[Epistemic status: I do not endorse all the positions outlined in this post, and I stated several more strongly than I normally would.]
[Unrelated donation request: Here is a GoFundMe for my friend Katie Cohen, a depressed rationalist single mother, and her daughter Andromeda. They are struggling and helping out would mean a lot. Come on, libertarians! Do that nonstate social support!]
As far as I am aware, “libertarian social justice warrior” is a niche very rarely filled. This is annoying to me, because a really good case can be made for the social justice libertarian.
It’s not exactly a secret that one of the biggest problems black and Hispanic people have right now is the justice system. There’s a reason that Black Lives Matter– the largest anti-racist movement of the modern day– focuses unrelentingly on police violence. Their list of requests looks like a libertarian wish list: demilitarizing the police; ending civil forfeiture; mandatory body cameras and a legal right to record cops; stronger policies on the use of force; ending stop-and-frisk and racial profiling; ending the enforcement of ‘broken windows’ crimes like loitering and spitting.
But the most important part of criminal justice reform is ending the drug war. The Drug Policy Alliance has the stark statistics: Black people make up 13% of the US population and use drugs at comparable rates to people of other races; however, they are 31% of those arrested for drug law violations, and 40% of those incarcerated for drug violations. Similarly, Latinos are 17% of the US population and use drugs at comparable rates, but are 22% of those arrested and 20% of those incarcerated in state prison and 37% in federal prison for drug offenses. These convictions follow them for the rest of their life, making it harder to find a job and housing and to vote, trapping them in poverty and often leading people to turn to crime. All this for a crime that harms no one, picks no pocket and breaks no bone. It is not an exaggeration to say that decriminalizing drugs is probably the single best thing we could do for black people in the United States.
I deliberately left Latinos out of that last sentence, because they have an even lower-hanging intervention: immigration. Libertarians typically believe in few immigration restrictions and many support open borders. Undocumented immigrants– the majority of whom are Latino— often live lives of fear, worried that everything they’ve built– their homes, their families, their jobs, their communities– will be torn from them; in the case of people who immigrated as children, they return to a home they never saw. Of course, deportation itself leads to a host of human rights violations, perhaps even worse than the criminal justice system.
Immigration is not only good for people of color at home, but also for those abroad. Compared to people who stay in their home countries, immigrants are typically wealthier and happier– an effect which is disproportionately strong for the most vulnerable, who move from famine and epidemic to first-world poverty which, while terrible, rarely involves starvation. Immigration is a particular issue for those oppressed by their home countries, including LGBT people.
Libertarianism is also anti-colonialist. Libertarian foreign policy is perhaps the best way to put anti-colonialism into action. The United States has a long and exciting history of invading countries we don’t like, often defending dictatorships controlled by pro-US elites under the guise of ‘protecting democracy’. These interventions regularly involve the death of civilians and wind up destabilizing the countries we’re trying to help. The history of colonialism is the history of white people blundering into situations they don’t understand and fucking them up. In essence, the libertarian foreign policy is: if we can’t make things better, we sure as shit can keep from making them worse.
America is rooted in a tragic history of settler colonialism, ranging from violations of treaties to literal genocide. This has led to calls to decolonize the United States which, unfortunately, seem somewhat lacking in specifics. Some libertarians have proposed turning over government land to the Native Americans as a solution for downsizing the government while simultaneously protecting the environment. About a quarter of the United States is owned by the federal government. Now, I’m not saying that this is a complete solution for the decolonization of the United States. Obviously, more steps would need to be taken. But I have to say, as strategies for decolonization go, Native Americans owning a quarter of the country is a hell of a start.
I just wrote about how my feminism will be pro-sex-work or it will be bullshit. Libertarians have a history of being pro-sex-work. In fact, Reason magazine, a libertarian magazine, is one of the few magazines not run by sex workers which consistently advocates for sex workers’ rights from a perspective of sex work being a job, rather than condescending and paternalistic nonsense about empowerment or objectification.
Speaking of sex work, let’s talk about marriage.
