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.