A year ago today, pastor and progressive commentator John Pavlovitz asked his Twitter audience, “In your own words, how would you describe Libertarians?”
One of his followers, John Spaulding, gave an answer that quickly spread to the farthest corners of the internet.
“House cats,” he replied. “They are convinced of their fierce independence while utterly dependent on a system they don’t appreciate or understand.”
The metaphor seems to have struck a chord, judging by how much this comment has been shared on social media. But is it a fair comparison? Are libertarians rightly regarded as house cats? Let’s take a look.
Oblivious and Ungrateful
The main sentiment here is that libertarians are oblivious to the benefits government provides and as a result are ungrateful. Like a cat owner, the government does so much behind the scenes to keep our lives running smoothly, but libertarians don’t appreciate any of it. We are the recipients of countless services provided by others, yet rather than showing gratitude we bite the hand that feeds us.
This line of thinking reminds me of a famous exchange between Toine Manders—a Dutch libertarian—and a Dutch official who was questioning him about his views on taxation.
Official: You believe that taxation is a form of theft?
Official: We use taxation to provide services to all citizens. Do you see that as a legitimate use of taxation?
Official: You live in social housing…
Official: …made possible…
Manders: Made possible?
Official: Because others…
Manders: [laughs] Sorry, that’s very unnunanced. The government took everything away from me. They took my house away so that I was compelled to use social housing, and you want to tell me I should be thankful that they were kind enough to provide me with social housing? It sounds like the DDR when you say that.
Official: Do your children go to school?
Manders: That’s the same reasoning that was used by the directors of the DDR. “You’ve enjoyed an education provided by the East German state and now you want to escape? You’re anti-social.” That’s the reasoning I hear from you. It’s shocking to me that you dare to say that.
Manders’ story is unique, but it highlights a common pattern. Yes, we are dependent on the government for many of our basic needs, but this is only because the government first undermined our ability to fend for ourselves.
In Manders’ case, the government took his private home so that he was forced to rely on government housing. But there are many other examples that are more generally applicable. The government prohibits private postage, for example, so we are forced to depend on government postal services. In Canada, many types of private healthcare are illegal, so Canadians are forced to depend on government healthcare.
And even when private services aren’t outright prohibited, the government often makes them a practical impossibility with taxes and regulations. Libertarians would love to give up our reliance on government and get everything we need from private companies, but that simply isn’t possible when the private services are regulated to death and we still have to pay taxes regardless of whether we use the public services.
In short, humans—libertarians or otherwise—are not innately impotent. Rather, many have been rendered impotent by taxes and regulations, to the point where they have no choice but to depend on the government.
And after all that, they expect us to be grateful? The assumption is breathtaking. It’s as if someone were to break my leg, hand me crutches, and then ask me to appreciate all they’ve done for me. “You couldn’t even walk without me,” they might say. “You’re just ungrateful. Aren’t I so kind and benevolent for giving you crutches?”
No. No you’re not. I only depend on you because you’ve crippled me. Any story that begins with the government handing out crutches and not with the rules and restrictions that made them necessary is missing the most important point.
True charity—where gratitude is warranted—is when someone uses their own means to provide a benefit to you. But when someone restricts you and then commandeers your means to give you a “benefit” you didn’t ask for, they are not doing you a service, and gratitude is most certainly not the appropriate response.
Back to the original question, are libertarians house cats? In light of the above, the answer has to be yes, at least in the sense that we are presently rather dependent on our owners.
The ironic thing is, though the metaphor was initially invoked to denigrate libertarians, it can actually be leveraged to make a rather compelling case for libertarianism.
It’s true that, like house cats, many of us are dependent on our owners. But the parallel goes further. Like house cats, our dependence exists, not because we are inherently incapable of fending for ourselves, but because we live in captivity. The cat’s captivity is physical, ours is more practical—restrictions on our actions and on the contracts we can make with one another—but both kinds of captivity render an otherwise capable entity impotent to provide for itself.
“‘House cats’ are made, not born,” Peter Jacobsen reminds us. “Wild cats are extremely resilient and resourceful. It's only after closing a cat indoors and removing their claws that they become dependent.”
Now, whether cats should be taken out of the wild and domesticated is debatable. But for humans such subjugation should be unconscionable. The libertarian creed is essentially that people ought not to be treated as pets, that we should not be subjected to others like a house cat is to its owner. No person or group, no matter how many support them, should be allowed to rule over others.
Why? Because we were not born to be dependent and domesticated.
We were born to be free.
This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.