Historically, feminists have been pretty critical of marriage. Of course, it’s pretty obvious why first-wave feminists (who legally belonged to their husbands) and second-wave feminists (who legally could be raped by their husbands) would be skeptical of the marriage thing. But even today’s friendlier, gentler, more equal marriage is pretty damn harmful.
The institution of legal marriage presents one viewpoint about what a relationship should be. You can only have one most important person in your life: if you’re part of a committed triad, sucks to be you. It bundles the rights together: if you’d like your power of attorney to go to a different person than the person who gets your veterans’ benefits, again, sucks to be you. Marriage is legally defined as a sexual relationship: a marriage may be annulled if the spouses do not have sexual intercourse. This implies that, of course, your most important adult relationship is a sexual one (and is pretty damn rapey to boot). It elevates that kind of relationship over all others, through everything from tax benefits for married couples to explicit government marriage-promotion programs.
But marriage goes beyond the practical: there’s a reason that conservatives proposed a legally identical ‘civil union’ for gay people instead of ‘marriage’, and a reason that gay people refused. Marriage is not just legal, it’s symbolic. When gay marriage was legalized in the US, we didn’t say “tax benefits and easier immigration win!”; we said “love wins!”
And what a narrow vision of love it is– cohabiting, sexual, romantic, involving only two people. Furthermore, marriage is intimately tied to the extraction of labor from women by men via housework and childcare. Because of this, women have less leisure time and, in the event of divorce, less economic security– potentially keeping them in a bad relationship. (Fortunately, the trend is heading in the right direction. Hats off to you, feminist men who clean the toilet.) Marriage is presented as desirable for women in a way it’s not for men (guess who the target market for romantic comedies is); much beauty work and other burdensome performance of the female gender role is justified by attempting to catch a husband.
The libertarian solution? Get the government out of marriage. The majority of marriage-related rights and laws are unnecessary and unjust: there is no reason a married couple should pay fewer taxes than a single person. The rules that are necessary– for instance, about power of attorney or the division of property in the event of a breakup– can be decided via contract, and standard contracts can be available. While separating the government from marriage may not end the elevation of cohabiting sexual-romantic coupledom where the woman does more housework, it certainly seems like ending government promotion of it will help.
Class? Really? Isn’t libertarianism all about exploiting the poor for the benefits of the rich?
Not so fast! First, many libertarians– including both Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman– support a guaranteed basic income: essentially, we replace the current welfare state with the government cutting everyone a check; the middle-class person’s taxes would increase so that they make about the same amount of money they were before, while poor people would get the full check. (There are a couple similar proposals– for instance, a ‘negative income tax’, where the government gives you money if your tax return shows you didn’t make very much– but they’re all broadly the same proposal with different implementations, and I’m calling them all GBI.)
First, the modern welfare state is condescending as hell to poor people. It starts with the application process, which seems to have been designed by Satan himself to be as time-consuming and humiliating as possible.Once you get aid, the government is very, very concerned about how you spend it. Consider food stamps. Why is it the government’s job to decide that you’re allowed to spend that money on crackers but not on dog food? It’s your fucking budget! It is tragic that people are put in the position of choosing between feeding their pets and going hungry, but the situation is hardly improved by the government saying “sorry, if you’re willing to go to bed hungry because of how much you love Fido, we have decided we’re not going to give you that option, because fuck you that’s why.” The American people are apparently under the impression that poor people are so stupid that left to their own devices they will purchase nothing but a thousand pounds of toilet paper and wind up starving to death surrounded by its decadent ultra-softness. And that’s not even getting into barbaric ideas like drug-testing welfare recipients. If someone decides of their own free will to spend money on some weed to put some joy into the grinding misery that all too many poor people experience, I see no reason we should gainsay them. And if someone is struggling with the disease of addiction, how is depriving them of the ability to pay rent supposed to help?
The government feels, very firmly, that poor people should work. Welfare in the United States is usually contingent on trying to find a job. Even many leftists campaign for raising the minimum wage, arguing that every worker should be paid enough money to live on. Here’s my radical idea: everyone should have enough money to live on regardless of whether they work a job or not.
