Persons of Straw

Alright, straw men… I guess I have been an academic for too long. Elizabeth Nolan Brown (Reason) observes that many journalists who write about libertarianism are in the business of constructing straw men. They simply do not feel the slightest need to do the kind of research necessary to make credible statements:

Not only do you not have to know the first thing about libertarianism to cover it for major news outlets, it is perfectly fine to a) decline to ask anybody who does know, b) make up your own version of what it is, and then c) lament the terribleness of this terrible philosophy or people you have just created.

Brown illustrates her points by drawing on a recent essay by Damon Linker. I have read a fair amount of Linker’s work and find it quite thoughtful, but that is another matter. The larger point seems quite correct: many media commentators (and any number of academics) feel little need to go beyond poorly constructed straw men when arguing against libertarianism.


Many academics I know present one of four caricatures of libertarianism, two of which they find frightening and the other two a bit bemusing. First, there is the libertarianism that is best exemplified by Timothy McVeigh. It can be found where the Christian Identity movement, the Tea Party, and the National Rifle Association overlap. The world they would like to create would end up looking a good deal like Mogadishu (As one of my friends says: “If you like libertarianism, you will love Somalia”). Second, there is the libertarianism that is exemplified by Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko. Here we have the corporate titans, the Koch brothers, and the 1 percent intent on rigging the system to perpetuate massive levels of inequality (“Could we actually get a Gini coefficient approaching 1?”). Third, we have the tinfoil hat libertarianism that fears the conspiratorial “powers that be.” Imagine a combination of 9/11 truthers and Comic Con attendees living in their mothers’ basements. Finally, there are the “smoke-em-if-you got-em” libertarians. These are the libertines who are largely interested in free love and free drugs but are largely apolitical. The world they would create looks a lot like a Grateful Dead concert (or Zuccatti Park absent the “Occupy” placards). Libertarianism is either evil or easily dismissed as an oddity that has no relevance to contemporary politics.

In contrast to these kinds of caricatures, Brown explains:

Libertarians are the ones who tend to both support same-sex marriage and people’s right not to be compelled to work in service of one; to want to get both our bosses and the government out of birth control decisions; and to take free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and personal autonomy very seriously.

None of this sounds too frightening–or too unreasonable–unless you are intent on using the power of the state to impose your own vision on others. Brown’s piece has some links to recent Reason posts that speak to contemporary issues. They may be of use for those seeking to get a better grasp on libertarianism.

3 thoughts on “Persons of Straw

  1. “read . . . Linker’s work and find it quite thoughtful”
    Thoughtful, eh?

    “What makes LIBERTARIANISM a dogma is the inability or unwillingness of those who espouse it to accept that some people might choose, for morally legitimate reasons, to dissent from it. On a range of issues, LIBERALS seem not only increasingly incapable of comprehending how or why someone would affirm a more traditional vision of the human good, but inclined to relegate dissenters to the category of moral monsters who deserve to be excommunicated from civilized life — and sometimes coerced into compliance by the government.”

    He’s saying “libertarianism” and then going on to describe liberalism. A libertarian would say, “go ahead and dissent. Joust don’t make ME dissent WITH YOU. Yeah, you have to think if you’re wondering if he’s getting his words mixed up.

    1. Hi Wendy. I am not speaking of the piece you quote but of the many things I have read by him over the years, some of which I have found quite engaging and well reasoned.

  2. I’ve called myself a libertarian for over 40 years. In that time,with me involving myself in politics and lecturing people on the libertarian philosophy, I was almost always either ignored or marginalized. Finally after all these years the critics of libertarianism aren’t ignoring or marginalizing the libertarian philosophy anymore but instead setting up a straw man to poke fun at,demonize and knock down. When your enemy finally does the straw man tactic they fear you. For years the idea of liberty and freedom has been represented by faux libertarians. That is “pseudo conservatives” and mostly Republicans. Of course,by and large with few exceptions,most of these phony spokespeople for liberty are nothing but “me too” Republicans and conservative statists that could easily be torn apart in a debate. The rhetoric is there but whenever these phony conservatives get into positions of power or policy control the system keeps going on in the same collectivist direction. Finally,after decades in the political wilderness, thinking people are staring to listen to the libertarian philosophy. Libertarianism is becoming mainstream. Again, this has put fear into the minds of progressives who have spent decades building their socialist society only to see it crumble into bankruptcy. Once the money becomes worthless and the bureaucracies(where many of these leftist progressives reside) begin to crumble,then what? I guarantee the guns and the gulags come out because socialism is based on violence or threat of violence. For,in the end,you could no sooner train these Leftists to become productive then you could train a maggot to become a vegetarian. Whether you label socialism liberalism or progressive its still the same socialism but with a different label. In the end socialism is doomed to the trash heap of history whether socialists like it or not.

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