Are identity politics relevant to libertarianism?

identity politics

I recently read an interesting article in which a libertarian woman claims that libertarians will not move forward until they adopt a more accepting view on identity politics.

The primary issue is what identity politics aim to accomplish: are they intended to change public opinion through argument and education? Or are they intended to influence policy and produce special legislation? In the first case, identity politics are extremely important, even to the libertarian. They give voice to the underprivileged and educate the majority on minority issues. What the libertarian cannot abide by, however, is the lobbying of identity groups for privileged legal status or protection.

I wonder if libertarians shy away from identity politics because they feel identity politics often attempt to undermine the rule of law. Identity groups often seek special status in the name of equality, or seek equality of outcome instead of equality of process.  Part of the libertarian philosophy is that the political machine should not cater to any group’s “interests” at all, or more accurately, that all group’s interests are best protected by the rule of law.

I have heard leftists argue that equality of process and the rule of law do in fact protect one set of interests – white, male, middle/upper class, Christians – and that to vote libertarian is to vote in favor of this group’s interest. This seems to be the crux: if you believe this is true, then you need identity politics to “level the playing field.” But if you believe equality of process and the rule of law promotes all interests, then identity politics losses is urgency. I would offer this as the reason why libertarians often seem unconcerned with identity politics.

In a free society, people can favor and shun anyone they wish. It will always be the job of caring and enlightened people to convert popular opinion to one of understanding and compassion, but I would be wary of anyone trying to affect this change through policy. There is no policy that can change people’s hearts, and what we lose in terms of freedom of speech and association may outweigh what we gain through forced civility.

For me, identity politics point to a conflict best captured in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty: the conflict of trying to have both freedom OF opinion and freedom FROM opinion. If we are all free to have opinions, then we cannot promise that public opinion will favor all people, groups and lifestyles – unless we restrain this freedom.  Interestingly, it is often the most liberal minded people who in the name of the freedom of thought, opinion, and expression will condemn these very freedoms when used to come to illiberal conclusions. Some would argue that this restraint is worth it; I think such a power would be very dangerous.


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