The Fatal Conceit of Privilege Checking

There is an ongoing debate within the libertarian community on whether libertarians focus enough on “privilege.” Telling an individual to “check their privilege” urges them to look at the overarching power structures that disproportionately affect different groups, and to appreciate the fact that, statistically, they are more or less likely to have certain advantages over other groups. Although this is an ultimately well-intended exercise of perspective, the concept of “privilege” is wholly irrelevant and misleading from a libertarian perspective.

The problem is, telling people to look at their “privilege” is like trying to make a sociological mosaic out of human beings: Someone already knows what they want the larger picture to look like — whether it reflects hardships, advantages, predispositions — and so they carelessly muddle together the individual pieces to fit their conclusion. If you tell a white male to check their privilege, what are you really saying to them?

Although this may be a great exercise for a sociology class, it has no constructive place in the meat and potatoes of libertarianism. People — which is merely an abstract term for real, individual actors — are far too intricate and nuanced to be filed away like paperwork according to the surface of their skin or their sexual orientation. Invariably, this (literally) black and white way of looking at the world substitutes the infinitely complex nature of the individual for a rhetorically convenient collective.

And for what? While it’s certainly true that cops target black people more than they target people with fairer complexions, what is to be gained by segregating this overlying issue from the brutal murder of Kelly Thomas? The solution, like so many others in our society, is not to merely look at the symptom itself, but the disease that causes it: The drug war, the ongoing welfare programs, government schools, wage controls, zoning laws — all of these and more are factors that keep black people disproportionately stuck in poverty traps and rotting in the bellies of the penal system. But the magnitude of these problems stem not from the racist whims of society, but from the state itself.

Thus, the evil is not the mere existence of various prejudicial sentiments, but rather the application of them to the apparatus of government. The only way to reduce the negative effect of state power on minorities is to reduce the amount of state power, period.

Hayek warned us about the “pretense of knowledge” and the “fatal conceit.” And although there’s no harm in merely looking at society through a sociological lens, the reality is that there’s really no appropriate application of it from a purely libertarian standpoint. One must realize that other people will hold opinions and make choices that they, on a personal level, will disagree with. This does not mean that we all have to agree on what is good and what is bad. It simply means we have to leave it up to individuals and the market process to hash it out instead of attempting to legislate morality.

Although telling people to “check their privilege” is nothing more than exerting peaceful social pressure, it is an intellectually dishonest rhetorical weapon that flies in the face of taking the individual as a sovereign entity.

Besides, we’re all privileged in some way, just as we’re all unprivileged in others. It is an exercise in vanity to simply looking at the most basic physical attributes or preferences of someone and draw sweeping conclusions about their past or personality. And yet, we all do it on a private scale, and will always do it. As libertarian feminist (and advocate of privilege checking) Cathy Reisenwitz says, there’s simply not enough time to get to know every person. And this is undeniably true; but instead of attempting to bridge this knowledge problem with flawed sociological theories, we should abstain from simply using a different form of the same prejudicial process that so many advocates of equality endlessly crusade against.

Libertarians have a full enough plate explaining basic economics to the public without also worrying about throwing soppy sociology into the mix. 

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL.

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