The Arena is a monthly debate feature designed to help readers explore issues of concern to classical liberals/libertarians.
This month, the issue is privilege. Cathy Reisenwitz argues that libertarians should be more concerned about issues of class and privilege, while Julie Borowski argues that libertarians should stay focused on individual rights.
By Cathy Reisenwitz
Power in this country is divided unequally at this moment along lines of class, race, orientation, religion, and gender. Consider the facts:
These are just some of the most current examples of elected and appointed officials, who mostly belong to and represent traditionally privileged classes, abusing people in less-privileged classes (for example, gays, black people, and women) in order to preserve unearned power.
While the State is the primary mechanism by which this preservation is done, a libertarianism that seeks to remove the power to abuse without examining the cultural attitudes, ignorance, and prejudices that form the basis of that desire is a libertarianism not worth having.
Many will argue that libertarianism is a philosophy only concerned with the actions of people we have deemed “government.” They go further to claim that issues that exist and matter outside of the realm of the State, such as class and privilege, should only concern libertarians insofar as they relate directly to State actions.
One huge drawback to this view is that ignoring the issues of class and privilege leaves value on the table. What privilege means is that people of differing identities experience markedly different forms of oppression. While only white people are intimately familiar with the sting of affirmative action, only black children know what it feels like to be punished more often than their white peers for the same offenses. While only men know what it’s like to be feared more than women for the same behaviors, only women know what it’s like to have to choose between being successful and being liked.
Acknowledging privilege isn’t putting people in categories or discriminating against them. It’s recognizing that one’s identity shields oneself from firsthand knowledge of others’ oppression. This isn’t a description of how things should be. It’s an admission of how things currently are.
Some would say it’s unnecessary to acknowledge privilege. You can listen to someone without noting their gender or race. Yes, everyone theoretically should listen to everyone else to fully understand their unique challenges and experiences. But there simply isn’t time for that. The reality is that by default people generally congregate with others who share their same general identities. White people hang out mostly with white people. Even when, for example, men and women hang out, they don’t usually swap stories of gender-based oppression.
What acknowledging or checking privilege does is remind people to look for people of differing identities and to actively seek to understand their unique experiences, oppression, and viewpoints.
Lack of empathy for people with identities that differ from those that have traditionally been privileged in American society can be seen in our laws, from discriminatory marriage laws to punitive immigration policies to mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds to sodomy laws to selective enforcement of drug laws.
But it’s only by listening to the people those laws disproportionately affect that we can fully understand why it’s so important for us to work to make it right.
Luckily, today’s young people are listening.
Millennials are more accepting of non-traditional family arrangements and more receptive to immigrants than are their elders. Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) say immigrants strengthen the country, according to a 2009 Pew Research survey; just 43 percent of adults ages 30 and older agree.
Millennials, as a group, support gay marriage, support race and gender equality, are positive about immigration, and believe that religious teachings should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society and less on opposing abortion and gay rights.
These are not primarily issues of efficiency for millennials. Nor do their views arise from a fear and suspicion of government. Millennials see these stances as moral imperatives aimed at rectifying historical wrongs. Millennials recognize the way individuals and the State have worked in concert to deny class mobility to minorities in order to preserve the unearned privilege of the majority.
Millennials’ support for a more open immigration system and for race, gender, and orientation equality comes down to a concern over class and privilege. Immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, gays, and women have traditionally held a less-privileged and lower-class status in American society.
Talking about issues such as immigration and gay marriage without addressing the bigoted attitudes that created the policies we’re now trying to undo is like criticizing slavery because it’s economically inefficient. There’s a larger problem at play, and it’s cultural.
The way millennials’ views differ from those of their more conservative elders demonstrates how American society is evolving away from bigotry.
Libertarians have a choice: They can stay silent on the topic of class and privilege, and simply support policies such as ending the drug war, extending marriage to gays, and opening up immigration from a limited government perspective. Or they can admit that in America, the State still extends privilege unevenly across lines of race, orientation, gender, and national origin, and that this privilege must be acknowledged before it can be fully understood or addressed.
Cathy Reisenwitz is an associate at Young Voices and editor-in-chief of Sex and the State. She will be speaking at the FEE summer seminar "Are Markets Just? Exploring the Social Significance of a Free Economy."
By Julie Borowski
Ayn Rand said it best: “The smallest minority on Earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities."
