When libertarians make me want to go full Social Justice Warrior

Usually, I dislike knee-jerk liberal demonization of libertarians. On stereotypical areas of liberal-libertarian convergence, many libertarian writers do great work. Such issues are sometimes labeled social issues, but that gives an overly-narrow impression of the range of issues we’re talking about here. On issues ranging from war to civil liberties to criminal justice to sex and drugs to immigration, I find a lot to like in libertarianism.

I even agree that the benefits of free markets are widely under-appreciated, and that much existing government regulation is harmful. But while markets may be more powerful than most people realize, they’re not as magical as they’re made out to be in Atlas Shrugged. Externalities, for example, are a thing, and the fact that there are some bad regulations is no reason to get rid of the environmental regulations that stop the air in major US cities from being like that of Beijing. And it’s hard to see anything wrong with taxing the wealthy and forcing them to live in slightly less luxury in order to pay for things like food and health care for the poor.

But the disagreements in the previous paragraph aren’t what this post is about. What prompted this post was an article I stumbled across by libertarian tech billionaire Peter Thiel, where he explains why “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” This paragraph in particular stood out (emphasis mine):

Indeed, even more pessimistically, the trend has been going the wrong way for a long time. To return to finance, the last economic depression in the United States that did not result in massive government intervention was the collapse of 1920–21. It was sharp but short, and entailed the sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” that could lead to a real boom. The decade that followed — the roaring 1920s — was so strong that historians have forgotten the depression that started it. The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

Really? It wasn’t possible to be optimistic about politics during oh, say, the civil rights movement? I normally hate it when Tumblr social justice types use “you’re just a privileged white dude” as an excuse to declare themselves the winners of any argument, but here Thiel fits the description of a clueless white dude to a T. To all my fellow nerdy white guys who enjoy arguing about politics on the internet, please don’t be that guy—the guy who seems totally unaware that Jim Crow and the civil rights movement were a thing, and that while things have improved a lot racism is still a serious problem today.

I also wonder if Thiel’s anti-democratic sentiments are going to be a growing trend among geeky libertarian types. On issues like drug legalization, current policy may suck but we can at least see things slowly moving in the right direction. But there’s not the slightest sign of the public coming around to the dogmatic libertarian view of, say environmental regulations or healthcare. This has got to put a strain on libertarian commitment to democracy.

This seems to be a significant part of the drive behind neoreactionaries of the Moldbuggian variety: if we can’t get the public to support doctrinaire libertarian policies, maybe we can install a libertarian Czar. The neoreactionaries are still pretty fringe right now, even in online communities with a strong libertarian presence, but I wonder if we’ll see more libertarians shifting in that direction.

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  • MichaelNewsham

    I think in their hearts most Libertarians believe in the principle of “one dollar one vote”.

    • eric

      I think it’s more “once I have my dollars, no votes.” Its the old ‘use the ladder to climb and then pull it up after you’ strategy of wealth accumulation and preservation.

  • Denis Robert

    Of course libertarians don’t believe in democracy. Democracy at its best gives power to actual people, not just “creators”. People who work for a living, instead of just those who use their money to create more money for themselves. More importantly, it gives human beings power over the market, which for libertarians is in all material ways identical to God. There is little real difference between a libertarian and a theocrat; the only difference is who their God is, and who they claim is speaking for “him”.

    • Y. A. Warren

      The U.S.A. isn’t a democracy; it is a “democratic” republic. The problem is that the representatives are representing those who offer them the most money, not those who offer them their unfinanced opinions.

  • kraut2

    Do you not in actuality have that situation that a very wealthy elite: “The latest graphic illustration is a system in which 85 people –
    packable in a London double-decker – own as much wealth as the bottom
    50% of humanity.”


    already owns the country and lets the politicians administer to the tune they whistle, that the democracy is nothing but a sham that is just the curtain behind which the magicians control the smoke and mirrors to induce the belief that the majority has a say in the way the country is governed.

