The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Bullying and Libertarianism

The Sioux City Journal did the unusual. They published an editorial they considered so important they devoted their front page to it. The issue at hand was bullying and the suicide of 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn.

By all accounts Kenneth was a happy boy. He was friendly and looking forward to life. Kenneth’s various Internet pages show this to be the case. All that changed almost over-night. Kenneth told his friends he was gay. In rural, conservative, religious Iowa, that turned out to be a mistake. While many teens find acceptance Kenneth was quickly rejected. Worse, he was insulted and threatened. They called him on the phone, they left messages on the Internet.

In four short weeks he went from being friends with everyone to being an outcast. And, when you are 14, living in a small town, that can mean everything to you.

The Journal notes the school system doesn’t seem to actually take bullying seriously. According to them only “2 percent of their students are bullied in any given year.” Surveys among students show the rates of bullying to be significantly higher.

So, what exactly do libertarians have to contribute to the debate?

You could say government schools shouldn’t exist, that you support private education, etc. What has that actually contributed to the debate about what to do about bullying? Nothing.

There is always the ability to appeal to some utopian future and explain how problems won’t exist in the utopia you imagine. But, then we aren’t in that future and we don’t seem to be even on the verge of even considering it, let alone implementing it. If that is all you have, then you have nothing. Ideology is often like science fiction. You can use some facts and theories to imagine almost any future you wish. The problem comes in when you think your imagination is reality, when it is still theory.

Libertarianism has wonderful theory. There is little doubt that a more libertarian world would be a better world. So, what do we do now?

A libertarian can certainly discuss the political incentives in the state-run educational system. Those incentives downplay problems. One reason that educational bureaucrats don’t admit problems exist is because all the political incentives favor making everything look peachy. Ludwig von Mises certainly dissected the system of bureaucratic management well in his book Bureaucracy.

The incentive for bureaucrats is to downplay problems. So, they deny the existence of a problem up until they have no other choice — sometimes that comes at the expense of a student’s life.

But, having a good idea about the long-term solution doesn’t say anything about what should be done over the short-term. Too often libertarians are so theoretically pure they have nothing to saw about the here and now. To use an old Christian term, they are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.

Milton Friedman once suggested a voucher system as a step to introduce more choice into the educational system. The “heavenly-minded” libertarians damn it for not being full-on, complete privatization. Oddly a tax-cut to them is desirable even thought it doesn’t result in tax abolition.

In the meantime kids are still dying.

Another kind of libertarian simply denies the problem exists. If we have a rash of gay kids killing themselves and naming bullying as a reason, they sweep it under the rug and tell us it doesn’t happen. These are the same sorts who insist that racism is pretty much dead in America except, of course, when directed at poor white males who apparently are victimized at every turn. But, then at least one “radical” libertarians of the past pretended the South was a tolerant place and claimed the film Driving Miss Daisy portrayed racial situations in the South as they were and should be. That is literally taking a piece of fiction and pretending it is reality.

Those conservatives who feign being libertarian often resort to something worse than denying a problem exists — they blame the victim. If gay kids are being tormented then it’s their fault. A black kid gets shot, it has to be his fault. Women aren’t never victims, its just whiny “feminazis” stirring up trouble. They are like the old Birchers who were convinced there were no legitimate civil rights issues in the South — all there was were “communist agitators” stirring up the “negroes.” They even found a few “negroes” to go around the country to make these assertions.

White racists who turned out to hear these speakers loved it. It confirmed what they already believed. And, by being seen with a “negro” they proved to everyone concerned they were not bigots—or so they thought.

Another variant of “blame the victim” used by conservative “libertarians” is that everyone is bullied. Or they whine how they were bullied and these kids were just weak. None of them actually know the individual circumstances of the person they are attacking. What they fear is that there may be a problem which libertarianism does not address, or cannot address under current circumstances. So they simply pretend there is no such problem. After all, what can be done about a few “weak” kids who commit suicide?

Other conservative “libertarians” actively side with the bullies. There are libertarians who think that bullying is a “free speech” issue. The Religious Right pretends anti-bullying programs threaten their freedom. What freedom would that be? Is it the right of students to claim a religious reason for threatening other kids? Is it right to push them down the stairs or to beat them up on the school bus? Students who have interrupted classes by making gay insults to teachers or other students have been defended on “free speech” grounds. Other students doing so, regarding any other topic, would be told it is not free speech right to interrupt the schooling of others.

There is a difference between having moral views and harassing others who do not hold those views. It is a difference the Religious Right purposely obfuscates. We should not delude ourselves into thinking certain “libertarians” didn’t intentionally suck up to the Religious Right in pursuit of their agenda.

Yes, school choice is an interim step. At Huffington Post I tried to explain why choice is better for students who are victims of bullying. It is not a perfect solution but it helps move things in the right direction and it would help save the lives of some young people. It is also an interim step that is politically possible in various parts of the country. It is not “pie in the sky, in the sweet bye and bye.” It is a policy that has been tried in some places and it puts more students in private or charter schools. Surveys of students show that bullying is less prevalent in those schools, as reported by the students themselves.

The reality is the system may put us in a position where the only possible choices are less than perfect. When the ideal is not possible then we move in the right direction when possible.

When it comes to bullied kids in school, the school should be held liable if they don’t take action. Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that bullying is a “free speech” issue.

But what makes free speech free? Speech is in one direction. It is active, but there is also the passive participant. For the writer there is the reader. For the speaker there is listener. For the image, there is the viewer. Freedom includes the active and passive participants, not just one side of the equation.

The educational system delivers a captive audience to the bullies. In a normal situation you can change the TV station, you can walk out on the sermon, you can refuse to buy the book. Such a choice doesn’t exist under compulsory education. While we can make that point over and over, it doesn’t change the fact the bullies use their access to this captive audience to inflict harm. Almost every other situation involves a voluntary audience. In a wholly private system, a school that failed to protect students would be held liable, I don’t see why the introduction of compulsion into the systems changes that. Instead of pretending there is no issue, or waiting for utopia, or blaming the victim, we should be demanding accountability from the bureaucrats responsible.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.