A progressive friend of mine, who will remain unnamed unless she wants to comment, sent me a Salon.com editorial that has been making the rounds in both liberal and libertarian circles since its publication last month. (The article is here, if you’d like to read it: Why I Fled Libertarianism and Became a Liberal.) In it, Edwin Lyngar, a former Ron Paul delegate, tells the story of his transition from libertarian to liberal because of his disgust with conspiracy theorists within the libertarian movement and with the Tea Party. It is not an argument for liberalism, and Lyngar, to his credit, never claims that it is. It is simply a personal story, and frankly, a long ad hominem attack.
Before I delve into the meat of his post, I wanted to comment that I think it’s great that libertarianism is under attack: That means that it’s a threat. Gandhi said it best, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I think libertarianism is midway between the laugh and fight stages. Will it win? Time will tell.
In America, the terms “liberal,” “progressive,” “libertarian,” and “conservative” have been tortured to the point of meaninglessness, so I think it’s important to define them before moving on. Webster defines a libertarian as, “an advocate of the doctrine of free will” or “a person who upholds the principles of individual liberty, especially of thought and action.” I think either one of these will do well for this essay. I’d like to add that for me, libertarianism is simply the acceptance of the non-aggression principle. This means that you are free to live your life as you see fit, provided you do not initiate violence or aggression against other people. You are not allowed to murder, steal, kidnap, etc. as these activities harm others. Further, you are not allowed to do these things while wearing a government costume and re-labeling them “war,” “taxes,” and “rendition,” respectively.
A definition of liberalism is where it gets tricky, as there are a few: Webster defines liberalism as, “a movement in modern Protestantism emphasizing intellectual liberty and the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity.” This definition applies to religion, not politics, so it can be discarded for our purposes. Next is “a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard.” The second definition concerns the economic model of the classical liberals. Modern progressives have rejected it, and now it’s the libertarians, not the liberals, who uphold free market competition and the gold standard. (I told you it gets confusing.) Last is “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class).” The third definition is a pretty good definition of the type of liberal Lyngar is now claiming to be, specifically the part about government as an instrument of the amelioration of social inequities.
With the definitions out of the way, we can comment on his editorial. I will not stoop to the level of his libertarian friends who called him a “Commie” or a “Pussy,” but will instead try to rationally explain why I think Lyngar is wrong about a couple points. My purpose is not to attack, but to correct. For ease of reading, I have copied his editorial in its entirety and added my thoughts/arguments after each section.
The night before the 2008 Nevada Republican convention, the Ron Paul delegates all met at a Reno high school. Although I’d called myself a libertarian for almost my entire adult life, it was my first exposure to the wider movement.
And boy, was it a circus. Many members of the group were obsessed with the gold standard, the Kennedy assassination and the Fed. Although Libertarians believe government is incompetent, many of them subscribe to the most fringe conspiracy theories imaginable. Airplanes are poisoning America with chemicals (chemtrails) or the moon landings were faked. Nothing was too far out. A great many of them really think that 9-11 was an inside job. Even while basking in the electoral mainstream, the movement was overflowing with obvious hokum.
During the meeting, a Ron Paul staffer, a smart and charismatic young woman, gave a tip to the group for the upcoming convention.
“Dress normal,” she said. “Wear suits, and don’t bring signs or flags. Don’t talk about conspiracy theories. Just fit in.” Her advice was the kind you might hear given to an insane uncle at Thanksgiving.
Then next day, I ran into that same operative at the convention, and I complimented her because Ron Paul delegates were being accepted into the crowd. I added, “We‘re going to win this thing.”
“Bring in the clowns,” she said, and smiled before I lost her in the mass of people.
I will never forget that moment: Bring in the clowns. At the time, I considered myself a thoughtful person, yet I could hardly claim to be one if you judged me by the company I kept. The young lady knew something I had not yet learned: most of our supporters were totally fucking nuts.
