The current online kerfuffle among libertarians (and Horwitz and I had nothing to do with this one!) involves labels. Glenn Beck has recently relabeled himself from conservative to libertarian. Alexander McCobin, the president of Students for Liberty, joined a lot of other long-time libertarians in questioning the sincerity of that relabeling, and in return Beck labeled McCobin a jerk, a Fascist, and a Nazi. It’s internet gold.
This kind of argument is one of the things that makes me nervous about labels. As nearly everyone involved in the kerfuffle has noted, labels that demarcate who’s in and who’s out have the nasty whiff of the purity test about them. The last thing libertarians need is to become more like the American Kennel Club than we already are. Debating whether one is insufficiently anti-state, too anti-state, or just anti-state enough seems to me to be about as sensible as deciding whether a chihuahua’s expression is sufficiently saucy.
Now, I know which of these two guys I’d back if they were entering the Westminster dog show, but that’s not important for this post, because what I want to talk about is another way that labels can be a problem.
They’re too good at what they are designed to do.
Labels are designed to simplify things. They group people together on the ground of common characteristics. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s remarkably efficient and—like the scientific taxonomy that groups life by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species—it makes a lot of things possible that would not otherwise be. Imagine a discussion of religion where we couldn’t use the labels Christian, Muslim, Jew, and Hindu, for example, but instead had to describe—every time—the relevant differences in theology.
However, the precision of labels as used by scientists is not often reflected in non-scientific writing or in conversation. Instead we are treated to conversations like some I have had recently, where I’m asked if I’m a feminist, say yes, and am told that therefore I must be a socialist, or support the minimum wage hike and Obamacare. Or, I’m asked what kind of philosopher I am (a question guaranteed to make a poet’s head explode), and I say that while I’m not a philosopher, I’ve always thought that Kant had a point about not treating other people as means to your own ends. Naturally I am then told that I am a Kantian and must subscribe to a long list of beliefs that seem, to my interlocutor, to follow logically, but seem to me to be entirely unrelated.
The point is that it is very easy to use labels to avoid having to think about what we mean. They serve as a kind of ideological shorthand that assumes we can stick a label onto a jar and thereby tell what’s inside it, instead of looking inside the jar first and discovering what’s really there. That’s what’s happening when we say “I’m a libertarian” and people recoil in disgust and assume that means we like the confederacy, or think the poor “deserve” poverty. That’s what’s happening when someone else—like Hayek for example—supports a minimal social safety net and gets called a totalitarian or a socialist. That’s what’s happening when I recently saw two great students talk past each other about being “autonomous.”
In The Power of the Powerless Vaclav Havel wrote that:
“…ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’ s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority.”
That’s the utility and the seduction and the danger of this kind of shorthand thinking. As everyone who loves a good Ikea meatball has recently discovered, sometimes a label doesn’t tell you everything you might want to know about what’s inside.