Last week, an 8,000 word blog post called The Alt-FI Manifesto was published on the Freedom is Groovy blog. It got a huge number of reactions in the personal finance community, and none of them neutral.
The post was essentially a lengthy argument that a libertarian approach to financial independence is the correct approach and that the progressives in the field are wrong.
A lot of people (especially early on) shared the article and sang its praises. Many others who joined the conversation found it misinformed and wildly offensive.
The post opens by acknowledging that people will be offended if they “have a delicate constitution” and makes a plea for reasoned discussion if people disagree.
I am going to honor that plea here.
The Ground Rules
Before starting, I want to explain why I am responding and what my ground rules and approach will be. This sounds a bit over the top, but I think it matters here.
There were a lot of people in the twittersphere that said that we should not dignify the post with a response. I understand that view and I respect that decision.
There are others who said that responding is not worth it because people that are so cavalier with offensive views are a lost cause. And I get that approach, as well.
Here’s my view: Right now, we’re all talking about these ideas. While this is a topic of conversation, we have an opportunity to guide this discussion in a direction that is helpful rather than harmful.
Maybe everyone who agreed with the manifesto and believed in those ideas will see that I’m on the other side and not read this response. Maybe they’ll read it through a lens of motivated reasoning and just find something that they can nitpick with me about. Maybe.
But maybe some are honestly interested in understanding where the other side is coming from. Maybe some are legitimately interested in understanding the facts and the nuance. Maybe Mr. G was being honest in his opening plea and he will appreciate the learning experience and is willing to learn why his words were so hurtful to so many.
The Benefit of the Doubt
I’ve said multiple times before that it should not be the job of people of color to educate white people about racism. It should not be the job of women to educate men about sexism. There are some who do and they deserve all the respect in the world, but allies need to be willing to step up and fill that gap so that the burden does not fall entirely on the marginalized.
And, to be absolutely clear, some serious educating needs to be done here.
I’ve had a lot of debates and exchanges with Mr. G over these last three years that we’ve both been blogging and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Not his ideas. His ideas do not get the benefit of the doubt. They are unsupported, contrary to the facts, internally inconsistent, often incoherent, and, yes, sometimes quite offensive.
But I am going to give Mr. G the benefit of the doubt that these beliefs are not held out of malice, but out of a lack of understanding. I am going to assume that the racist statements are made out of ignorance. I am going to assume that the offensive asides and examples were based on a failure to thoughtfully consider the perspectives of other people.
In short, I am going to assume that Mr. G is a good person that means well but needs to be educated on these points. To that end, I will walk through each of these issues and try to calmly and rationally address each point.
And so we begin. With the introductory warning.
“Warning: If you have a delicate constitution, you will likely be offended by what follows. I offer no apologies. It is MY manifesto, after all. If you disagree, I look forward to reading YOUR manifesto, and I will respectfully listen to YOUR views. I’m simply asking that you respectfully listen to mine. This is America—the last bastion of free speech on earth—and there’s no reason why areas of contention can’t be discussed intelligently and affably. Just because they’re buttheads on Fox News and MSNBC doesn’t mean we have to be. With that, I’m taking the plunge…”
As much as it feels overly finicky to dispute an introductory paragraph, I need to respond to the identification of America as “the last bastion of free speech on earth.”
Because that very much depends on your definition of “free speech.”
Freedom in America
Pew Research has found that Americans are more accepting of offensive speech than citizens of any other country. If you’re going to release a manifesto that you think will offend a lot of people, then you will probably get less pushback in the United States than in other countries.
The will of the people is not a measure of how much freedom you actually have, though. Your level of freedom is determined by the laws and regulations that you live under. To that end we have to look at comparative international rankings of freedom to determine whether America is the “last bastion.”
Freedom House does an annual rating of countries based on the freedoms that those countries’ citizens have. Countries are rated on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the most free and 7 being the least. This analysis is based on a comprehensive review of 25 different rights and civil liberties.
In the most recent ratings, America received a 1.5 rating. 45 countries received a perfect 1.0 rating and are more free than the United States. 9 other countries received a 1.5 rating, tying the United States. This means that the United States is somewhere between the 46th and 55th most free country in the world right now.
I was unable to find rankings specifically on freedom of speech. However, one aspect of freedom of speech is freedom of the press. After all, how much free speech do you really have if that speech cannot be expressed in the media? In that regard, the United States ranks as the 45th most free country in the world.
The fact that these different measures of freedom are so similar is quite telling. Even if they are way off, however, it is still easy to see that the United States doesn’t even crack the top 25 anymore when it comes to freedom.
How to Get More Freedom
I know that the comment on America being the last bastion of free speech was not intended to be part of the argument, but I think it is important to make this tangent anyway.
Statements like this are often thrown out there in support of arguments against change. Progressives are accused of having a “victim mindset” when we suggest that the system can be made better and improved. After all, it feels ridiculous to complain about systemic problems in the greatest nation on Earth!
These statistics on freedom show that everyone across the political spectrum should be recognizing that there are places where the system needs to be improved. I want the United States to be the most free country in the world. I want those statements to be accurate.
But we need to accept reality and fix systemic problems if we want to get there. You don’t get freedom if you put blinders on and focus solely on your own “personal responsibility” to the exclusion of systemic issues.
A False Dichotomy
I have found over many years of debating libertarians that they tend to lean heavily on this false dichotomy between taking personal responsibility and working to improve your own situation on the one hand and working to improve the system on the other.
The argument that you have to choose one or the other is a complete straw man and a blatant one at that. I can work my ass off to improve my own situation and then turn around and advocate for policies that would make things better for other people. In fact, that is literally what I do.
Arguing that you have to choose one or the other is just another way of saying that you don’t want the system changed because the status quo works for you. It is either a disingenuous argument or one that you haven’t spent enough time thinking about to realize how nonsensical it really is.
Declaring without question or support that America is the “last bastion of free speech” is a part of that faulty framing.
Okay…on to the substance.
The manifesto opens with definitions and I already have concerns.
Alt-FI, Mr. G’s belief system that is being developed in this manifesto, is explicitly a “take-off on the political monikers, alt-right and alt-left.” According to Mr. G, “Alt-right people are righties who reject mainstream conservatism and alt-left people are lefties who reject mainstream liberalism.”
As I said above, I am going to give the benefit of the doubt here and assume that this is an honest misunderstanding rather than an obfuscation of the true backgrounds of these terms. This needs to be corrected, however.
A Brief History of the Alt-Right
The “Alternative Right” (later shortened to alt-right) was a term created by Richard Spencer as a rebranding of American Nazism for the modern era. Spencer was the head of a “white nationalist” think tank and was working on ways to bring white supremacy back into mainstream politics. The popularization of the term “alt-right” was one plan for furthering this goal.
Spencer has stated that his goal is to make America into a white ethno-state. Some of the arguments that the alt-right movement has pushed in furtherance of white supremacy include that liberals are dividing America into racial tribes, that government favors non-whites, that we should be suspect of the fact that members of a minority can have their own groups exclusive of whites, but whites can’t do the same, and that “political correctness” and “social justice warriors” are tools to steal America away from its rightful white owners.
This is important context.
Charges of Racism
Some of the reactions to this manifesto suggested that Mr. G was racist. The libertarians used this to complain about how unreasonable progressives are and how people just call you a Nazi if they don’t agree with your ideas. Mr. G himself said in a comment that “being called a ‘racist’ and ‘Nazi’ is what happens when you challenge the status quo.”
But let’s look at this in the full context. We have a manifesto with a title that references a white supremacy group and which contains multiple arguments that are very similar to ones used by those same white supremacists to advocate for a white ethno-state.
The two most reasonable interpretations of this are that either (a) Mr. G was completely unaware of this context and didn’t realize the racist history of his title and his arguments or (b) he was aware of that history and was embracing it.
In accordance with my statement at the top of this piece I am choosing to believe that (a) is the truth, but I completely understand how people could choose (b) given these facts.
Whichever option you believe, it is clear that the people who responded by calling this manifesto racist were not being unreasonable.