    Should the recent events of a “financial” meltdown” that benefited a small clique of financial institutions – supported by a government that decided to use the money of the majority to bolster the acquisitions and power of a small group – not have made clear to even the most ardent believer in “capitalism” (the free competition of free entrepreneurs, that does not exist since ages because of the conglomeration of capital in fewer and fewer hands) – that neither democracy or capitalism exists anymore?
    That the libertarian wet-dream actually already exists? That there is no need to get rid of a democracy – because it does not exist anymore? That democracy and a structure where a few own the majority of the wealth is simply incompatible? That in any and all cases the interests of this elite will necessarily dictate the policies because the need to further increase accumulation of wealth and thus power? That maybe Marx was clear sighted when he stated that capitalism will destroy itself because exactly this process of accumulation that pushes the majority of competitors out? Just not clearsighted enough to also see that the consequence might not be a “proletarian” revolution towards a state of economic and political democracy but a fascism where the “State” and the “Government” is completely in the hands of this elite, the elite IS the state and government, used to upholding their freedom to dictate their interests to the majority who in essence have nothing when compared to the wealth this few handful possesses.


  • GubbaBumpkin

    Peter Thiel? I’ve heard that name somewhere…

    Peter Thiel’s Dream of a Lawless Utopia Floats On

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension
    of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously
    tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist
    democracy” into an oxymoron.

    I’m not sure I understand that, could someone spell it out please?
    I understand that welfare beneficiaries would not constitute the ideal libertarian demographic.

    But letting women vote is somehow bad for libertarianism? And somehow renders “capitalist democracy” an oxymoron? I need someone to fill in the blanks before I even understand that.

  • kraut2

    It does not make sense to post on a site where either posts are monitored and excluded without reson or the technology is incapable to accept posts and they just vanish.
    So – I am out of here

  • Y. A. Warren

    “And it’s hard to see anything wrong with taxing the wealthy and forcing them to live in slightly less luxury in order to pay for things like food and health care for the poor.” Fine all those who hire illegals without providing proper pay and taxes and the wealthy will not have to be taxed. The taxpayers who follow the laws and actually produce work are subsidizing the leisure and luxury of the wealthy.

  • DrVanNostrand

    I kind of feel the same way. I agree with Libertarians on a lot of issues. On a lot of other issues, I respectfully disagree. However, when Libertarians complain about things like the Civil Rights Act or Medicare, I have to say that I find them thoroughly repugnant.

  • Msironen
  • eric

    Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

    Wow, so the letting women vote is a problem for libertarianism? If that’s truly the case, then I think it’s libertarianism that’s the oxymoronic term, not capitalist democracy. Libertarianism that only works when half the people don’t get to vote isn’t really liberating, is it?
    But other than that misogynistic sideswipe, he’s not really saying anything other than “it appears that in our democracy, people don’t vote for the system I want to have. Therefore if I want to have my system, I’m going to have to abandon democracy.” Well, okay. But if you do that, we don’t have to listen to you at all, because you don’t get a vote in a non-democracy.

  • Tommykey69

    This reminds me of a several years ago when there was a Tea Party march in Washington D.C. CNN was interviewing some Tea Party spokesperson and the anchor asked him “What do you want?” The Tea Party guy replied “We want to go back to the way things were a hundred years ago.”

    I remember thinking “A hundred years ago? You mean before women had the right to vote? When blacks were disenfranchised? Conditions for factor laborers were horrible? No environmental regulations?”

    I get the impression that a lot of these people who fantasize about returing to some past golden age that exists only in their minds is that they think that if they were around back then that they would have been successful and wealthy.

  • ThePrussian

    Wow. You’re citing the People’s Republic of China as an example of free markets gone wild?

  • bob


  • Collin237

    Peter Thiel is one of the leaders of the Singularity Cult. And he also has some kind of mega-deal with Ted Cruz. I hope you’ve renounced the Singularity now that you realize how played you are.

  • http://michaelkeenan.blogspot.com michaelkeenan

    You might be over-extrapolating from Thiel saying that the 1920s were the last time one could be optimistic about politics. What he said doesn’t exclude the possibility of any good things happening in politics afterward. I think he’s thinking at the level of systems rather than policies, and he thinks the system changed to a worse kind of system (not necessarily one that *never* produces a good policy, but one that produces good policies less reliably than before).

    He might not be *correct*, but it’s a different thing from having considered the civil rights movement and not finding anything good there.

    Unlike the archetypal privileged white dude, Thiel is gay. There has of course been progress in gay rights since 1920 (some of it funded by Thiel). He can’t not be aware of that, but it seems he thinks that on balance, there’s less reason to be optimistic about politics. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t support gay equality or race equality.