Thursday, January 16, 2014

Recognizing Power Structures is Not in Tension with Individual Liberty

Individual liberty is perhaps the most fundamental value I hold dear. Intelligent, well-meaning people may disagree, but I wanted to make my priors clear at the outset. However, I also am aware that--particularly this country, but certainly over the course of world history--power structures often punish or reward people based on issues such as class, race, gender, religion, sexuality, or whatever. This seems to me quite obvious and beyond reasonable debate.

Over at the Foundation for Economic Education website, however, two libertarians--Cathy Reisenwitz and Julie Borowski-- debate whether libertarians should be more aware of "privilege" or if they should stick to protecting individual rights. It is completely unclear to me why the two are necessarily in tension, but having had my share of arguments with dogmatic libertarians who chafe at considering race or privilege, I suppose it is an argument worth examining.

Privilege, as it is commonly used today, is shorthand for the benefit an individual or group of people holds in contrast to another individual or group of people, particularly in relation to class, race, and the other categories I named above. This is a particularly salient topic when dealing with the abuses of state power. As Ms. Reisenwitz describes in her essay, statistics clearly bear out racial disparities in the criminal justice system and laws still on the books discriminate against people of different national origin or sexual orientation. Government uses differences, real and imagined, to punish individuals for nothing more than who they are or are perceived to be.

Ms. Borowski's position is one I've heard many times before, in various iterations, but it's less a cogent argument than it is a forceful restatement of priors to rationalize ignoring the world as it exists. Sure, it would be great if we were all judged as individuals and not by race or gender or whatever arbitrary assignment those in power would like to punish or diminish, but throughout history, people have been sorted into groups and those in power often exploit marginal or otherwise detested groups when they get the opportunity. To say otherwise is to say that six million Jews just happened to have been gassed in the Holocaust or several million black people just happened to be enslaved for a few hundred years in North America.

The crux of Ms. Borowski's argument is this, and I quote:

These are not white people issues. These are not black people issues. These are not rich people issues. These are not poor people issues. These are human issues.
Ah, but when laws and customs skew against certain humans on a regular and systematic basis, her argument is essentially, 'Race is a collectivist construct! LIBERTY! SMASH!'

I get that libertarians are uncomfortable dealing with privilege because it's not something that is confined to government action. People who were humiliated and beaten for sitting in at segregated lunch counters were not attacked by the state--they were attacked by other private citizens in an effort to maintain their own social status. Such events are much rarer today, granted, but let's not forget that government is often a tool of the majority against the rights of the minority in innumerable settings. Dismissing this with atomistic claptrap is fine for a libertarian summer seminar, but is useless and, frankly, childish when discussing the real-world impact of public policy.

To wit, privilege is what blinded people to the explosion of the militarism of our police forces and the growing problem of overcriminalization in our legal and regulatory codes. When black and brown people were thrown up against the wall in the inner cities or having their homes broken into by militarily armed police on drug missions, many people--of all colors--thought it was a good thing. Because drug dealers were demonized and kept on the margins of society, massive amounts of tax money fueled a war on a segment of the American people by the government, and the privileged folks who didn't have to suffer such treatment were fine with it. Now, as it spills into everyone else's life because our prisons are overflowing and our budgets are being stretched thin, NOW people are thinking "Hey, maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all!" and "Why does Lafayette, Indiana need an armored personnel carrier?" That is privilege blindness, and it has multiple applications in many aspects of society.

'Privilege vs. Individual Rights' is a false dichotomy that masks the fact libertarianism doesn't always have the answers for society's ills, especially when they're not solely government caused. 'Recognizing privilege' is understanding power dynamics and how the world works; rejecting it for some ethereal ideal of the individual is ahistoric, self-marginalizing nonsense.

Check yourselves, libertarians.

bellum medicamenti delenda est


Unknown said...

I agree with you that Reisenwitz's points ought to be considered by more libertarians, but I don't think your criticism of Borowski is accurate in this case, and for that matter neither is your reconstruction of her argument. Borowski would agree with you that laws targeted at violating the rights of a particular group is anti-libertarian. She would also agree with you that people who are beaten by private citizens also have their rights violated (and is thus anti-libertarian). As far as those topics are concerned, you are arguing against a straw man.

But, you have a point when it comes to customs. Borowski and many libertarians focus on the state's violations and occasionally examine customs that violate the rights of individuals. Some libertarians, such as Reisenwitz, *also* examine customs and institutions that don't directly violate rights but encourage and maintain attitudes that do lead to the violation of rights. That is a subject worth examining more; even if it isn't directly within the scope of libertarianism, we can improve our understanding of how a healthy decentralized society functions.

Emerson R. said...

That last paragraph!

Yes. Thank you for writing this.

mike250 said...

Privilege is a package deal that groups together:

A. the reasonable claim that life experiences often provide important perspective on various issues.
B. the appeal to tribal knowledge that is based on group membership.

The notion that people are often uninformed on an issue via lack of personal experience with it is pretty obviously a reflection of reality. The problem comes when some people overreach the information aspect of privilige and start claiming that group membership grants tribal knowledge.

Anonymous said...

"As far as those topics are concerned, you are arguing against a straw man."

If she would agree with those things, then what is she disagreeing with? I was hoping you'd clarify in your post if you felt she was misunderstood. As far as I can tell, Borowski's argument was a straw man.