Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Wed, 13 Jan 2021, 4:30 PM


Stealing "libertarianism"

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What exactly is libertarianism? I ask because of something Janash Ganesh says about Trump:

His populism tends more to the libertarian than the repressive. The mask-spurning, the cavalier gatherings, the call to not let the virus "dominate": it is personal freedom to which the president has shown a heedless attachment.

Now, the notion that Trump is a libertarian will come as news to the families of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or the 829 other people killed by the American police this year. It'll also come as news to the tens of thousands of people imprisoned for trivial offences. A true libertarian would surely be more troubled by these horrific denials of freedom than they would by wearing masks. Trumpmask

The misuse of the word "libertarian" is however not confined to Janan's description of Trump. We see a similar thing in the UK. Opponents of enforced mask-wearing are described as libertarians. And yet one of the most prominent of these - Tory MP Desmond Swayne for example - has voted against the legalization of cannabis and has failed to oppose the bill to permit the security services to break the law. What sort of libertarian is so angry about enforced mask-wearing, but so relaxed about other, greater, infringements of liberty?

The obverse of this is also a puzzle. It is mostly leftists who oppose the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, favour cannabis legalization, are most vocal in support of Black Lives Matter: "defund the police" is a purely libertarian slogan. By any logic, it is these who should be called libertarians, not the likes of Trump or Swayne.

What's going on?

We should, I think, regard Trump and Swayne not as libertarians but as something different. What they are doing is not asserting liberty so much as denying the existence of collective action problems. Sometimes, what each individual wants to do is bad for all individuals. Not wearing masks is one such example. We'd all rather not wear them, but without them the risk of catching and spreading Covid is greater. Wearing masks thus imposes mild discomfort upon us for a greater benefit. Maskphobics such as Trump and Swayne reject this. They think their desires should over-ride others' benefit. This is not so much libertarianism as solipsistic narcissism.

Of course, this is a bastardized form of libertarianism. Better libertarians and liberals - such as Hayek - have argued for liberty and free markets precisely because they promote the collective good.

What it is instead is conservatism. One strand of Tory thinking in recent years has been the denial of collective action problems. Supporters of fiscal austerity, for example, failed to see that if enough people try to save, the results are self-defeating. Policies to make work pay might incentivize any individual to move from welfare to work, but if there aren't enough jobs these individual desires for work cannot all be fulfilled. Hostility to masks is just the latest manifestation of this denial.

But why would anybody call this "libertarianism"? It's because rightists have stolen the word. What they mean by freedom is the freedom for rich white men to oppress and exploit others. Which is why they hate wearing masks. It denies them the privilege of acting how they damn well please to the detriment of others, and so undermines their place at the top of hierarchies. This is why Cold Warriors opposed the USSR whilst supporting Pinochet, apartheid and the criminalization of homosexuality. As Corey Robin wrote:

When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

Whether the word "libertarian" can be reclaimed for more proper purposes is, however, not clear.

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