The Rise of Right-Wing Terrorism
This is not just a matter of semantics either. This is not a question of people being too easily offended. It is not a question of people being unfairly intolerant of certain ideas. It is a legitimate safety concern.
The frequency of right-wing terrorist attacks has grown dramatically in recent years, including a 100% increase in the United States just from 2016 to 2017. This should be a real cause for concern for the entire country, but is especially worrisome for people of color, women, and religious minorities, and is likely to be much more front-of-mind for those groups.
From 2008 to 2017, 71% of people killed by ideological extremists in America were killed by right-wing extremists. Compare this to 26% by Islamic extremists and 3% by left-wing extremists (including anarchists). Islamic extremism gets a lot of attention in our country, but it is significantly less of a threat than right-wing extremism.
Less than 24-hours after the “Alt-FI Manifesto” was published, a Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested for allegedly building up a stockpile of weapons and ammunition that he planned to use to kill liberal politicians and journalists as well as “leftists in general.” He is allegedly a white nationalist member of the alt-right who called for a “white homeland” and sought to start a race war.
Extremists and Ideas
To be clear, I am not saying that this manifesto was a call to violence or that Mr. G is a right-wing terrorist.
But right-wing extremism is a very real threat and there is research suggesting that the spreading and greater acceptance of some of the ideas within the manifesto are linked to an increase in right-wing terrorist attacks. This is particularly true of views that the government is so big that it is restricting our freedom and views that the government does too much to help the poor, the disadvantaged, or racial or ethnic minorities.
A Department of Homeland Security study that looked at right-wing terrorist attacks and polling data on various issues found that “the frequency of right-wing domestic terrorism incidents was significantly positively correlated with ANES and GSS items tapping the public’s worries about the federal government being ‘out of control’ and their concerns about too much aid being provided to minorities and the poor.”
Again, I am not suggesting that Mr. G was cognizant of these issues or that his manifesto was a call to violence, but it is entirely reasonable for someone to interpret this as promoting a mindset and an environment that emboldens and encourages violent extremists.
One of the most common complaints that libertarians have about the response to this article is that a lot of people are refusing to engage with the ideas and arguments presented in the manifesto. It has become a common refrain that people are being “intolerant” of the author’s “alternative views.”
This complaint consciously or unconsciously ignores the full context of these ideas and arguments.
Why would someone choose to engage with ideas that they feel (and reasonably so, given the full context) are dangerous and put people’s lives at risk? Why would they choose to legitimize and amplify those ideas by trying to have a good faith debate?
The charge that these people are just intolerant of views that are different from their own is unfair and dismissive of their very real experiences, emotions, and fears.
After establishing the etymology of “alt-FI,” the manifesto starts by dividing the financial independence community into two competing tribes.
Alt-FI is essentially defined as a libertarian approach to financial independence. This is in contrast to Mainstream FI, which is defined as financial independence “from a socialist or collectivist perspective – especially as it relates to the safety net, higher education, and healthcare.”
It goes on to say that FI writers with the socialist perspective “far outnumber” writers with a libertarian perspective. Putting a point on this, Mr. G says that he thinks he is the only libertarian writer in the financial independence space.
There’s a surprising amount to unpack here.
First, because “the safety net, higher education, and healthcare” are addressed in detail later, we’ll set them aside.
Next, because Mr. G later identifies me as an exemplar of the “Mainstream FI” community, I am taking the liberty to respond to his definition of that community by saying that “socialist or collectivist” are not applicable labels.
The easiest part to knock down is “collectivist.” Based on the context, I assume this is referring to the Ayn Randian vision of collectivism as an enemy to individualism rather than the dictionary definition of collectivism.
Under that definition, I don’t know of any collectivist writers in the financial independence community. If you know of any, feel free to point them out and explain your reasoning, but I’ve never seen any.
The term “socialist” has taken a strange turn in American usage recently.
There is one group of people that uses “socialist” to refer to countries, exemplified by the Scandinavian countries, with large safety nets. Another group uses “socialist” to refer to countries, exemplified by Venezuela, that elected “populist” leaders that implemented kleptocratic governments.
These vastly different definitions mean that we really can’t have a discussion of “socialism” in this country. We can’t have a conversation when people are speaking vastly different languages. Instead, we need to actually dig into the policies that people are proposing and debate them on their merits.
This isn’t happening here. Instead, “socialist” is used as a signal to folks on the right that these ideas don’t need to be taken seriously, because they don’t work (in countries like Venezuela). To that end, socialist is not so much a descriptor here as an attack.
I know the type of person that the manifesto is referring to here. We are people that believe that the government should do more to help those in need. We are people that believe that diversity matters. We are people that believe that we should be fixing systemic problems and addressing bigger picture issues rather than just keeping our heads down and focusing exclusively on our own personal success.
Based on that, I’ll be using the term “progressive” to describe this group going forward rather than “socialist,” “collectivist,” or “mainstream.”
Before moving on, I suppose I should address why I am not using the “mainstream” label. In short, we’re simply not the mainstream.
Everyone loves to be the underdog. It is a much more enticing narrative and a much better story to tell ourselves and others. I get it.
But the idea that there are only a few oppressed libertarians in the financial independence community is wildly off base. Similarly, the idea that progressives are the majority is very wrong.
My first instinct in reading this was that libertarians are the majority. On further reflection, though, I think that’s probably wrong. The majority of financial independence writers are probably those writers who stay away from anything touching on politics at all costs.
(There is a good argument to be made that failing to address politics is equivalent to supporting the status quo. I am sympathetic to this view (and have argued it before) but I think in the context of this manifesto it makes more sense to set these people aside as it appears to be weighing one vocal group against another.)
Libertarians certainly outnumber progressives, at least among the big-name blogs and the blogs that have been going for a while. (I can’t speak to the prevalence overall because new blogs are created so often that I can’t keep up and I haven’t been good at reading many blogs lately. Maybe there has been a wave that I have entirely missed, but I’d be curious to see evidence for that.)
One obfuscating factor here is that libertarians often don’t see libertarian politics as politics because it is advocating for more “personal responsibility” as a result of the policies and social changes that it advances. This means that advocating for lower taxes doesn’t feel political, while arguing for raising the minimum wage does. Libertarian positions are the default in the personal finance community and a departure from the default feels more political and noteworthy.
It is also hard to argue that the progressives have a larger voice in this debate when Rockstar Finance, the largest platform for aggregating personal finance blogs, regularly shares libertarian-minded financial independence articles and generally stays away from progressive ones. (Rockstar announced its support for the manifesto immediately after it was published.)
I do think that the progressives in the financial independence community have become more vocal over the last year or two, especially on Twitter. This can make it seem like we are a larger group than we really are. Especially where Mr. G started blogging in the same class as a circle of folks (myself included) who have become more vocal progressives over time, I can understand how he could overestimate our numbers.
On to the first substantive issue.
The manifesto opens a discussion on privilege by providing an alt-FI definition of privilege and his version of a progressive definition of privilege.
The alt-FI definition of privilege is essentially affirmative action. This is an argument that these marginalized groups actually have it easier than white men. The examples that are provided include women having a different standard to meet on the Marines’ Initial Strength Test and people of color getting into colleges with lower average SAT scores.
I don’t want to get into a full-length discussion about affirmative action because it is a complicated topic and this response is over 14,000 words without it. But it is worth a quick overview to dispel the notion that affirmative action should be considered a “privilege” belonging to disadvantaged groups.
Diversity and SCOTUS
The policy known as “affirmative action” was first upheld in a Supreme Court case called Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. The case revolved around a medical school that had policies in place to give ethnic minorities a stronger chance of being accepted.
There were multiple purposes behind this policy, including “(i) reducing the historic deficit of traditionally disfavored minorities in medical schools and in the medical profession; (ii) countering the effects of societal discrimination; (iii) increasing the number of physicians who will practice in communities currently underserved; and (iv) obtaining the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body.”
The first two reasons essentially address the fact that we don’t have a level playing field in the United States. Some people start with advantages that others do not have while others need to work to overcome extra disadvantages. Suggesting that affirmative action is a privilege for disadvantaged groups ignores this reality.
