Tribalistic Libertarianism

Column by R.K. Blacksher.

Exclusive to STR

Libertarians like to pride themselves on their commitment to individualism. In most cases, this pride is well-deserved. In stark contrast with most other people, libertarians generally have a commitment to individualism that is unique and uncompromising.

Nonetheless, there are a number of people who parade under the libertarian banner who tend to be very selective about whose individual liberties they defend. These "libertarians" will rant for hours about the slightest infringement on the liberties of members of their own country, race, or class. But when confronted with much more serious infringements on the liberties of people from other countries, other races, or other classes, these same "libertarians" will often either ignore the infringements or attempt to rationalize them. For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to these individuals as Tribalistic Libertarians.
Tribalistic Libertarians have certain things in common with Kevin Carson’s Vulgar Libertarians, and in many cases they are the same people. However, these two terms describe two distinct phenomena. A Vulgar Libertarian is a person for whom libertarianism is primarily a form of apologia for big business and the presently existing corporatist economy. A Tribalistic Libertarian is a person whose supposed individualism is tainted to a large degree by the most primitive form of collectivism. While Tribalistic Libertarians tend to very jealously safeguard the liberties of individuals in their own tribes, they often display a stunning disregard for the liberties of individuals outside of their own tribes.
A very telling example of this can be seen in a recent discussion on John Stossel's Fox Business program. During the question and answer session, a student asked Stossel and the Cato Institute's David Boaz whether slaughtering innocent people is ever justified. Stossel immediately answered in the affirmative, giving the rationalization that "we had to kill innocent people to end World War II.”
First, notice Stossel’s odious use of the word “we” when referring to the United States government. The use of the word “we” in this context pretty clearly illuminates Stossel‘s tribalistic bias. Second, compare Stossel’s callous disregard for the lives of innocent Japanese people with his outrage over much more minor violations of the liberties of his fellow Americans. As the author of the linked article put it:
“Really? Regulating aspirin? Oh no! That’s an attack on liberty! Incinerating a city full of civilians whose government is trying to surrender? Fully defensible.”
Rand Paul recently won plaudits from some libertarians for grilling an Obama administration official about the pernicious effects of government regulations on his lavatory liberty. While Paul is certainly right to be upset about the extent to which the government restricts consumer freedom, it is worth remembering that this is the same Rand Paul who has emphatically stated that he is opposed to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and who supports trying accused "terrorists" before military tribunals.
Anyone who considers low-flow toilets to be a greater violation of liberty than indefinite detention is not, to say the least, a very reliable ally for libertarians.
In an interview with Sean Hannity, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who has been widely praised by libertarians, agreed with Hannity’s statement that “the Iraqis, with all their oil resources, need to pay us back for their liberation” (the relevant exchange begins at about 4:13 in the linked video). The problem with the Iraq War, you see, is not that the United States government murdered at least 100,000 Iraqis and drove millions more into exile. The problem is that those ungrateful ragheads have not paid “us” back for “liberating” them.
The financial costs of the Iraq War to American tax-victims, while burdensome, are greatly outweighed by the human costs to the Iraqis who lost their lives and who lost loved ones. Anyone who thinks otherwise has very skewed moral priorities. Skewed, I suspect, by tribalistic biases.
Identifying with and feeling loyal to a particular tribe is probably an unchangeable aspect of human nature. The evolutionary origins of tribalism are well understood, and tribalism undoubtedly has had very adaptive effects in human societies. Indeed, it is perfectly understandable for someone to be more concerned about the well-being of his neighbors than the well-being of people on the other side of the world. If this was the only effect of tribalism, then there would be little cause for concern.
But tribalism also has many negative effects, and it is a human bias that continues to be thoroughly exploited by power-hungry statists.
H.L. Mencken was certainly correct when he wrote that, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all." It would be equally true to state that oppressive laws are first aimed at individuals outside of the dominant tribes in a particular society.
If libertarians do not defend the liberties of all individuals, then they may soon find that the oppressive laws that were first directed at out-groups have been expanded to encompass everyone. For this reason, Tribalistic Libertarianism is ultimately self-defeating.  
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R. K. Blacksher's picture
Columns on STR: 9

R. K. Blacksher is a writer and musician. He maintains a blog at


Robert Wallace's picture

Humans are tribalistic.

Only the West discovered politcal and economic liberty. The rest of the world doesn't seem to want much to do with it. Are we supposed to impose our views on them by force?

Paul's picture

I agree with the complaint the author rises, but I'm not comfortable with the term "tribalistic libertarians". Any free society will have to take into consideration the tribal characteristics of humans.

Maybe call these guys "nationalist libertarians"? Or maybe just paleocons?