Individualism is one of the vital cornerstones of libertarianism. Libertarians should remain committed to maximizing freedom and opportunity for all individuals rather than playing identity politics and collectivizing people.
As cliché as it may sound, every single human being is unique. People of the same race, class, and gender may have some shared experiences, but they have plenty of differences as well. We all have diverse advantages, struggles, interests, life experiences, and so on. Libertarians, of all people, should respect that individuals don’t neatly fit into boxes. The wonderful thing about individualism is that each of us brings a new perspective.
The unfortunate aspect of the ongoing privilege discussion is that it seeks to put unique people into monolithic groups. All too often, it reduces people to the color of their skin or their body parts. If you don’t believe me, just search “white privilege” or “male privilege” on Tumblr.
One common argument you’ll find says that men in general enjoy more “privilege” than women. Which prompts the question: When are any two people exactly the same except for one variable? It is not feasible to control all variables other than gender—looks, intelligence, disabilities, experiences, health—in the real world. There are too many unique aspects that make up every person. These cannot be taken away.
Politicians often pander to women about “women’s issues.” But this rhetoric should be insulting to women, because the tack implies that all women have exactly the same set of opinions and should be treated as a bloc. Indeed, it implies that women only care about certain issues—usually related to sex and reproduction. In actuality, individuals who happen to be women are also concerned with government spending, taxation, the economy, and foreign policy. Are these “men’s issues” by default?
Libertarians (and all decent human beings!) should avoid making preconceived judgments about individuals based on superficial characteristics. This is not to say that generalizations and stereotypes are always wrong. People’s backgrounds and income status may make them more inclined to care more about certain issues than others. These traits can also increase the odds that they share certain cultural characteristics. But it’s impossible to know what someone cares about—or how “privileged” they are—just by looking at them, or having them fill in a government bubble sheet. It would be the height of arrogance to make certain kinds of assumptions about the struggles and successes a person faces in his or her daily life. But isn’t that what people concerned with privilege do? When you treat people as groups or statistics, you have to toss out local knowledge.
The sad part about the privilege discussion is that it often pits people against one another. It’s often designed to make people feel guilty about things over which they have little or no control. No one should be faulted for their race or gender—whatever it is. “Check your privilege,” a popular phrase used as a way to shut down meaningful discussion, is intended to do exactly that.
To be fair, some say that the phrase’s real meaning is to acknowledge that “there are certain things that you cannot know on the basis of who you are.”
F. A. Hayek called this the knowledge problem. This concept is nothing new to libertarian thought and tradition. The difference is that Hayek emphasizes individualism rather than group identification. In The Use of Knowledge in Society, Hayek wrote, “Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made.”
So here’s the thing: No one truly knows what it is like to be another individual. We can and should empathize with others while recognizing that we have limited knowledge of what anyone else goes through on a daily basis. That’s just common sense and good manners.
Liberty is a universal idea that transcends race, class, and gender. Negativity and division are no way to attract more people to libertarian ideas. The great thing about libertarianism is that it offers something for everyone. We all have a common enemy in an oppressive state that restricts our ability to live our lives as we see fit.
Libertarianism is about increasing freedom for every single individual.
Libertarians want everyone to have the opportunity to achieve prosperity and happiness. We advocate for an environment that allows people to flourish and achieve their dreams. We want every child to be able to get a great education that prepares them to succeed in life. We want every person to have access to affordable and high quality health care.
Libertarians want every individual to be able to speak freely without fear of government persecution. We want everyone to be able to do anything consensual in their own bedrooms. We believe that people should be free to practice any religion they choose. We oppose individuals being thrown in jail for peaceful, victimless activity.
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.
Economic and social freedom should resonate with every individual. An effective way to spread the message of liberty is to find out what someone cares about and then kindly explain how libertarian policies can benefit them. We should avoid making predetermined judgments about people based on their class, race, or gender. That is, after all, where we get the word "prejudice" from. Instead, libertarians should promote an inclusive philosophy that respects every single human being. Simply put, liberty is for everyone.
Julie Borowski is a policy analyst at FreedomWorks. She first joined FreedomWorks as an economic research and policy intern in spring 2010. Upon graduating magna cum laude from Frostburg State University, she returned to FreedomWorks. She also runs the Token Libertarian Girl YouTube channel.