Schools are looking for the students with the most potential, not necessarily the students with the best SAT scores. SAT scores are one measure of potential, but arguing that they are the only measure of potential (which is implicit in saying that getting in with lower scores is a privilege) is ignoring the fact that we did not all take the same path to get to that test.
Diversity Benefits Everyone
I also want to quickly highlight reason (iv): “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body.”
Having more diversity and a wider variety of life experiences represented in class provides a better education for everybody, white people included. Affirmative action benefits both the disadvantaged person that it helps directly and also everyone else in that school or company or community.
Citing an earlier case, the Court said that “it is not too much to say that the ‘nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure’ to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.”
I could go on forever on this, but I won’t drag you through that right now. If you’re interested in more on this I’d recommend reading the decision, as it is rather interesting. There is also a wealth of information out there on the benefits of diversity to companies if you’re willing to put a few minutes into searching. Here are a couple starters from Harvard Business Review: Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter and The Other Diversity Dividend.
The manifesto next provides a definition of privilege on behalf of progressives. The definition provided here is either a complete misunderstanding of the progressive view of privilege or a straw man intended to make progressives seem unreasonable.
“From what I can gather, it seems to mean having more cultural, financial, or human capital than others. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if that superior cultural, financial, or human capital was acquired justly, and it doesn’t matter if the tools and attitudes necessary to build cultural, financial, or human capital are free for everyone to use or mimic. If you grew up in a two-parent household, with parents who made middle-class incomes or better, and who passed along virtues and attitudes that were conducive to gaining worthwhile skills and building wealth, your success, should you have any, really isn’t valid. You’re kind of a cheater. And unless you acknowledge your ‘privilege,’ and continually flagellate yourself over it, any advice you have for those struggling financially is damn near worthless.”
This is…not what we believe.
The short version? Growing up in a two-parent household with parents who made good money and taught you important virtues and attitudes and skills is an amazingly powerful privilege! That’s a super helpful start to life and I personally feel profoundly lucky for being born into such a situation and grateful to my parents for everything they did in raising me.
But that doesn’t undermine anything I’ve accomplished. It doesn’t make me a cheater. I don’t have to “continually flagellate myself.” The advice I provide is not worthless.
I just need to remember that I’ve had advantages that others have not. I should respect my readers enough to give them that context and I should respect the stories of others who have had a different life experience.
The Longer Version
I wrote a very lengthy piece on privilege a few months back. I spent a lot of time talking to people that didn’t believe in privilege or didn’t agree with the way they thought the concept was being applied. I wanted to fully understand the argument against privilege before I responded to those concerns.
I think that article is worth reading in full (although I may be a bit biased), but here is what I said about the definition of privilege:
“One of my biggest takeaways from these conversations was that a lot of people had strong feelings about privilege without having a strong understanding of what exactly it entailed. The political and emotional reactions to privilege have outstripped the basic meaning.
“So for our purposes, here is how I am defining privilege: An advantage that you have in life that you have not earned through your own hard work.
“Privilege, at least in the modern discussion, is generally based around a situation that you are born into. Being white, being male, and being born into a wealthy family are all examples of this, but plenty of others exist as well.
“What I found was that when we strip the issue down to this level, most of the people that reached out to me actually agreed with the concept of privilege.”
Seek First to Understand
This, to me, is the most frustrating part of the privilege discussion.
There is a lot of emotion and anger and no attempt to actually understand the issue before letting that anger loose on the world.
This manifesto includes 2300 words on privilege that are based on a complete misunderstanding of what progressives believe about privilege. This is a lot of unnecessary anger that could have been avoided by simply asking a progressive what they think (or reading my article!) rather than making assumptions and guessing at what’s really in their minds.
For anyone that is serious about personal responsibility and self-improvement, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a powerful and timeless read. Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Admitting the Value of Privilege
After providing this faulty definition of privilege the manifesto goes on to say that “acknowledging the role that good fortune and luck play is an important part of being intellectually honest.”
That’s our point!
That’s the whole thing!
And then it goes on for 1800 words about the “ugly side” of “how the word is used.”
Privilege as a Smear
The first header is “It’s Too Often Used as a Smear” which argues that you should never “accuse” someone else of having privilege because “it’s not being used to further anyone’s understanding of anything.”
Instead, he says, using the term privilege is “effectively saying, ‘I don’t like what you said, I can’t refute you intellectually, so I’ll just accuse you of having a trait that most people have been conditioned to find objectionable.’” (If this were true, it would be a lot like calling a group of people “socialist” or “collectivist” rather than engaging with their actual ideas.)
I’d be interested to see examples of the behavior that Mr. G is referring to here. It’s possible that someone has used privilege as an attack because they didn’t have an intellectual ground to debate an issue, but I haven’t seen that in the FI community.
As I said before, I put out a call for anti-privilege folks to discuss the issue and after talking to lots of people about this, nobody pointed out any individual instances of FI writers doing this.
Instead, what came out was that the discussion of privilege makes people feel defensive about their own success. It means that instead of the idea of privilege being intentionally used as an attack, it is often instinctively being interpreted as an attack by the recipient.
Getting on the Same Page
That is a problem, of course. We cannot reach a consensus if we can’t have a conversation, and we can’t have a conversation if one side feels they are under attack. This is true even if there is no intention to attack.
From the progressive side, I have advocated for a more careful use of words in this discussion. The goal is to convince people to recognize the full context of their success, not to make people feel guilty or ashamed of things beyond their control.
While conservatives mock liberals for being “snowflakes” if they get offended or defensive, we should be better than that and acknowledge that people can be overly sensitive and defensive on this issue and try to be more cautious in our word choice.
At the same time, misinterpretation of someone else’s intentions is not a valid ground to dismiss their ideas. While it may sometimes be helpful for progressives to work on being more careful with their delivery, the libertarian side needs to be more open to having these discussions, less sensitive and defensive, and less knee-jerk dismissive of people just because they disagree with them.
Demographics of Privilege
The next section doubles back to a variation on the affirmative action issue.
This time it is to say that every demographic has some level of privilege over some other groups, so why are the terms “male privilege” and “white privilege” the ones used most often?
The first example of a demographic that the manifesto argues is privileged is women. What are the privileges of being a woman you might ask? Well, it is less socially acceptable for men to hit women than to hit other men. Also, women dominate “several well-paying professions.”
(As a quick aside: Teaching should absolutely be a well-paying profession, but I think Mr. G missed the mark on describing it as such here.)
The manifesto then caps the privileges of women section by proving the other side’s point. “Women also do better than men in school and are far less likely than men to be incarcerated, homeless, suicidal, injured at work, or killed in battle.”
According to this manifesto, women do better in school and are less likely to be incarcerated, homeless, and suicidal, and yet they only dominate a handful of professions. Men do worse in school and are more likely to go to jail, yet they still dominate the vast majority of professions as well as the halls of power and the top eschelons of major corporations.
Sounds like there are some hidden advantages to being a man that women just don’t have.
(Another quick aside: As Military Dollar noted, women are less likely to be killed in battle because historically men have refused to let them serve. Tough to argue that you value freedom and liberty above all and then say that lacking rights is a privilege.)
Privileges of People of Color
The manifesto also includes a series of “privileges” that it argues belong to other demographics.
“Asian-Americans are the most successful ethnic group in America by a considerable margin.”
“Hispanics certainly have ‘privilege’ when it comes to immigration.”
“Blacks certainly have ‘privilege’ when it comes to athletic prowess.”
There has been a lot of talk over whether the manifesto is racist, and these statements are a major part of that discussion. Libertarians have pushed back against the racism charge, with some arguing that this is just a statement of facts about race and others saying that the charge of racism is an overreaction.
As I’ve said, I am giving Mr. G the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he is misinformed about these issues, not that he is racist. That said, I completely understand where these statements, especially in the context of the alt-right discussion above, would lead others to a different conclusion.
This is Racism
Even if Mr. G is not racist, however, these are racist statements.
