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Opinion: Libertarians fail at cultural politics

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By: Richard de Schweinitz

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Economics junior

Being a libertarian in today’s intensely partisan politics is to occupy somewhat of a precarious position. Most Americans don’t really understand what libertarianism is, exactly; for those who identify with the left, libertarians seem to be a confusing mixture of social tolerance and economic ignorance, and to those on the right, libertarians are something of a glib, pot-smoking cousin. More generally, the libertarian agenda is understood by the American public with the overly reductive description “socially liberal, but fiscally conservative”. Besides these generalizations, however, libertarian politics are mostly a mystery to the uninitiated. The irony of this is that libertarians, while they are so little understood, are also the largest political minority, representing the largest third party in the United States – but while the libertarian presence in the United States is large, it is mostly unknown and not particularly influential. This is because, in my view, libertarians have failed to establish themselves on the cultural stage as well as they have on the political one.

Though it is politicians and media outlets who disseminate the most information about politics, it is a political movement’s artists who build it into something more than just a party name. Through their work, artists build the world that they wish to see and to which people will attach themselves, materializing their views and making the positions of their side clear. Artists and media draw attention to certain issues, and they motivate similarly aligned masses of individuals into a driven movement with well-defined goals and principles. The problem with libertarians is that their cultural influence, as compared to their popular presence, is sorely lacking, resulting in a lack of political vitality. In the United States, cultural figures and institutions are generally categorized into one of the two main sides along the major party lines. Celebrities, TV shows, news networks, businesses, etc. often fall into political alignments, either by their own declaration or by their associations with their consumers. Both Democrats and Republicans have their clear, outspoken supporters; but when considering what a libertarian is or what he believes, the typical American has little recourse in the media to find answers. The most well-known self-identified libertarian personalities in contemporary American media are Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and the character Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation – none of whom have a particularly serious connotation.

If libertarians want to be taken seriously in mainstream American politics, they need to take it upon themselves to create cultural influence beyond sardonic critiques of the system. Just like in liberal and conservative movements, it is primarily libertarian art which informs the way that society generally views the libertarian agenda. Self-professed libertarian art is generally not constructive, in that it critiques political systems but rarely provides alternatives for them, and generally doesn’t take itself particularly seriously either. Even Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher held up as the paragon of libertarian ideals and whose serious, intellectual works are adored by libertarians, did not identify herself as a libertarian and in fact actively criticized the movement, describing libertarians as a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people” who badly plagiarized her ideas but gave her no credit for them. The difficulty in creating constructive libertarian political art is that libertarianism is inherently opposed to the adoption of most political policy, explaining the generally critical thrust of libertarian political art and commentary; but without a constructive body of artistic work, the libertarian movement is crippling its own ability to find and motivate its supporters.

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6 Responses to “Opinion: Libertarians fail at cultural politics”

  1. J. Mills on October 21st, 2017 8:01 am

    All true.

    Of course, there’s somewhat of a “chicken and egg” problem going on. Most people don’t “convert” to being a libertarian, they discover that stuff they’ve believed all their life actually has a group of political activists that think like they do. So, as the Libertarian Party becomes more well-known, and as the philosophy becomes more recognized, lots of artists will simply acknowledge that “I’ve been a libertarian all my life,” and then there will be more who identify as libertarian.

    This writing alone, and all kinds of others all over the internet show how fast people are discovering libertarians. I mean, there was a time, some 40 years ago when I first got involved, when no one even knew the word “libertarian,” much less had the faintest idea what that meant. It was a time when people would ask me: “Why do the librarians need a political party.”

    So, yes, we have a long way to go to catch up with the Ds and Rs (who got about a 150-year jump on the Ls), but we’ve come a long, long way.

  2. Jim Allard on October 21st, 2017 2:00 pm

    What Libertarianism lacks is a consistent philosophy. In fact, Libertarianism rejects the idea that liberty has anything to do with philosophy and instead champions “anything goes” as long as it allegedly leads to “liberty.”

    Ayn Rand, on the other hand, developed an entire philosophy, with definite views on morality, art, epistemology, and politics. Here philosophy not only provides a rational, scientific basis for defending liberty, it provides a moral code for living one’s life.

    If libertarian-minded individuals want to have greater influence toward promoting a rational, individualist, liberty-loving culture, they should read and study Ayn Rand’s philosophy and become Objectivists.

  3. George Barker on October 22nd, 2017 9:04 am

    Ayn Rand was right. Objectivism is the only “movement” worth supporting. There can be no “liberty” without the culture of the enlightenment. There is no political solution for an anti-rational society. Until we reestablish enlightenment values our political life will continue to be a circus. The Libertarians are just one more troupe of clowns. Ayn Rand showed the way, and it begins with Aristotle, not economics.

  4. JM on October 22nd, 2017 4:16 pm

    I agree with you that too much libertarian art is oppositional vs. positivist or utopian. Even Rand, who believed in the “benevolent universe” never did more than create a rough sketch for what her ideal society would like look (she herself admitted Galt’s Gulch was not a model for a bigger society, and only worked because it was small and founded by close-knit, like-minded men).

    That said, there are few cultural institutions to nurture budding libertarian artists. Unlike their liberal peers, libertarian creatives have no MFA programs, mentors in universities, scholarships or cultural grants, no well-worn pipeline to go from starving artist to cultural icon.

    Wherever they’ve attempted to use the existing systems, they’ve been met with unremitting hostility from the liberals who overwhelmingly control them (see, e.g., the Sad Puppies campaign/fiasco).

    Libertarian billionaires aren’t buying up or creating cultural media properties like George Soros and Roger Ailes did for the left and right.

    There are some grassroots efforts to build these types of institutions (see, e.g., or but it’s a slow, and not well-funded effort.

  5. Stuart Macdonald on October 22nd, 2017 9:19 pm

    You say Ayn Rand described libertarians as a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people” who badly plagiarized her ideas but gave her no credit for them.

    I do not recall Ayn Rand saying this. Her main criticism of libertarians was their religious base. Can you publish the source of the statement you ascribe to her?

  6. Luke Henderson on November 5th, 2017 9:58 pm

    I agree with this article and I’ve written about this also as being the next step for libertarians to take the stage.

    The libertarian art culture is not entirely absent though and here are some libertarian musicians: Rush, BackWordz, Freenauts, Havok, North To Port

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Opinion: Libertarians fail at cultural politics