Over and over again in arguments on libertarianism on the web, I run across an idea that frankly baffles me. Libertarians argue that the playing field is level, or level enough, and anyone who isn’t a “success” has only himself or herself to blame. This is one of the most common of libertarian fallacies. Invariably, the libertarian making that argument has more than half of the following privileges:
- Educated in good public or private schools and not required to work as a child, or work more than part time as a teen.
- Access to safe housing as a child, including lack of lead paint, significant vermin infestations, a neighborhood where the sound of loud arguments and/or gun shots is rare, a working toilet, safe water, and adequate food.
- At least one sphere of life where there was stability and relative lack of conflict, or a solid relationship with a positive mentor who believed in the child’s ability
- Parents working, middle, or upper class
- Average or above average intelligence
- Relatively unfettered access to books, either at home or through public or school libraries.
- Either access to adequate health care, or health adequate to not require regular health care.
- At least one caregiver who believed in the child’s potential and nurtured it.
- Not born or raised in a war zone (whether a private “gang” war or a state to state war).
- Either no significant physical handicaps, or the family had enough resources to ensure the child’s successful education despite handicaps.
- Either no significant addiction in the immediate family, or a counterbalancing positive role model readily available.
- Not subject to life- or career- threatening discrimination.
- Inner strengths sufficient to overcome any environmental and genetic deficits present during childhood.
- Institutions that favor forgiveness of the mistakes of childhood among this child’s class of human beings (think of the differential treatment given middle class white children arrested for marijuana possession and inner city black children charged with the same crime — or just watch the Jena six case).
That’s frankly, an awful lot of privilege. And the assumption that others who aren’t “successful” (by the libertarian definition) are “free” to turn their lives around has another huge batch of hidden assumptions about readiness and experienced privilege.
A childhood not filled with the privileges listed above has very little chance of providing the skills necessary for success in the institutions valued in American society (business, government, services, etc.)
Incidentally, there are a subgroup of libertarians that assert that it doesn’t matter that the playing field is nowhere near level, because their “right” to the financial gain brought about by the combination of their privileged childhoods plus their own efforts is non-negotiable.
The logical flaw in this is easily spotted when one recognizes that no matter how “successful” (financially) one is in life, there is a quantifiable and qualifiable percentage of that success that is and must be due to no action of the individual, but due to societal influences that the individual has no control over. As the individual is not entirely responsible for his or her success, he or she is not entitled to all of the proceeds of that success, but is morally obligated to pay back to society some portion of that proceeds that he or she gained because he or she had privilege enough to take advantage of native talents.
And yes, people do make it in life from disadvantaged positions. In nearly all of those cases, you will find two commonalities: First, that person had a reliable mentor who provided nurturing and guidance, and second, the person who “makes it” has above average native intelligence and resiliance. That doesn’t change the fact that success from this position is rare and heroic.
There are an awful lot of pitfalls on the way to success, and a person from a disadvantaged background can afford very few mistakes. Even mistakes that would be only a bump in the road for the average privileged person can completely derail the dreams of someone with no cushion of privilege.
So yeah, libertarianism is based on several fallacies, but the idea that people who are successful “did it all themselves” and therefore “own” everything they make is the most pernicious.
- Personal income climbs 0.5 percent in March (lexingtonlaw.com)
- How Many Slots Are Open in the Upper Middle Class? Not As Many As You Might Think (charleshughsmith.blogspot.com)
- “I Don’t See Class” (c4ss.org)
- Berkeley ‘Occupy’ Students Are Cutting Certain Authors from Syllabi for One Controversial Reason (ijreview.com)
- From Proposal to Privilege: The Unearned Rights of Married People (onely.org)
- Access for all? A conversation with Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, Princeton Class of 1989 (princeton.edu)