There is a certain trend among some young people in America to become entranced by libertarianism as they encounter it on the internet, and libertarians quite consciously have been using the internet as a means of promotion for a while. In an age in which the newer generations are born into a culture that struggles more and more to find meaning and identity, in which it is clear that the two familiar political parties are corrupt, some young people are tempted by the rhetoric and promises of libertarianism. Libertarianism may allow them to purposefully revel in a sense of being rebellious or politically incorrect, of having a kind of elite understanding in a world (a fundamentalist system of principles and various absolute claims) where everyone else has been indoctrinated.
But who has really been indoctrinated?
When I look back at my experience with libertarianism, I have little doubt that certain aspects of it share the traits of a cult or that it resembles a secular manifestation of a religious-like impulse, of a kind of fundamentalist drive. Except instead of it being about God and Satan, it’s about the fetishizing of the market and the demonization of the government. The writings of hardcore libertarians such as Murray Rothbard provide the believer with a firm set of radical claims and absolute principles, with simple and repetitious phrases and slogans, while there are figures such as Stephan Molyneux who explicitly form psychological cults online. Deviating from the basic group consensus in any significant way marks one as a fake libertarian, which regularly plays out as drama in libertarian circles.
Back when I was first getting into libertarianism, I was a vaguely liberal teenager fresh out of high school with some anti-authoritarian intuitions. This was just at the beginning of the post 9/11 era. I hated Bush and the Republicans because I hated violence and found the military scary, I disliked police power and abuse, and I couldn’t relate to social conservatism as an Atheist raised by a hippy and a social worker. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but tend to see the Democrats as establishmentarians who were weak when it came to actually supporting civil liberties. I watched the news and CSPAN a lot and came to dislike the general media political discourse that involved both groups and started to view the whole system as inept and full of idiocy. And I felt powerless.
Then I encountered Ron Paul, who referred me to the Ludwig Von Mises Institute and Murray Rothbard’s work. And the rest is history. I got heavily involved in online libertarianism from that point. This really isn’t all that uncommon of a path into libertarianism for young people, because durating that era, Ron Paul was starting to get more press and his stances on foreign policy and the depth and ferocity with which he seemed to criticize his own party ended up appealing to some disgruntled liberals. It’s just that some of us got sucked into buying into a good deal more than that, leading us into libertarianism. Libertarianism appeals to the disillusioned youth who doesn’t know any better by seducing them with the rhetoric of “liberty”, a term libertarians like to think they have a monopoly on.
Traveling in to the radical depths of libertarianism, one is lead to take the logic of free market economics and property rights (presented in an ideological way) to its extremes. Indeed, a misguided form of obsession with logic and internal consistency marks much of libertarianism: Austrian economics is built on a foundation of pure deduction and claims a priori knowledge, while the kind of “libertarian ethics” that is often talked about in those circles is designed as an absolutist set of principles that is a logical outgrowth of fundamental metaphysical facts of human nature. And the consequentialist side of libertarianism tends to fall back on the economics, bringing us full circle to a logically consistent theory that does not accurately explain the world. In either case, the radical libertarian tends to advance a certain faith in the mechanisms of the market while blaming the state as the root of all problems.
This belief is constantly reinforced via propaganda in the radical libertarian blogosphere and media. Anarcho-capitalism is all about keeping it absolute. Article after article, an ideological edifice is created in which the libertarian can shoehorn their agenda into the discussion of just about any issue, with an explanation in their back pocket for why the government is responsible for the problem and why “market alternatives” are the best of all possible worlds, whether one is talking about healthcare or the police department. Terms are defined in such a way as to explain phenomena without reference to important social contexts, by sticking to “methodological individualism” and generally having an analysis rife with prepackaged explanations based on simple and dubious dichotomies.
Now that I have been able to look at it from an outside perspective again, the libertarian diehard is someone that is convinced that they have the moral high ground in every political discussion, that everyone who disagrees with them is a “statist” (the ultimate libertarian insult) who supports violence, and that the market can do no harm, it can only spontaneously produce an order of optimal utility and correct itself along the way. And it’s all quite silly. Once one really peeks outside that echo chamber, does some serious introspection and teases out the consequences of ideas and deals with dissonance, and perhaps reads a decent sampling of philosophy and social theory that isn’t designed to propagate libertarianism, the world starts to look a lot more complicated.
But what generally happens is that the young radical libertarian gets sucked into an online and campus subculture that includes networking with other young libertarians, as well as older libertarians who have status and may function as intellectual icons and authorities (who are often economists, philosophy professors, and lawyers). Some interesting social dynamics play out with young libertarians online, and sometimes it’s very clear that the people involved are searching for identity and trying to make libertarianism into a kind of lifestyle. Furthermore, in some cases some of the young radicals are groomed as the next generation of talking heads. There are some notable libertarians who are in academia. Libertarians have consciously tried to get into academia and generally have the pretense of being on an education campaign – especially about their holy free market economics.
The way that many libertarians non-chalantly use the term “convert” is telling and bothersome.
Otherwise intelligent people with little experience in the world trying to discover themselves are vulnerable to misinformation and group-think. Libertarianism can powerfully fulfill this role insofar as it provides a simplistic explanation of a confusing world, as well as a victimology of a sort. In libertarian victimology, the individual (especially as a market actor) is a victim of the state. And all the young victims of the state move to Keene, New Hampshire, try to start their own currencies or use bitcoin, wield their guns, attend festivals where the choir is preached to, and plant pot with a shovel in front of city hall in broad daylight just to provoke their own arrest. Or they attend traditional anarchist events trying to “convert” people only to mostly meet confusion and resistance. This is what libertarian youth activism has stooped to. For these people libertarianism has become a product and a lifestyle.
Libertarianism has been sold to them…on the market. Through media. These are the dupes of rich old men in bowties, biased economics professors, and conspiracy theory activism. As for myself…well…