On Wednesday, my Facebook friend Antony Davis posted an excellent comparison in a status update that I had to share because I thought it was too good to ignore:
“Liberals see government as a complement to community. Libertarians see government as a substitute for community. So when liberals say “government should care for the poor,” and Libertarians say, “government should not care for the poor,” they are both saying that we should care for the poor.”
He posted a comment afterwards that I also thought was too good to get lost on a Facebook Timeline:
“This is the sort of thing we must stop doing: liberals characterizing libertarians as heartless, and libertarians characterizing liberals as brainless.
To be complete humans, our hearts and brains must work together. Without the former we are machines. Without the latter, we are mere animals.
Some Liberals are indeed brainless, just as some Libertarians are heartless. In both cases, they are minorities who should be ignored.”
This is something that I’ve noticed for a very long time (as in: my entire life) in the corridors of communication between and about liberals and libertarians: a lack of understanding of each other’s terms. To top it off, it often feels like there’s a willful desire to be misunderstood.
* * *
So, in the interest of terminology: I’m going to start by telling you that I dislike calling liberals “liberals” for dozens of reasons (one being that I refer to myself as a Classical Liberal) but I’m going to go ahead and accept the term here as being somebody who wishes to advocate progressive policies by government with the intended consequence of making a more equal and just world in their eyes. That’s the general definition I’m using here, for clarity’s sake. Some of my libertarian friends prefer the term “statist”, which also displeases me, as it’s tremendously divisive and doesn’t foster respectful communication. So, “liberal” is the word, and the working definition is as stated above.
The word “libertarian” in this instance is going to apply to anybody who is at least aware of and somewhat guided by the non-aggression principle (the NAP).
Now that we’re defined our terms, let’s talk about how we respond to them:
An excellent example here is the knee jerk reaction of libertarians to the liberal proposal that “we should do something” is immediately equated to a proposal that the government must do something. If a liberal ever says the slightest hint of “but, how will we help the [insert oppressed group here]?” a libertarian instantly assumes that government is the proposed answer (it might be) and rails against that with such fervor that it scares the shit out of the liberal.
Ironically it’s what causes more people to feel government must because people freely won’t.
When a liberal says, “let’s feed poor children”, they simply want to feed poor children, and they think the state might be a good vessel for that because they think it should happen and who would feed poor children without a benefit to themselves?
Their fear is well-reflected in the libertarian response: “No, you can’t force me to feed poor children.”
Instead of a much more reasonable response of: “Hey, you’re right, there may be hungry poor children out there. Wouldn’t it be nice if you and other people who care about feeding poor children could easily gather together to start an organization that feeds poor children efficiently? That I can donate to willingly? I highly recommend you do that! I know others who have this particular inclination towards feeding poor children. Perhaps I can introduce you.”
If liberals think libertarians may actually help if they weren’t forced to, they might be less compelled to try to force it.
* * *
Often, libertarian reactions to particular social policy of liberals is so confrontational – and yes, they are typically advocating the State fix these problems, but if these problems seemed like they may be fixed by the free market, they wouldn’t necessarily go to the State to fix it.
As a result of this reactionary behavior, libertarians are told that we are heartless. We are told that we lack empathy. I truly believe there is nothing further from the truth. but they don’t understand that, and we’re not helping clarify.
You see, “empathy” is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another being.
Libertarianism is about the ownership of one’s life but also about the recognition that imposing force on another being is immoral because it is disrespecting their self-ownership.
It is, in that way, an inherently empathetic philosophy, less in recognizing the individual feelings of others but the sheer fact that they have them, and they own them as we own ours, and we cannot impose ours on them as they cannot impose theirs upon us.
As libertarianism tends to emphasize the me, the I, the self-interested individual, somehow the fact that it’s applicable to each of us, the liberals too, gets lost in translation.
Libertarianism has two beautifully complimentary sides:
There’s the self-esteem/protagonist/hero —
Only I have the ability to determine what’s right for me, what’s good for me and what I should do with my body, the fruits of my labor and my life. You do not have that right over me. You do not own my life. You cannot impose force upon me to control my life.
There is also the humble empowerer —
Only you have the ability to determine what’s right for you, what’s good for you, and what you should do with your body, the fruits of your labor and your life. I do not have that power over you. I do not own your life. I cannot impose force upon you to control your life.
We all need to hear both constantly, we need to say both sides constantly. Liberty is compassionate, it’s humble, it’s self-empowering, it’s hopeful, and it’s possible.
Liberty is everything that we put into it, because all it is, is the free actions of free individuals.
* * *
So in communicating with liberals, I want my fellow libertarians to keep some points in mind.
1. We want people to have minimal legal obligations. As in minimal things the force of government is applied to. This can refer to taxation or parenting or education or marriage or anything else. We desire minimal legal obligation.
2. Our moral obligations are separate. I may feel a moral obligation to give my money to a church, or to take care of my parents, or to make particular medical decisions. But you may not share these moral obligations, and I should not force my moral obligations on you. Nor should you force yours upon me.
3. When we reject liberals stating a moral obligation such as “we must take care of poor, hungry children”, we instantly assume they are equating this moral obligation they personally feel, to a legal obligation they’d like government to enforce.
4. This may be true, but you have to stop first to recognize that you’re making an assumption, and having a single conversation in this moment may be the difference between making an ass out of yourself or determining a definition of terms and furthering productive commuication.
5. We reject the legal obligation, but in doing so we appear to reject the moral obligation that someone else feels personally.
6. This makes the other person feel that the moral obligation is not possible without a legal obligation.
7. We can validate the personal moral obligation, and encourage the moral obligation (and when we share said moral obligation, say so), while rejecting the legal obligation. This helps to teach liberals that such moral obligations can be achieved without legal obligation, without the force of government.
8. Liberals go to government to enforce moral obligations through legal obligations because they think the two cannot exist separately.
9. We are very bad at explaining how they can. At the end of the day, liberals and liberal causes are more popular than libertarian ones. That popularity means that enforcement of personal moral obligations will continue to be enacted through legal obligation, and literally the only way to make that stop happening is to become more popular. Negativity isn’t helping. Hating the State isn’t helping. Threatening to arm ourselves with guns and have a new revolution isn’t helping. Two sides being militant breeds more militarism, and that creates force on both sides, as people rush to either assert or defend themselves.
10. We need to live lives that are testaments to our beliefs – that foster values that are achieved through moral obligations, not legal ones. Obviously, not all moral obligations are shared by all people, and it doesn’t mean we need to build new values into libertarianism beyond a principle of non-aggression. Simply embracing the fact that libertarianism will allow a pluralistic community of ideas to be experimented upon and social justice causes and other causes can be achieved without force – that will help the libertarian cause.
Again, liberty is everything that we put into it, because all it is, is the free actions of free individuals.
We sometimes forget that liberty itself isn’t a thing, it’s simply the absence of aggression. Our lives must be full of passions and values, and though we must understand that aggression shouldn’t be used to impose our personal passions and values on others, these are still things to be voluntarily committed to.
If we wish to spread the idea of liberty to people, we have to approach the left and the right, and we have to understand that invalidating people’s passions and values is invalidating the very things we wish to have liberty to do.
Libertarianism is an inherently empathetic philosophy. I want a liberal to have ownership over their lives to dedicate to causes of non-aggression. I want them to recognize that right of mine as well. Reactionary mis-communication does not achieve this goal. Compassion, validation and a desire to improve the situation will.
“Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles. Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that ‘liberty is the highest political end’ — not necessarily the highest end on everyone’s personal scale of values.” – Murray N. Rothbard
Let’s go make life what we want it to be. That’s liberty. <3