The term “autistic libertarianism” (or “libertarian autism”) has come into use as a criticism not so much of libertarian theory, but of libertarians who either misunderstand it or apply it in a manner inconsistent with the situation at hand. Unfortunately, it appears to be running along the same course as many other political terms, decaying from useful descriptor of a troublesome tendency to meaningless epithet for whatever a communicator dislikes. Whereas this term is more useful than most, at least for philosophical libertarians, I will attempt to prevent the decay of this term by providing a general overview of it.
The term “autistic libertarianism” came into use because the types of arguments, behaviors, and strategies it describes have clear analogues in the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. Some symptoms of autism do not have political relevance, and several can even cause a person to be removed from politics entirely, as they can be socially and economically crippling. Therefore, let us focus upon the aspects of autism which commonly manifest among some libertarians which can impair but which do not completely eliminate their effectiveness.
People who have autism spectrum disorders typically have a lack of interest in sharing achievements, emotions, or interests with other people. They frequently lack empathy for other people’s feelings and have difficulties in forming and sustaining relationships. They can become preoccupied with particular topics, having a very intense, focused interest in those topics. They can have difficulties in understanding other perspectives as well as non-literal speech. Repetitive use of set phrases can also occur.
Naturally, this leads to communication problems that most other people do not have. Most commonly, the result is that an autistic libertarian will use reason and evidence exclusively while being unable to process that a listener is operating emotionally rather than rationally, and is therefore unreceptive to reason and evidence. Continuing to be unresponsive to their emotional state is as useful as administering medicine to the dead and will only serve to frustrate the listener, but the autistic libertarian will keep right on doing so with blissful ignorance of its ineffectiveness.
Another effect of these symptoms is a sort of hyper-individualism in which a person loses the ability to identify or think about groups or shared interests, as well as make collective judgments. Because the autistic libertarian has difficulties in dealing with other people, it can be psychologically comforting to attempt to define out of existence one’s interactions with them. But without the abilities to organize into voluntarily formed groups to accomplish tasks which are too difficult to complete on one’s own and to recognize large-scale threats in the form of a demographic shift to a culture which is hostile to liberty, libertarians will consistently lose to opponents who suffer from no such handicaps.
The preoccupation with libertarian theory can take on such an extent that one’s other interests, activities, and relationships suffer. The result can be a lack of ability to talk about anything else, and thus an inability to sustain relationships which depend upon variety in conversation and activities. Finally, whether by intellectual laziness or by the culmination of all of the above symptoms, the autistic libertarian may come to replace reasoned argument with hackneyed bromides; “Taxation is theft!,” “Conscription is slavery!,” and so on. Such statements are true, of course, but simply shouting them repeatedly without explaining them convinces few people to join the cause.
Mind Versus Matter
People who have autism spectrum disorders can have difficulty with abstract thinking and central coherence, causing them to focus on details while missing the big picture and fail to plan ahead for future possibilities. Autistic people can have a troubling need for routines, being unable to deal with even small changes. These symptoms, when combined with the other symptoms discussed above, cause most of the incorrect thinking produced by autistic libertarians. At the time of this writing, this occurs most notably on the issues of immigration, censorship, political activity, hedonistic behavior, and self-defense, so let us consider each of these examples.
Many libertarians argue that state immigration controls should be completely lifted because they violate freedom of movement of immigrants, private property rights of residents, and freedom of association of both. This response is autistic because it denies the context in which these immigration controls are enforced. The state imposes common spaces upon its population, has the power to bring into the society people who are fundamentally opposed to its basic principles, uses anti-discrimination laws to force people to associate with the immigrants, steals money from its citizens to give handouts to the immigrants, and even allows the immigrants to start voting after a period of time. When the correct libertarian answer of private property border enforcement is not on the table and even talking about what would be required to put that answer on the table can get one run off from publishing platforms and speaking engagements, we are left with the state forcing either inclusion or exclusion, and forced exclusion is clearly the lesser evil. Note that more generally, there is no right to move across private property within which one is unwelcome outside of some extreme lifeboat scenarios, and some forms of immigration would require this.
Libertarians rightly condemn governments for suppressing freedom of speech, but will generally support the right of a private person or company to dissociate from particular speakers or remove their content from a publication and/or website. At first glance there is nothing wrong with this position, but looking deeper can reveal an example of autistic libertarianism. Popular social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter influence and are influenced by multiple governments. These governments usually have an agenda which is left-wing and anti-libertarian, and these platforms frequently censor posts and ban users who are openly critical of such agendas, especially if tempers flare between critics and supporters. The libertarian who supports the social media platforms in their censorship or praises the overall result as an example of the free market punishing bigots should check their autism.
While mainstream libertarians tend to be politically active within a libertarian party or another party which is occasionally receptive to libertarian positions on certain issues, some more ardent libertarians will denounce any form of political action as incrementalist or as helping to perpetuate the statist democratic system. But the consequence of being completely uninvolved in politics, as Plato wisely noted, is to be ruled by one’s inferiors. This is not to say that a libertarian is autistic for refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils in a two-party system or that staying home on Election Day is an inherently autistic behavior, but these positions require other justifications.
Many libertarians, especially those who come from the left, will emphasize the decriminalization of vices and the amount of harm that governments have done by trying to stamp out drugs, prostitution, gambling, and so forth. Autistic libertarianism enters the scene in the form of those who encourage vices as though they were virtues. This places emphasis on a hedonistic individualism to the detriment of community survival. A successful libertarian civilization must have a well-functioning market economy and be capable of both stopping common criminality and repelling external invasions. Those who abuse drugs, engage in sexual promiscuity, gamble excessively, and so forth may not be directly harming anyone other than themselves, but these behaviors practiced frequently on a large scale not only fail to make a successful libertarian civilization, but endanger its continued existence and flourishing by weakening its members and attracting people who will fake being a libertarian for their own selfish ends while undermining the community.
The issue which attracts the most autistic libertarian thought is that of self-defense in general and how far it may go in particular. Some libertarians have misinterpreted the non-aggression principle to mean that a defender may not use any more force than an aggressor has used, that force may only be used in a situation of immediate danger, and that no innocents may be harmed by said defensive force. This view is autistic because it completely fails to comprehend the nature of aggression and violent conflict while taking a small, compartmentalized view of the matter. If a defender may not use any amount of force necessary to subdue an aggressor, then all an aggressor need do to get away with criminal behavior is to use force in such a way that the defender cannot use enough force to subdue the aggressor. If one may only use force in a situation of immediate danger, then people are left without a way to recover stolen property, stop someone who hires hitmen, defend themselves against state aggression, or do much of anything about criminals who can obfuscate responsibility. If no innocent may be harmed in the course of defending oneself, then all an aggressor need do is to hide behind innocent shields in such a way that it is impossible to subdue them without harming an innocent.
People who have autism spectrum disorders can have unusual sensory perceptions, such as pain with light pressure but comfort with heavy pressure. Others have no pain sensation whatsoever. About 10% of autistic people have a savant skill, being far more competent than most people in some specific discipline. Unfortunately, these rarely have analogues in the sort of political autism being discussed here. However, those who are both medically and politically autistic while possessing savant skills or unusual sensory perceptions can spearhead a philosophical breakthrough.
What Should Be Done
While autistic libertarians frequently present a false representation of libertarian theory, they are not usually doing so in bad faith. And while they can steer actions in a counterproductive direction, some of them are capable of producing novel, valid arguments with far less difficulty than the average person. The best way to handle them, then, is to accept their presence but correct them when they go astray, with the aim of helping them to recognize their political autism and check it as needed so that other, non-autistic libertarians no longer have to do so for them.