Compare this with a small but reasonable GBI– perhaps $8,000 a year. If you decide that isn’t enough money for you to live on, then you can get a job. If your job turns out to be so ill-paid or degrading that you don’t want to work it anymore, you can quit, secure in the knowledge that you might have to tighten your belt but you won’t stave. And if you don’t want to work and you’re willing to deal with not being able to buy much, then you don’t have to. (Many feminists have noted the contradiction that ‘lazy welfare moms’ are often just women who want to spend time with their children– the exact women valorized when their husbands make $75,000 a year.) Again, this comes from a position of respect for poor people’s autonomy, not an insistence that the government knows better than the individual how to manage their own life.
Another advantage of GBI is that it avoids something called the “welfare trap“. Because many benefits programs are means-tested, earning more money can mean you actually have less money in your pocket. Now, you’ll often see people complaining about this like “lazy poor people! Don’t want to work!” I am not doing that, and if you see someone doing that you should ask them how much they’d work if they didn’t get a paycheck for any of it. People have tried to ameliorate the welfare trap, but it’s really hard when you have this complex patchwork of two dozen programs that all interact with each other in unforeseen ways. Because the GBI is so simple, it’s much easier to write the tax code so that if you work more you will always have more money.
But a GBI isn’t the only policy a libertarian social justice warrior should support.
Regulatory capture is when, instead of advancing the public interest, regulators advance the interest of special interest groups. A lot of regulatory capture happens when there’s a small group of people who would be benefited a lot by the law, and a much much larger group who would be harmed a little bit. None of the larger group is particularly motivated to learn about the issue, much less campaign for their interests– after all, it’s only a little harm– so the regulators cater to the smaller group, which is the one that actually gets out there and organizes.
Now, who has the time to write letters to their congresspeople and the money to donate to political campaigns? That’s right! Rich people!
And who has just finished a ten-hour day at work and if they donated it would mean they can’t buy their kids a winter coat? Right again! Poor people!
Consider African hair braiders. In Iowa, a person who braids hair without a cosmetology license can face up to a year in prison. (That’s right. Prison. For braiding hair.) So instead a hair braider has to spend thousands of dollars on attending cosmetology school, which does not offer any coursework on natural African hair, much less hair braiding. Since cosmetology schools require a high school diploma, this puts hair braiding out of the reach of the most marginalized people. Hairdressers aren’t rich in the grand scheme of things, but they have more money and political clout than the hair braiders do, which they’ve used to protect themselves from competition.
Anatole France wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges [and] to beg in the streets.” Local governments in the United States have passed many laws which criminalize being poor or homeless: they ban sleeping in public, begging, feeding the hungry, or even sitting on the sidewalk. Somehow I just have this sense that if my white and freshly washed ass sits on the sidewalk, I am not going to be imprisoned. And I am genuinely uncertain how one manages to pass a law saying that it’s a crime to feed homeless people without realizing that you’re the bad guy here.
Basically, the libertarian social justice warrior’s question is this: why should we trust the people who have been our biggest enemies for the past two hundred years?
Why do we trust affirmative action programs run by the organization that instituted Jim Crow, redlined black neighborhoods and even today murders black children? In the 1960s, the government de facto confined San Francisco trans women to the Tenderloin by arresting them for prostitution when they left (see Susan Stryker’s Trans History), and now we want these people to define what is and is not hate speech? Do you really, honestly think that the education system run by an organization with a history of slavery, genocide, and human rights abuses will ever tell the truth about that history? I guess that they could be good at enforcing non-discrimination ordinances: I mean, I’m not sure you can find any group of people that’s more expert in discrimination.
Like, honestly, I just want to grab a bunch of social justice people and shake them. What has the US government done that makes you think they will help you? Why do you look at these people and their two-hundred-year history of oppressing you and go “as soon as I vote in Bernie Sanders everything will be okay”? No! No, it won’t be okay! The government is horrible and hurts people and is sadly necessary and we should carefully limit it to make sure it hurts as few people as possible.
Give me the Black Panthers. At least the Black Panthers understood who the real enemy is.
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And government? Government is the master’s fucking tool.