"No matter how disastrously some policy has turned out, anyone who criticizes it can expect to hear: 'But what would you replace it with?' When you put out a fire, what do you replace it with?" ~ Thomas Sowell
What It Feels Like to Be an Anarcholibertarian
Column by Don Stacy.
Exclusive to STR
One of my favorite libertarian articles is a January 2009 blog post by Professor John Hasnas entitled "What It Feels Like To Be a Libertarian." Hasnas is an Associate Professor of Business at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, a visiting Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, and Director of the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Market and Ethics. His essay has nothing to do with libertarian bioethics, my usual topic of choice, but the theme he considers has been so rarely addressed that I thought I should bring his tract to the attention of the libertarian community.
In this post, Professor Hasnas compares the internal life of the libertarian to the internal life of Cassandra, the Greek mythological heroine. To refresh the reader's memory, Cassandra was the most beautiful daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Apollo, the sun god, offered Cassandra the gift of prophecy in exchange for her love. Cassandra accepted the proposal, but then betrayed Apollo by refusing his advances after she had already received the prophetic gift. Apollo retaliated by cursing Cassandra, proclaiming that her prophecies would be accurate but disbelieved by all.
Professor Hasnas speculates when he relates the inner life of the libertarian to the inner life of Cassandra, for Greek mythology does not explicate what it feels like to be Cassandra. But the generic comparison is undeniably reasonable, for we libertarians predict with uncanny accuracy the disastrous consequences of aggression, yet no one believes us. Hasnas notes that libertarians are "ridiculed, derided, and shunned" and "subject to unending scorn and derision despite being inevitably proven correct by events." Cassandra’s contemporaries responded to her in a similarly shameful manner, as evidenced by Clytemnestra’s verbal barrage prior to exiting the stage in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon:
‘Fore God, she is mad, and heareth but her own
Folly! A slave, her city all o’erthrown,
She needs must chafe her bridle, till this fret
Be foamed away in blood and bitter sweat.
I waste no more speech, thus to be defied.
How does constant mockery make us libertarians feel? Professor Hasnas, who is neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, doesn’t provide a comprehensive analysis of the internal life of the libertarian. However, he does assert that being a libertarian "feels bad" and "means living with an almost unendurable level of frustration." To supplement the author’s hypothesis, I suggest the following negative emotions are also common libertarian internal states: anger, annoyance, contempt, disgust, irritation, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, helplessness, powerlessness, worry, doubt, envy, guilt, shame, despair, disappointment, hurt, sadness, and shock. The key for the libertarian is to not incorporate any of these negative emotions into her personal identity, for such assimilation leads to a hostile “personal style”—to borrow a phrase from Gary Chartier, Professor of Law and Business Ethics at La Sierra University—that has approximately zero chance of influencing a statist to adopt the libertarian philosophy.
Is Professor Hasnas correct that libertarians feel “bad” and experience “an almost unendurable level of frustration”? Maybe. I think it depends on the worldview of the libertarian.
Libertarians can broadly be divided into the two following subgroups: optimists and pessimists. Optimistic libertarians generally believe the State can be changed from within, liberty can be achieved in our lifetime, and non-libertarians can be easily persuaded of the merits of liberty if they are only exposed to the basic libertarian arguments. In contrast, pessimistic libertarians generally believe the State cannot be changed from within, liberty cannot be achieved in our lifetime, and non-libertarians are rarely persuaded of the merits of liberty even when they are exposed to the basic libertarian arguments.
It is simple to intuit from this description that the two libertarian groups normally experience different levels of frustration. Optimistic libertarians generally experience a higher level of frustration because their worldview is idealistic and empirically false. Pessimistic libertarians generally experience a lower level of frustration because their worldview is realistic and empirically true.
I once was an optimistic libertarian and EXTREMELY frustrated. However, reality eventually escorted me to the pessimistic camp, at which time my frustration level minimized and I became much more productive as an anarcholibertarian activist. I recommend a similar conversion for all optimistic libertarians.