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Pro-choice protesters march down Congress Avenue at a protest outside the Texas state capitol on May 29, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Thousands of protesters came out in response to a new bill outlawing abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbot. (Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

On Deregulation and Covid Masks, Libertarians Are Loud. On Female Liberty, Deafening Silence

A libertarian is someone who will defend a woman's right not to wear a medical mask during a pandemic, but inexplicably holds that choices about her body, her health, her economic situation, and her entire life trajectory, belong to the government.

It was a bad week for freedom in America. With Texas banning most abortions and empowering self-appointed vigilantes to stop women from exercising their right to reproductive healthcare, and the Supreme Court letting it stand, you'd think freedom-loving libertarians would be out in full force protesting.

After all, libertarians describe themselves as principled foes of state coercion and passionate defenders of individual liberty. While they may give different weight to principles of individual liberty, self-determination, and so on, libertarians claim to be highly skeptical of government intrusion into our lives. Wikipedia informs us that most generally agree that sperms, eggs, and fetuses are not persons with rights.

In his 1982 book, "The Ethics of Liberty," libertarian economist Murray Rothbard wrote that "the proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man's absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything in it. This includes the fetus."

That's clear enough. Now is the chance for libertarians to stand up for what they believe, stated thus since 2008 in the official Libertarian Party platform:

"Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration."

Got it. My decision to give birth is for me to decide, not the state. Very reasonable.

Let's check out how America's most influential libertarians have been responding to the Texas Taliban and the most flagrant disregard for a woman's personal liberty seen in a generation.

Give it to them, guys!

To get their take, I first consulted a list of libertarian heavyweights put together by Newsmax. Helpfully, the editors share their criteria for selection:

"To compile this list, our editors defined a libertarian as a consistent advocate of free-market capitalism, minimal government, and social tolerance (thus distinguishing libertarians from conservatives). Their motto might be "Keep government out of the boardroom and the bedroom."

Social tolerance! Out of the bedroom! Right on.

According to Newsmax, the two top libertarians are former congressman Ron Paul and his son, Senator Rand Paul.

Ron Paul styled his 2008 run for the presidency as a "Campaign for Liberty." Yet on the stump, he consistently denounced a woman's right to make the most private decisions of her life. He wrote a book called "Liberty Defined," but surprisingly, his definition did not include a woman's sovereignty over her own body. Instead, he complained that taxpayers should be at liberty not to pay for abortions.

Like a good libertarian, Paul is very clear in the book that torture of any sort is reprehensible and sadistic. Yet oddly, he does not consider that torture might be a proper word to describe what is done to a woman forced to undergo an extremely painful and potentially life-threatening physical experience against her will.

On abortion, Senator Rand Paul goes even further afield of libertarian principles than his dad, calling himself "totally pro-life" and supporting "any and all legislation that would end abortion or lead us in the direction of ending abortion." In fact, he wants federal control of women's bodies, stating, "I believe in a Human Life Amendment and a Life at Conception Act as federal solutions to the abortion issue."

It turns out that America's most influential libertarian politicians are in strong opposition to the party's own platform and principles.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic rages, Senator Paul has lost no opportunity to vociferate against Covid-19 safety measures and make rousing speeches to his Twitter followers on the need to "stand together" for freedom and resist mandated mask-wearing. Yet on the matter of mandates to endure pregnancy, labor, and childbirth, perhaps having your body ripped open or sliced, and permanently altered, evidently Paul considers this less constraining to personal freedom than affixing a thin piece of cloth to your nose.

So far, on the Texas abortion ban now dominating the headlines, the two libertarian giants have said…pretty much nothing.

Maybe it's just something about being a politician that makes libertarians confused. Perhaps the intellectual stars of the movement can offer more consistency.

How about Ed Crane, former head of the Cato Institute and currently pundit-at-large on matters of freedom? The man the Wall Street Journal calls the champion of "free people and free markets" will certainly stand up for the liberty of women. Some years ago, Crane called himself a "pro‐choice advocate," though he insisted there were far more important matters to deal with, such as private property rights. Nevertheless, he is said to be among the most well-reasoned of libertarians—the man you turn to when you want to hear something sensible.

