Libertarian Fundamentalism

I had a brief encounter with Christian fundamentalism in my married years (loooong story) that left my already skeptical self even more disillusioned with the religion. While I remain friends with many of the fine folks I encountered, the culture left a very bad taste in my mouth. The testimonies began to sound the same, the repressive views of modesty and women were off-putting to say the least, but it was the smug “us vs. them” attitude I found most repellent. You were either saved or lost and bless your heart if you weren’t a true believer. Overzealous fundamentalism is not limited to Christianity; indeed you can find this kind of extremism in any religion or in any philosophy.

In my strange foray into this Christian culture I noticed some parallels between it and another place where I spent a lot of time—libertarian activism. Libertarians are known for their anti-authoritarianism and some even actively oppose religion of any kind but as I hung around more I kept hearing the same mantras repeated and noticed a lot of overlap with religious fundamentalism. It seemed many replaced their former religious fervor with an unquestioning belief in the god of the free market and felt the need to convert others. I did my part through endless arguments and I own the fact that I was really, really obnoxious. It’s easy to alienate people with the rhetoric I used and I’ve since mellowed (some) but I have to point out the uncomfortable similarities between libertarian true believers and religious true believers. These parallels refer to specific tactics and are no means an indictment on all libertarians or the philosophy itself.

So here are the parallels I’ve noticed: Libertarian Fundamentalists have their patron saints/sacred cows/benevolent leaders who you’re not allowed to criticize, downplay abusive/fraudulent behavior by said leaders because they brought so many into the flock, use terms like “outbreeding the statists” (Quiverfulls anyone?), literally say we have to “convert” statists, call the uninitiated things like “sheeple” or imply they are not awake (saved/lost dichotomy), accuse those who have strayed from the philosophy as never having believed it in the first place, engage in constant purity tests over who is the holiest, calls for purges and witch hunts (“the left libertarians are destroying everything!!!1!11”), testimonies about how they saw the light of libertarianism and now need to spread the good word (a particular essay by He-Who-Shall-Not Say-My-Name describes this perfectly), the paralyzing fear of an invisible but influential specter marauding and causing all the bad things (the state) while downplaying other factors (lots of just plain shitty people out there), there are remnants and sell outs, apocalyptic thinking (“the dollar will crash!!!”), and mantras (“who will build the roads?” which to its credit I do like).

Now if you are a religious libertarian then much of that rhetoric makes sense to use. I get that. This is more directed to libertarians who aren’t religious but use the same verbiage.

I didn’t get into libertarianism and later anarchism because I wanted a worldview that fit everything neatly into boxes and made people into objects that needed to be molded. Libertarianism is not a religion that one needs to adhere to to escape damnation. There are strong, rational arguments to be made for free markets and against government intervention in our lives. There is thoughtful analysis that shows that a freer society brings prosperity to people in disadvantaged classes. It is insulting to dismiss the valid concerns of others by simply saying “the market will take care of it”. That’s the rhetorical equivalent of “just give it all to God”.

My beefs with Libertarian Fundamentalism are the same as with religious fundamentalism—it reduces people into conquests. It pits the holy against the sinful. It creates idols who repeatedly get away with fraud because they spread the good word a few times. It lacks nuance and empathy and is furthermore unnecessary to attaining a freer society.

There is no reason to use religious terminology for something that can be argued rationally and with compassion. My critique here is not to cast stones at my friends; it’s to say libertarians can do better. Charlatanism works, that can’t be argued, but if you resort to the same tactics as televangelists to sell your message it comes across as icky and pandering which are words many would use to describe the much derided political class. It’s hacky looking from outside the bubble. I’m also not saying libertarians shouldn’t have standards and principles—someone who believes we need to spend more money on war is really missing the point of limited government.

Every ideology has this problem so I’m not picking on libertarians here. I am aiming for a discussion of tactics and awareness of how language and actions can derail the stated goals of libertarians. I’m advocating for a little self-awareness and admitting I’ve been just as abrasive. Hell, I’ll always be a little abrasive but if your goal is to win hearts there are better ways to do it. By acting like fundamentalist jerks you can get a lot of notoriety and even followers but you’ll still be the blind leading the blind.

People aren’t incapable of being swayed from their irrational positions and there’s no reason to assume that because a person has a few hang ups about state intervention on some topics that they are somehow beyond redemption. It’s problematic to think people need one specific worldview for that redemption but even more so that they need to be saved in the first place.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Libertarian Fundamentalism

  1. How do libertarians differ here from anyone holding any opinion whatsoever, and what better means of exchanging ideas and discovering or propagating the truth do you propose?

    You raise an important issue, but don’t seem to be offering any way out — not that raising awareness of the issue is unwarranted.

  2. The fact is that he doesn’t want to propose a universal way out that will fit everybody. At least this is what I get reading the article and you seem (to me) to be missing the main point.

  3. The problem is neither religion nor fundamentalism. The problem is force. Without force, people can believe in whatever they want and be as fundamentalist as they want. So they having a problem with either is itself missing the point. That is not what libertarians oppose.
    To respond to the point of the article: the fact is that there are in fact libertarians out there who are much more like the author suggests, being less obnoxious and more courteous, and they are not making *any more progress* than the more “purist” types are making (just notice the difference in attraction between Ron Paul and Rand Paul; Ron the non-compromiser swayed many more people to libertarian philosophy than compromiser Rand Paul). Why not? Because while some libertarians may act obnoxiously, at least they clearly stand for something that is not negotiable. Then you can separate the two types of people: those that simply do not accept what “pure” libertarianism means, and those that are open to a diluted and ultimately self-contradicting version of it.
    As far as calling people by a derogatory word (“sheeple”), sometimes that is exactly what they deserve, when they keep making the same mistakes yet then wonder why things turn out so rotten. Or when they seem to blindly obey their “leaders” regardless of those leaders’ behavior. Or when they brand those that oppose war or the state as “traitors”. And so on.
    I do agree, however, with the part about erecting a cult of personality around some well known libertarians. Libertarians isn’t about people, it’s about ideas.

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  5. Joey Clark

    Great post. Just great. I try only to use such rhetoric for satirical purposes. I think Orwell pointed out, “to exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance.”

  6. I have said that much of what I hear from “born again” libertarians must be what mid 20th century socialists sounded like. A pat libertarian dogmatic answer for every situation.

    I know I was guilty of that type of behavior. I am now trying to remember that it is arrogant to assume that only your beliefs are valid. What motivates a person to believe what they believe is something I now take into account.

    Thanks for helping our folks to gain some insight and perspective. We need to be critical of our own side first.

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