Humanist Libertarian? – I think not!!


Earlier this month at our discussion group, we addressed the question: “Is it possible to be both an atheist and a libertarian?” (which is pretty much a no-brainer) and then rephrased the question “Is it possible to be a humanist and a libertarian?” The term “atheist” says nothing about your values or attitude toward your fellow humans; it merely says that you have no theism, or belief in a deity. That being the case, it is pretty much a no-brainer that you can be both an atheist and a libertarian.
But the question of being both a humanist and a libertarian is an entirely different kettle of fish. And the potential conflict was highlighted in the discussion. One end of the table, the one with two libertarian-leaning people said “definitely yes”, and the other end of the table with all social progressives said “definitely no”. (I later received an email from one of the participants at the “yes” end of the table that said that he disagreed but didn’t want a heated argument so he just didn’t say anything after it was clear that it might get ugly.)
I am of the very strong opinion that it is not possible to be both. You can either be someone who believes that we as humanists should always strive to uphold the dignity and well being of our fellow humans. We also have an obligation to help alleviate human suffering and make the world a better place. Libertarians, on the other hand, often express a callous indifference to the suffering of others, preferring instead to buy into the canard that their suffering is their own fault – the result of not doing what they “should” do to succeed in this increasingly complex and often bewildering world, and therefore somehow deserved. (This is a variation of the “prosperity gospel” that conservative fundagelicals promote that Sky Monster wants you to be rich, so if you’re not, it’s only because you pissed it off.) But the notion that anybody “deserves” to suffer is in no way consistent with humanist values.
At the very beginning of the evening, before some of the attendees had arrived and the discussion had actually started, the more strident of the libertarian camp brought up the idea of eliminating food stamps and other government aid programs. When I responded that such an action would create a hardship on many poor people, especially children, some of whom would literally starve. This person then asked me, and the person next to me, if I really believed that libertarians would actually stand by and watch children die of starvation. When I (and Walt) responded simultaneously “Yes!”, she responded “Unbelievable.”
Now I don’t mean that she, or most libertarians or conservatives, would actually watch a child die in person, although I’ve met a few who I believe would. But I do believe that they would be completely indifferent to the suffering of the nebulous “they” in the abstract. As the old saying goes: “out of sight; out of mind”, and as long as they don’t have to actually witness it, it can be easily compartmentalized and ignored.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that for a period of a little over ten years, from the early ’70s until the early ’80s, I dabbled with libertarianism, even voting for Libertarian Party candidates whenever possible. Then a lady that I respected a lot, with whom I had many good political discussions, pointed out that most libertarians tended to be very self-centered people. This sent me on a journey of self examination and after several months, I realized that she was absolutely correct. So I think that I have a pretty good understanding of the thinking of many libertarians.
It is important to recognize that the self-centeredness is not restricted to materialistic greed and/or wealth accumulation; it extends to how they perceive others and their opportunities and access to resources. The old “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps with nobody’s help, and if I can do it, so can anybody else.” You’ve heard those claims. And they are nonsense. Not everybody has the same advantages, or life experiences, or same family support, or native intelligence, or emotional makeup, or opportunities, or….or….
Sure, anytime you have a system designed to help needy or disadvantaged people, you are going to have lowlifes gaming the system. That is just the nature of the beast – just like you have corporations and wealthy people gaming the system in their own ways. But that is no reason to eliminate those safety nets. For some people, they are absolutely essential to their very survival, and to eliminate those programs would cause immeasurable suffering. And the goal of being a humanist is to alleviate suffering – not exacerbate it. And that’s what makes being a libertarian incompatible with being a humanist.

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10 Responses to Humanist Libertarian? – I think not!!

  1. Ocean says:

    On the question of whether Libertarians can be Humanists. If we define libertarian as a laissez faire arrangement of society, with little government, and humanism as worrying about people’s welfare, it is possible to believe (and be wrong) that almost no government will lead to better outcomes for the most people relative to current US arrangements. Relative to some oppressive communist authoritarian regimes it is possible to believe laissez faire would be better for society and be right. In my own experience bumping up against Libertarians, and as the experience of the Militant One, illustrates, Libertarianism is a view that is often held by those who love reasoning and consistent thought systems, because it is axiomatic: IF private property is my fundamental axiom, then taxation is theft, and therefore all the rest. However, Libertarianism is usually just a stage the intellectual person goes through, until the thought occurs to them, what if private property is NOT fundamental–which of course it isn’t historically–then my whole thought system falls apart and they go on a different crusade. I have known people to veer from the libertarian system to socialism in the process of reaching a moderate viewpoint. Therefore I will not charge the libertarian with lack of empathy. The libertarians I knew did not actually lack empathy.

