I’m a liberal. Depending on where you are in the world and your own political background, that might read as a okay, great, or terrible thing to be. And within the tent it’s pretty complicated: gentle hippy types, hawkish republicans, and avid consumers can all be heard describing themselves as ‘liberals’. But the root idea is that everybody should be free to live their own life as they choose, and in turn leave others to do the same. If only it were that simple in practice.
,Within liberalism, though, there are two broad trends, connected to two conceptions of liberty: negative and positive (when exactly these were defined is a little disputed, but Isaiah Berlin may have been the first to formally do so). Putting aside the possible implications of those labels, they are pretty simply formulated: Negative liberty is the absence of constraint, while positive liberty requires that one be empowered to act to carry out what they will. The former is pretty simple, and contained within the latter. Positive liberty is more complicated, but its necessity might be argued for by observing that, say, a small child alone in the wilderness is free from constraint, but still lacking in ‘freedom’. I think most of us would have at least some sympathy for the idea that children should receive some education and basic healthcare even if we feel that as adults it should be ‘every man for himself’. Of course if negative liberty is callous, positive can tend to overstretch its roots and lead to the ‘nanny state’.
Those who lean towards negative liberty are libertarians, as they see personal liberty – in the sense of freedom from constraint and interference – as the ultimate goal. And those, like myself, who believe that positive liberty is fully a good thing, rather than a necessary evil, might call themselves social liberals. Nonetheless, the two groups should really be able to get along, sharing the same ultimate aim. As long as the libertarians have got their own spaces, we more socially-orientated types should be free to organise our selves, and we shouldn’t mind if they don’t want to participate, cos they’re not asking for anything either.
However, there is a big problem: [most] Libertarians are arseholes. I’m not saying that social liberals aren’t an issue too, but social liberals don’t misrepresent ourselves in the same way. We admit that we think we or the state should interfere in people’s lives. There’s a lot of debate to be had about how much interference is too much, but at least we’re not pretending that this is not what we’re up to.
Why ‘Libertarians’ are arseholes
The first problem with people who call themselves libertarian is that most of them aren’t anything of the sort. The second is that even those who ostensibly are have no idea how it would work in actual practice.
An example of the first type would be those better described as small-government conservatives To put it briefly: it’s not libertarian to not want the state to meddle in your life (cos that’s true of pretty much everybody), it’s only libertarian if you don’t think the state should interfere in everybody else’s life too. These are the people who would like the government to butt out when they abuse and discriminate against certain other races/sexualities/religions/etc., but at the same time demand that it act to prevent access to abortion and block same-sex marriage (they’re kind of accidentally half right on the latter, as a true libertarian should be opposed to any form of state-sanctioned marriage). Everybody thinks that the state should do less of some things and more of others, but its not an ideology.
But you’re an arsehole if you can mentally juggle the idea that the state (and everybody else) should totally leave you to do what you want, while insisting that it stick its nose into the business of other people in the most intrusive fashion (and you don’t get much more intrusive than some of the rules that have been introduced to limit or discourage access to abortion).
The second major bunch of pseudo-libertarians who seem to be cropping up of late have given the matter a modicum more thought. And they take their cue from people who are as close to actual, practical libertarianism as possible: survivalists. The odd thing is that this new bunch are placed in a polar opposite situation: the techno-utopians. I’ve been seeing a lot of these around Gamergate and the New Atheism (there’s a not insignificant overlap between the two of these, either). Anyway, the common factor here is that these groups maintain that they can manage without the state, so they’ll be just fine if it goes away. With your survivalist types, this might just about be possible. If you’ve got the skills to not just cope in the wilderness, but to maintain the tools (and weapons) that you need to do so, then maybe you don’t need society. It still seems a little churlish to ignore the source of your education, but if you want to bugger off, so be it, and best of luck to you. The techno-utopian types are far more laughable.
I said that these people have given it a modicum more thought than the small-govt conservative, and I do mean a modicum. They seem to think that if you magically removed all of the structures that support our modern global society, it would still stand in the same place. They sit behind a computer and genuinely believe that either a) they have the basic skills to survive in the wild, because they play enough CoD; or b) that they’d be able to trade their coding skills for the necessities of life. Somehow or other, the internet, the power grid, the roads, the markets, etc, etc, are going to be maintained in the absence of government, to allow them to barter off their amazingly specific skills. It’s a really weird combination of a primitivist ideology with total dependence on high-technology. So, again, these people are in effect demanding that all the things that annoy them personally are removed, while maintaining all of the associated stuff that they enjoy the use of.
Thing is, I’m totally a fan of the idea of dismantling current structures and systems of power. States, corporations, institutions can all be torn down. You just have to consider what you want in their place. And nothing at all is not really an option, at least if you want access to running water.
It might be observed that I haven’t really answered my question. Rather than explaining why libertarians are terrible, I’ve pointed out that most people who label themselves thus are mistaken. So a last point to maybe help explain why real libertarians are arseholes: it’s an ideology overwhelming dominated by white affluent types, frequently male, and who display an amazing blindness to how much they benefit from the status quo (and the state). It’s easy to maintain that you can do as you will, when you have grown so used to the safety net that you can’t even see it any more.