Wade's World

Just leave it where Jesus flang it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

On Left-Libertarianism

Libertarians who attempt to align themselves along the traditional left-right political axis often find themselves out of sorts. There are no defining elements of either side that clearly align with the principles of freedom that typically inform libertarian views. However, the small-government philosophy of modern conservatism (at least as it is professed if not practiced) tends to draw many libertarians kicking and screaming to the Republican side of the fence. Others cite the emphasis on "personal freedoms" they find the left side of the spectrum to hold dear as the underpinning of "left libertarianism." Thomas Knapp offers some analysis on what being a "left libertarian" means in his view.

The right values stasis. The left does not—it values change, or to put a prettier face on it, "progress." Libertarians value liberty. To the extent that libertarians categorize themselves in terms of left and right, we can only align ourselves with the right when the status quo is liberty. Otherwise, we are naturally part of the left, doing our damnedest to steer its adaptive, "progressive" impulse in the direction of freedom.
I finally chose to accept the "left libertarian" label only recently, based primarily on my perception that the status quo created by the left over the last 70 years and now defended with vigor by the right is at the point of crumbling. The left has handed that status quo to the right and is gallivanting off in search of new directions in which to lead society. I believe that libertarians are more fit, both by principle and inclination, to participate in the quest for a new liberty on the left than in the defense of an old creeping tyranny on the right.
I don't think I buy this at all. At least not in this day and age. It may have been true to an extent when Hayek wrote "Why I am Not A Conservative", and certainly before the New Deal era, but I don't think it's an apt description today.

How often do we hear the lament from the left that righties are seeking to undo the New Deal and Great Society policies of yesteryear? The howling emanating from the left about the sacred intergenerational bond between the old and the young represented by Social Security whenever much needed reforms are proposed is deafening and shrill. These are not the reactions of people seeking a "new liberty" but instead striving to preserve the status quo.

In fact, the status quo is nothing more than the semi-socialist "the state is your friend" policies that were put in place over the last 100 years, beginning with Teddy Roosevelt (who defined himself as a Progressive) and ending with Lyndon B. Johnson (the Great Society) [UPDATED: and, of course, Nixon who ushered in the EPA and price controls]. Carter, Clinton and Bush II have all added to that creaking system in one way or another (although Carter did begin the deregulation process carried forward by Reagan). But it is the left that continually defines "progress" as policies that necessarily require government intervention and guidance. When they are not clamoring for leaving the welfare state untouched, the pushing for yet more government spending on programs they deem just.

As Jon Henke puts it:

For my own part, I tend to align with the Right, simply because I don't believe that the "new liberty" sought by the Progressives will resemble the "old liberty". Moreover, I don't find the required constant revolution in search of new "progress" very appealing.

The "Right" still defends—or, at least, sympathizes with—Enlightenment-era notions of liberty. I sympathize with Republicans because I believe they can be salvaged; I do not believe the Progressives will ever stop looking for new notions of "rights" long enough to reflect upon what was right about the old notion. If they did, they'd have to stop calling themselves progressives.
I must admit that I grow less hopeful that Republicans can be "salvaged" with each new Congress and Presidential budget. But the constant push towards greater government intervention and control over citizens' lives that comes from the left at least forces the right to counter with proposals that are, sometimes, more supportive of freedom than less. Moreover, it seems that the "personal freedoms" held so dear by the left are nothing more than special interest protections that have little to do with individuals and everything to do with voting blocs. Whether or not there can be such a thing as "left libertarianism" I don't know. But at this point, color me unconvinced.

5 Comments:

Blogger Kn@ppster said...

Michael,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments on my post about "left" versus "right." By way of rebuttal:

You write: "How often do we hear the lament from the left that righties are seeking to undo the New Deal and Great Society policies of yesteryear?"

And how often do we hear the protests of the right that they are doing no such thing -- accompanied by the biggest entitlement expansion since LBJ (the Medicare prescription drug benefit), passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Republican president?

What's missing here, of course, is that we are both speaking of "the" left and "the" right as if they were monolithic entities in opposing trenches with nobody in the No Man's Land in between. In point of fact, there's a considerable amount of movement among the actors on the political spectrum.

Who's on the "right?" William Kristol or Pat Buchanan?

Who's on the "left?" Christopher Hitchens or Alexander Cockburn?

The answer to both questions is: Both. But "mainstream" and "dissident" iterations continually take shape on both left and right.

I regard the mainstream on the right as ossifying into defense of Cold War foreign policy and New Deal/Great Society domestic society; it is the dissidents who now counsel a return to pre-Cold War "Old Right" foreign policy and Coolidge's "the business of America is business" domestic policy, and they are losing that battle on their own end of the spectrum.

