Libertarians: When you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail

So both Longrider and Jackart have the hump with me. Why oh why do I continue with this? Well the same reason I made a trilogy of posts arguing with Charlotte Gore, because I would quite like an actually existing, reality-based Libertarianism to exist. It doesn’t. Actually existing Libertarianism tends to asymmetry, it is most ruthless with the vulnerable and most forgiving with the privileged.

This all started when I remarked it odd that Jackart called a peaceful campaign of boycott of a company selling sexist T-Shits to terrible parents baring the slogan “I’m too pretty for homework so my brother has to do it for me.” They demanded online that this T-Shirt be pulled or they would no longer shop at whatever retailer it was that sold it (I really don’t care). At no point did anyone ask for this sort of thing to be banned (although I’m sure some have asked for similar things to be banned in the past). All they did was argue for a peaceful boycott.

Okay, where would that leave a Libertarian, you might ask. According to Jackart “Libertarianism is a mindset in which I don’t seek to impose my values on others, and simply ask the same courtesy in return.” I hope the hypocrisy is clear. Jackart isn’t won’t seek to impose his values on anyone… apart from Leftists upon whom he will unleash a terrible online screed about corpses and “hysteria” [1].

But wait, he hasn’t “forced” anything on anyone, he has just said mean things on the internet. Well, so did the people who he is arguing are closet totalitarians. They demanded no state action, they promised no action further than to discuss those they didn’t like and to not do business with those they didn’t like. That is exactly the point of Libertarians – things should be voluntary – and they were. The protests were peaceful, all that was threatened was damage to a retailer’s brand and reduced sales. But no firm has the right to respect or to sales.

Now Libertarians could argue here, “hold on, these protesters were not encouraging voluntary behaviour they were coercing a corporation [2] by making them look bad. That isn’t Libertarian!” Again, I hope the hypocrisy is obvious, but I will explain if needs be. As soon as the wealthy and powerful come under attack complex matters of social pressure and subtle sources of power become important. If Libertarians only want to be left alone, they find an exact analogy in these protesters.

Inhale, my Libertarian readers, let me explain in the second person.

You don’t want people to tell you what to do. That is why you felt outrage at some online protesters insulting and boycotting this retailer. You need to realise that a lot of those kicking up a fuss did so because they felt they, and their children, are being told what to do and they don’t like it either. In your cases being told what to do involves people preventing a specific retailer selling something.

In their case it involves a series of social cues, norms and customs which they feel hold them back. This sexist T-Shirt is but one way in which these norms are expressed and enforced. If you feel that non-violent, non-state action (i.e. societal) pressure can be illiberal when directed at a corporation then you must agree the same when that non-violent, non-state action (i.e. societal) pressure is directed at a gender, race or, well, anything. [3]

Enough second person. The reason these people were protesting (peacefully and without threat of coercion) about the sexist T-Shirt on sale was because it was sexist and they don’t want people telling them what to do, and sexism involves being told how to behave. Their definition of being left alone and to not be told what to do extended beyond merely what is legislated to include what those around say and do – just as Jackart and Longrider’s definition does. They are entirely analogous, much as I’m sure each is repulsed to find such common ground with the other.

I hope you Libertarians can understand what I mean when I call Libertarianism “asymmetric” now. [4] he argument is not that “Libertarians are all selfish white men”, that is obviously false. But when it is women, foreigners, the poor, the helpless who are in need of help actually existing Libertarianism tends to be implacable. Societal pressures are unimportant, only property rights and non-interference matter. There is no room at this inn, get on your bike (and no, I will not lend you mine). Libertarianism is its most pigheaded and most insistent, to the point of calling peaceful protesters totalitarian, when it is the wealthy and privileged who are attacked (even non-violently).


[1] A choicely sexist turn of phrase to use in a piece denying Libertarianism is at all male-orientated considering its origins. Although I don’t really sign up to the theory that using -ist words reveals some deep seated pathologies I do think, at the margin, using such words probably makes you slightly more prejudiced that is ideal. Hence my current attempt to say “retard” or “gay” less. I will continue to say cunt because it’s great, English and an historically vital part of this island’s history and literature. Basically, saying something like “paki” lots will probably make acting slightly racist more easily, so don’t say paki. But saying “paki” probably doesn’t make you a racist in itself. You might just be an ignorant cunt (hell bent on insisting “it’s only an abbreviation of Pakistan!” is a brilliant argument ending statement).

[2] I’ve always been curious of the right’s instinct to jump to the defense of corporations. Of course, they’re hierarchies often as lumbering and oafish as a state, enough reason surely to earn the right’s opprobrium rather than praise. But most curiously, large companies are creatures of the state. Corporation law makes them possible and state mandated monopolies on resources and ideas makes them necessary. Hey-ho, like I said, my faith in actually existing Libertarianism grows weaker every day.

