Number 10, July 1996

Strategic Libertarianism

By Wendy McElroy

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise

         I am currently working on a book entitled Gutter Feminism: The Rights of Whores which argues from a feminist perspective for the decriminalization of prostitution. As part of the research, I am interviewing and/or corresponding with over a hundred working prostitutes. When discussing this project with libertarians, a question constantly arises: Why do I focus on marginalized people and unpopular issues as vehicles to express my libertarianism? Why don't I write a more mainstream book, for example, on affirmative action which will be more sympathetically received by a wider audience?
         This question is a strategic one. And I believe it highlights a weak point in the current libertarian approach to societal change, which has become especially prevalent within the Libertarian Party. This is the marked tendency to underplay or to silence discussion of embarrassing civil liberties, such as the decriminalization of whores and drugs.
         There is a sense in which all libertarians approach victimless crimes in the same manner. We agree that these are peaceful activities in which government and law can serve no proper function. Apart from this basic statement, however, approaches widely diverge. The divergence is not so much apparent in the printed literature, which is generally silent on unpopular causes. It is apparent in the intangible attitudes of the movement, again especially within the Libertarian Party.
         Too often, the manner in which libertarians defend victimless criminals is "I do not personally approve of prostitution/heroine. I would not participate in it. But everyone has the right to be a revolting human being. Let's move on to economics." This condemnatory defense places the speaker's sense of disgust on the same level -- if not a higher one -- as his or her recognition of the self-ownership of the people being persecuted by the state. Among the professions I find personally disgusting is undertaking. But libertarians would find it bizarre if I were to defend a state-persecuted funeral parlor in the following manner: 'I do not personally approve of undertaking. I would not participate in it. But undertakers have the right to be revolting human beings."
         Libertarians do not defend tax resisters because they are nice people with laudable lifestyles. They defend them because they are persecuted by the state. Equally, we do not defend or refuse to defend whores because they are either wonderful or contemptible people: they are victims of the state. If taxation is theft, then arresting a whore is kidnapping. Just as libertarians condemn the IRS for the suffering it causes, so too should we rail against local Vice Departments for the agony they inflict.
         Two things are at issue in the condemnatory defense of civil liberties -- for example, the liberties of a whore. First, the speaker's personal preferences. Second, the prostitute's right of self-ownership. Although the speaker's sexual preferences have moral import, they are entirely irrelevant to a political analysis of prostitution. Indeed, it could be argued that the issues that make you the most uncomfortable are precisely the ones you should speak out on: they are the litmus test of how seriously you take a commitment to liberty. Are you for choice, or only for the choices of which you approve? After all, libertarianism is simply the political philosophy that says all relationships should be voluntary.
         Otherwise stated, liberty is 'freedom of choice'. By their discomfort in defending unpopular causes, some libertarians reveal a greater commitment to a particular 'choice' than to 'freedom'.
         Yet, because of personal aversion or from fear of how a defense of prostitution would be received, libertarians often stick to economic issues and abandon victimless 'criminals' to their own devices.
         In the midst of this analysis, a valid strategic point arises. Given that there are many injustices and time is limited, which injustice should receive attention? Economic issues, it is argued, should be preferred because they have mass appeal. For example, since everyone pays taxes, a campaign against raising tax levels is likely to resonate happily in most people's minds. By contrast, a campaign to decriminalize prostitution has far more limited appeal. This is an argument on the relative value of allocating resources.
         I contend that unpopular civil liberties have a marked practical advantage over mass-appeal issues because they bypass one of libertarianism's main strategic problems. The first hurdle that libertarianism faces is to convince people that the government and government power is invalid. The man-on-the-street may dislike paying taxes, but he does not fundamentally question the legitimacy of Congress to levy them in some form. He may agree that this particular Congress is a travesty, but his solution is to elect a different one, not to abolish the institution. Because his oppression is the same as what his neighbors experience, the common man is likely to view it as the status quo and grumble against 'tax resisters' who attempt to escape the 'duties' of every American. As long as the oppression is not too extreme, a law that makes everyone suffer equally can easily assume the aura of fairness.
         No similar aura or problem is encountered in dealing with prostitutes. Most of them have had direct and brutal experience with the enforcement end of the state. They don't have to be convinced that laws are oppressive and that the system is corrupt. They are the sort of 'special interest' group that is remarkably open to the ideas of anyone who has a sincere interest in correcting the wrongs being done to them. And, remember, the left has done very well through championing special interest groups, like minorities and gays. Indeed, it could be argued that special interest groups are the backbone of Clinton's support.
         Much of the argument for strategically de-emphasizing civil liberties comes from the drive toward political power, as expressed through the Libertarian Party. For those who seek to use the political means, issues like prostitution are an acute handicap. The political means requires impressive vote totals and this means courting respectability. It means distancing the movement from issues which might alienate the common man. It means offering condemnatory defenses of sticky civil liberties, if any defense is offered at all.
         Too many libertarians wish to be respectable radicals. They don't want to face the hostility and hard arguments that accompanies a true defense of liberty -- economic and civil. They prefer to remain with economic or public policy stands. In doing so, libertarians are becoming difficult to distinguish from 'republicans in a hurry'.

A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom, Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner.

Next to advance to the next article, or Previous to return to the previous article, or Index to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 10, July, 1996.