If you’ve read any of this site’s work, you may know that it’s rather critical of aspects of the libertarian left – for instance, their stance on unions, “thick libertarianism”, or the term “capitalism“. Well, this topic is no exception. Of the numerous discussions that have been circulating through the “libertarian movement” that this site has addressed, the one concerning “privilege” is one that tends to stand out to the most. Whether it is coming from Cathy Reisenwitz, Julie Borowski (who criticizes it), the Center for a Stateless Society, or others, it is a difficult discussion to not come across. Whether you are a neo-con, liberal, anarcho-capitalist, left-libertarian, minarchist, and so on, you are probably familiar with the term. One side says “check your privilege!” while another says “check your premises!” Or, one person will argue that those who are exclaiming for privileges to be checked are just trying to shut others up, while those doing the exclaiming will counter that that person is ignoring the problem.

 

So what does it mean to be “privileged”? Well, as of late, it isn’t that difficult to come across a definition. For example, Kevin Carson in “On the Value of Privilege Theory: A Summary”, writes that privilege is:

“[…]by definition, nothing more than the relative advantage that not being oppressed confers on you compared to those who are. In Cathy Reisenwitz’s succinct phrase, privilege is nothing more than the fact that ‘you began the race a few steps ahead’ of someone else.”

 

But if that’s the definition, how is it that privilege is the problem? I thought the problem was that some people are oppressed, not that some people aren’t. And there’s no denying that it may take being somewhat selfless (that’s the “checking” part) to realize this. In  Privilege Is a Plastic Spork, Cathy Reisenwitz continues this argument:

“Oppression is fucking uncomfortable. Realizing that you began the race a few steps ahead of the guy on the corner begging for change is really unpleasant. Anything which threatens the certainty that “everything you have, you earned,” isn’t something most people lean into or enjoy. Everyone is most intimately familiar with their own oppression, and is naturally most sympathetic to it.”

 

Yet, this argument is highly flawed. To begin with, it equates “being a few steps ahead” with actual oppression. Certainly actual oppression can cause one to be more steps ahead, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Because I may be a few steps ahead, does not mean I am oppressing anyone, nor does it mean what I have is due to some injustice.  Also, what is the bar for when you are not privileged? What amount or degree of privilege is thought to be optimal and what is considered sub-optimal? Would it be more optimal to make $50,000 per year or $5 million per year? I suspect she doesn’t know and would say that it depends on the circumstances (see “social context”). If that is the case she would be making a relativist argument, which can’t be taken seriously. How can there be any kind of ethics or norms if they are not universalizable? The bar is always able to be moved because the theory is so relativistic and vague to begin with.

 

I “checked,” and I acknowledge that I am sometimes not oppressed where someone else might be. Now what? Well, the supposed next step is when you find yourself in opposition to the claims of a member of an oppressed group, such as a woman being harassed on the street, or a black or Latino male being harassed by the police, you are to ask yourself if you are in the right sort of “epistemic position” to be so opposed. However, this borders on polylogism. It’s true that my opposition to the claims of another person — any  person — might be based in part on incomplete information. But not always. And certainly not because “privilege” in any sense where a vague “check your privilege” (rather than just searching for the information that is missing from my initial evaluation of the claims) can be a proper response.

 

This does not mean that I think that privilege is non-existent. What I mean is that it relies on completely arbitrary circumstances that can change throughout an analysis to the point where it becomes a meaningless term. How in any way would this constitute me thinking that “privilege” can’t be a problem or doesn’t exist, as is often suggested by left-libertarians? If you were to generalize and stereotype me as a typical white guy I can admit, in some sense, I may be a “few steps” ahead  than, say, a Latino living in a rough part of town. I may have had the opportunity to go to a better school, may have come across less discrimination, and chances are I may have been financially better off than this individual. One area where it gets tricky though is considering the privilege he or she has over someone who lives in a third world country? I have no idea what it is like to be in any of these individuals’ shoes. Another area that presents a problem when one group does not have any obvious inherent advantages over another. As a man, do I automatically have more privilege than a woman (or is this dependent on “social context” too)? Maybe. What if this woman was born in a better neighborhood, was raised in an upper income family, and had better access to institutions, whereas I was born in a lower income family and didn’t have the same opportunities as she did? It’s obviously debatable. Am I born more privileged than a black man at the same time? Maybe. What if he then becomes more successful than me, such as a performance artist or an athlete, or even a heart surgeon? Does me being white out-privilege his being wealthier? And does he have more privilege than someone like Ellen Degeneres or Elton John?  What about their kids, who definitely “start the race” ahead of me?

