Right-Libertarianism's Image Problem


Libertarianism, of the kind that believes free markets and property rights are at least as important as free speech (and in fact self ownership means the two are inseparable), can get a raw deal perception-wise. Let’s face it, too many of us free market libertarians get mistaken for Republicans at first glance; and as everyone knows, Republicanism is the party of the old, white, but not necessarily dead, male. In a recent email conversation with a liberal arts-major friend of mine, it was said that libertarians tend to be white because white people are used to being left alone, whereas minorities need the power of the government to set things straight. Judging from the crowd that attended the Freedom Fest last May in Las Vegas , the idea that libertarianism is a “white thing” seems largely true. Aside from simply the complexion aspect, in most economic discussions in which you have limited time to make a few key points, much of a libertarian’s argument is indistinguishable from that of a Republican. Do you support A.C.O.R.N.’s initiative to increase the minimum wage? No? It’s over for you then – you’re on their side.  


From my vantage point here in Democrat/Republican-controlled Sacramento , California , there are, roughly, two perspectives from which libertarianism falls short: the multicultural, and the metrosexual. The second term is very new, but let us use it as a euphemism for those who watch “Will and Grace,” occasionally go clubbing, perhaps work for a law firm, and generally have disposable income. From the first point of view, libertarianism lacks credibility for its resistance to the political process, a process that has seemed necessary and beneficial to many minorities and simply axiomatic for newly arrived immigrants (recite the Pledge of Allegiance, gain your citizenship). From the second point of view, libertarianism is nothing more than an especially reckless form of conservatism favoring economic liberties over “civil” ones, indigenous folk over immigrants, and misogyny over women’s rights (see Arnold below). In fact, a libertarian can be easily mistaken for a disgruntled, “I’ve had it with the powers-that-be” Republican.  


As many may know, Sacramento is not only infamous for being the capital of the nation’s premier socialist state (and world’s fifth largest economy), but also the home of the Republican Party’s new trophy piece of glitteratiArnold Schwarzenegger. There is something else that is important to my thesis: Sacramento , according to TIME magazine, is the country’s most “integrated” city. This means we are the most “diverse” city ethnically and racially. My alma mater – Florin High School - can attest to this (I still have the newsletters containing a pie chart showing the racial makeup of the school). All of this poses a problem to a city full of state workers, the new urban elite, and a very diverse population hardly empathetic to what is in fact an obscure, white-ish movement.  


To many of my fellow Sacramentans, libertarianism that is at least as much free market as it is free speech, still smacks of a reactionary “government get off my back” attitude that is all too similar, at least in rhetoric, to the crap we heard at the Republican National Convention. After all, even Sean Hannity, that beacon of common-sense nationalism pitted against the placid Alan Colmes every week on Fox, is apparently unhappy with recent moves by the FCC to suppress raunchier forms of free speech. To the politically correct establishment at the heart of Sacramento ’s city government, support for Howard Stern, for instance, is not at all comparable to the A.C.L.U.’s proud history of the defense of free speech. Thus, the image problem again. Demanding free speech for all, low brow sexist or not, is still just too damn similar to the mythological Republican in the minds of many here in northern California.  


There is another world, apart from the typical dichotomy of “liberal” and “conservative,” that too many people can’t or won’t comprehend.  My public school upbringing taught me to reflexively respect figures like Cesar Chavez and Abraham Lincoln. The American Indians, it was rightfully taught, were wronged by an imperialistic, land-hungry Anglo-Saxon government; in addition to all this, I was taught that respect for the “environment” was a loftier-than-thou virtue.  


Now, what if I was to think that Cesar Chavez was responsible for making the plight of the Mexican American worse, yet by no means be anti-Mexican? What if I was to question the legitimacy of the Civil War, yet be disgusted by the idea of slavery? What if I was to find a contradiction between the rights of modern day native Americans and the environmentalist agenda? – so well uncovered by Diana White Horse Capp, a victim of the encroachment of the federal government onto sovereign Indian territory .  


On the “progressive” west coast, you are either with the zeitgeist or against it. There has been a slew of left-wing documentaries lately, all proudly playing in the local independent movie theatre. From “Super Size Me” to “The Hunting of the President” (a boo-hoo fest for our former commander in chief). How many directors of the ‘in-crowd’ are interested in exposing the crimes of the government in Waco , Texas ?  How about the plight of Virginia Walden Ford and other potential rivals to the government’s monopoly on schooling? To bring these things up is the ultimate in un-cool. It isn’t so much government power that bothers many people who deride the Bush administration as it is his archaic conservatism. Keeping your guns, teaching your children from home or placing them in a non-public school is just too rural, too white, and too crazy.   


Libertarianism, as long as it is seen by most to be a fringe offshoot of the corrupt and statist Republican Party, will suffer a serious image problem. Right-libertarianism needs to show that the state has in fact been harmful more often that not in its treatment of minorities. The massive regulatory state is an awful imposition to small business owners of any color, and the destructive and ineffective public school system is failing the large majority of inner-city school children. The issues most important to the relatively young and free spirited  – like gay marriage, the job market and Social Security – can best be tackled by showing the state’s incompetence toward every one of them. In the end, substance will overcome style, and we can share at least one dream of Karl Marx’s – that the state will indeed wither away.  

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Dain Fitzgerald's picture
Columns on STR: 5

Dain Fitzgerald is majoring in economics and social science at a junior college in Sacramento, California.  He also DJs sometimes, specializing in oddball electronic music.