The reason that these are racist statements rather than facts about race is that they are not facts. They are not supported by any evidence. The manifesto does not provide any data. There is literally no justification for these statements.
Instead, they are based on racial stereotypes.
Not only that, but they are based on racial stereotypes that could have been debunked with a few minutes of googling.
Seriously. I just googled “Asian American Success” and the very first link is to an academic paper entitled The Myth of Asian American Success and Its Educational Ramifications. If that is too niche for you, then please familiarize yourself with some literature on the “Model Minority” myth.
The stereotype of African-American superiority in sports is also easily debunked. There have been a whole slew of studies and research papers on this going back decades, with titles like “The Myth of Black Sports Supremacy,” “The Myth of Black Athletic Superiority and the Dumb Jock Stereotype,” “The Myth of Racial Superiority in Sports,” and “The Myth of the Racially Superior Athlete.”
(I can’t address the statement “Hispanics certainly have ‘privilege’ when it comes to immigration” because I don’t have the slightest clue as to what it is intended to mean.)
I understand why people are so defensive about the charge of racism, but promoting racial stereotypes as facts without doing a minute of research to see whether they are actually true is entirely unacceptable. These statements are the textbook definition of racist.
Privilege and White Men
With that all out of the way, let’s finally get to the question of why the terms you hear most often are “male privilege” and “white privilege.”
The short answer is that broadly speaking white men in our society have the most advantages and are least likely to notice them. White men overwhelmingly dominate positions of power across the government and the private sector. This means that either white men happen to be smarter, harder working, and more charismatic than everyone else, or we have some advantages that we should acknowledge.
There are people, like the alt-right, that believe that white men are simply superior to everyone else. Personally, I believe that the disproportionate success of white men relative to other demographics is because others have to face hurdles and obstacles that we don’t.
This is hard to recognize as a white man because we don’t live those other lives and experience those other experiences. We don’t see what other people go through or struggle with.
When You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
Here’s how I addressed this after talking with people that disagreed with the idea of privilege:
“Recently on Twitter there was a big discussion about women jogging. Women from all backgrounds were chiming in to discuss their experiences. They talked about not being able to go jogging alone after dark. They talked about the different precautions they needed to take before going out. They talked about telling people the exact route they were going to take beforehand.
“I’ve never had to do any of that. When I was in college I would take a break from writing a paper by going for a jog alone through the streets of Washington, D.C. at 1 a.m. I did not tell anyone that I was going for a run, never mind tell anyone my route. I made up my route as I went along to keep things interesting.
“This is obviously just one small example, but it is indicative of the fact that there are challenges that I don’t have to face that I don’t even realize I don’t have to face. That’s how privilege works.
“The fact that I am a straight white man from a middle-class family does not mean that my life is easy or that I don’t face challenges. It means that there are hoops that other people have to jump through and challenges that they have to face that I don’t even see.
“There are plenty of people that achieve great success despite having to jump through those hoops. There are plenty of people that fail to achieve success even though they don’t have to jump through those hoops.
“There are plenty of people that have to jump through some hoops and not others. A poor white man and a wealthy black man have different sets of hoops to jump through. The white man’s race does not negate the challenges of poverty. The black man’s wealth does not negate the challenges of race. Neither negates the fact that they both have privilege in one form and disadvantages in another.
“The point is not to compete or to see people (or yourself) as victims or to inspire guilt. The point is just to recognize where you have had advantages or where others have faced challenges that you did not need to face.”
The next problem that the manifesto identifies with the privilege discussion is that it is “intellectually lazy.” I don’t think I need to spend much time pointing out the hypocrisy in this statement after our discussion on the racial stereotypes, so we’ll just move on to the argument.
“How does requiring certain people with ‘privilege’ to publicly flagellate themselves over their ‘unfair advantages’ help those without ‘privilege?’ In other words, how does the gnashing of your teeth over your fine, middle-class upbringing help those who grew up in single-parent households and had to deal with less than stellar schools and neighbors?”
First, again, we are not asking anyone to “publicly flagellate themselves over ‘unfair advantages.’” The point is to provide full context to your readers. This helps your readers who are in a different situation know how your advice applies to their life.
As a FI-centric analogy, it is much easier to save 50% of your income when you are part of a two-income household with no kids and high incomes than it is if you are a single parent with a middle-income job. The former has advantages over the latter and providing that full context allows the single parent to set appropriate goals and expectations rather than feeling like FI is impossible because they can’t do what the married person is doing.
Recognizing privilege here is not about the married blogger beating themselves up or feeling guilty or anything like that. It’s about providing the full context and recognizing that other people face more challenges than them and may not be able to achieve what they have achieved with the same level of effort.
Laws and Policies
Mr. G goes on to say that “I suppose it might help if this demeaning self-flagellation ritual led to more effective laws and policies. But exactly what laws and policies are currently forcing poor young girls to have children they can’t afford – a significant factor in the perpetuation of poverty? What laws and policies are currently forcing poor children to take the free education they’re provided for granted – again, a significant factor in the perpetuation of poverty.”
I have to point out that this is an ironic argument to make while accusing the other side of being intellectually lazy.
Essentially, the manifesto points out two issues that Mr. G believes (without any evidence presented) contribute to the perpetuation of poverty that he believes (without explanation) cannot be addressed by laws or policies, and uses that as a rationale for dismissing the whole concept of laws or policies being helpful in addressing poverty.
Poverty and Decision-Making
There are many many reasons that it is difficult to climb out of poverty. And many of these reasons are hard to understand if you haven’t lived through that experience.
For that reason, I highly recommend reading Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado, which is a book about poverty written by someone who lived that experience. She discusses the systemic challenges and issues but also the bad decisions involved and why she made them.
Poverty also literally saps your ability to make good decisions. Read Scarcity by Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan for a recap and analysis of the research in that field of study.
Blaming the Poor
The point is that there are all sorts of complex reasons why the poor stay poor, even when some of those reasons sometimes look like bad decisions. Focusing on those issues that look like bad decisions allows people to blame the poor for their own poverty rather than making any changes to the system that could help.
Focusing particularly on having “children they can’t afford” or having children out of wedlock are favorites of conservative politicians because they add a dimension of moral superiority that allows their constituents to feel less empathy and thus less desire to help.
(Here are a couple articles that discuss the specific topic of poor women having children. I am sharing them both because they are interesting discussions and because they include links to all sorts of research (in the first article) and lots of data and charts (in the second).
Poverty and Education
The second argument, that the reason poor children stay in poverty is that they’re taking their education for granted, is also entirely unsupported in addition to lacking any sort of nuance or context.
Even if it were true, however, then our next step should be to figure out why it was true and fix that problem. If you truly believe that everyone is equal and nobody has privilege, then why do you think that this one group disproportionately disregards education based solely on how much money their parents have? This would be a disadvantage based on the situation into which you are born and we should try to understand and address it.
Besides that, it is well documented that the poor receive a worse education than the rich (as the manifesto acknowledges only a few sentences earlier). There are plenty of laws and policies that could help address the unequal quality of education, contrary to the manifesto’s cursory conclusion.
Privilege and Policy
There are also all sorts of other laws and policies that could help to address poverty.
As suggested by the manifesto, acknowledging privilege and the advantages that we have had in life helps us understand the struggles and situations that others face. This discussion can help build support to address the unfair obstacles that others have to face and hopefully will lead to laws and policies creating a more level playing field by helping remove those extra obstacles.
Again, I feel the need to emphasize that the goal is to remove the unfair obstacles that some people have to face rather than to make it harder or add new obstacles for the people with “privilege.”
It is not an attack on the privileged or an undermining of their success or efforts. It is a recognition of the people that have to jump through extra hoops.
Privilege as Determinism
Continuing the “intellectually lazy” argument, the manifesto suggests that the progressives believe that “one’s starting position in life is automatically one’s ending position.”
This is another straw man. And a quite nonsensical one at that.
By definition, anyone in the financial independence community believes that they can improve their situation. The whole point of the movement is to make smarter decisions and learn how to get off the standard consumerist track so that we can make our own plan for our lives. Why would we make that effort if we believed that we had no control over our futures?