 

Or perhaps I am misunderstanding privilege.

As Carson would argue in Why Privilege Theory is Necessary, I am:

“This is closely related to another common misconception about privilege: That it’s about who’s better off in absolute terms. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a white person to deny that they’re privileged because (say) they were severely abused as children, or grew up malnourished in a house without indoor plumbing. But “white privilege” doesn’t mean that all white people are quantitatively better off, in absolute terms, than all people of color. It means that being white, as such, confers a differential advantage, all other things being equal. Of course all other things are never equal. So some severely impoverished or maltreated whites may be worse off in absolute terms than some well-to-do upper-middle-class blacks. The point, rather, is that when a black and white person are alike in all other things except race, the white person is better off than a black person who faces the same situation in all particulars except for being black.”

 

First, this statement reads like Kevin Carson is a class theory entrepreneur (as opposed to economist, that is, he is speculating). What do I mean?

 

Well, if Kevin Carson is making a scientific prediction, i.e., “when a black and white person are alike in all other things except race, the white person is better off than a black person who faces the same situation  in all particulars except for being black”,  then it should be treated like one and turned into an economic statement. When that happens, suddenly the prior scientific statement turns out to be a non-scientific one because it’s an economic speculation about the future state of an economy based on the past state of an economy.  It simply is not definitively true that context is irrelevant to this analysis.  If, hypothetically, the context changes so the black individuals in a community are rich doctors, politicians and businessmen, while the white members of that community are poor and harrassed by police, then it would be definitively untrue that being white conferred a differential advantage.

 

But let’s humor the statement by assuming that it’s valid. Where does it lead but to racial econometrics? Some sort of strange attempt to judge “privilege” by outcomes and mathematical tricks.  He’s speculating. He’s not predicting and being scientific like he wants the reader to believe.

 

Second, “It means that being white, as such, confers a differential advantage, all other things being equal,” is an unprovable and useless statement. A priori, it cannot be true, unless we are already assuming (as the racists of old) that being white is somehow “superior”. And empirically, none of this is possible to verify, because as he continues, “Of course all other things are never equal.”  Causation cannot be shown through empiricism, you can’t say Y happened after X, so therefore because of it. It might be circumstantially true (not to say whether you could prove that) but it is not and cannot be a priori true. It is therefore not a social or economic fact any more than it is a biological fact that apples bought by me have more bruises than apples bought by you, or that Christians have more blessings than Muslims.

 

Thirdly, the issue is that privilege, even if we accept its existence is hardly quantifiable.  Sure, I, as a straight white cismale, might be “most privileged”, but what about a gay black man?  He has male privilege, but is unprivileged because of his race and sexuality.  What about a straight Latino woman?  A white transwoman?  This quickly devolves into the “Oppression Olympics” with a whole bunch of “intersectional” activists fighting over who is most oppressed.

 

So if “privilege” amounts only to an unprovable assertion that has no bearing on theoretical economics nor makes sense as some sort of application to my life…. why should I care? Checking my privilege can do nothing and never will do anything other than bring myself and others down. It will do nothing, nothing at all, for the unprivileged for me to check mine. Keep telling people to check their privilege. But to what end?

 

If I recognize that your apples are more bruised than mine then that is recognizing a circumstantial occurrence. There is no a priori fact I can point to as the cause for why my “privileged” apples will always be better than yours. To attempt to do so would only accomplish less than nothing toward the problem of apples getting bruised.

 

Sure we can attempt to identify causes that bear out more bruised apples going to black people and more appealing apples going to Asian people. But to identify such a cause would be to tease that very cause apart from “because race privilege.” To identify an actual cause would be decidedly smarter than feeling bad that I belong to a class of people to which some as yet unnamed cause has given more appealing apples. Privilege avoids cause, and for what? Damned if I know.

 

In light of what I have said, one could argue that my own privilege may blind me to the effects of oppression.

 

For starters, this argument often leads to a form of kafkatrapping. Kafkatrapping, as Wendy McElroy argues:

“[d]escribes a logical fallacy that is popular within gender feminism, racial politics and other ideologies of victimhood. It occurs when you are accused of a thought crime such as sexism, racism or homophobia. You respond with an honest denial, which is then used as further confirmation of your guilt. You are now trapped in a circular and unfalsifiable argument; no one who is accused can be innocent because the structure of kafkatrapping precludes that possibility.”

 

By definition, saying that one disagrees because they are blind to the effects of oppression is to create a loop of logic. Any denial they put forth is taken as evidence that they are just blind to those effects. Ad nauseam.

