Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig Demolished Libertarians. And It Was Beautiful.

The New Republic staff writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig recently penned a devastating critique of libertarians, where she argued that the beliefs of self-described libertarians do not square with the central tenet of “freedom” that (allegedly) underlies libertarianism. She links to a wonderful Pew Research Center study, which she uses to base her takedowns and factually demolish libertarians bit. By. Bit.

Here is a play-by-play of her critique:

1) After quoting porn-famous Belle Knox on her move toward libertarianism after a strict Catholic upbringing, Bruenig notes that “Insofar as libertarianism is opposed to almost every feature of Catholic morality, Knox has certainly picked an appropriate politics of rebellion.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Catholicism teaches us to help the poor. Libertarians hate the poor, as evidenced by their desire to almost completely dismantle the safety net. Sure, they might argue government programs are inefficient or fail to stop poverty – but they only say this to cover up their elitist distaste of poor people. The truth is that even if these programs are inefficient, it doesn’t matter, because what they do is they show our commitment – as a society – to recognize the plight of the poor. You can’t put a price on dignity – and we want to restore the dignity of our lower class!

2) Relying on her careful reading of the Pew study, Bruenig concludes that “libertarians themselves do not appear to have a good sense of what libertarianism actually means.” You want evidence? Here is the evidence.

Why this demolished libertarians: According to the Pew study, 14% of Americans identify as libertarians. Furthermore, 11% of all Americans both identify as libertarian and at the same time know what libertarianism is. That means that 11/14 = 78% of people who identify as libertarians actually know what libertarianism means. And what does that mean? It means that more than 1 in 5 self-described libertarians doesn’t understand what libertarianism means!!

People who do not foolishly choose to identify with that political label of teenage rebellion are a different matter. The study notes that 57% of all Americans know what libertarianism means. If we remove the mere 11% of the population that is both libertarian and knows what the label means, that means that 46% of the population is both non-libertarian and knows what the label means. 46/86 = 54% of non-libertarians know what libertarianism is. That is, more than 2.5 out of every 5 self-described non-libertarians know what libertarianism means. And last time I checked 2.5/5 is, well, 2.5 times more than 1/5! If you eat 2000 calories a day, 2.5 times more than that is 5000 calories a day. Can you imagine that?!

3) Bruenig points out that “libertarians polled as far more supportive of police intervention in citizens’ daily lives, showing greater support for stop-and-frisk policies than the general population” [emphasis mine].

Why this demolished libertarians: Bruenig is not afraid to cite her sources, and even shows us a diagram from the study that backs her claim (red elements mine):

Notice that libertarians are a whole 1% more likely to allow police to stop/search all who look like crime suspects. And before libertarians start crying out that 1% “is within margin of error” or some made-up excuse like that (after all, they hate statistics because reality has a strong liberal bias), let me point out that 1% of the US population is more than 3 million people. That’s a lot of people, people!! The data proves it – libertarians, while pretending to be pro-freedom, actually support intervention into our lives far, far more than the general population!

4) Continuing, we learn that “A baffling quarter of libertarians surveyed believe homosexuality should be discouraged.” Do you know what I think should be discouraged? Libertarianism! If you didn’t think they were barbarians before, how can you have any doubt now? Libertarians think that homosexuals (or whatever awful slang word libertarians probably use at home to describe them) are no better than animals.

Why this demolished libertarians: Once again, just look at the source data, and the picture becomes clear: when it comes to hating gays, libertarians are unparalleled:

Notice that 26% of libertarians (even more than Bruenig had humbly cited!) think homosexuality should be “discouraged” – as if our neighbors and family members who are homosexual just “choose” to be gay and to be ostracized by society. Let me remind you, people, 26% is an enormous number!

How do non-libertarians compare? We just need to solve the equation 0.11*26 + x*89 = 31. Solving it, x=31.6, which means 31.6% of non-libertarians favor discouraging homosexuality. That means that almost 69% of non-libertarians are against discouraging homosexuality! If you need me to do the math for you, libertAynrians, the number 69 is more than 2.5 times bigger than 26! We see that 2.5 pop up again. Weird, huh?

5) Of course, Bruenig, being a master writer, also interweaves humor into her narrative: “Knox is only 19 years old, so we can hardly fault her for these contradictions.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Don’t you get it? Only teenagers could be libertarians, because teenagers are so immature and don’t know what the real world is like! Libertarians harbor ideas so far out of touch with reality, that even though they pretend to love “economics”, no libertarian (or person supporting any libertarian ideas) could ever win any legitimate prize in economics like the Nobel Prize.

6) She just keeps going for Belle: “For Belle Knox, freedom has to do with decriminalized sex work and fair pathways for women in employment—but both of those projects imply a level of proactive government regulation in business.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Can’t libertarians get it? Decriminalization of sex work means that we will need to regulate it. It’s obvious that, therefore, libertarians support a policy that would add regulation to the market: We’d go from a laissez-faire, completely unregulated and uncontrolled ban on sex work that requires no government intervention to a legalized industry with some regulations!

7) Bruenig calls the libertarians polled “jingoistic” – and once again her source backs her. When we look at the real, objective data, only 46% of libertarians think US involvement makes world problems worse, while the corresponding number for the entire US population is significantly higher: 40%!

