Libertarianism is a political philosophy that is fiscally conservative, but socially liberal—except when it concerns social issues that involve money or property. Stereotypically, libertarianism is self-consistent only in a toy universe abstracted away from the messiness and social inequalities of the real world.
Several years ago, a libertarian introduced to me a flash video that was intended to promote libertarianism. I was amazed to find that the unrealistic abstraction and idealism that is stereotypical of libertarianism was manifested even in the video’s visuals. An unintentional visual self-parody, the video—The Philosophy of Liberty—illustrates libertarianism with abstract stick figures representing people devoid of race, gender, and historical context.
One of the recurrent problems in this video is the confusion between the ideal and the actual. Specifically, the video confuses normative statements with descriptive statements. A normative statement is a statement about how things should be, while a descriptive statement is a statement about how things are. For example, many people, usually white, may claim “Race doesn’t matter”, when race actually matters in the real world. The truth is that race shouldn’t matter for things like employment and housing, not that it doesn’t. Doctors should be motivated by pure altruism and not money, some may argue, but people’s normative statements have no effect on descriptive facts about reality.
The Philosophy of Liberty video makes normative claims about the nature of property, but presents them as descriptive claims. The intent is to convince the viewer that people have a natural right to their property, and to reduce or eliminate taxation and other types of wealth redistribution by the government. Here is an example of a normative claim about property presented as a descriptive claim through the use of “is” instead of “should be”:
This is absolutely false as a descriptive statement. In the real world, people acquired property through genocide, invasion, murder, assault, and theft. The United States invaded, colonized, and committed genocide against the indigenous people of North America. It enslaved people from Africa to quickly build up its nation with little overhead. Most of the valuable “property” recognized in American law belongs to white Americans, but it was acquired by violating the rights of Native Americans and African Americans.
At the same time, of course, the use of force is contrary to libertarian ideals:
If The Philosophy of Liberty is self-consistent, then property that was acquired from stealing land from Native Americans and from enslaving African Americans is illegitimate. However, most (white) libertarians are against paying reparations to African Americans and are against returning the land to Native Americans.
Clearly, American libertarians, who are mostly white, use libertarianism to rationalize their class privilege and white privilege. Libertarianism is an inconsistent philosophy in the context of the real world, and the only consistency among most libertarians is that they are against being taxed. For most American libertarians, if the government taxes rich white Americans, it is theft, but if rich white Americans stole African American labor, time, energy, and talent, it happened a long time ago and accounts should be cleared.
Obviously, the people who currently have the most wealth, class privilege, and white privilege want to support a system that minimizes or eliminates wealth redistribution. If these same people were reduced to poverty through force—such as from a Mexican reconquista or Chinese invasion—they too would demand reparations. From the perspective of those who do not benefit from libertarian politics or are less selfish, libertarian propaganda like this video is a thinly-veiled attempt to help rich people stay rich, based on internally inconsistent rationalizations. When people happen to be on top of the wheel of fate, they search for philosophies that confirm the rightfulness of their place, holding on to them desperately at the expense of self-consistency.