 

Second, there is no reason why not being oppressed, or being well off, makes one “blind to the effects of oppression”, per se, so it is insensible to assert that this is necessarily the case. For instance, I am a big advocate of bombs not being dropped on innocents in the Middle East. I am not experiencing any of that oppression, nor am at risk of doing so. Nor would I say those that are not advocating for peace on those grounds are blinded by “privilege” — that’s a mere euphemism for a problem that is not solved by a “check yours” statement. This is further evidenced by the fact that people who make use of such statements seem to care little about actual oppression (things like trade quotas, tariff systems, and militarism all feed into this oppression of foreigners, for instance), instead focusing on offensive language or other minor slights against their feelings like “gender-based insults” (only ones based on women, though, because they aren’t privileged, you see).

 

Privilege does exist and can be problematic when fueled by actual oppression, and I am for doing something about it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with libertarians speaking about privilege. The only real issue is: what can be done about it? If there is nothing an individual can do, nothing that can be done by anyone, it’s just a guilt manipulation tactic, or a means of making those focused on it feel better about themselves. If it means loosening restrictions to bring everyone into a world of freedom, and removing any political subsidies or special protections via the state granted to some at the expense of others, then sure. I am all for doing this, or more specifically, I care about privileges that are conferred through force, such as when the state artificially places people in power or even a criminal or businessman doing so through fraud or theft. If we are talking about an employer who treats their employees rather well and is a stand up guy, sure, he has some more “privilege” than his employees (such as being paid more and in a place of more authority), but I see no reason to object to this all on its own.

 

If the scenario is that this person is using his position as a boss to be a bigot of some sort that is something else. First, by todays standards, again, I want to end the state (which is the pinnacle of voracious institutions that prey on individuals while helping others do the same) so less people are dependent on employers such as this, and they can (possibly) be their own boss and (with the state gone) there is more competition to go to. That is, I’d like the “privileged” bigot boss to be punished through market forces. Nonetheless, there is nothing unique to libertarianism in being opposed to this behavior. Being a decent human is why I am opposed to this. I can be a Buddhist, statist, atheist, etc., and still arrive at the same conclusion. Or, I can act in this awful way and still be a libertarian. I would just be a scumbag libertarian. Libertarianism is a political philosophy. Even if it’s a moral philosophy about nonaggression, that’s still irrelevant to, say, bigotry except to say you don’t get to beat me up for being a bigot or for being a member of a certain social group.

 

People will argue that I am ignoring the problem, just as it is argued that calling yourself “color-bind” ignores the problem of race. But remember what was said about kafkatrapping. There is a difference between ignoring the problem and wanting to treat all individuals — regardless of race/gender/sexual preference — as individuals. Which one is it, treat them equally or patronize them and treat them differently based on their differences? I did already acknowledge they may have come across different hardships in life I may not have.

 

If individual person A is being oppressed, then steps should be taken to cease that oppression. (That they don’t make this case is telling.) But not all persons of class X are the same. And mere privilege (as in “not being oppressed”, rather than the historical definition of having special laws applied to only some) is irrelevant to discovering and rooting out oppression. In other words, they aren’t pointing out oppression and saying X, Y, and Z laws need to change. They just rant about privilege. It’s more “feel bad for not being oppressed” than any sort of investigation into ending or reducing oppression. Which fits given the overly broad and insensible definition of oppression (catcalling, etc. are included, even though they have no legal protection nor are they violations of person or property).

 

Left-libertarians don’t have a monopoly on truth and justice, particularly in this area. This is a moral high ground fallacy. The moral high ground is an impenetrable castle. Once claimed, the person’s stance is secured and backed by purity and monopolistic virtue. Winning an argument isn’t about you, it’s about everyone else. Being at the top of the moral high ground is always preferable, since everyone can hear the person on top shouting down to those below. There seems to be no refutation to this law. If anything is said that seems objectionable, the author can simply retreat and say what they really meant was just that “people should be equal” or “we should help the poor,” or some other unobjectionable moral stance, rather than the objectionable statements they have made previously. This motte and bailey tactic (so named for the medieval tactic of retreating to the bailey whenever the army was threatened on the motte — or field) is a rather dishonest way to deal with criticism, but seems to come naturally with the left.  Sure, some libertarians may not understand these issues as much because they are new to libertarianism or may focus elsewhere such as economics, but it requires incredible hubris to assume that only left-libertarians focus on, care for, or are the only ones correct about these social issues as much as is implied.

 

Libertarians, of all brands, have long been champions of people who have generally been oppressed or who have historically been on the spiky end of the government (and societal) stick. There are few to no libertarians who don’t acknowledge that, say, the War on Drugs may disproportionately hurt poor black people more than it does rich white people. So if checking ones “privilege” means “acknowledging that some people do have systemic advantages in the legal system and elsewhere due to socioeconomically factors beyond their control,” then most libertarians already acknowledge this.