On the left, the mainstream is still clinging to the status quo it built over the period of 1932-1994, but the dissidents are gaining ground and the left will be going somewhere ... I'd rather try to affect where it goes than join a Cold War/New Deal/Great Society "right" or a grand "lost cause" rebellion on the right that is far less likely to succeed than the rebellion on the left.

Regards,
Tom Knapp

2:53 PM  
Blogger michael said...

Hi, Tom!

And how often do we hear the protests of the right that they are doing no such thing -- accompanied by the biggest entitlement expansion since LBJ (the Medicare prescription drug benefit), passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Republican president?

Amen to that. I really wish they were dismantling the outdated structures of the welfare state.

What's missing here, of course, is that we are both speaking of "the" left and "the" right as if they were monolithic entities in opposing trenches with nobody in the No Man's Land in between. In point of fact, there's a considerable amount of movement among the actors on the political spectrum.

Agreed, except that, for the most part, the "left" and the "right" are self-defined. By that I mean those who tend to favor small government, individual rsponsibility, and personal autonomy tend to self-identify with the "right" while those who are more interested in "leveling the playing field", guaranteeing minimum whatever to those deemed underprivileged, and generally using government to shape peoples choices self-identify with the "left." There are certainly cross-overs in both policy and execution, but the "sides" are pretty easily discerned. To be sure, from my standpoint (and I would gather from yours as well) the two sides are essentially the same in that they both want to control my life, just different aspects of it.

I regard the mainstream on the right as ossifying into defense of Cold War foreign policy and New Deal/Great Society domestic society...

This is where I disagree the most. For one thing, it's been the right that has led the push to revamp the military to deal with the challenges presented by the fall of the USSR. China and the Eastern Pacific are in much greater focus now, as are the dillapidated ancien regimes left over in the wake of the Ottoman Empire's demise.

Secondly, I don't see where the right is defending the New Deal and Great Society plans. Your point about the expansion of Medicare is well-taken, of course, but that in my mind is more of an anomaly on the "right" side of the spectrum as opposed to the norm on the "left."

On the left, the mainstream is still clinging to the status quo it built over the period of 1932-1994, but the dissidents are gaining ground and the left will be going somewhere ... I'd rather try to affect where it goes than join a Cold War/New Deal/Great Society "right" or a grand "lost cause" rebellion on the right that is far less likely to succeed than the rebellion on the left.

Accepting arguendo how you define the camps, I agree that moving away from those paradigms is the most optimal course. What I don't understand is what it is about the "left" that makes you think they'd be willing to go in the direction of freedom. I'm hard pressed to believe that the path to greater liberty lies in the footsteps of Rawls.

And that, I think, is where this conversation between "left libertarians" and "right libertarians" will always end up -- i.e., in a debate as to what constitutes "rights." For me, rights begin with my sovereignty over myself and then emanates outward from there. A rule of law that obviates my need to violently defend my rights (which is essentially what Th. Jefferson considered the God-given right of the people to revolt), is a rule of law that ensures freedom. A rule of law that creates rights, by making guarantees of a physical or temporal nature that are beyond the means or abilities of the guaranteed to acquire on his own, is rule of law that ensures slavery. I choose freedom.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Kn@ppster said...

Michael,

Once again, your arguments are persuasive and informative.

For me, it really comes down to this:

"I'm hard pressed to believe that the path to greater liberty lies in the footsteps of Rawls."

[My main point of argument is that it is the right which follows in others' footsteps, and the left which blazes new trails. I don't know if Rawls' footsteps will be the ones the right follow, but the odds are pretty good that yet, we'll see the right continuing down its current tread of adopting overt redistributionism. Whatever new direction the left strikes off in may be just as bad ... but I think the odds are good that it will be better instead.]

and this:

"I choose freedom."

Ditto, ditto and ditto again. It's getting from here to there that's the cast-iron bitch, though, isn't it? I gues whichever one of us arrives first can save the other a seat ;-)

Regards,
Tom Knapp

5:15 PM  
Blogger Kn@ppster said...

Sorry about the typos in the post above. I had one of those computer slowdowns that tends to mess up my typing rhythm. Errata: "follow" should be "follows," "pretty good that yet" should be "pretty good that yes," "tread" should be "trend," and "gues," of course, should be "guess."

Regards,
Tom Knapp

5:18 PM  
Blogger michael said...

No problem, Tom. And i'll be sure to save you a seat ;)

5:31 PM  

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