  2. Steve says:

    You’re totally missing the point of Libertarianism. You absolutely can believe people who need help should get help without believing the government should do it. I’m a Christian humanist Libertarian, and I’m deeply offended by your argument.

    • The Militant One says:

      And just who do you propose is going to help them – Ted Cruz with his 0.3% in charitable contributions? And I’m not missing the point of libertarianism – the basic underlying philosophy is “Laissez faire economics works for me, so if it doesn’t work for you – tough shit”.

      • Steve says:

        No, it isn’t. The libertarian attitude toward helping people is that private charity does it better than the government. But I think what really bothers me about your article is that you’re dealing in absolutes. Just because you’ve known libertarians who don’t care about other people doesn’t mean you can’t care about people if you’re a libertarian. There have been Democrats who’ve turned out to be serial killers. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a Democrat and not be a serial killer. I know I’m taking your argument to a logical extreme, but my point is you’re telling me I CAN’T be a humanist and a libertarian at the same time, and that’s just not true.

      • The Militant One says:

        But there are two BIG problems with your response. 1.) The fiscal and monetary policies that libertarians propose are unnecessarily cruel and create greater income disparity and suffering. (Read Thomas Piketty’s relatively new book for the evidence, although belief in sky monsters would seem to preclude any respect for evidence.) And I repeat – this is at odds with humanitarian principles. 2.) Private charity cannot be counted on to provide help for the disadvantaged. History has shown that time and time again. So without government involvement, there is no guarantee that those in need of help will be helped. The nebulous concept that “private charity will take care of them” is false as history has shown. Again I repeat – libertarian policies and ideals are in direct conflict with the principles of humanism.

      • Steve says:

        It’s not letting me reply to your latest reply to my reply, so I’m replying to your earlier reply. … Anyway, I understand why you believe as you do, but you’re assigning motives to libertarians that aren’t there, based on looking through the world through the lens of your own political beliefs. To you, it’s obvious that libertarian policies are harmful to the poor. Therefore, libertarians don’t care about the poor. To me, it’s equally obvious that libertarian policies are actually beneficial to the poor in the long run. And I’m not going to get into a point-by-point discussion of why that is, because neither one of us is going to convince the other of anything. (Of course, neither of us is going to convince the other of anything anyway, but I at least want to defend my point of view to this extent.) But I don’t think you’re a bad person for disagreeing with me, and I think it’s kind of crappy for you to assume I’m a bad person for disagreeing with you. That’s all I’m trying to say.

        This is my last post on this topic. I hope you have a nice day.

  3. Andy Norman says:

    Well said, Bill K. Same to you, Bill H. I had a similar discussion in one of my classes a couple of years ago. I had the audacity to conjecture that libertarians were congenitally low in empathy. A libertarian student went completely nuts, shouting and ranting before stomping out of the room. I later learned that my claim was somewhat unfair: while libertarians typically lack empathy for faceless strangers, they’re often capable of the full range of empathetic responses to family and friends. I should have qualified my hypothesis in this way, I think.

  4. Dan says:

    Taking a more macro analysis of distribution of wealth or anything for that matter (remember the old bell curve from high school?), there will always be people at the top and always be those less fortunate. It has to be that way, repeat, IT HAS TO BE THAT WAY. Point is that we’re all going to be on a different rung of the ladder of success.

    The humanist must adopt a socialist approach for equality. The fundamental Libertarian doesn’t have that luxury and that’s where their argument falls on its face. You cannot be purely Libertarian and purely humanist.

  5. Bill Helwig says:

    Sorry to have missed the discussion, I would like to add to what Bill K said. It seems to me the idea of laissez-faire is an irrational belief. At its heart is the preposterous, magically claim that things will work out the best for the most people if government doesn’t get involved. Further they have the audacity to suggest that as libertarians they are merely opposing coercion. History shows us very clearly what happens when religions get power, heretics are burned, humans sacrificed, and women become chattel. Likewise, we need look no further than the late 19th and early 20th century to find what life is like under a laissez-faire system. Before unions and government regulation; extreme exploitation, horrendous unsafe working conditions, and long hours with no days off.

  6. jessica says:

    While I do not think programs that help people should be eliminated I do think that a yearly requalification of certain assistance programs might be beneficial . Some people would rather die than ask for help, others make a career out of using certain programs. This is something I see on a daily basis. And have seen for many years. Just like with unemployment compensation which we all pay into, you must show you are actively searching for employment, why shouldn’t people who are on welfare and other forms of public assistance show that they have an active interest in becoming gainfully employed. Everyone falls on tough times , yes, however these programs were meant to help temporarily not be taken advantage of indefinitely.

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