Currently, Crane is talking about all kinds of things, like term limits, and tweeting about the need to defend civil liberties. So what does he say about the frontal assault on the liberty of 7 million women in Texas, and likely millions more in other states that try to copy the Texas law?

As far as I can tell, nothing. Nada. He recently retweeted a great line about how libertarians love the liberty of others. But there is no mention of the millions of American women currently filling up that "others" category.

Possibly, Crane is too chagrined by his sexual harassment accusations to opine on women's rights at this time.

Fine. We'll move over to a younger generation of thinkers, the Gen X libertarian luminaries Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason.TV and Reason.com, and Matt Welch, Reason Magazine's editor-in-chief. Reason is the Bible of the libertarian movement and these two talk about every subject under the sun. Undoubtedly, they can tell us how libertarians are going to confront the authoritarian terror of the Texas Taliban.

Back in 2011, the pair, who co-authored a book called, "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America," got down to business in a video titled, "What's the Libertarian position on abortion?" Gillespie and Welch are asked, "If libertarian philosophy puts individual rights paramount, shouldn't libertarians oppose abortion?"

Very straightforward.

Gillespie reveals that while the majority of libertarians are pro-choice, a 30% minority is "anti-abortion." While stating that you can be a libertarian and have that view (though not elaborating on exactly why), Gillespie is clear that he does not personally agree with the anti-choice position. "Abortion should be legal," he affirms. For his part, Welch waxes philosophical about changing mores and the "sliding scale of humanity from egg to fetus to a viable fetus that can live outside the womb," assuring us that thanks to the wonders of medicine and "more ways of controlling our sexuality and our reproduction…we are actually seeing the minimization of abortion as a major issue in American politics."

I guess nobody told Welch that women in the United States are still not even able to purchase the 60-year old medical wonder known as "birth control pills" at the drug store. Or that his prognosis of the direction of American politics is about as wrong as it's possible to be.

But maybe now that the topic is white-hot in the news and the freedom of millions of women is at stake, these two august journalists will weigh in. I checked out their Twitter feeds for the last few days.

Gillespie is tweeting about the cobb salad at his favorite New York restaurant.

Welch is focused on Afghanistan and defending free speech against cancel culture.

On the Texas law and the Supreme Court's enabling of the assault on female liberty? Crickets.

Over at Reason mag, there is one lone writer who published a quibble with the law (scroll down below articles on homeschooling and the freedom to vape). His main point is to warn conservatives that a similar strategy could be used to take away their guns.

I could find but one person connected to Reason who seems to think there's anything wrong with vigilantes collecting bounties for spying on women – a tweet from Liz Wolfe, Reason staff editor. Good for Liz, but this same person was not so very long ago lambasting pro-choicers for spreading "propaganda" on the dangers of abortion restrictions, blithely predicting that "tech advancement might render all this (mostly) pointless to sort out anyway."

Tell that to low-income women in Texas, many of them women of color and immigrants, who are watching their futures destroyed and their internal organs commandeered, unable to afford the now-average 248-mile journey to an abortion clinic and the high costs and waiting periods imposed by anti-choice activists.

So much for Reason.

Ok, if the politicians and pundits aren't standing up for their movement, perhaps the denizens of Silicon Valley, famous for their libertarian leanings, will take up the charge to fight the grotesquely coercive Texas law.

While not as outspoken about his political leanings as some of his tech-bro libertarian colleagues, entrepreneur Elon Musk has been noted for taking libertarian stances. The Financial Times refers to him as "space pioneer, electric car guru and cantankerous libertarian," while his good friend Scott Painter calls him a "very libertarian, free-market type."

Musk has been quite exercised on the topic of freedom recently. He has called quarantine measures "fascist" and railed against any government "forcibly imprisoning" people in their homes with shelter-in-place policies. Outraged that California Covid shutdowns were costing him revenue and sure that the virus would be gone in April (2020!), the billionaire packed his bags last year and moved to Texas.

Musk has offered this definition of freedom: the "maximum set of possible future actions." Sounds like he wants people to be able to make lots of choices for themselves. That makes sense.