I do agree with him that some libertarians are completely nuts. I think any honest person even remotely interested in libertarian philosophy can tell you that. It is actually one of my pet peeves with the larger movement, and I’ve written about it, here. Unlike Lyngar, however, I don’t think that a few paranoid conspiracy theorists are capable of ruining the multitude of compelling arguments made by the philosophy. They’re hurting its credibility to curious onlookers, to be certain, but a few bad apples can only hurt the movement, not the rational arguments. Lyngar’s major reason for leaving libertarianism, and the crux of his essay, is based on this ad hominem fallacy. Follow ideas, not people. People will make mistakes and let you down, but a good idea will hopefully guide and improve your thinking, regardless of its source.
Moving to liberalism to avoid the crazies doesn’t make much sense from a practical standpoint either. Yes, the libertarian philosophy has some supporters who have crazy ideas based on bad information and personal bias, but so does liberalism. So does every single philosophy that has ever, or will ever, exist. Has Lyngar never met a crazy liberal? And when (not if) he does, will he jump the liberal ship too? I’ve met liberals who wanted to ban free speech that doesn’t agree with their agenda, and I’ve met liberals who wish to ban electricity, gasoline, and many other modern conveniences that have improved our lives and taken millions out of destitution. These terrible ideas reflect poorly on those who hold them and not on the larger liberal philosophy or arguments. Again, follow ideas, not people.
I’d also like to point out that he’s lumping sound money policy with conspiracy theories. Maybe he is unaware that the gold standard has been a part of (classical) liberal economics for a very long time. (See the second definition of “liberal,” above.) He uses the phrase, “obsessed with the gold standard…” What does that mean? Can one make an argument for sound money without being a gold bug? Lyngar doesn’t say. I also think he’s poisoning the well by using words like “obsessed” and “fringe.” Moving on…
I came by my own libertarian sensibilities honestly. I grew up in a mining town that produced gold, silver and copper; but above all, Battle Mountain, Nev. made libertarians. Raised on 40-acre square of brown sage brush and dead earth, we burned our own garbage and fired guns in the back yard.
After leaving my small town upbringing, I learned that libertarians are made for lots of reasons, like reading the bad fiction of Ayn Rand or perhaps the passable writing of Robert Heinlein. In my experience, most seemed to be poor, white and undereducated. They were contortionists, justifying the excesses of the capitalist elite, despite being victims if libertarian politics succeed.
If you think that selfishness and cruelty are fantastic personal traits, you might be a libertarian. In the movement no one will ever call you an asshole, but rather, say you believe in radical individualism.
Why is becoming a libertarian due to one’s upbringing in a small mining town more “honest” than becoming one because of Ayn Rand? Admittedly, I’ve never read Ayn Rand, so maybe I’m missing something. However, I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on the correct way to come to a certain point of view. As long as one comes to his conclusions based on facts, reason, and evidence, what difference does the idea’s genesis make? This is another ad hominem attack.
I also take issue with his name-calling and characterization of libertarians as mostly poor, white, and undereducated. I am white, but I’m from a middle class family and am a college graduate. He offers no statistics or facts to back it up, and he admits that it’s “in his experience.” My experience is different. I’ve met libertarians of all races, all economic backgrounds, both genders, and with various degrees of education. I am not providing statistics either, so who’s right? His assertion is just as valid as mine. (It’s not admissible as fact.)
Yet I don’t want to gloss over the good things about libertarians. They are generally supportive of the gay community, completely behind marijuana legalization and are often against ill-considered foreign wars, but a few good ideas don’t make up for some spectacularly bad ones. Their saving grace is a complete lack of organizational ability, which is why they are always trying to take over the Republican Party, rather than create a party of their own.
Thanks for throwing us a bone. The author is forgetting two things: First, the libertarians already have their own party, and have had one since 1971. Second, that there are many libertarians, myself included, who reject the political process entirely and do not support the Libertarian Party for ethical, moral, and/or logistical reasons.
The Ron Paul delegates were able to take over the Nevada convention in 2008, howling, screeching and grinding it to a painful halt. I was part of the mob, and once we took over, we were unable to get anything done. The national delegates were appointed in secret later.
Doesn’t this say more about the current political system than it does of libertarian ideology? I think this is a good illustration of how broken the system really is; how mob rule doesn’t help anyone’s cause and how third party ideas are not allowed into the left/right paradigm of our two party oligarchy. Lyngar is also glossing over the fact that the convention was shut down not by the libertarian delegates but by the Nevada Republican Party.
