All Commentary
Thursday, January 16, 2014

Libertarians Should Be More Concerned About Privilege

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:



    • Republicans have submitted legislation that would incentivize employers to discriminate against foreign-born, but legal, job applicants.


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.”

  • Cathy Reisenwitz is a D.C.-based writer. She is Editor-in-Chief of Sex and the State and her writing has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.