Diversity and the Libertarian Narrative

“Diversity” is a word that is perhaps second only to “fascist” in terms of how much its meaning has been abused and tortured, especially in the last two decades. On college campuses, “diversity” is practically a dogma, a magical spell that is invoked alongside curse words like “racism” to justify everything from the creation of new academic departments to demanding money for student unions and even abandoning the principles of the First Amendment in order to ostensibly guarantee “safety” for students in certain social categories.

All of this is very easy for the modern libertarian (“Big L” or “little l” alike), “classical liberal”, or “conservative” to sneer at. It is “we,” after all, who reject the politics of identity and the clumsy and often cynical process of attempting to forge homogeneous collectives (“homosexuals”; “Latinos”; “African-Americans”) out of endlessly heterogeneous — and therefore actually “diverse” — individuals.

As a recent Reason article by David Boaz notes, however, the libertarian narrative itself comes loaded with the political, economic, and social baggage of straight, white, male, and probably Protestant American culture:

[W]hen [Hornberger] says “our American ancestors,” he’s thinking only of our white ancestors. Maybe only of our white male ancestors. Maybe even only of our white male property-owning ancestors. Many millions of Americans would read these paragraphs and say, “My ancestors didn’t have the right to worship in their own way. My ancestors didn’t have the right to keep and bear arms. My ancestors didn’t have the protection of centuries-old legal procedures. My ancestors sure as heck didn’t have the right to keep what they produced, or to pursue an occupation of their choice, or to enter into mutually beneficial trades. In fact, my ancestors didn’t even have the minimal right of ‘the absence of physical constraint.'”


No doubt one of the reasons that libertarians haven’t persuaded as many people as we’d like is that a lot of Americans don’t think we’re on the road to serfdom, don’t feel that we’ve lost all our freedoms. And in particular, if we want to attract people who are not straight white men to the libertarian cause, we’d better stop talking as if we think the straight white male perspective is the only one that matters. For the past 70 years or so conservatives have opposed the demands for equal respect and equal rights by Jews, blacks, women, and gay people. Libertarians have not opposed those appeals for freedom, but too often we (or our forebears) paid too little attention to them. And one of the ways we do that is by saying “Americans used to be free, but now we’re not”—which is a historical argument that doesn’t ring true to an awful lot of Jewish, black, female, and gay Americans.

His premise — and I think it is a solid one — is that libertarians and conservatives all too often rhapsodize about a non-existent American past when taxes were low, government was small, and everyone was “free.” That past, of course, never existed even for the majority of “straight white male Protestants” (to fall, for a moment, into the trap of forging imaginary collectives), to say nothing of Jews, Irish immigrants, or slaves.  For such people, the classic “libertarian narrative” would seem to hearken back to an imaginary era from which they and their experiences are necessarily excluded and about which it is difficult to wax nostalgic.

Boaz isn’t arguing, of course, that libertarian or conservative ideals don’t in fact transcend the various divisions that exist in our society, be they racial, gender, sexual, religious, or whatever. Indeed, in the conclusion of his article, he makes clear why they in fact do, or at least should:

We often focus on the size of government, as measured in percentage of GDP taxed and spent by the government, which is an important and measurable concept. But our real concern is power. What kind of power does the government wield over the people?


We should focus on what is actually important—the exercise of arbitrary power over others. And in that regard slavery and conscription, among other things that marred parts of our American past, loom very large. [emphasis added]

Quite right. While griping about taxes and so forth is all well and good — and an absolutely necessary check on a ruling class that is almost entirely divorced from the ruled — it is concerns about power that should inform conservative and libertarian rhetoric, rather than shedding tears for a mythical American past. While, by some measure, the archetypal frontier agriculturalist may well have been “freer” at some point in history than they are today, that history also featured staggering inequalities of opportunity (to put it euphemistically) for other people.

All of which is to say that instead of subtly writing slavery out of the narrative, the libertarian narrative should be able to point to slavery and say “This is what we’re talking about. This is what happens when some people are allowed to exercise unchecked power over other human beings and their right to make personal and economic choices for themselves.

With such a re-emphasis, those parts of society that concern themselves with the abstract individual’s struggle to avoid having its interests subsumed by the interests of the collective (“for the greater good…”) may find themselves with unexpected allies whose mistrust of unitary state power for very good historical reasons might very well equal or exceed their own.


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