‘I’m Largely Libertarian, But…’

Adam Bates Policy Analyst, Cato Institute Project on Criminal Justice
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“I think we would be totally in the right to [execute homosexuals]. That goes against some parts of libertarianism, I realize, and I’m largely libertarian, but ignoring as a nation things that are worthy of death is very remiss.”

Eleven months ago, Scott Esk, currently a Republican candidate for the Oklahoma State House of Representatives, said those words on my Facebook wall (he has since deleted those posts, but they were well-documented beforehand). And while Mr. Esk is obviously an extreme example of right wing authoritarianism, the logic through which he still considers himself “largely libertarian” serves as an immense warning across the libertarian sphere about a worrying ideological trend in the liberty community and the dangers of guilt by association in the information age.

I feel compelled to begin by clarifying that when Mr. Esk and I exchanged those comments, he was not a candidate for office and I had no reason to expect he would become one. I also had no part in that conversation’s publication this week. At no time before the initial stories ran did any media personnel contact me, and I did not contact any of them. It was not an ambush, it was not a trap. Like many libertarians, I use my Facebook page as a blog, a news aggregator, a meeting place for my acquaintances, and as a personal pulpit for my libertarian views. I have “friends” across the ideological spectrum, and I think that makes for more interesting conversations. My page is also open to the public, lest there be any concerns that these publications represent a breach of Mr. Esk’s private communications.

Mr. Esk’s comments speak for themselves, and I have no desire to rehash the outrage I felt at the time or to regurgitate the ubiquitous anger with which people have responded to the story. In fact, I believe the justifiably hyperventilated response to his comments is clouding a much more important issue than the insane beliefs of a fringe candidate in an Oklahoma House race: that Mr. Esk has identified himself as a libertarian while advocating for the most brutal violations of individual rights. This is far too common in liberty circles, and evinces a failure on our part as libertarians to distance ourselves from these attitudes and the people who espouse them. Opponents of libertarianism certainly can’t be expected to make the distinctions on our behalf, and so we must make it for them.

“I think it’s OK to kill gay people for being gay” is a fringe view even among homophobes, but consider how many times you’ve heard arguments in the form of “I consider myself a libertarian, but…” followed by some arbitrary denial of liberty.

I consider myself a libertarian, but…

… we need to stop letting so many immigrants live here.

… I don’t think gay people should be allowed to marry or adopt children.

… I support drug prohibition.

… I’m not sure Muslims can be trusted with freedom of religion or contract rights.

… I support the war on terror.

Liberty is a popular word these days. Trust in government is at historic lows. Support for the two major parties is at historic lows. The anti-Bush wave that Barack Obama rode into the White House has eroded, especially among young Americans, as the Obama Administration reneges on promise after promise, demonstrating that the disregard for the Constitution, for individual liberty, and for basic human rights that typified the Bush years is in fact a bipartisan consensus in favor of an aggressive, ever-expanding state.

This burgeoning support for libertarian ideas is obvious in the data. Young people overwhelmingly support long time libertarian positions on gay marriage, on drug legalization, on foreign policy, on immigration (in fact, millennials are the only cohort in America in which a majority favors amnesty).

But disaffected independents and liberals are not the only refugees flowing into the libertarian tent. They are accompanied by the flotsam of various increasingly marginalized right wing factions: Christian nationalists, Reconstructionists, Neo-Confederates, etc. And many of these people are not coming to libertarianism via a change of heart, but out of a desire to co-opt a popular label and rebuild their shattered coalitions toward an authoritarian end.

A representative sample of this effort is Gary North (and it’s a fitting one, considering Mr. North’s comments about homosexuals), who has argued quite explicitly that libertarianism is to be embraced by right wing authoritarians as a means of delegitimizing the state not, as libertarians believe, as a matter of course but in order to give he and his ilk enough space to create a brutal theocracy that can ultimately replace the American government. Does that sound crazy? What about when you consider that Mr. North was chosen by none other than Ron Paul to oversee Rep. Paul’s educational outreach efforts?

The desire among many libertarians to build coalitions as a means of enhancing our political power is understandable, but these particular coalitions are indefensible, especially at a time when offhanded comments one person makes on another’s Facebook wall can easily surface a year later and circulate around the world instantaneously.

That all individuals, regardless of race, religion, gender, orientation, birth location, etc. are created equal and must be treated equally under the law is a principle at the very heart of libertarianism and the liberal ideals from which it sprang. Even setting aside the philosophical issue with rejecting that principle, as a simple practical matter the generational movement of the American electorate is glaringly in the direction of social tolerance toward homosexuals, immigrants, and other historical outgroups.

If the purpose of building coalitions is to increase the political power of libertarianism, then to ignore those obvious political trends when building those coalitions is utterly incomprehensible. It makes more sense to view the presence of people like Scott Esk and various other social authoritarians under the libertarian banner not as a success for coalition building, but as an attempt by adherents of those brazenly illiberal ideologies to co-opt the increasingly popular libertarian label and twist it, as Gary North advocates, to their own sordid ends.

Scott Esk espoused nasty, indefensible beliefs, and he is rightly being excoriated for it. But we cannot ignore the fact that the primary difference between Scott Esk and a great many self-described liberty advocates is Mr. Esk’s willingness to publicly declare what others merely leave to implication: that some arbitrarily distinguished people just don’t deserve the same rights as the rest of us.

Article after article declares itself the harbinger of the “libertarian moment” in American politics, but it’s plain to see that such a moment will never arrive as long as libertarians are so ineffective at guarding our own gates. The threatened left waits with bated breath for any opportunity to depict libertarianism as a fancy veneer over the same old bigoted, privileged right wing drivel. Libertarians can’t prevent them from saying it, but at the very least we can do our part to ensure it isn’t true. Libertarians also can’t prevent people like Scott Esk and Gary North from identifying themselves as libertarians, but we absolutely must do a better job proving it isn’t true.