This is another example of the false dichotomy between working to improve your own situation and working to improve the system. We can do both at the same time! Financial independence has space for intellectual nuance.
I can work my ass off to make good decisions and put myself into the best possible situation. I can study and improve myself and start a side hustle and get promotions. I can improve my savings rate and make smarter investment decisions. I can make and pursue a plan to retire early.
I can also recognize that my path to do that has faced fewer obstacles than others and argue that they should get the same opportunities that I have had. I can (and do!) provide advice in my writing for how others can follow my path while also recognizing that some people have to jump through extra hoops based simply on the circumstances of their birth.
The recognition of privilege is the recognition that some groups have it harder. It is not an excuse for people who don’t put in their best effort. It is not an attack on people that have achieved success. It is definitely not a suggestion that someone who has it harder cannot be successful.
This type of attack on privilege is either based on a complete misunderstanding or a disingenuous desire to set up an easy to beat straw man.
The next section, “Perpetuating Financial Moronity” knocks down the straw man that was set up in the last section. Essentially, it argues that we should not give people a pass for failing to take personal responsibility for their actions.
This section doesn’t need much response on the substance in that it is based on underpinnings that are already established to be faulty. The point again is that you can teach financial skills and encourage smarter decisions while simultaneously working to address systemic barriers.
Crediting the Privileged
Next the Manifesto attacks “the notion that…the privileged don’t deserve any credit for maintaining or advancing their so-called advantages.”
This is another misconception about privilege that could have been quickly and easily dispelled by asking any progressive their thoughts. Hard work should be rewarded. Persistence should be rewarded. Ingenuity and creativity and productivity should be rewarded. No argument from us on that front.
We’re simply asking people to recognize that you may have had opportunities that others didn’t. Give a nod to the journeys that others face.
We’re not saying you don’t deserve your success. We’re saying that there may be others who have worked just as hard but haven’t achieved success. We’re saying that there are a variety of outcomes and not everything is within our control.
Success of an Inherited Business
The example given in the manifesto is of a friend of Mr. G who inherited a business from his father, worked his ass off to keep it successful and then worked like crazy to transition to a new business when the industry died out. The argument is that progressives treat this type of person with “snarky dismissal” rather than “admiration.”
Again…ask a progressive!
That friend worked hard and achieved success. Congrats! That’s excellent! You deserve to be rewarded for your hard work.
Just remember the boost that you had from inheriting a successful business. It does not take away from your hard work, but it gives valuable perspective when comparing yourself to what others have achieved with their hard work.
Finally moving on from the subject of privilege, the manifesto next addresses diversity.
“Alt-FI people simply don’t give a shit about diversity,” the manifesto says before immediately contradicting this sentiment. “They believe that concerning oneself with the demographics of a meet-up or conference is … inappropriate and ridiculous….”
So the alt-FI position is that not only is diversity not something to be valued, it is in fact something that is inappropriate and ridiculous to consider.
Progressives, we are told “are diversity mongers and are very uncomfortable when anything in the FI community lacks diversity.” When seeing a meet-up or event that is made entirely of white people “they all agree that ‘something needs to be done about it.’”
Wait, But Why?
To illustrate his point, Mr. G points to a photo from a FI meet-up that appears to be entirely made up of white people. He says that that’s fine and compares it to players in the NFL and the NBA, who are majority black. (While management offices and ownership are majority white. Hmm…)
This ignores the extremely relevant question of why diversity is lacking, which is an inappropriate question to ask under libertarian thinking. The problem is that when you remove the blinders and think about this in the FI context, it raises some serious issues.
Presumably Mr. G is okay with the lack of diversity in the NFL and the NBA because they are made up of the most elite athletes that have reached those levels at any given time. So what if they happen to be black, right?
But what does that say about the fact that the financial independence community is overwhelming white? Are we saying that white people are smarter? More gifted at money? Are we saying that people of color have no interest in retiring early?
(Suggesting that a libertarian believes that white people are smarter is often seen as a low blow, but this is a legitimate question for a number of reasons. Mainly, a lot of libertarians legitimately believe this! They tend to lean on IQ statistics from a book by Charles Murray, a fellow at a conservative think tank. The “alt-right” is entirely built around the idea that white people are smarter and better in general. One of the commenters agreeing with the manifesto in its comment section has already raised the suggestion of white superiority with regards to FI with the requisite reference to Murray’s book.)
Being “colorblind” sounds great in theory, but it means that you have to either (a) ignore the real world happening around you or (b) believe that white men are more successful, wealthier, and in more positions of power because they are inherently better than everyone else. Neither of those options are appealing to me.
The reason a lack of diversity exists matters. And we can’t get there without taking our blinders off, noticing that lack of diversity, and thinking about big issues.
Mr. G talks about being raised in the 60s and 70s and taught that we should be a “colorblind society.” “The dream of a colorblind society, where we’re only judged by ‘the content of our character,’ is one of the noblest aspirations I can think of.”
I agree with the sentiment! I would love to live in a society where we are only judged by the content of our character. The question is: How do we get there from here?
The libertarian approach to this is just to act like we’re already there. If we as individuals start acting colorblind, then society will magically become colorblind. It’s The Secret for race relations.
It’s also wrong.
While individuals were learning to be colorblind in the 60s and 70s, institutions were continuing to redline neighborhoods. Realtors were pretending that houses were already sold when black families came to look at them because they didn’t want housing prices in the neighborhood to go down. Opportunities to build wealth and stable lives were being denied to the black community.
It’s harder for white people to notice this if they’re actively refusing to pay attention to diversity. And it is harder for systemic issues in America to get fixed when white people don’t notice them.
Raising Non-Racist Kids
If you know me at all, you will not be surprised to hear that I read a lot of books when I found out that I was going to be a dad.
One of these books was NurtureShock. I don’t have the book in front of me (I got it from the library) so I can’t quote it directly, but it addressed some really interesting studies on raising kids to be “colorblind.”
The idea is intuitively appealing. Kids aren’t born racist, so if you just never acknowledge race then they shouldn’t learn racism as they grow, right?
The problem is that if you don’t talk about race growing up or are actively raised to be “colorblind,” then keeping intellectual consistency requires accepting that the prejudices inherent in our systems must be justified. If men are more often business leaders, then it must be because men are better business leaders. If white people are more successful, it must be because they are smarter or work harder.
In short, the studies found that raising kids as “colorblind” makes them more likely to adopt racist and prejudicial views. Instead, you need to actively talk to you kids about race and racism if you want them to grow up avoiding racist opinions.
Accepting Reality and Fixing Problems
The main problem with the colorblind approach is that even if we as individuals become “colorblind,” that does not mean that all of a sudden everyone is being judged by the content of their character.
Black men are given longer jail sentences than white men for committing the same crime.
Black drivers are far more likely to get pulled over than white drivers. And once they get pulled over they’re far more likely to have their cars searched.
Black and white Americans are equally likely to use drugs, but black Americans are twice as likely to be arrested for it.
These problems exist whether or not you choose to think about race. If we want to live in a truly colorblind society where people are honestly judged on the content of their character, then we need to have the courage to identify and fix these problems rather than pretending they don’t exist or hoping they go away on their own.
Ignoring this reality and choosing not to “give a shit about diversity” is not only burying your head in the sand, but it is a vote in favor of the status quo.
In short, both the “alt-FI” tribe and the progressives want a society where everyone is judged based on the content of their character. The difference is that the progressives are willing to fight to make that happen and the libertarians simply pretend that it already has.
The next section addresses “tribalism.”
And I just need to stop for a minute and highlight the first sentence before we move on to the substance.
“Alt-FI people are very uncomfortable with tribalism.”
The entire premise of this manifesto is that there are two tribes within the financial independence community. The noble underdog “alt-FI” tribe is valiantly fighting against its nemesis, the unreasonable and intolerant “mainstream” tribe.
The entire 8000-word article is built on tribalism. You don’t get to turn around and pretend you aren’t comfortable with tribalism.
