In the wake of the Portland rioting and subsequent deployment of federal law enforcement officers in that city to protect federal property and enforce federal law, there has been something of a trend on that dystopian hellscape of a microblogging site – Twitter – where the sort of people who normally oppose libertarianism and/or don’t understand it suddenly had the nerve to criticize libertarians’ bona fides and ask for our help.
Such as this senator from Hawaii:
To which I retorted (in the only acceptable form of retort, a quote-tweet):
This verified reply guy added:
Or see, for example, this “gun violence” activist, who seems to be… calling for gun violence? Very strange.
This response from Rep. Thomas Massie more or less sums up why most libertarians look at something like the situation in Portland and shrug:
Libertarian ideology is much-misunderstood by its detractors and, often enough, also misunderstood by those who claim to be its adherents. Unlike, say, Marxism or Critical Theory, libertarian doctrine is not complex; though there are analytical frameworks, there are no overly formal dialectics or theories, there are few leaders, there is no scripture.
There is little officialdom. Which perhaps is to be expected given that libertarianism is a belief system that focuses on individual liberty above all else. It should be accessible to anyone, not just navel-gazing philosophy graduate students. The truth of the theory is not taught, but experienced: each libertarian knows that the improvement of his or her lot is determined not by a faraway ruler or an abstract political party but by concrete actions he or she deliberately takes in their everyday life.
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” The ideology seeks to maximize individual freedom to allow us the greatest amount of latitude to pursue our individual ends in the limited time we have on Earth.
The closest thing to an agreed upon maxim for modern American libertarianism – the idea I find is most widely held – is something known as the “non-aggression principle” or NAP. Put simply, the NAP states that “initiating aggression is wrong,” or more simply, “aggression is wrong.”
It seeks to understand the world in bilateral terms (Alice and Bob are the only people in existence; Alice points a gun to Bob’s head and orders him to do something in circumstances where Bob has done nothing wrong to Alice – indeed he has no relationship to Alice prior to this moment. Is Alice in the right to do this, if she feels her cause is sufficiently meritorious?) and then scales those analogies up to society at large.
At what point does a coercive action which would be reprehensible and criminal if done by one person to another person become acceptable if it is done by many people to one person? Two to one? Three to one? Fifty to one? A million to one? There is, of course, no answer to this question; libertarians say that this is because the use of coercive force is wrong no matter how many people require its use against how few.
Of course, we have to live in a society and the hypothetical Hobbesian war of all against all is not a reality on the ground (except perhaps in places like the Seattle CHAZ), so the essential task of those of us who call ourselves libertarians is on how to devise a system that maximizes freedom – of speech, to keep and bear arms, from invasion of privacy, etc. – and opportunity while providing the necessary coercive levers, but no more than that, to ensure that personal and property crime do not go unpunished and individuals are free to choose the courses of their own lives.
The “ideal” situation here, too, is unknown; different libertarians will have different opinions about what rules are needed to bring this freedom-maximizing, coercion-minimizing state about. For my part, I generally think that the English common law circa 1777 (the last year before the imposition of the first income tax in the English-speaking world) is a good guidepost, with consequential updates to account for financial regulation and the like; many of my friends give me a hard time for this, arguing that finance should be totally deregulated and remedies for e.g. sketchy initial coin offerings should be private rather than at the direction of enforcement agencies of the state. Antitrust law and enforcement is another common point of contention.
Traditionally libertarian policy positions
With this as our background, we arrive at the current discussion, of camouflaged, militarized federal police conducting arrests for violations of federal law on the streets of Portland.
Libertarians have been complaining about all of this for years. Libertarians complained when, after 9/11, strip searches were introduced in airports and warrantless wiretaps were conducted on American citizens. Libertarians complained about going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Libertarians continue to complain about the militarization of our police. Libertarians complained when the military started bringing home military hardware like MRAPs and Humvees and sold them to our police. Libertarians complained when gun control laws were passed that meant that police could possess M4s and AR-15s and citizens could not. Libertarians complained about drug legalization and mass incarceration. And so on.
