Liberty worship

There is a particular "meme," pardon the clich?, running rampant online that libertarianism is a religion. In response to this Tech Central Station article by Radley Balko, self-described "anarcho-syndicalist" Al Giordano repeats the "libertarianism as religion" slur, and makes a few additional (unwarranted) attacks on Balko as well.

Radley is a skilled writer and a master debater, and he certainly needs no defense from me, but I will respond anyway because this religion claim disturbs me. I understand that the exchange of political ideas can be unpleasant for many people, and some have great difficulty understanding how seemingly reasonable and intelligent people can have such polar views with each other. There are a number of psychological defense mechanisms we use to make sense of this apparent contradiction: Marxists refer to false consciousness if the mistaken believer is a prole, and crass self-interest if the ideological opponent is bourgeoisie. Social conservatives often equate libertarianism with libertinism, and assume that those who wish to decriminalize drugs or sex act out of a desire to dabble in their own despicable perversions unopposed by the guiding hand of state-enforced social mores.

Libertarians too are guilty of this kind of psychoanalysis: we accuse our opponents of being paternalist control freaks with an insatiable desire to control the lives of others. We use labels like "statist" and "socialist" and explicitly or implicitly attribute impure motives such as a desire to steal our property or enslave us.

In this particular case, Giordano believes that Balko could not possibly be thinking critically about this issue; rather, Radley must be brainwashed by his political ideology in the same way a religious fanatic is unwilling to consider the possibility that he might be wrong.

This is silly. Giordano doesn't know Radley's inner thoughts or convictions any more than I do. Reasonable people can disagree about politics and there is no need to impugn the motives of others in order to understand how this is so. Different people have different values and different beliefs about the nature of the world. Reasonable people disagree about human nature (or even its very existence) and disagree about how people respond to incentives.

There are certainly libertarians who do not think critically about their political beliefs, just as there are conservatives, leftists, and "anarcho-syndicalists" who do not do so either. All of these kinds of people could accurately be described as religious devotees to their particular ideology, in the sense that they are unwilling to let the facts get in the way of their cherished beliefs. But this is not the fault of those ideologies; it is the fault of not thinking critically.

There is yet another unfair criticism at play in Giordano's post - one that I have been a target of in times past. Giordano cites Radley's age (28) in his opening salvo, which is completely irrelevant to the content of the discussion. This is the equivalent of stating, "Smith, a homosexual black man, opposes campaign finance reform," or, "Harris, an ethnically Jewish female, believes in the death penalty." Do sex, race, or sexuality have anything to with the validity of these political opinions? No. Is Radley's age relevant to this discussion? Of course not.

Giordano uses Radley's age against him, by citing it as an explanation for his shortsighted and ill-informed political beliefs. Yet this doesn't explain why people much older than Radley hold those same political beliefs, nor does it do much to hurt the cause of "anarcho-syndicalism" by pointing to even younger adherents. The "age card" is an unfair tactic used by those who are unable or unwilling to make valid arguments.

Next we have the actual issue of globalization. Giordano tries to dismiss the results of the poll in question, conducted by one of the most respected and objective polling agencies, The Pew Research Center, and in the process demonstrates his ignorance of Pew's research methods. (He falsely assumes that phones and written surveys were used.) Instead of scientifically conducted public opinion polls, he would rather use anecdotal evidence from his own (clearly unbiased) personal experiences.

Even more interesting is that he uses the case of libertarian support for globalization to demonstrate how libertarianism is a religion. He could not have chosen a worse example. Free trade is one of the few issues that has widespread support from both left and right. Economists as far left as Paul Krugman embrace globalization. In order to find an "economist" who believes that free trade is bad for third-world countries, one must look to unreconstructed Marxists or employees of Pat Buchanan. Support for globalization is one of the few areas where libertarians are decidedly mainstream.

Finally, Giordano completely misunderstands Balko's constitutional argument against a federal anti-prison rape bill. He accuses Balko of making this argument out of ignorance, assuming that the only reason Radley would oppose such a bill is lack of experience, as if one needs to experience rape in order to oppose it. This is precisely the type of thinking that characterizes the "libertarianism as religion" accusation: one must - by definition - be ignorant, brainwashed, or evil in order to disagree with Al Giordano.

Now, I happen to disagree with Radley's understanding and interpretation of the Constitution, but I respect his argument. I wonder of Giordano would have accused the ACLU of ignorance or ulterior motives for defending the right of Neo-Nazis to march in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois? Does Al have any objections to the ACLU's "puritan devotion to principle" when the issue is the First Amendment rather than the Tenth?

I have no interest in turning this into a pissing match, but is there any doubt that if we examined ZNet or or any of the various indymedia sites that we might find some young Chomsky acolytes who worship the Anarcho-Syndicalist Religion?

There are legitimate criticisms of libertarianism and those who wish to call themselves open-minded libertarians should welcome them. Lumping together all libertarians as religious ideologues unconcerned with logical arguments or empirical data is not one of these criticisms.

I hesitate to use any pithy phrase to characterize my political ideology, but if I had to choose one, I would quote Judge Learned Hand:

    "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right"


Edit Sept 11, 2003: Glen Whitman responds

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