Alright…let’s move on to the substance.
Tribalism in FI
The manifesto notes that tribalism builds trust and cooperation within the tribe, but fosters mistrust and poor treatment of people outside the tribe. Because of this, tribalism should be avoided.
“Alt-FI people believe you subdue the nasty side-effects of tribalism by frowning on tribalism and keeping tribalism out of the FI community. There’s no Caucasian way of doing FI, and there’s no black, gay, or woman’s way of doing FI either.”
On the other hand, progressives “believe you subdue the nasty side-effects of tribalism by encouraging the ‘right kind’ of tribalism in the FI community.”
This reference to the “right kind” of tribalism is at the end of this section but appears to be a reference back to the beginning of the section. There, the manifesto highlights that there are women-only conferences and people who proudly wear the label “feminist” in the financial independence community, where man-only conferences or people calling themselves “masculinist” would be frowned upon.
Let’s tackle the feminism part first.
Feminism is the belief that women deserve equality. It is a movement that seeks to lift women up so that they can be on an even playing field with men.
If we apply that definition by analogy to “masculinism,” we would find that a “masculinist” believes that men deserve equality with women. Therefore, it would be a movement seeking to tear men down so that they can be equal to women.
Obviously that isn’t what Mr. G meant here. Instead, the analogy to “masculinism” suggests a belief that people who call themselves feminists either believe that women are inherently superior to men or that feminists seek to create a system where women are in charge of everything and subjugate men.
Again, this is a misunderstanding that could have been clarified by simply having a discussion with a feminist about what they believe rather than making ungenerous assumptions about their motivations.
The All-Women Conference
The all-women conference is a bit tougher for me to explain in that I am not a woman and have never had the experience of being a woman.
Here’s what I can say.
First, the personal finance community is very male dominated. There are just a lot more men than women writing in this space. Given that, I can understand how a space where you are surrounded by people with a more similar experience to yours could be an easier and less intimidating entrance into the financial independence community as well as a valuable place to share your voice and hear others.
The response of women when Tanja set up the Cents Positive retreat says a lot about how valuable something like that can be. Women were excited before the retreat and gave glowing reviews after it. This shows that there was a legitimate need for this type of space within the financial independence community.
Can you imagine a need for an all-male retreat? “Want to get together and talk about money in a space where we don’t have to worry about women dominating the conversation?” Uh…no thanks, dude. Men don’t need that space because we already dominate the communal space.
The Power of Representation
Second, representation is more important than I, as a white man in America, can really comprehend.
Growing up, I never understood the argument that we needed more representation for the sake of representation. Did an African-American kid really need to see a black president to know that he could grow up to be president? Did a woman really need female role models in her field? This is America! Anyone can become anything! You don’t need a person to look like you in order to see yourself doing their work or achieving their feats.
But then again, every president had looked like me. Every field has role models that look like me. White men had become everything. So how could I fully grasp the counterfactual?
To have even an inkling of the importance of representation, I needed to look to other communities. And I did.
I saw black mothers crying and hugging their children in Grant Park after the 2008 election.
I saw women tearing up and cheering and overflowing with emotion while voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
I saw the black community’s reaction to Black Panther and the Asian-American community’s reaction to Crazy Rich Asians. And the representation there was on a movie screen.
Look. I can’t really explain this all that well because I can’t fully grasp it. I know that other white men in the United States can’t either. And that’s fine.
But we need to recognize that other people’s experiences are valid. Our life experience is not more important than someone else’s and it does not give us moral superiority. The fact that we don’t fully comprehend the importance of representation does not mean that representation is not important.
We know that representation is important because we can see how important it is to so many people. Believe them.
The next section is just a straight-up discussion of policy debates between libertarians and progressives.
The libertarians want less government and “don’t believe they’re entitled to ‘free’ healthcare, ‘free’ college, ‘free’ daycare, or ‘free’ anything.”
The progressive positions are described a bit more…colorfully. First, Mr. G describes exaggerated versions of progressive positions coupled with snarky “eff you”s to taxpayers. Then he apologizes for the snark and says that these positions are “the primary reason [he] truly admire[s]” the progressives. “They want more government because they hate suffering and squalor.”
Once you remove the snark and the exaggeration, this seems like a relatively fair description of the difference between libertarians and progressives. Progressives are willing to pay more in taxes if it means that we can do more to help the less fortunate. Libertarians want smaller government and lower taxes.
I…don’t really have anything to add here? Obviously you know where I stand on this spectrum. But I’m not going to convince libertarians to change their entire worldview and ideology with a cleverly-written paragraph. Any debates on this topic will likely be more productive on a policy-by-policy basis.
The Case Against Nuance
The next section appears to be an argument against nuance in the financial independence community.
Alt-FI people “believe that the FI community’s core tenets – better known as the pillars of FI – will work for every inhabitant of the United States, and it’s their job to show how they’ve used these core financial tenets to improve their respective lives. It’s not their job to provide a user guide for every financial tenet that is applicable to every inhabitant of the United States.”
Essentially, the argument goes, the job of bloggers is simply to show how the “pillars of FI” apply to their life. It is the job of the reader to figure out how to apply what they’ve learned to their own life.
Progressives, on the other hand, provide more “buts” and qualifications when they make FI points. This added nuance, according to the manifesto, is a sign of deep disrespect for their readers. We allegedly believe that if we simply tell our story then our “readership will become confused, detached, and angered.”
But because Mr. G “can’t read minds,” he provides an alternative explanation for why we include nuance in our writing: We want to “strut [our] moral plumage.”
In Defense of Nuance
I don’t really understand this argument.
Can’t we just include nuance in our writing because we believe our audience would appreciate nuance? I provide a lot of nuance and detail in my writing because that’s the type of writing I like to read. The world is complicated and I like to learn about complicated things. I have no interest in reading the same 6 simple approaches to FI over and over again.
I respect bloggers that tell their story. I don’t look down on them or take issue with what they’re doing. More people telling their stories and talking about their personal journeys to financial independence means that we can reach more people with more different backgrounds. That’s great.
But I don’t think that my deciding to write articles that seek to capture the nuance and intricacy and complicated nature of the world is disrespectful to my readers. And I don’t understand how it could be a signal that I believe I am morally superior to people that take a different approach to their writing.
How Much Tax is Too Much Tax?
The manifesto next moves on to “paycheck freedom.” The argument here is essentially that taxes shouldn’t be too high. Once effective tax rates hit a certain point, you no longer have control over your spending decisions.
That’s a fair enough argument in theory. The important question becomes where you draw that line, which becomes tricky.
What economic metrics do you use? Do you start with the cost of the basic needs of the government? Or do you look at the cost of living and guarantee that each individual keeps at least that much of their paycheck? Do you compare the United States to the OECD countries and set a target benchmark? How do you determine the nitty gritty details of how much taxation is too much taxation?
The manifesto bypasses the deep thinking required to give real heft to this idea and instead just picks a number. Or…picks a few numbers.
At the beginning of this section it says the cap on taxes should be “30 to 40 percent?” (I didn’t add the question mark. That’s in the original.) This is the maximum amount that a person can have taken from their paycheck before they have lost their freedom. Based on apparently nothing at all and announced with all the certainty that adding a question mark to the end of a statement implies.
After a few paragraphs of argument, the approach changes to determining how much money the government needs. Under this approach, the manifesto declares that 25 percent of income is enough to pay for all necessary government services at the federal, state, and local level. What evidence supports this number? Mr. G tells us that it “strikes me as more than enough.”
Well…glad that’s settled.
Do Your Homework
I’m open to debates over whether taxes are too high or too low. I love that shit. I will dive into policy debates all day.
But you need to put in real thought.
We write about budgets and spending all the time! We know how this works. If you’re going to drastically cut the government’s income, where are you going to cut it’s spending?
With a cut this drastic you’d have to make some major changes. Do you stop paying the national debt and crash the global economy? Do you stop paying Social Security and take away income that many seniors rely on and that people have spent their whole careers paying into? Do you eliminate Medicare and Medicaid and tell the poor and the elderly that if they can’t afford care then too bad for them? Do you cut our military spending down below levels of other countries? If so, which specific parts of the budget get cut and how much money will that actually save you?