And now, to quote a famous internet meme, that the world is on fire and the barbarians are at the gate you have the audacity to come to the libertarians for help?
Libertarians want to be left alone. Trying to draft libertarians into a cause misunderstands the sort of people libertarians are, particularly when the cause in question is on behalf of not peaceful protestors, but rather people who are willing to set federal buildings on fire and assault federal agents when they don’t get their way in federal politics. Libertarians realize that these are the sort of people that the Constitution was designed to contain.
When this weird historical moment passes and sanity is restored, I’m sure many libertarians would be happy to explain to you – those who now seek our input on your pet cause – of the ideology’s extreme discomfort with the fact that the government accounts for greater than 50% of GDP and its views on the imperfect implementation of the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Tenth Amendments, among other things. Libertarians will also be happy to explain how they think long term structural change in the United States that will benefit all can come about by leaving Americans alone to make individual choices.
But you weren’t listening to the libertarians before. The libertarians likely suspect you won’t be listening to them later if your “side” wins on November 3rd.
What of the protests, then?
What the “liberty” position on violent riots (where both peaceful protestors and the use of excessive force by police may also each be present) should be
Rioting is bad (and illegal). The use of excessive force or carrying out an unlawful arrest is also bad (and illegal). Peaceful protest is good (and legal). Legitimate use of police power to protect public property from destruction – property belonging to the judiciary, no less – is also good (and legal). Peaceful protestors may have violent elements hidden within their ranks. A line of good cops may have a few who step over the line. Portland is a bad, high tension situation where good people might accidentally or intentionally do bad things and bad people might accidentally or intentionally do bad things, with or without the approval – express or tacit – of other people on their “side.” All of this is capable of being true at the same time.
“If you’re not on the side of the protestors, you adopt the actions of every policeman whether justified or not” is a binary argument – and a false choice – being rolled out with increasing frequency in an election year by people who should know better, such as WaPo journalist and militarized policing writer Radley Balko:
The Non-Aggression Principle means you don’t start fights. It also means that you don’t take the same side as people who start fights. If two groups are engaged in a cycle of escalating violence the NAP says it’s OK – even moral – to not get involved.
I think if you ask your “average” libertarian what they think, they’d say that they support free speech, but that “setting buildings on fire and throwing things at people who aren’t throwing things at you is wrong” is something most of us learned when we were four years old. No volume of class-based revolutionary theory changes the analysis. Accordingly, the “average” libertarian is likely to think setting federal courthouses on fire or throwing projectiles at federal workers is also wrong and, quite apart from that, an incredibly stupid thing to do. In any event, the rioters’ conduct is way over the line for constitutionally-protected advocacy of violence set down by Brandenburg v. Ohio, and is indeed so far over that line that anyone engaged in that activity, regardless of motivations, should expect to meet the full force of the law.
As to how those consequences are handed down, the “average” libertarian might say something along the lines of “we hope and expect that due process will be afforded to anyone accused of a crime, that anyone accused will be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that the U.S. Attorney will conduct its investigation into federal law enforcement activity impartially.”
Beyond that, whilst libertarian pamphlets generally read more like Andy Griffith than Jacques Derrida, and we may be plain-speaking, we aren’t stupid. I suspect that many of the officials and think-tankers presently complaining about the administrative state’s boots-on-the-ground in Portland should be all-too-happy to wield it as political appointees if the Blue Tribe wins the election on November 3rd, much as the Red Tribe wields it now. Indeed, the administrative state about which they presently complain was created on their watch.
All of which is to say, peaceful protest is great, lawbreaking yahoos should be prosecuted, the police should not be militarized, excessive force should not be used, and libertarians who don’t live in Portland – and, indeed, even those who do – didn’t start this fight, don’t have a dog in it, and are 100% justified in sitting this one out.
The best time to discuss police militarization was years ago. The next best time is after the election when libertarian positions won’t be co-opted to support illiberal agendas. Anyone trying to draft the libertarians into taking a partisan position with regard to the Portland protests/riots/whatever isn’t on the libertarians’ side. And the libertarians know it.