Saturday, January 14, 2017

Libertarians and Social Justice: A Sticking Point

Libertarians and the social justice left quite often come to the same policy conclusions. So why are they so often at each other’s throats?*

To take an example, most libertarians and most people who identify with the social justice left believe in gay marriage. If we were transported back to an era where interracial marriage was an issue, you’d see the same sort of agreement on policy. I think the problem is that both tribes arrive at pro-gay-marriage position from different kind of arguments. Libertarians believe in equality under the law and an untrammeled right to free association. “Gay Marriage” isn’t a specific item; it’s a subset of a larger right of adults to freely associate with one another. The social justice left arrives at their pro-gay-marriage position through a different sort of argument, one that certainly doesn’t embrace a general right of free association. I'd probably fail to exactly articulate this line of reasoning, but it surely has something to do with certain classes of victims being historically oppressed and deserving a special consideration to counterbalance this history. Nevertheless, we have agreement on a large collection of policies, so there *should* be a viable coalition here.

I think this is the rub. Libertarians want the social justice folks to explain what principle underlies "the right to gay marriage," because such a principle entail many other rights, some of which the left is hostile to. Social justice folks bristle at this, because the struggle for gay marriage is an important fight by an oppressed minority. They might react with, "How dare you bring up something so trite as property rights? How dare you compare the right of a couple to marry to the right of a business owner to discriminate against unwanted patrons?" Both tribes are fishing for some sign that the other can be trusted. If only the social justice warrior would affirm a much more general right of free association and free transaction between consenting adults, the libertarian could trust him not to support a bunch of illiberal policies, justified with back-fit ad hoc reasoning. If only the libertarian would signal his unwavering support for this oppressed minority group, the social justice warrior could trust him not to betray the cause when high-minded principles get in the way of the next fight.

To take another example, the left often couches its criminal justice policy positions in terms of disparate impacts to minorities. To a libertarian, an injustice is an injustice regardless of how disparate the impact is. If you tell me a million people are unduly or unlawfully harassed by police, with some fraction of those unjustly arrested and a few dozen beaten or shot, I shouldn't care any more or less when you tell me the races of the victims. To the social justice warrior the root cause is racism or some other kind of bigotry, so they see it as obtuse or evasive when someone fails to clearly proclaim that this is the problem. In this view, fix the bigotry and the bad policies will go away. To the libertarian, things like the war on drugs and stop-and-frisk are unjust in and of themselves. If you got rid of this underlying policy the racial disparity in their application would obviously go away. In this view, it's obtuse to talk about the racial impact of an unjust policing when the policy fix is so obvious, and it's demeaning to imply that a non-minority victim's suffering at the hands of police should count less.

I don't know what it would take to get a functioning political coalition of libertarians and social justice types. If you read my blog, it's fairly obvious I come down on the libertarian side of this split. I don't want to give a self-flattering answer like "The solution is for lefties to become libertarians." Nor do I want to offer a lame split-the-difference compromise. My main purpose in this post is to articulate the reason why an otherwise obvious alliance doesn't form. I don't think it's a fatal disagreement, though, because all political coalitions contain subgroups that distrust or hate each other while sometimes arriving at specific policy agreements. Perhaps my explanation above proves too much. In that case, what's really going on here?

*A mild disclaimer. I don't mean to imply that there aren't any social justice libertarians, nor do I mean to imply that no social justice leftists have libertarian leanings. Clearly there's some overlap between both groups. I'm tying to highlight an area of discord, so forgive me if my discussion above treated two overlapping classes as purer than they really are. 

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