Do we make up for the lost money from personal income tax with a drastic increase in corporate income tax? Estate tax? Do we create a wealth tax or a national sales tax?
Do we give as many state and local projects to the federal government as possible to save money with the larger government’s stronger negotiating power? Or do we pass everything to the smallest possible government in the hopes that the folks on the ground have ideas for saving money?
These are all discussions that we can have if you want to talk about taxes and spending. There are a million different ways that conversation can go. But if you want to talk taxes and spending you need to be willing to put in the work.
Especially if you’re going to talk about this while simultaneously calling your opponents intellectually lazy.
An Offensive Comparison
I’m just going to briefly touch on the analogy that Mr. G uses in this section comparing reproductive rights to low taxes.
“If the government takes away reproductive freedom, women will lose a crippling amount of autonomy. One could rightfully say, then, that ending reproductive freedom is the tyrant’s way of controlling a woman’s body and crushing her autonomy.
“Well, it’s the same thing when it comes to paycheck freedom.”
No it isn’t.
If you don’t have the right to control your own body, then you don’t have the right to control your own body. If taxes are too high, then you have less money. These are not the same.
With taxes solved, the manifesto next moves on to healthcare.
“Alt-FI people don’t fear death.”
That’s great! Fear of death is natural, but conquering that fear can be a powerful tool for living a fuller life.
“…This is particularly true as it relates to healthcare.”
Oh…this will be interesting.
A Horrific Proposal
Okay, here’s the main argument that the manifesto makes about healthcare:
If you can’t afford to pay for your own care, then it is better for you to die than for other people to pay higher taxes to save your life.
The manifesto acknowledges that most people “are probably horrified by this possible outcome.” (True!) It then includes four reasons why this is okay.
Taxes and Slavery
“No one’s rights are being violated.” The argument here is that sick people aren’t “entitled to money earned by others” and that nobody was “put on this planet to be anyone else’s slave.”
This is supported by the idea that “Alt-FI people have a profound belief that justice and coercion are mutually exclusive.”
It doesn’t come right out and say it, but I assume the references to “coercion” and being a “slave” are in reference to the taxes required to pay health care costs for those who can’t afford it. (The section opens with a reference to “money earned by others” and then doesn’t provide any other detail about what is being railed against.)
First, taxes aren’t slavery. Slavery is slavery. Can we please, please, please stop acting like anything we don’t like is the same thing as slavery? These things are not even mildly similar.
If you honestly believe that taxes are the same thing as slavery, then move. Get out of the country and find one with lower taxes. There are plenty out there.
Second (and on the substance), this “support” is actually just a restatement of the thesis. This is like saying “It’s better for people to die than for me to pay higher taxes because I shouldn’t have to pay higher taxes to prevent people from dying.”
Healthcare by Charity
The next argument is that nobody would actually die because Americans give a lot of money to charity.
This argument is essentially “I shouldn’t have to pay to prevent someone from dying because someone else will probably pay.”
I mean…maybe. But I’m not at all comfortable with linking your chance of living and dying with your ability to market a Go Fund Me. It’s wild to even consider the answer to the question “Should poor people die because they’re poor?” being “Meh…some rich person or charity will probably save them.”
This manifesto makes a lot of calls to “liberty” and “freedom,” but for my money the first part of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not one that we should overlook.
The third argument is that the “government could be a better steward of the tax dollars it already receives.”
Sure. But the solution to “crony capitalism” is combating crony capitalism. If you want to reduce military spending, then advocate for reducing military spending. You can do those things without arguing for the decimation of the safety net.
Arguing that there is government waste is an entirely separate issue from whether people should die if they can’t afford healthcare.
The final bullet point is that there is good medical care available for cheap in other countries. If you can’t afford care in the US, you “could easily get [your] heart surgery abroad.”
Plenty of people practice medical tourism. That’s fine. That’s their choice. But medical tourism is not an alternative to providing good medical care here in the States.
One obvious problem is that you need to be able to afford to travel abroad. That’s not a small feat for the folks most in need of affordable medical care (even ignoring the fact that only 42% of Americans have a passport.)
Another is that medical tourism is not practicable for ongoing issues. It becomes very expensive to get multiple rounds of chemotherapy in a foreign country. Needing kidney dialysis three times a week would require either tons of paid time off from your job or the ability to go without a paycheck for an extended period of time.
This is simply not a valid alternative to providing quality care to our neighbors.
Preventing Untimely Death
The healthcare discussion ends with the idea that you won’t have expensive medical bills if you just make good decisions.
“[T]he specter of untimely or unjust death is quite remote for people who 1) live in a free, first-world country and who 2) have embraced virtuous habits and attitudes. In other words, if you fix yourself and live right, you don’t need anything beyond basic government and freedom to have a long and fruitful life.”
This is just false.
You should live as healthy of a life as you can. You should try to make good choices. Exercise, eat a balanced diet, try to get enough sleep, etc. That’s all good.
But it doesn’t prevent everything.
Children get cancer. Babies are born with health problems. People in crosswalks get hit by cars. Students and concertgoers and worshipers in synagogues get shot for no reason at all.
We should take responsibility for our own health as much as we can, but there are plenty of things that are outside of our control. Whether you survive should not be determined by how much money you have. Or how much money your parents have in the case of children.
Healthcare is REALLY Expensive
Before leaving this topic I want to touch on the sample patient that the manifesto uses throughout this section.
We are told to consider a “man in his 60s [who] has a heart issue that requires surgery.” This man has “$20,000 in an emergency fund.”
First, 44% of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency. That’s a long way from a $20,000 emergency fund.
Sure, we should encourage them to build a bigger emergency fund. But do they deserve to die if they can’t?
Second, $20,000 disappears really quickly in the world of healthcare.
The average cost for cancer treatment is $150,000. And that’s just an average.
Prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies could include lifetime benefit caps. These meant that once the insurance company paid $1 million or $2 million in healthcare costs for a person, they could simply stop covering them.
A significant number of people hit these caps, which gives us a good idea of how much care they needed. This means that in a world without insurance, a significant number of people will need to spend over $1 million in health care costs.
This is especially brutal for children, like this boy who had over $2 million in medical costs before he was six months old. There is no emergency fund, nutrition plan, or exercise routine that would have helped that boy or his parents.
Government, but Cheaper
The next section is more of a big picture look at government.
“Alt-FI people aren’t fans of democracy” because “history has proven that majorities aren’t always beacons of wisdom and virtue.” Instead, they support something that the manifesto calls “libocracy,” which is defined as “constitutional republicanism with limited government and checks on the majority so the inalienable rights of all are protected.”
Which is…what we have?
Mr. G says that government should pay for things like “roads, courts, money, national defense, environmental laws, etc.” as well as “schools, food stamps, Section-8 housing, Medicaid, etc.”
Which is…what it does?
This is followed by a callback to the manifesto’s unsupported argument that all government spending should be based on an income tax cap of 25%. Apparently this means that we should have the same government we have now, but we should get to pay less for it.
Again, if you want to argue for different taxing and spending levels, then do that. I’m all for that! But put in the work and use facts and numbers and details. We’re personal finance writers. We know that if we’re going to have a lower income then we need to specifically identify where our spending is going to be cut, by how much, and how it will impact our lives.
Next we move on to a discussion of the opposition, myself included.
Mr. G and I have very different political ideologies (oh, you noticed?) but have had respectful discussions and debates about those issues over the years. He lists out a number of other progressive bloggers that he has debated respectfully and even more that he enjoys reading.
I appreciate this shout-out, and, more importantly, I appreciate the stated commitment to respect and openness to other opinions. (Although, as noted elsewhere in this response, there are multiple statements in the manifesto that suggest a dismissal of, or lack of respect for, the experiences of others. This is an important part of respectful debate and open exchange of ideas.)
