You may or may not have come across the stereotype that libertarians are nerds. You may even have come across the view that libertarianism is the political wing of autism. These ‘arguments’ are intended to be insightful and penetrating critiques of a varied and nuanced set of economic and political ideas, social movements, and ideological perspectives. Such jibes are, of course, spurious and fallacious. However, more than that, I think they miss their mark as, if anything, they are complementary and can be easily embraced.
For instance, Paul Krugman, among others, is fond of a particularly clever joke: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged . One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Little needs to be said about why this has no actual relevance to an intelligent critique of libertarianism. Anyone with a basic understanding of critical thinking and debate is aware that attacking the proponent of a position, instead of the position itself, amounts to the fallacy of ad hominem.
Further, it is quite obviously a massive generalisation. Libertarians (like, well, every single group of individuals) are diverse. Asides from the fact that at least one libertarian somewhere is not a nerd, the unpleasant implication of the nerd “critique” is important to note. Nerds are, at least in popular imagination, young, upper-middle class, heterosexual, white males. This is part of a wider smearing of libertarianism as being only a doctrine for people who are both naive and privileged.
This stereotype is, of course, false. Anecdotally, you do not need to look very far to find libertarians who are coloured, working class, LGBT, disabled, old, or part of any group that does not conform to the stereotype. Suggesting otherwise, or expressing surprise when someone from a “disadvantaged” group espouses libertarianism, is indicative of a deeply unpleasant and warped world-view. Equally, implying that being a nerd is a privilege reserved for rich white males is bizarre. It is obviously false (nerds are very diverse) and is, at best, a patronising and confused perspective.
However, leaving these obvious points aside, it’s worth saying that the slur also fails because being a nerd is a good thing, and comparisons with libertarians are actually complementary. To me, nerd means: intelligent, focused, unconcerned with mainstream opinion or received wisdom, individualistic, academic, and rational. These are nice ways to describe libertarians.
Even if the price of being analytic is being socially awkward, then it’s worth paying. The vast majority of significant innovations and developments have been down to nerds. Every great thinker was, by definition, a nerd. Similarly, if nerd means someone with an affinity for the Internet, the written word, and slightly obscure interests, then any comparison to libertarians is positive.
It is true that to be a libertarian you need to make the effort to discover alternatives to the mainstream, which can be seen as inherently nerdy. Likewise, the fact that libertarianism is quite an intellectual position, with a lot of theoretical underpinning (not to mention various sub-genres), perhaps makes it a somewhat nerdy pursuit. And, the “geeky” use of new technologies and media is also popular among libertarians. But these are all positive attributes for a political movement.
Bryan Caplan’s view that redistribution can be seen as an attempt by jocks to prevent the revenge of the nerds, suggests other reasons why libertarianism could be natural for nerds (and why this is a good thing). On this note, it is interesting that, for those whose main concern is being cool and socially acceptable, leftism is the default political stance. It is also true that nerds, being naturally averse to barbaric physical conflict, may be more predisposed to recognise the benefits of voluntaryism and non-aggression.
Finally, if libertarians are nerds, we can apply silly high school labels to other ideologies too. Anarchists are punks and goths. Neoconservatives and trade union activists are testosterone-fuelled jocks with low IQs. Occupy types are ungroomed slackers who fail exams. Country club Republicans are smug preppies. Communists and fascists are playground bullies who are compensating for being poorly endowed. Socialists and liberals are irritating teacher’s pets who like being “involved”.
But, of course, this is untrue for ninety percent of individuals.