The Republican convention didn’t turn me off of libertarians, but I started losing respect for the movement while watching the financial meltdown. Libertarians were (rightly) furious when our government bailed out the banks, but they fought hardest against help for ordinary Americans. They hated unemployment insurance and reduced school lunches. I used to say similar things, but in such a catastrophic recession isn’t the government supposed to help? Isn’t that the lesson of the Great Depression?
No, it isn’t. The history of banking and economics is incredibly complex and even today there is not a consensus of the cause(s) and cure(s). Libertarians have made the (well-documented and supported) argument that the Great Depression was largely caused by a lack of liquidity triggered by central banking. (Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, hardly a libertarian, even conceded this.) Roosevelt launched massive federal programs and spent unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money to get the US out of the depression, but it still did not end until after World War II and most of his programs were scaled back. This is a topic that takes books, not paragraphs, so I will not delve into it here. Those interested can simply do an internet search for “Austrian theory of the causes of the Great Depression.”
It wasn’t only the libertarians who were furious when the government bailed out the banks, but also conservatives and liberals. Pretty much anyone who did not get a bailout was furious. Lyngar fails to mention that the bailouts had bipartisan support from both John McCain and Barack Obama, and when Obama took office the bailouts continued.
Libertarians do not hate unemployment insurance or school lunches, but argue (with compelling evidence) that these things are better left to the private sector. You may not agree, but simply saying that libertarians “hate X government program” is dismissive, misleading, and simplistic.
Through all the turmoil, the presidential election went ahead. Although I didn’t vote for him, I wept when Barack Obama took the oath of office in early 2009. They were tears of bewilderment, joy, pride and hope, despite the fact that I did everything within my own limited power to keep the moment from ever happening.
Obama was elected because of his cult of personality and the hatred and distrust of President Bush. It’s madness to put your hope in a political leader. (It makes even less sense to put your hope in one you did not support.) The libertarians wrongly did it with Ron Paul, the Democrats wrongly did it with Barack Obama. The difference is that Obama won, and we can see the fruits of his presidency. Since Obama’s election, I would argue that he has revealed himself to be just another corrupt politician that carries out the whims of his corporate sponsors at the expense of the rest of us. Once again, follow ideas, not people.
From the ashes of the election rose the movement that pushed me from convinced libertarian into bunny-hugging liberal. The Tea Party monster forever tainted the words freedom and libertarian for me. The rise of the Tea Party made me want to puke, and my nausea is now a chronic condition.
There are a lot of libertarians in the Tea Party, but there are also a lot of repugnant, religious nuts and intolerant racists. “Birthers” found a comfy home among 9-11 conspiracy people and other crackpots. After only a few months, I had absolutely no desire to ever be linked to this group of people.
Here, Lyngar clearly differentiates between libertarians and the “repugnant, religious nuts and intolerant racists.” Why leave libertarianism? Why not just avoid the Tea Party? They are not the same thing, by the author’s own admission.
Also, he’s forgetting that there are intolerant racists in the Democratic Party as well. They are not bound to one movement or ideology. Is he going to leave the Democrats? The hypocrisy is painfully obvious.
As evidence, I offer the most repugnant example of many complaints. I’ve heard the n-word used in casual conversation from people I would never expect. Some people might not believe it or think I’m playing the race card, but I’m not. I’ve heard the word more than I care to admit and more often in the run-up to the 2012 election. Perhaps because I’m a big, fat and bald white guy with a mean goatee, racists think I’m on board with them. I am not, and I’m ashamed to admit that my cowardice at confronting this ugliness makes me complicit.
Was this coming from the Tea Party or the libertarians? He doesn’t say. Racism is not compatible with libertarianism because it collectivizes people into groups and fails to recognize each person’s unique individuality. Racism also pits groups against each other, and race-baiting has long been a tactic of both the Republican and Democratic parties to achieve power.
During Obama’s first term, I also went to graduate school for creative writing at a progressive college, and I settled into my marriage with my wife, a Canadian and “goddamn liberal.” I can’t point to just one thing that pushed me left, but in Obama’s first term I had a change of heart, moving from a lifelong extreme into the bosom of conventional liberalism.
