No, Ferguson Is Not a Libertarian Moment

Libertarians are a hopeful crew, always looking eagerly for their moment that never comes. Now Nick Gillespie in The Daily Beast argues that the outrage at police brutality in Ferguson is a “libertarian moment” because libertarians have been warning us about the evils of police militarization and overreach, largely as part of the war on drugs.

And that’s true; a number of libertarians have been bringing up this issue for awhile. This is also a liberal issue, but one could argue liberals have been less vocal about it, possibly because we identify other issues (such as racism) as taking up more of our attention. But this brings me to the first reason Ferguson is not a libertarian moment — libertarians have no response to racism. And it’s undeniable that racism is at the rotten core of what happened in Ferguson. Libertarians like to pretend racism doesn’t happen, or if they acknowledge it, they do so only in passing (see Rand Paul). And then the next week they’ll turn around and say they don’t support civil rights laws, because big government.

And I feel compelled to acknowledge that many pure libertarians do not acknowledge Paul to be one of them, but as I have said elsewhere, pure libertarians are elusive critters who are seldom spotted, and even then as soon as they open their mouths and take any real-world positions on anything they are found wanting. Pure libertarianism must be like a hot-house orchid that must be kept in isolated and pristine conditions and wilts as soon as you buy it and take it home.

The other reason Ferguson is not a libertarian moment is that it illustrates an important liberal principle that often libertarians deny — sometimes the worst oppression is local, in which case citizens need to look to the federal government for remedy.  And, frankly nothing in Ferguson is likely to change unless the Justice Department gets involved.

Over the past few days spokespeople for libertarianism have argued they do so care about state and local government overreach, too. But I’ve had this argument with self-identified libertarians (although not pure ones, obviously) too many times. Many of them are sincerely more supportive of state’s rights than they are of individual citizens exercising their civil liberties. And it’s too obvious to me that the modern libertarian movement was born during the desegregation and civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, when federal courts and lawmakers and sometimes Presidents forced state and local governments to extend equal rights and protections to African Americans.

That said, Beverly Mann at Angry Bear wrote a great analysis arguing that many of our self-identified libertarians are not libertarians in any but a down-the-rabbit-hole sense. This pseudo libertarianism is “a narrowly prescriptive ideology that adopts extreme economic libertarianism and certain aspects of fascism,” she writes.

It is a curious brand of fascism that is peculiarly American, in that it artificially distinguishes between federal powers and state and local ones. A veritable foundation of this ideology formally or tacitly authorizes the use of state and local government police powers—by police, prosecutors, judges, prison guards–to engage in wholesale violations of American constitutional and international human rights. …

…What most of this crowd actually is is sort of classic-fascist-light, not libertarian. By which I don’t mean that they’re Nazis; Nazism was (and is) only one brand of fascism. I mean fascism more along the lines of the Benito Mussolini or Francisco Franco variety—a pairing of a muscular state police force left to its own (and the dictator’s) devices, and moneyed interests whose support the dictator an his party needed. Modern U.S. neo-federalism, a.k.a. “states’ rights!”–i.e., the right of state and local government officials and employees to violate individual, non-Republican humans’ constitutional rights—is libertarianism only in a George-Orwell-comes-to-Madison-Avenue sense, but it underpins much of Tea Party/Supreme Court libertarianism, if only ostensibly.

Do read the whole thing. But when the organs that claim to speak for libertarianism often are largely sponsored by the Koch brothers, what is one to think? Where in America is this pure and not corporate sponsored libertarianism found, unless you go full la-la and point to the Bundy Ranch militia?

And for years we’ve been dealing with conservatism that isn’t the least bit conservative. Richard Hofstadter’s pseudo conservatives took over American conservatism and drove traditional conservatism out of the movement some time back. And now we’ve got this weird coalition of pseudo conservatives and pseudo libertarians making up the dominant political power in this country. And if this is what we’re calling libertarianism, they’ve been having their moment for quite some time.

But if there are some pure libertarians out there who actually care about real individual freedom and the rights of unarmed black men to walk down a street in their own neighborhood without being killed by police, I sincerely apologize for making fun of you. But do take care if you leave the hot house.

10 thoughts on “No, Ferguson Is Not a Libertarian Moment

  1. I can only spend a few minutes on line, so I haven’t read the articles you site, but I will with great interest. These two links open a lot of great material on Libertarianism, its history and it’s economic roots.

    The other feature that Libertarianism as we know it has in common with fascism is that it is opportunistic. It is a political movement that is about power first and foremost. That is why you see libertarians silent on issue that they could speak up. The issue that truly concern them are the ones that will bring them closer to their real goal.

