Commiting to individualism means a commitment to identity politics

Over the last five years, the libertarian movement has expanded drastically. What was largely a niche group of individualist and anarchist radicals in the 1970s and 80s has been transformed in the last decade. Approval ratings for both of the parties have dropped as much as their views have grown apart.  Bloated budgets, increased secularization and a distrust in governmental efficacy have furthered libertarian ideas.

But there is a bias in this growth, as Gina Luttrell points out,

I’ll be frank. Most libertarians are white, middle class, men. It was painfully obvious when you walked around the corridors of the Hyatt in Washington, D.C. White, middle class men are the people who, by and large, get to experience true individuality. Our culture sees white men as the “standard” or the “normal.” Thus, they are a “blank slate” upon which they get to write whatever they want.


As she goes on to explain, the experience of the white male is the standard blank slate from which the “Other” is constructed. Regardless of one’s recognition of it, and this is typically the case for white men and women, there is privilege imbued in white skin that confers the person a litany of advantages. This helps to reinforce the differences between white men, the standard bearer for the society, and the Other.

I agree with Gina and am similarly amazed by those who claim themselves to be libertarians but abhor identity politics. The demands of freedom and liberty require that we further understand how individuals are made into groups and stripped of their uniqueness both by society and by government. Libertarians more than any other know that the State makes us into groups and into statistics, but we should take the step further and consider how society does the same. At its core, identity politics and critical theory are aiming to do just that.

Thus, the pillar of individuality that is so often touted by libertarians is rightly seen to be disingenuous to those who are not white or male because they aren’t seen as individuals by society. Instead, they are groups, which individualists, of all people, should be interested in studying. More than any other, this social process is hardly discussed in the canon of libertarian thought.

bell hooks, a black feminist scholar, hinted at the problem when speaking on postmodernism,

We have too long had imposed upon us from both the out­side and the inside a narrow, constricting notion of blackness. Postmodern critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of self and the assertion of agency.

One primary aim in this article is to urge social theorists to consider black identity in the context of modern social theory. Her aim is radically individualist, which makes the explicit omission by modern libertarians of this kind of thinking especially problematic. To be clear, if there is a commitment to individualism then identity politics must be part of the broader conversation.

The political development of the libertarian movement will be one of the most interesting in the coming years, but it needs to consider its position within politics. It needs to be self critical and reflective of where it lies on the political spectrum. Some might claim that I am trying to change the scope of debate with these questions. But it seems to me that we just need to apply the classical liberal mindset to the modern world. This doesn’t mean a retreat to the ideas of the old at the expense of the new, but the inclusion of the new as an addendum to the old.

First published Feb 23, 2013