I can’t argue with this, because Lyngar makes no argument, and doesn’t attempt one. I’m curious as to what specifically made him embrace Obama’s presidency. Was it the fascist healthcare bill? The expansion of NSA’s spying on every American? The NDAA, which allows indefinite detention without trial? The increased drone strikes and military entanglements? The continued bailouts of the “too big to fail” banking corporations?
I began to think about real people, like my neighbors and people less lucky than me. Did I want those people to starve to death? I care about children, even poor ones. I love the National Park system. The best parts of the America I love are our communities. My libertarian friends might call me a fucking commie (they have) or a pussy, but extreme selfishness is just so isolating and cruel. Libertarianism is unnatural, and the size of the federal government is almost irrelevant. The real question is: what does society need and how do we pay for it?
There’s so much wrong with this paragraph I don’t know where to begin, but I’ll try. If you don’t want someone to starve to death, you feed them. You don’t take their money, give it to cold, power-hungry bureaucracy that takes most of it and gives them the scraps. Most people care about children, not just Democrats and liberals. We just have different ideas about the best way to do this. Insinuating that libertarians are selfish, isolating, and cruel because we don’t agree with the government’s one-size-fits-all solution is very mean-spirited and misleading.
I love the National Parks, too, but the National Park System is a mess. The fact that nature can be “closed” by a petulant government during a shutdown is infuriating as well.
The size of the federal government is irrelevant?!? Is this a joke? Every government job created extracts limited resources from the private sector (that actually creates wealth). Every dollar printed subtracts from the value of every other dollar. This statement alone reveals Lyngar’s complete lack of any historical or economic context to the situation the United States currently finds itself.
Finally, what does society need? What is society if not a collection of individuals, and what I need is different from what you need. Why trust the government to distribute society’s resources equitably? They have not shown themselves to be capable of doing this.
A month before the 2012 election, I changed my party affiliation to Democrat. I am a very late bloomer, that it took me so many decades to develop my own values. I was thirty-nine.
Again, what exactly made him switch to Democrat? What had the party done to win him over? Again, he doesn’t say. Why does this make him a late bloomer? What if he changes his political affiliation again? Nobody knows the person he will become in five, ten, or twenty years.
I don’t think regular Americans have any idea just how crazy libertarians can be. The only human corollary I can offer is unquestioning religious fervor, and hell yeah, I used to be a true believer. Libertarians think they own the word “freedom,” but it’s a word that often obfuscates more than enlightens. If you believe the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free,” then libertarians live in a prison of their own ideology.
What is confusing or obfuscating about the word “freedom?” Freedom is defined as “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action” and “liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another.” Libertarianism is the only modern political movement that embraces freedom for all, conservatives and liberals alike. The Democrats certainly do not subscribe to it; every regulation they pass is meant to coerce us to pay taxes to the elite power brokers and constrain our choices. If we wanted to do it, after all, they wouldn’t have to pass a law to force us to do it.
In conclusion, I agree with Mr. Lyngar that there are a lot of crazies in the libertarian movement. Some are legitimately crazy, but I suspect that many just advocate ideas that seem crazy because we have been conditioned from an early age to think within a narrow box of allowable opinion. What I like about the libertarian/voluntaryist philosophy is that it is so open and accepting. Really, the only requirement is non-aggression against your fellow man. Do you want to live in a hippie colony that has socialized medicine? Do you want to start a Galt’s Gulch society based on the teachings of Ayn Rand? Libertarianism allows you to do either, provided you don’t force anyone to join you, and you don’t steal their money to fund it. Convince someone else with your superior ideas, not threats of force. Modern liberalism, on the other hand, forces us all to subscribe to a very specific and narrow set of beliefs. Any heretics are cast out of the good graces of the elite central planners. I think Lyngar will find this out the second he deviates from Progressive orthodoxy.
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Thanks for reading this post, I hope I challenged you in some way. Agree with me? That’s cool. Disagree? Even better. I’m just a random guy on the internet, voicing his opinion (at the time of writing this blog post; opinions change as more facts and experience are gathered). But imagine if I had the political power and will to force you to agree with me! That would be terrible, and that’s the point of voluntarism and non-aggression. You should not be forced to agree with me. Please extend me the same courtesy.
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