In a recent Freeman article, "Check Your Context," columnist Sarah Skwire brought my attention to a popular meme on the political left, both online and off: "Check your privilege."
At its gentlest, this is advice to raise our awareness of those aspects of our personal histories that may lead to complacent assumptions about how the world works, assumptions that may limit the scope of our moral imaginations.
When it is less gentle (which is often), it is a dismissal of the opinions of anyone who is insufficiently poor, or, more likely, insufficiently left-wing.
I hadn't heard "check your privilege" before, but I did grow up surrounded by the assumptions that privilege has to do with money and education (no matter how they are acquired) and is ultimately something to feel guilty about. So I was very happy to see Skwire succeed in making the same points about context that I spent a silly amount of time failing to make to my peers in college:
No one is privileged at all times and in all ways. The teenager who rules the halls of the high school is just a punk kid when she gets pulled over for speeding. And even the most powerful politician, stuck in a dance club, is still just an old guy who can't dance.
To augment her advice to check the social context in which we perceive a person to be privileged, I would like to make a different point about "privilege" and context—a historical point that has informed how I have heard the word ever since I learned its etymology. The history of the word—and how its connotation has changed—is critical, I think, for libertarians.
My own path out of the default leftism I grew up with was circuitous at best. For me it did not begin with Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard. Of greater influence was Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy.
In a scene in that book we find our anarchist hero Hagbard Celine all dressed up and undercover at a Council on Foreign Relations banquet. The topic of conversation is Mortimer Adler's claim that "we and the Communists share the same Great Tradition . . . and we must join together against the one force that really does threaten civilization—anarchism!"
Our hero interrupts the ensuing conversation:
“I can put the Great Tradition in one word,” he said calmly. “Privilege.” . . .
“Privilege is defined in most dictionaries as a right or immunity giving special favors or benefits to those who hold it. Another meaning in Webster is ‘not subject to the usual rules or penalties.’ The invaluable thesaurus gives such synonyms as power, authority, birthright, franchise, patent, grant, favor and, I’m sad to say, pretension. Surely, we all know what privilege is in this club, don’t we, gentlemen? Do I have to remind you of the Latin roots, “privi, private, and lege, law, and point out in detail how we have created our Private Law over here, just as the Politburo have created their own private law in their own sphere of influence?”
Obviously the private law of privi-lege isn't the polycentric legal system advocated by anarcho-capitalists and recently explored by Freeman writer Tom W. Bell ("What Is Polycentric Law?"). Rather, it is, as Etymonline puts it, "'law applying to one person,' . . . from privus 'individual' (see private [adj.]) + lex (genitive legis) 'law.'"
In other words, unequal treatment by the State.
True privilege, in this older sense, means membership in the political class, advantages backed by coercive government.
The conflation between wealth in general and State-granted privilege is understandable: For so much of human history, the "upper" class and the political class were one and the same. And whenever the merchant class began to build significant wealth, it either joined the political class by seeking government favor and regulation against competition, or it was crushed by a political class that was jealous of its own privilege—in the original sense.
This pattern continues today, but it is not pervasive. Since the Industrial Revolution, more and more wealth has been created from production and voluntary exchange. The State continues to co-opt capitalists, but the rising general prosperity of the past century or two shows that, in the West at least, more and more wealth is the product of mutually beneficial exchange, not privilege.
Some readers may be rolling their eyes at a history lesson they see as pedantic and irrelevant to modern usage. But, as with the history of the term liberal, no discussion of the word privilege can really be complete without the context of both its origins and its transformation—or its confiscation and obfuscation, which was deliberate at least in the case of "liberalism."
None of this is to argue with Skwire's important point about context: Power dynamics aren't linear, static, or simple, and neither are the individuals we may sometimes seek to dismiss for the power we perceive in them.
But certain classes of power are simpler than others, and more insidious.
The teenager who rules the halls of the high school may or may not have achieved her status through coercion. Either way, her victims do eventually get to opt out of her sphere of influence. The cop who pulls her over for speeding, on the other hand, exerts a privilege that we can't escape.
The politician may feel powerless on the dance floor, but any social power the other dancers have over him is temporary at best, and does not take the form of direct harm—whereas he can return to work on Monday and initiate legislation against dance clubs. His is an entirely different category of privilege.
Those in the 21st century who are most enamored of the word privilege—and often wield it as a bludgeon—make two mistakes. First, as Skwire shows us, they underestimate the complexity of power dynamics and social context. But they often take it a step further. In the name of reducing their newer, fuzzier kind of social privilege, they often advocate increases in the simple, old-fashioned, government-based variety.