Mr. G believes that because he admires and respects progressives that means that the libertarian FI tribe does the same. Because he believes that we’re “smart, decent people who are admirably toiling away to make this country and world a better place” he thinks that his whole tribe takes this approach.
I can assure you: they do not.
Attacks on Progressives
I can count on one hand the number of libertarians in the personal finance space that have disagreed and debated with me respectfully when I write or tweet progressive opinions.
It is far more likely that I will get attacked personally. I can’t even count the number of libertarian-minded (or alt-FI in the framing of the manifesto) folks who have responded by insulting me and resorting to ad hominem attacks rather than debating the issue with any level of respect.
And it is certainly not just me. I see this with FI and PF folks who write or tweet progressive thoughts all the time.
[My initial draft included examples of other progressive bloggers being insulted and attacked for sharing their opinions, but I decided that I don’t want to highlight other people and make them targets all over again just to make my point.]
Respect for Libertarians
After asserting that the libertarians are respectful of the progressives, Mr. G next asks if the progressives are respectful of the libertarians.
“I like to think so, but I have my concerns,” he tells us, because the progressive wing of the FI movement “strikes me as very intolerant of anyone who has strayed off the progressive plantation.”
First (again), let’s knock it off with the slavery comparisons.
Second, I’m sure there are progressives who are mean or disrespectful towards libertarians for no reason. Any time you have large groups of people, some will be assholes. However, the fact that you can list almost 30 progressives off the top of your head that debate with you respectfully and I can think of 3-5 (depending on how far you are willing to stretch the idea of “respectful”) libertarians that have done the same with me should tell us something.
Respect for Ideas
Another point here is that we can’t always look at respect for competing ideas and theories in a vacuum.
I am a progressive who has made an active choice to try to have open discussions with everyone that wants to debate me in good faith. I am also a white man and I have the lived experiences of a white man.
Here’s why that matters.
The extent to which many progressive ideas and proposals are offensive to libertarians is that they would often require the libertarian to pay higher taxes, which he does not want to do.
On the other hand, many libertarian ideas are offensive to people because those ideas are dismissive of the lives and lived experiences of those people.
When you say that giving up more than 25 percent of your paycheck is pretty much the same thing as women losing their right to make their own reproductive decisions, that minimizes the importance of reproductive freedom.
When you say that white privilege is not real, you dismiss the realities of day-to-day life for people of color. You are telling them that you don’t believe the statistics that show that their lives are harder and that they have to work harder to achieve the same level of success.
When you say that women shouldn’t have their own conference you are telling them that they don’t deserve a safe space because their perceptions of their own experiences in dealing with the men in this community are wrong and unworthy of consideration.
When you cite racial stereotypes as facts without doing a moment of research, you are saying that you are more interested in proving your point than understanding the truth about people’s lives.
Mr. G and I can sit here as white men and debate these ideas as abstract concepts and theories and ideologies. But I completely understand the positions of people who feel that these arguments are dismissive of their realities and their experiences and not worthy of a good faith response.
If you want your ideas to be treated with respect, you need to treat not just your ideological opponents’ ideas with respect, but also your opponents themselves. You need to recognize that they know their own lived experience better than you do. You need to acknowledge that their lives and experiences and perceptions matter just as much as your own.
You can’t complain about people failing to show respect for your ideas when you fail to show respect for people and their experiences.
The Manifesto’s Conclusion
We’re approaching the end of the manifesto and this final section includes the keys to financial independence and a summary of arguments (of sorts).
The keys include the standard advice to spend less than you earn and invest the difference. Grow your income and reduce your expenses to increase the gap between the two. Buy insurance, invest in index funds, make good investment decisions. And do good.
This is followed by the “main features of the alt-FI worldview.”
“Alt-FI people don’t care about diversity” because “alt-FI people are color-blind.”
As we explored above, individuals declaring themselves to be “colorblind” actively prevents us from moving closer to equality of opportunity.
“Alt-FI people abhor tribalism, especially as it relates to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.”
We’ve already explored this, as well, but the key here is the clause that begins with “especially.” The entire concept of Alt-FI is an elevation of tribalism. It is taking the financial independence community, dividing it into tribes, and declaring that one tribe is better and more moral than another. That type of tribalism is great in this worldview. Just avoid acknowledging any distinction based on “race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.”
“Alt-FI people prefer freedom to Leviathan.”
This appears to be a newish argument that is a variation on the idea that small government is good. It sets up another strange false dichotomy, however.
Leviathan, when used in the context of government, refers to Thomas Hobbes’ book of the same name advocating for an all-powerful government that has authority over every aspect of people’s lives.
Nobody wants that. This is not a debate between “freedom” and an all-powerful government. It is a debate over whether government should do a little more or a little less. Casting this as a matter of principle and absolute is a tactic to avoid having to address specific policies, facts, and details.
“Alt-FI people believe that the government doesn’t have an unlimited right to confiscate your paycheck or income.”
Again, this is not actually in dispute. The question is not “Should the government be able to take all your money?” but rather “What level of taxation is fair and appropriate for funding the programs and priorities that we want our government to fund?”
“Alt-FI people believe in extreme ownership.”
This is a more extreme version of the false dichotomy between personal responsibility and systemic problems that we debunked earlier.
“If your financial life is in tatters, the main culprit is you….And don’t give alt-FI people any guff about ‘400 years of oppression.’ No one alive today is 400 years old, no one needs 400 years to master some worthwhile skills and attitudes, and no one is stopping anyone from learning any worthwhile skill or adopting any worthwhile attitude.”
This is…yikes. Where to start?
400 years of oppression does not mean that oppression stopped 400 years ago. For any libertarians that are honestly open to other ideas, I highly recommend you read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 article The Case for Reparations. I don’t expect you to read it and find yourself in favor of reparations. Instead, I want you to read it to get a better understanding of the compounding confiscation of wealth that the United States has committed against people of color that continued throughout our history and into today.
Dismissing “400 years of oppression” by saying that nobody is 400 years old is a big waving flag that you don’t have the necessary context in which this discussion needs to happen. (It is also another example of showing disrespect by dismissing the lived experiences of an entire group of people.)
Everyone can and should take responsibility for their actions. Everyone can and should do everything they can to lift themselves up. At the same time, everyone can and should be working to fix a broken system.
This is not an either/or situation. Life is complicated. Ignoring those complications does not make life easier or simpler.
The Conversations We SHOULD Have
And there we have the “Alt-FI Manifesto.” A combination of vague and unresearched policy ideas, offensively uninformed statements about race and gender, and a call to tribalism based on a gross misunderstanding of others’ ideas.
There’s a productive way to talk about these things, but this ain’t it.
We should talk more about policy and politics. I’m all for that. The personal finance community has a tendency towards ignoring policy and politics despite the important role they play on our wallets and our lives as a whole. Ignoring politics does a disservice to our audiences.
But if we’re going to talk about policy and politics, we should make it a productive discussion. Start with some research. Bring some facts. Ideology is fine. If you’re for smaller government, then be for smaller government. But at least understand the implications of your positions on your readers and advance a coherent argument for their importance.
We need to talk more about race and gender. As we learned above, declaring ourselves “colorblind” and actively ignoring race and gender is counterproductive and harmful. This means that discussions on race and gender, while uncomfortable, are imperative if we want to achieve a society where people are truly judged by the content of their character.
But if we’re going to talk about race and gender, we can’t start from the assumption that stereotypes are facts. We need to do basic research before entering the conversation. We must respect the life experiences of others and be careful not to diminish them. Conversations on race and gender need to start from a place of openness and respect if we want them to be at all productive.
It’s great to talk about ideas that we disagree with. There is real value in reaching beyond our respective echo chambers and exploring competing ideas and theories. Just as diversity of experience provides a benefit to everyone involved, diversity of ideas can be beneficial.
But if we want real intellectual diversity rather than just rallying our own tribe to score points we need to accurately represent the competing ideas. If we want to have productive discussions, we need to seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. We need to show a real openness to new ideas rather than just distorting them to make our own views look more reasonable.
There are a number of very valuable conversations that we should have about all of these things. But this manifesto is not a good start.