 

However, that doesn’t generally seem to be what “privilege” means to certain individuals — including many on the left. Instead it seems to be overwriting individualism in many ways: by favoring a collectivized, aggregated view of people where people’s unique traits, upbringing, and individual circumstances are discarded for assumptions solely made on gender, race, etc. And that’s what most libertarians reject, rightfully so.

 

Assuming you know a person’s individual circumstances,  their comparative advantages in society, or the hardships they have encountered over the course of their lives — based on some statistical aggregates — is the very thing that an individualist perspective should help us avoid doing.

 

You see, “checking privilege” would be acknowledging something that libertarians predominantly already acknowledge — that the government (and to a lesser — but still important — extent, broader civil society) treats different groups of people differently, and in many cases this causes disproportionate harm — often based off of historical racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc., only with pointless collectivist buzzwords and fallacies added on that either do nothing or make things worse.

 

The left is doing what a lot of younger (in the sense of “newer to the philosophy”) libertarians do — they discovered an issue and are now assuming that they are the first to ever discover and call attention to it or even care.

 

But of course, Radley Balko has been writing about the disproportionate effects of the drug war and police for about 20 years, the IJ Review has been defending the rights of the poor and minorities against lousy laws and cronyism for about 30, and Wendy McElroy, Deirdre McCloskey, Virginia Postrel, etc, have been writing about feminism in libertarianism forever. Libertarianism broadly counts among its greatest luminaries, Ayn Rand, a quintessentially empowered woman.

 

These issues are not ignored at all as many left-libertarians claim. Certainly not in any sense where people deny these disproportionate effects exist. As far as I can tell, that is a real straw man that left-libertarians base many of their pontifications on. The idea that libertarians don’t recognize that in general a white male is less likely to be the victim of various types of abuse than a racial minority or a woman is utterly false.

 

Some may even suggest it is not about guilt, but awareness. Yet this is disingenuous. That implies the people in general are well-advised to check privilege in general. But that is hardly what anybody’s talking about. I, as a beneficiary of privilege am always supposed to check my privilege, not just look around and notice that privilege exists. If true, the “not guilt, but awareness” point would be something less objectionable that I could agree with; but there we have the old motte and bailey tactics again. Here is an innocuous definition — privilege means different people face different challenges — that denies the reality of how the term is actually applied in discourse and debate. It will be said that “everyone is both privileged and oppressed to some degree” and then the premise shifts to be about how everything bad is patriarchy.

 

Thus, the real issue is that the aspects of leftism that are being imported into libertarianism right now are actually the terrible ones, rather than the anti-war, anti-corporate-welfare, pro-civil-liberties track that is agreed upon between the left and the believer in liberty. And yes, I understand the intent of these individuals in calling out certain social phenomenons that have multi-faceted layers to them and seem to negatively impact society in many ways, such as sexism, racism,  and so on. However, the issue with these statements is the implication that the problem with, e.g., bigotry is that it “feeds into” privilege . Or in other words, that the problem with racism is that some people are not victims of it. I’m supposed to object to the fact that bigotry feed[s] into systematic privilege that certain groups have. That’s not what I object to about bigotry at all. It misses the whole point. If “privilege” is “not being oppressed”, my goal should be to extend privilege to everyone, not “check it”. It’s only if “privilege” constitutes special benefits granted by law that anyone should be concerned about it. It’s a conflation between “privilege” as Bastiat used it – the source of legal plunder – and the “new” meaning of simply “not having X disadvantage”.

 

Nevertheless, these are broad and useless things on their own. “Sexism is bad”. Ok, but what does that mean specifically? Is [insert event here] sexism? What about sexism against men? What about…? You can see how this ends up going nowhere without pointing out specific, I hope. Certainly, we all have issues we will focus on with the voluntary arrangement of society. But we will not agree on these things. Nor are they something that should be prioritized over coercive legal oppression (which is not the same thing as catcalling or offensive shirts or whatever else the “anti-privilege” crowd is going on about now).

The great presumption that some sort of belief in a particular ideal social organization is somehow “libertarian” is absurd. And that’s the root of the issue we have here.

 

 

 

 

*The authors would like to thank numerous individuals on both sides who contributed in discussion in the process of writing this including Rocco Stanzione, Jason Lee Byas, Sean Malone, Nathan Goodman, Henry Moore, Lucy Steigerwald, Von Fugal, MK Lords, Daniel Brackins.