The Problem with Stephen Menendian’s Libertarian Straw Man

I really enjoyed this article by Stephen Menendian of Race-Talk. The author’s complete lack of knowledge of libertarian or classical liberal thinking is on extraordinary display. It is actually quite impressive that someone could author an article with as many errors as Mr. Menendian managed with his “Problem with Libertarianism.” I’ll tackle some of them here.

The first error Mr. Menendian makes is conflating the Tea Party with libertarianism. It does appear, unfortunately, that the Tea Party is being hijacked by conservatives, who are using it to achieve ends that are outside its original formation (i.e., contain government spending and an end to corporate bailouts). One of those new, unfortunate ends is immigration restriction.

This is Mr. Menendian’s second error: he seems to think that libertarians oppose a liberal immigration policy. There is no inconsistency for libertarians here: they support both the free movement of labor and goods across borders, unlike conservatives and left-liberal progressives that support only one or the other. There are, however, many progressives and conservatives who oppose the both the free movement of labor and goods — which is to say that they seek something resembling a state of autarky (whether for absurd nationalistic reasons or equally absurd eco-“sustainability”/”social justice” reasons). Libertarians unequivocally oppose autarky in all of its forms. If Menendian needs concrete examples of pro-immigration libertarians, he can look no further than CEI’s recent publications on the topic.

Mr. Menendian’s third error is this: “I don’t need society, neither do you,” claims his libertarian, a pretty weak straw man. He says that they seek to end interactions with family, community, and fellow citizens. Here’s the problem: Again, libertarians oppose autarky — a state of no trade and interaction with others; autarky preaches independence from other individuals — but yet he says that “[t]he libertarian project tries to escape society…” This is a complete contradiction. There is nothing in libertarian philosophy advocating that one should cut themselves off from family, community, the nation, and the world. Indeed, the voluntary civil society is an important component of libertarianism. If, however, someone wishes to live a reclusive life in the mountains and rely solely on their own self — that’s their choice and it should be respected. It’s not the choice that I’d make, though [and I’m a libertarian]: to not rely on others is to live a life of poverty, both materially and mentally. I’ll refer Mr. Menendian to Leonard E. Read’s “I, Pencil,” a libertarian classic that praises our interconnected world. Mr. Menendian’s biggest intellectual problem is inability to entertain the notion that superior institutional alternatives to those that rely on coercive state power might exist.

Mr. Menendian’s fourth error is his implicit assumption that government is the best means to achieve the ends of wealth, equity, and efficient use of resources (see his comment on public schools). Mr. Menendian appears to think that government institutions and their agents are inherently superior to other institutions, and seems to ignore the possibility that government authorities are fallible and that politicians won’t have the best interests of society in mind — or even know what they are. Presumably, he’s never been to a DMV before, filled out a federal income tax return, heard about Roosevelt administration’s incarceration of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, military drafts, the failed War on Drugs, etc. Also, he does not see the possibility big government and big business go hand-in-hand (regardless of whether its progressives or conservatives with their fingers on the button). He should also note that few people truly disagree with the idealistic ends of progressivism; the issue has to do with the means of achieving those ends (i.e., more government). Those means may not achieve the desired ends due to unintended consequences and they may even retard them.

The fifth error Menendian makes is implying that libertarians are racist (see his comments on “national identity”). If someone decides not to trade/interact with another due to bigotry, they do so at their own detriment. To forgo trade and interaction with others on the basis of physical characteristics or religious beliefs is to deny oneself the potential gains from trade and interaction that can occur (i.e., I have what you want you have what I want — let’s trade or I love you, you love me — let’s get married). Voluntary trade and interaction compels people to voluntarily treat one another humanely and strengthens a society. In fact, the trade-driven anonymous trust that characterizes modern society was by far the most important secular factor in mankind’s shift away from tribal, familial groupings (see, e.g., “Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment” by Henrich, et al.).

I would also ask that Mr. Menendian disclose which libertarian authors/works that he’s read; even if it’s only the Wikipedia page. I’d venture to say none; and I’d go so far to say that he’s conflated elements of conservatism with libertarianism. Here’s a succinct summary of libertarianism for Mr. Menendian: libertarians broadly share social liberals’ opinions on issues such as gay marriage, drug legalization, free speech protection, foreign policy, immigration, etc., but broadly share fiscal conservatives’ opinions on issues such as fiscal policy, monetary policy, and international trade. The underlying premise in all these matters is that the individual has the freedom to choose. Nothing in the libertarian philosophy preaches or advocates convincing people that they don’t need society. It is freedom of the individual within a society that will lead the best outcomes for society as a whole and, consequently, for the individuals within it — Hayekian “spontaneous order.”

Also, I hope Mr. Menendian elaborates on his comment that “[g]iven all this, is it surprising that libertarians are overwhelmingly white and male?” I’d argue that this is a deeply offensive comment, but I’m unsure of his underlying logic — so I’ll withhold judgment, pending his elaboration.