[3] If a corporation is a legal fiction which you fell the need to defend then any of the others surely deserve equal, if not greater, efforts of protection.

[4] Please read this piece before responding, it has lots of evidence, on which I’d ask you to ponder. Not that this post isn’t long enough already of course.

10 thoughts on “Libertarians: When you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail

  1. This reminds me of Bryan Caplan’s useful idea of the “libertarian penumbra” – a bunch of ideas which aren’t a necessary part of libertarianism but which libertarians happen to share.
    In the UK, this penumbra does seem to include some, ahem, “old school” attitudes. But such attitudes are NOT truly part of libertarianism.

    1. No, just as statism is NOT truly part of socialism. However, socialists need to take accept that statism has become seriously entwined with socialism and libertarians need to accept that libertarianism has become seriously entwined with a bunch of arseholes and reactionaries. Modern libertarianism is just young so it hasn’t bedded down so firmly as statism & socialism, but it will.

  2. I dare say we would disagree on many things, but on the case in point, you are correct. There is nothing anti-libertarian in boycotting. Here’s Murray Rothbard on the subject in ‘The Ethics of Liberty’:

    “A boycott is an attempt to persuade other people to have nothing to do with some particular person or firm — either socially or in agreeing not to purchase the firm’s product. Morally a boycott may be used for absurd, reprehensible, laudatory, or neutral goals. It may be used, for example, to attempt to persuade people not to buy non-union grapes or not to buy union grapes. From our point of view, the important thing about the boycott is that it is purely voluntary, an act of attempted persuasion, and therefore that it is a perfectly legal and licit instrument of action.

    Again, as in the case of libel, a boycott may well diminish a firm’s customers and therefore cut into its property values; but such an act is still a perfectly legitimate exercise of free speech and property rights. Whether we wish any particular boycott well or ill depends on our moral values and on our attitudes toward the concrete goal or activity. But a boycott is legitimate per se. If we feel a given boycott to be morally reprehensible, then it is within the rights of those who feel this way to organize a counter-boycott to persuade the consumers otherwise, or to boycott the boycotters. All this is part of the process of dissemination of information and opinion within the framework of the rights of private property.”

  3. Boycotts are fine. I just cannot see why you give a shit, beyond not buying the product. So I am mildly perturbed that you do, as it demonstrates a hysterical, totalitarian mindset.

    I’ve also concluded you aren’t very bright, as you think disagreeing with someone else & saying so, is unlibertarian.

    1. Non sequitur, your whole argument is a non sequitur.

      You have utterly failed to explain how boycotting something you don’t like must be underlined by a hysterical, totalitarian mindset.

      Totalitarianism is a strange word to throw around. You seem quite keen on avoiding the large piles of corpses of socialism but you seem completely ignorant of the causes of those piles of bodies. I’ll give you a clue, none of it started with boycotts.

      I’ve also concluded you aren’t very bright, as you think disagreeing with someone else & saying so, is unlibertarian.

      No, you’re not very bright, your reading comprehension leave much to be desired.

      I argued that if you think that using subtle social pressures to change behaviour demonstrates a hysterical, totalitarian mindset then applying social pressure by being rude about people demonstrates a hysterical, totalitarian mindset. .

      It is called reductio ad absurdum. I don’t think you demonstrate a hysterical, totalitarian mindset, and I also don’t think these protesters have either.

  4. You won’t find many libertarians supporting corporations due to their corporateness which derives from government. You may find libertarians supporting businesses against other businesses, individuals, or government. I hope you can see that this does not imply support for corporatism as an idea or legal structure.

    Regarding the argument here: taking part in a boycott is a voluntary act, is non coercive, and does not infringe property rights. Boycotts are consistent with libertarianism. I think the point where many libertarians find leftish (stop nasty capitalists, more of your money for my special interest) and rightish (no boobs allowed here vicar, foreigners out) boycotts slightly repellent is that they are generally motivated by deep concern for the morals, actions and choices of other people, rather than those of the individual boycotter. Libertarians usually find the desire to change the lives of other people for moral reasons to be repellent and cannot understand it, having no desire to take this kind of active interest themselves. I think that for this reason most libertarians would be very unlikely to participate in boycotts unless they concerned the preservation or extension of individual liberty and in a libertarian world leftish and rightish groups would inevitably use the kind of organised obsession with change or tradition that they do so well to completely dominate the direction of society through actions such as massive boycotting.

    For most libertarians this would cause a distinct sense of unease and even distress that people could be so obsessed with the lives of others but would be preferable to the direct violent coercion that is an implicit part of government and politics.

    1. “Libertarians usually find the desire to change the lives of other people for moral reasons to be repellent”

      Except when it comes to changing the lives of non-libertarians, right?

Comments are closed.