Within the libertarian blogosphere, there has been a huge debate between libertarians who believe we should join the fight against privilege and those who think we shouldn’t. This debate is crucial to the libertarian movement, for it calls into question the scope of coercion (i.e. – is privilege a form of non-aggressive coercion?) and our perception of individual rights (are we truly fighting for individuals or perhaps letting cultural bias affect our perception?). I think that privilege is a power structure which libertarians should acknowledge and consciously fight against because it creates coercive situations and denies the rights of individuals.
Privilege is the social, hierarchical construct which is systematically taught to people to value certain characteristics (i.e. – white, heterosexual, and male) higher than other characteristics (anything other than white, heterosexual, and male). Hierarchical or power relationships create systems of domination (racism, sexism, heteronormativity, etc.) which keep marginalized groups from improving their lot, and engenders coercion against them in a Hayekean sense.
Unfortunately, it seems that most libertarians do not want to join the cause, opting to only see problems on an “individual” basis. This tends to ignore the struggles that are arrayed before un-privileged groups. While we may agree that individual rights are important, it is also important to realize that these marginalized groups tend to experience higher amounts of oppression than the white, heterosexual male. This is due to laws on the books of the federal or state governments, or by the way we operate on a daily basis. By adopting a “refusal to see differences,” or “colorblind,” argument, that is simply-individual-rights, we tend to ignore or push away from the movement important and needed participants, as we assume that our knowledge is better than theirs. “The call to check one’s privilege”, as Nathan Goodman eloquently puts forward in his essay The Knowledge Problem of Privilege,
…is an attempt to get people to recognize the limits of their knowledge. Libertarians should have the humility to check our privilege, to listen to oppressed people who discuss their experiences, and to respect oppressed peoples’ rights to direct their own struggles for liberation.
Of course, this is just a rehash of the privilege side of the argument which seems to have been done ad nauseum. Critics seem to have other ideas as to why we would acknowledge the affects of privilege in society, stating that we have failed to understand Misesian, Rothbardian, or Hoppean praxeological methods and, above all, the non-aggression principle. I may be inaccurate in my paraphrasing, but the brunt of the argument, as I understand it, goes something like, “if you understood how markets or human action worked in a free market, then you would understand that fighting against privilege is a waste of time or too much of a compromise”, or “while racism sucks, you can’t force people to cater to people/groups they don’t like. You just have to let the market solve the problem.” (See here and here for examples of such arguments)
There are a couple of flaws with these arguments. For one, a strict adherence to the non-aggression principle only recognizes violations of negative freedoms. That is, violations of freedom only occur when one or a group of people violate the life and/or property (whether it is of the self or of possessions) of another person or group of people. This is problematic because it ignores situations where one may have no other option but to agree to a certain contract or has no power to negotiate on an equal level (for instance, the employer/employee contract). Without an understanding of positive interpretations of freedom along with negative interpretations of freedom, there are instances of oppression which are ignored solely because they are not outright aggressive. This puts the right-libertarian in an awkward position, one which says “x problem is bad, but we really can’t do anything about it because it isn’t a violation of anyone’s freedom”. It stops any action to prove that a free society could handle bigotry without resorting to governmental action, and thus turns off or away any interest that marginalized groups may have with libertarianism. This type of stance is better known as “thin libertarianism”, a stance which refuses to take any sort of stance on social commitments besides those which violate negative interpretations of freedom.
My biggest bone to pick with these critics is the insinuation that those of us on the left do not understand praxeology or market methods as described by Austrian economists. As said above, they see fighting privilege as a waste of time and instead advocate a focus on individual rights by getting the government out of the market and our lives. They see this as a better way of solving the problem because a free market will reward those who cooperate and punish those who refuse service. This is the result of rational self-interest, for it is in the interest of the individual to make a profit, and how can he profit if he denies service to somebody because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation? To join the left and advocate fighting against privilege then will only distract us from the true goal, getting the government out of the market and our lives. Any step that is then perceived as a means to this end, or in other words, anything that seems like it gives the right of the individual to do what they will with their life and property is therefore a step in a positive direction because the market gets closer to becoming free.
While as a left-wing market anarchist, I too think that a freed market will reward those who cooperate well with others, however, it does not seem obvious to me that a market freed from just “the government” is one that will be free. From what I know from reading Human Action, the market is just the conglomeration of multiple individual’s value judgments, and if some prefer unequal power over equal power, there will most likely be businesses or groups catering to those needs.
Second, a market freed from government but not freed from privilege is still a market which is distorted, not so much by inflation but by assurance of keeping oppressed groups trapped in a world which seems caged. Such instances include the raised difficulty of getting a loan or the refusal of service or work to transgender people. One could argue that this is a flawed way of thinking; that surely if the under-privileged group provided a better product that provides service to everyone rather than a bigoted business, the bigoted business would go under because it could not compete. In theory, this is exactly the case, but given all of the laws, crimes, ostracism, etc., that oppressed groups get targeted with, the reality is that it seems that there is still value in barring some people from participating in anything at all. While getting the government out of the way would free up the market in certain ways, the oppressors of privileged classes still has power to exert over marginalized groups in a free society, making life free for some and a burden for others.
This is in no way saying that the idea of praxeology or the market process is bunk, as Mises stated about the market,
The market is a process, actuated by the interplay of the actions of the various individuals cooperating under the division of labor. The forces determining the- continuously changing- state of the market are the value judgments of these individuals and their actions as directed by value judgments [emphasis mine].[i]
What this means is that it is the actors in the market that determine what the market will look like. If we allow value judgments to remain as they are, it is quite plausible that human action will lead to a market that will be distorted by privilege and oppression. If we try to listen and actively engage in bringing an end to the oppression of the unprivileged, we can create a market which is both freed from government and unequal power. Either way, if human action is what determines the freed market, then by all means we should join and continue to fight against oppression.
[i] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, “Chp. XV The Market” pg. 257