Why this demolished libertarians: 54% of libertarians don’t think US involvement makes world problems worse. 40% of the general population understands that US involvement makes things worse. Would you rather be with 54 warmongers or 40 peaceful people? I thought so.

8) She just keeps going: “Libertarians who oppose government aid to the poor seem to desire freedom from taxes, but have no interest in whether or not the poorest are really free to exercise their rights to human flourishing when they can barely eat.”

Why this demolished libertarians: Read my lips: If you oppose the current welfare system, you think all poor people should die. Period.

9) Bruenig finishes the article off by telling us that “for genuine, invested activists like Knox, the evasiveness of the libertarian message should be a red flag.” A wise warning indeed.

Why this demolished libertarians: Belle is a teenager, and teenagers are stupid, so we know she’s genuine and invested. But other libertarians are not excused.

Class dismissed.

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Things that Make Us Cry

Steve Horwitz had an interesting post over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians back in October that I just noticed now, where he addresses once again research that came up some time ago that purported to show that libertarians tend to be focused on logic at the expense of emotion.

Horwitz challenges this conclusion, pointing to a video male libertarian friends of his have told him drives them to tears. I watched it and I had the same reaction. I suggest you check it out:

To Horwitz’s observation, I will add my own about media that drives me to tears: Google’s yearly “zeitgeist” videos (“spirit of the times” – see 2013, 2012, 2011, for example), the “I, Pencil” video (explanation of spontaneous order), images of Christians joining hands to protect praying Muslims in Egypt, and Niemöller’s “First they came …” poem, off the top of my head.

For the zeitgeist videos, the moments that set me off most were the shots of the artificial hand, artificial leg, kid with cerebral palsy walking to greet his father returning from the war, various brief shots of amputees achieving their goals, the Red Bull space jump landing with the man holding up his fists, the US soldier coming home early to his mother, Steve Jobs’s advice to stay hungry, stay foolish, the 29-year-old hearing for first time, and the solider high-fiving a local kid.

From these experiences I can extract what I believe are the moments which affect me most:

Overcoming conflict with other humans – rejecting war and accepting cooperation

Spontaneous, unplanned order – voluntary cooperation that builds magnificent things we do not expect but we’re all part of

Overcoming conflicts with nature – fighting back the scarcity constraints of the world, fighting against the cold, uncaring universe and carving out a place for ourselves

and, maybe most importantly,

Unchaining of the individual to achieve his or her potential

I say that the last one is perhaps the most important one specifically because of my reaction to the 29-year-old hearing for the first time in her life. I felt that the moment represented the opening of an entire new door for an individual that she thought would be closed forever. The sheer intensity of the feeling of overcoming what you thought would be a handicap for your entire life – and the overwhelming emotions when tasting this entirely new sense – hearing- for the first time in your life is simply astonishing.

Can the bolded points above somehow be connected to libertarianism?

– Overcoming conflict with other humans – replacing coercion with voluntary cooperation (see self-ownership)

– Spontaneous, unplanned order – emergent properties of market systems – in the tradition of Hayek

– Overcoming conflicts with nature – pushing back the limits of scarcity – see the libertarian emphasis on capital accumulation and innovation

– Unchaining of the individual to achieve his or her potential – libertarianism places a strong emphasis on the individual as the centerpiece of society. This point is also a little strange, since libertarianism doesn’t specifically say that individuals must be required to achieve their potential, but could very well choose to do nothing with their life if they so wish. However, it’s possible that people tend to be drawn to libertarianism because they value the individual so much already, and also happen to understand that all rights are individual rights.

I would even argue that the above points can be folded up into two main points. The overcoming of conflict with other humans and nature are both an unshackling of the individual – free from both human coercion and the limits of nature. We are then left with a free individual and the result of this free individual – the spontaneous order of social cooperation through the market.

If I may make the unfounded assumption that I am a decent representative of libertarians, I can see that the elements that set us off most are indeed ones libertarian emphasize – on the moral side, emphasis on the voluntary and on the individual. On the pragmatic side, emphasis on innovation, capital buildup, and emergent order. If we examine the condensed case I made in the previous paragraph, then we have the moral side, the free individual, and the pragmatic side, the result of the free individual.

Perhaps it’s not the case that libertarians aren’t very empathetic, but instead that they can openly make emotional connections when they are presented with situations aligned with the spirit of libertarianism. It is then that the libertarian can place himself in the shoes of the character in the story and appreciate the beauty of the situation as if it were his own. If, on the other hand, we see situations that emerge out of coercive action, we do not emote as easily, because there is something at the back of our minds that reminds us that there’s a zero sum game being played, with hidden losers in the background we’re not being shown.

I also want to point out what I consider to be a fantastic quote from Horwitz’s article – one that I believe is strong competitor for being one of the best that combine practical and moral arguments:

Critics of markets sometimes say “you can’t eat GDP.” What they miss is that you can’t eat, or learn to read, or go to school, or leave a bad marriage, or do pretty much any of the basics that we might see as required for a flourishing life without the wealth and time created by the market economy.

This relates to the washing machine, as the invention and its adoption opened up time for women to both gain more education and educate their children more easily, and education unchains people and allows them to do anything up to… well, we don’t know the limits of our imagination and our creativity yet. Hopefully, we won’t ever know them.

Good job to the BHL for a solid post. Now I need to get some water – I’ve somehow gotten very dehydrated after those videos.