“Identity Politics.” Depending on your political and philosophical leanings, this phrase evokes either a nod of approval or an eye-roll of frustration. Progressives tend to believe that to understand someone, you must recognize and grant deference to that person’s demographic markers. Conservatives tend to believe that this is just another form of bigotry and a means of demanding preferential treatment. Libertarians tend to believe that, because it leads to coercion by the government, this is a violation of both the letter and spirit of liberty.

And, indeed, because identity politics is about subordinating individuality to groups, it runs contrary to the core values of libertarianism. We don’t like sorting people by identity markers, and we don’t like it when others do.

That’s not to say that such things aren’t relevant in our day-to-day dealings. Each of us is an accumulation of life experiences, and it is without doubt that our identity markers have influenced those experiences at some time or another. But, so have countless other factors, and to presume that any, some, or all of these are deterministic, that they define who and what we are, dismisses the idea that we are capable of free and critical thought.

The Bill of Rights recognizes this. It is written for the individual, for each of us as a discrete and independent entity, and not for any groups that we may, by choice or accident of birth, belong to. Yes, there are differences between us, but they are less important than the fact of our individualities.

One difference is, however, vital to recognize and preserve: the distinction between government and not-government. That is the essence of the Bill of Rights, and when it comes to the power we grant to others (as opposed to our voluntary interactions with each other), is the only difference that matters.

It is the government that is prohibited from infringing upon our rights. It is we, as individuals not of government, who are protected from government excesses and intrusions.

Also worth noting is how this works in the opposite direction. Government does not have the rights that we individuals have. A person working as an agent for the government does not have protections for free speech, religious belief, keeping and bearing arms, and privacy that a private citizen has. The matter of Kim Davis, the Rowan County, KY county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and cited a religious objection, illustrates this distinction. As a private citizen, Ms. Davis was free to hold whatever opinion she desired regarding gay marriage. But, as an agent of the government, she was obligated to obey the law and carry out a duty she voluntarily assumed. Her religious objection did not grant her protection against carrying out her duties as County Clerk, duties which included issuing wedding licenses to gay couples.

A recent court ruling also serves to demonstrate this distinction. Massachusetts lawmakers witnessed a law they enacted, prohibiting the secret recording of government officials, struck down by a District Court judge. While laws vary a bit state-to-state, it’s generally required that all parties in a private conversation be made aware if a recording is being made of that conversation, and federal law prohibits the secret recording of communications where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Public officials, however, are, when working, agents of the government, not private citizens, and in their duties as the former do not get the protections intended for the latter.

This is the real debate we should be having. Not the perennial left-right sniping, where both sides are about big-government and are really arguing about who gets to run it, and where people often use the word “society” when they mean government. Government vs not-government is, in politics, the only difference that matters.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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