What Would Libertarianism Look Like, If It Wasn't Just White People?


Today's political reality is marked by worldwide military intervention, a seemingly endless war on drugs, out-of-control domestic surveillance, and neocolonialist foreign policy. The government has failed to meet the needs of its people and has abused its powers, and libertarianism is gaining momentum as an antithesis to the status quo. But as libertarianism reaches an unprecedented popularity, there remain unanswered questions about its political viability and broad appeal.

Many libertarians are hoping to grow their base by adding diversity into their ranks. Senator Rand Paul visited Howard University earlier this year, in an attempt to garner political support from the black student community. Throughout his speech, Paul emphasized the Republican Party’s historical opposition to slavery, but did so without once mentioning slaves’ independent struggles for self-emancipation. Because of this ignorance, Senator Paul was met by a hostile audience who felt that he was talking at them, rather than with them. While his efforts toward outreach mark a commendable step in the right direction, the white libertarianism that Paul preaches is likely to be different in rhetoric and application than libertarianism that arises directly from black communities, and other communities of color.

Simply stating that the liberty movement "needs more diversity" is a failed approach, as is exemplified by a Young Americans for Liberty article entitled, "Can We Get a Little Diversity Up in Here." It begins by stating that, "the liberty movement needs more color," and goes on to say that, "Libertarians offer minority groups in this country something that has never been offered to them before: the power of self-determination." While libertarianism does offer all individuals self-determination, such rhetoric completely overlooks the liberation movements that minority groups have already created: the Black Panthers, black nationalism, the South African apartheid resistance, the Chicano movement, Black Liberation Army, Yellow Power movement, Native Youth Movement, and the American Indian Movement. These movements gave agency and self-determination to their own people, and were sources of racial pride, self-determination, and autonomy. The article treats people of color, and their cultural and political experiences, as a political commodity. It reduces them to a voting bloc — as did Paul during his visit to Howard. In ignoring self-determination movements and the intersections of race and libertarianism, libertarians disregard the intellectual and cultural identity and independence of the communities, cultures, and races involved.

Many libertarians seem skittish or tone-deaf when it comes to issues of race and cultural diversity. Libertarian campus events like "affirmative action bake sales," illustrate how deeply rooted the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority's perspective is in the so-called “liberty movement.” Such issues arise because many white libertarians don't speak to people of color. By failing to recognize that people occupying different, and often unequal, social positions have different perceptions of and interactions with the state, libertarians effectively ignore the viewpoints and perspectives of minority individuals and communities.

When libertarians do reach out to minorities, they often do so with overtones of a white savior complex, claiming that minorities simply need to hear the “saving gospel” of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, or read more Murray Rothbard in order to see the ills of their ways. This infantilizes minorities (“If they could just see that the state isn’t trying to help them!”), and treats minority groups as a “problem” that must be addressed, rather than as groups of people with agency, goals, perceptions, and purposes of their own. Minorities are not interested in hearing someone's one-size-fits-all gospel. Maybe libertarians should try talking, and listening, to the individuals that they're so intent on "helping."

Within today's libertarianism, topics like racism and classism often take the back burner, or are ignored entirely. Issues of inequality and poverty, solitary confinement and prison reform, women's rights, queer and trans* abuse, the dissolution and decline of the family, and drugs and crime within minority communities are often met with hostility. Because there is no conversation between most libertarians regarding these subjects, the movement effectively ignores the social issues confronting many minorities, renders those individuals voiceless, and excludes them entirely.

Despite the libertarian rhetoric of individualism, we are all intricately connected, and have been given the opportunity to craft our communities and government together. But we will only be able to do so effectively, judiciously, and peacefully if we listen to marginalized individuals, and consider their unique perspectives. Black communities, and other communities of color, have long traditions of struggling for freedom. Those traditions, when acknowledged by and combined with libertarianism, could create an empowering and radical message.

A true, ideological, libertarian renaissance can, and will only, happen if we learn to listen to those who have lived under government occupation: those who live in poverty, are isolated, and lack access to resources; those who don’t have health insurance; those who have suffered in solitary confinement; those who have undergone the destruction of their families, identity, and culture; those of different sexual identities; those who are victims of the drug war, political prisoners, sex workers, domestic workers, or undocumented persons. Libertarians need to talk, and listen to, the survivors, the “others,” the voiceless and the ignored.

This article was cowritten by Barbara Sostaita.