Surely, he would agree that forcing a woman to give birth against her will is sawing off large branches of her decision tree. Possibly, she will no longer have a tree at all, because she will be dead.

Yet Governor Greg Abbot of Texas recently bragged that he could count on businessmen like his friend Elon Musk to back him up on the abortion law: "Elon consistently tells me he likes the social policies in the state of Texas," said the gov.

Musk responded with a Texas two-step of a tweet around the subject: "In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness…That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics."

This is a bit confusing. He was way into politics a minute ago on the whole Covid thing. And if he felt that the Governor's suggestion that he supported the Texas abortion law was inaccurate, he could certainly set the record straight. He might, for example, point out that coercing women into having unwanted children is a crystal-clear example of the state imposing its will upon the people, and making a lot of them miserably unhappy. A person who has been raped by her father, brother, or uncle, for example, would be unlikely to experience maximum happiness in being ordered to birth his baby. Musk is reputed to be very smart. He must have some insight.

But that tweet is evidently all he has to say. His feed is now extolling the virtues of space travel.

What about that most famous of libertarian contrarians, the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel? Thiel is so adamant that the government stay out of his life that he once proposed the idea of a floating libertarian utopia where bureaucrats couldn't bother him.

In 2017, Thiel did indeed weigh in on the subject of abortion and politics with this prescient gem: "It's like, even if you appointed a whole series of conservative Supreme Court justices, I'm not sure that Roe v. Wade would get overturned, ever. I don't know if people even care about the Supreme Court."

Given the rocket-sized hole blasted into this theory by recent events, it sure would be interesting to hear what is Thiel is currently thinking about.

Bitcoin as a financial weapon of the Chinese, of course.

In desperation, I scrolled down the Newsmax list to find an influential libertarian woman who would hopefully show some spine in defending the cause. I had to keep scrolling because there weren't any women in the top 25. Finally, I found somebody who looked promising: Jennifer Grossman. She's that rara avis, a libertarian feminist, and besides that the CEO of the Atlas Society, to the ideas of the doyenne of libertarianism, Ayn Rand.

Now we're talking! Ayn Rand didn't mince words on the subject of abortion. She described the notion that a fetus has rights as "vicious nonsense." The famous thinker laid out her position in 1968 in "The Objectivist":

"An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn)."

Rand didn't stop there: "Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?"

Who, indeed? Not a bunch of Texas politicians, one would think! As a feminist Randian, Grossman couldn't possibly remain silent as the expressed tenants of her hero are violated on a gigantic scale.

I perused Grossman's Twitter feed. Unfathomably, I could find absolutely nothing about the Texas abortion law. I went over to the Atlas Society website, where she blogs. There were some interesting musings about women, including an account of an alarming weekend she spent with the predator Jeffrey Epstein, whom she briefly considered dating. I saw some strong stuff about the badness of sexual harassment, and plenty of female empowerment messages.

But zilch on the Texas abortion law, or on the subject of abortion, period. A big zero.

So there you have it. Try as I might, I could not find a single influential libertarian exerting their influence on behalf of the freedom of the women of Texas. Despite the Texas government's extreme coercion and its egregious violation of their most basic personal freedom. Despite the majority of libertarians who say they are pro-choice. Despite the Party's own platform and stated beliefs.

I would like to be wrong. Please let me know if you see any influential libertarians in the media protesting the Texas outrage. Or marching in the streets on behalf of women's reproductive freedom.

But if I am understanding all this correctly, I have to conclude that a libertarian is someone who will defend a woman's right not to wear a medical mask during a pandemic, but inexplicably holds that choices about her body, her health, her economic situation, and her entire life trajectory, belong to the government. Let freedom ring?

Maybe it's time to fix what's wrong with libertarianism.


Lynn Parramore

Lynn Parramore

Lynn Parramore is Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking.  She is also a frequent contributor to Reuters, Al Jazeera, Salon, Huffington Post, and other outlets. Her first book of cultural history, Reading the Sphinx (Palgrave Macmillan) was named a “Notable Scholarly Book for 2008” by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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