    These articles are a good introduction.

    This post is pretty sloppy, even for me, sorry,

  2. I’m still beating on the Joseph McNamara drum. Check out this opinion piece by him. His credentials are exactly what is needed right now – Harlem beat cop, PhD from Harvard …. look at his response to an unarmed black teen being shot when he first became Chief in Kansas City (referenced in the article). He then went on to clean up the San Jose California police department before retiring to the Hoover Institution.

  3. “Pure libertarianism must be like a hot-house orchid that must be kept in isolated and pristine conditions and wilts as soon as you buy it and take it home.”

    Libertarianism seems to me to be a carry-over from the 18th & 19th Centuries. It’s independent, self-reliant settlers, meets the Wild West.
    If there ever were any such things as “Libertarians,’ it was those folks. They settled the land, formed their own towns as other people also moved nearby, and decided on local laws.
    But there’s a certain point where, once there are too many people, “Libertarianism” dies, and people become more reliant on each other – and less self-reliant.
    Once people started using the mail, and railroads were built nearby – by the government – and they started shipping their goods via the trains, they were no longer Libertarian.
    I used to joke that maybe “The Unabomber” was the last Libertarian Except, he shipped his “goods” via the US Postal Service.

    Libertarianism is a frontier mentality – in a country with very few, if any, new frontiers.

    It’s a pipe-dream for selfish and sociopathic greedy people, who want to be left alone – and, most certainly, hate to pay any taxes.
    Me and mine have ours! F*ck you! Go and get yours, and leave me alone!’

    • Yeah, gulag, as near as I can make out “civilization” — urban especially, but really any part of a 21st-century first-world nation would qualify — and “pure libertarianism” appear to be incompatible. Any big industrialized (or post-industrialized) nation amounts to a complex web of pubic and private infrastructures, all interconnected, that takes an enormous amount of coordination and cooperation between public and private functions to maintain. And part of doing that requires some amount of regulation; a modern nation can’t function if everyone is the Lone Ranger, because what one entity in the web does affects all the rest of it, directly or indirectly. The system can probably absorb a few Lone Rangers, but at some point if too many people are acting against the greater interests of everybody the web loses integrity, and then we get failures of essential services, environmental degradation, some industries undermining other industries (logging versus fishing; finance/banking versus just about everybody else), various race-to-the-bottom spirals that kill economic growth, etc. Pure libertarianism simply doesn’t address this, or it falls back on a blind faith that the “free market” will somehow fix everything

  4. “… sometimes the worst oppression is local, in which case citizens need to look to the federal government for remedy.”

    And hence the demand for states rights from the right, to preserve their “right” to practice racism and discrimination to the benefit of their own.

    Now that Gov. Nixon has refused to appoint a special prosecutor, don’t expect any justice in this case. The grand jury is dominated by white St. Louis county residents, and with Bob McCulloch as prosecutor, there is likely to not be an indictment and the case ends there, unless the feds step in.

    The hope is that the FBI will do a thorough investigation, not just of the case itself but of the Ferguson Police Dept, which appears to be more interested in covering up evidence of obstruction of justice and evidence tampering.

    Not sure what happened with the DOJ investigation in the Martin case, but the FBI has to be more aggressive in going after it in Ferguson. I can’t imagine the feeling if Wilson is not even indicted and the case ends there, and then they basically tell residents to “move on.”

  5. Yeah, maha, it’s a complex world today, and Libertarianism is either outdated – if it was ever ‘dated’ – or a “philosophy” for selfish, egotistical, simpletons.

  6. If anything, the libertarian moment in the US was the 1780s. Under the Articles of Confederation you had a very weak central government–Congress didn’t even have the power to tax the citizens–and it wasn’t working. Libertarians go on and on and on about limited government, but you can’t really get around the fact that the Constitution created a much bigger and stronger government than what existed before.

  7. Pure libertarianism is indeed incompatible with civilization; but then again, so is pure statism. The former is compatible with life in pre-civilized tribal hunting-gathering societies, which our ancestors lived in for most of prehistory; whereas the latter is incompatible with any kind of life at all.
    So we mix, we compromise, and the mix can shade towards one end or the other. I look at the cops of Ferguson and I think, too much state.

  8. I’ve seen an argument that libertarianism is *precisely* feudalism. The point of feudalism is, the propertied class has power, and the rights and prerogatives of the propertied must be protected. The workers, of course, don’t count. Their right is to work at the pleasure of their lords, or starve quietly.

    Now: is this historically accurate? Dunno. But it’s an interesting model.

  9. Pingback: We Are All Not Libertarians Now | The Mahablog

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