Every time you attack libertarianism, libertarians respond by saying you haven’t actually attacked libertarianism. You’ve only attacked one libertarian or one perspective, but that’s not the right one to look at it. You are engaging in a straw man argument. And so on. It never ends. You can’t ever deliver a square blow against it because your description of it is never correct, no matter what you say.
An illustration of this can be found in Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s recent posts about libertarianism at The New Republic.
Survey of Libertarians
In the first post, ESB uses actual survey data of self-identified libertarians from Pew:
A baffling quarter of libertarians surveyed believe homosexuality should be discouraged, and 59 percent were opposed to same-sex marriage in a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2013. Meanwhile, the inexplicable libertarian appreciation for cops frisking people at will is mirrored by an equally bizarre fondness for U.S. military intervention in global affairs.
All this while supporting privacy, though perhaps only for themselves, and not for those on the receiving end of police shakedowns and U.S. drones. The only thing libertarians really seem to agree with their label on is the subject of poverty, with 57 percent claiming that government aid to poor people does more harm than good, and 56 percent responding that government regulation of business does more harm than good.
On Twitter and elsewhere, the response was that using the survey data is not fair. All political groups have people who answer in contradictory ways, and libertarianism is no different. If you are going to talk about libertarianism, you need to deal with its thinkers and philosophers. The best example of this critique can be found at this blog:
Bruenig’s purpose in writing her article is to portray libertarians as having no underlying principles, but she simply ends up undermining herself. In pointing out the “bizarre fondness” a group self-described libertarians have for foreign interventionism she inadvertently proves that these people are obviously not libertarians in the first place.
Now you could try to argue that I’m engaging in the no true Scotsman fallacy, but the simple fact is that words have meanings. Libertarians support free markets and a non-interventionist foreign policy. Now it’s true that not all libertarians agree on every single issue, and there is a spectrum of libertarianism ranging from Constitutional minarchists to free market anarchists, but free markets and non-intervention are the core of libertarianism.
Murray Rothbard, the founder of modern libertarianism, stated, “I am getting more and more convinced that the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business.” If favoring non-intervention is the key to being a libertarian, it’s safe to say that people who do not support non-intervention are not libertarians. It would be as if I called myself a progressive while supporting completely free markets with no government intervention or regulation. Nobody would take me seriously, let alone critique progressivism itself based on my views.
The message is clear as day. Self-identified libertarians don’t define what libertarianism is; rather, philosophers — specifically Murray Rothbard — does.
In a second post, ESB quotes Murray Rothbard himself expounding upon proper application of libertarian principle to the matter of children:
Later in The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard, in keeping with the libertarian exaltation of personal freedom, argues that “no man can therefore have a ‘right’ to compel someone to do a positive act”—that is, because all people are free, by his account, your rights cannot impose positive actions on others. This means, Rothbard goes on, that a parent “may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.” He concludes that “the law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.” To do so, for Rothbard, would be pure government overreach.
Excellent. ESB corrected her prior failing and now has quoted Rothbard himself. But wait, the libertarians still aren’t happy:
For examples of other libertarians saying “unhinged” things about parenting, Bruenig cites Lew Rockwell, Murray Rothbard, and Williamson Evers. In other words, two Rothbards and someone I’ve never heard of. (Checks Wikipedia.) Nevermind, make that three Rothbards. Fine.
Of course, if we are playing the game of picking three people at random and then using their crazier views as stand-ins for an entire philosophy, we could make any ideology look bad—even Bruenig’s, which appears to be Christian socialism.
When ESB avoids picking specific libertarians and relies on a representative sample of them, she is told that is wrong and that she should look to Rothbard, the “founder of modern libertarianism.” Yet, when she relies directly on Rothbard (and two of his disciples), she is told that is wrong as well.
No matter what you do, libertarians will always object in this same manner: that’s not libertarianism; that’s a straw man; you should have used a different authority. It’s actually pretty funny, especially when they deny they are doing it.