as an American social movement has certainly been very reliant on racist elements for political support often enough. But that doesn’t mean that Libertarianism in practice necessarily leads to or even enables racism, or other forms of bigotry and prejudice. The very fact that I can reasonably imagine a world in which no one is racist, and, at the same time, every one subscribes to Libertarian principles is proof that far from being necessarily intertwined, Libertarianism and racism are actually exactly co-incidental. One could occur without the other.
But the reason why this confusion persists is because of the desire by those discussing what “the Libertarian” thinks to, at various points in the conversation, substitute for it what “a libertarian” thinks. And this is why labels are important. Because the book keeping required to organize sets of beliefs is important. It helps to distinguish a set of beliefs from those who believe them, and who are at anyone time distorting one or more of those claims. If I am arguing in favor of Liberalism, studiously maintaining the label helps save me from having to defend or denounce every other claim made by every other liberal.
“A libertarian” is a person. “The Libertarian” is not. Just as Chicago is a city, but Socrates’ ideal polis is not. One can be pointed to, the other can only be thought of. Which is why, when arguing with the tenets of Libertarianism or any other worldview, it’s necessary to engage with ideas rather than individual adherents.
Now I’m not wholly of the above view. That is, I’m not certain that such a clean or pure discussion is possible, even if it’s preferable. I’m certainly not certain if it is, in fact, a more accurate way for seeking the truth of things. After all, this form of discourse does require that we remove from the discussion those very particulars that cultural liberalism is so concerned with. It presupposes the unencumbered view of individuals that Paul advocates.
But I do believe it is important to realize what discussion about Paul’s racism, or association with racists, actually comes down to. It’s not about Libertarianism, Conservatives, and Liberals. Or even about the role of proceduralism in a democratic republic. In the end, it’s a very fundamental argument over which ontology (and whether it should be whose) will set the terms of the debate.