The Irony and Historical Roots of White American Libertarianism

Of all the questions you can ask about libertarians in the United States, here's one I donʼt hear said aloud (or see written) often: "Why does it seem like almost all American libertarians are white?"

In response to this, one answer might be that white Americans are more likely to be ignorant of their privileges and ignorant of the injustices experienced by others, leading them to believe government actions to alleviate such injustices are unnecessary. This makes some sense, to be sure, but it doesn't account for the fact that there are many white Americans (and others) who have experienced serious hardship and nevertheless hold to libertarian views. I'm going to offer a short (and inevitably simple) explanation of this conundrum by looking at history. Along the way I'll note that the seemingly overwhelming whiteness of American libertarianism is really a huge irony.

source: a great related blogpost
The predominant mythological narrative of U.S. history strives to justify the wealth and success of white Americans based on the idea that it was these Americans' own hard work and ideals that made them rich and successful. In fact, whites used their government as a tool to defend the subjugation of black labor and perpetrate the theft of Native lands, which really constituted (and constitute) the two most fundamental historical sources of wealth and power in the United States. The government was also used (by the white elites and corporations who controlled it) to colonize and economically exploit other parts of the world, gaining wealth and power there as well.

In essence, white Americans strive so hard to maintain an image of history wherein their success was all their own (ignoring the blood and crimes that paid for it) that it seems natural to forget how huge a role the U.S. government played. Promoting individualism is easy once colonialism, imperialism, and "big government" have paved the way for you to prosper as an individual. Ironically, those who profess to hate government are often those who have benefitted most from its actions in history.

A libertarian might respond to this idea by saying that yes, the U.S. government has done horrible things in the past, so that provides all the more reason to limit government's power. Unfortunately, this argument doesn't appear much in libertarian discourse, nor does it sit well with the common libertarian sentiment that American society is fair and equal as it is, and there's no need to right the ongoing wrongs begun in the past.

The corollary to this irony is that blacks, Natives, and other groups should really be the ones most suspicious of the U.S. government, since they're the ones it has done so much harm to. However, people in these historically oppressed groups seem to be much less likely to be libertarians. Perhaps they're more likely to have a personal understanding of the positive role government can play—its capability to right wrongs and pass laws that might alleviate social problems—given what's happened in the U.S. over the past half century.

one of my favorite popular images
of Native self-defense (source)
There are, however, interesting differences: Gun ownership and gun rights, for example, seem to have strong support across most of Native America, in spite of the fact that white gun ownership historically facilitated the murder of thousands of Natives. Some of this support is surely linked to the culture of rural America in general, but I think some of it still has a basis in Native conceptions of the warrior and societal self-defense—including against the American government.

In conclusion, I don't know whether there are any statistics out there that demonstrate how "white" American libertarianism is, but it is at once unsurprising and ironic that so many white Americans subscribe to libertarian ideology claiming that "big government" provides them with nothing but trouble. How could a person believe that their homesteading ancestors did everything on their own, when it was "big government" laws and military actions against Natives that opened those lands and provided them to whites so cheaply? How could a person believe that America's industries were built only through the hard work of enterprising men when so much of their profits came from slavery, coerced labor, and economic imperialism?

Regardless of whether you're an anti-governmentalist or not, it's always best to consider the historical implications and sources of one's beliefs. If you do some hold libertarian views, make sure they're informed and supported by history, not mythology.