12 September 2011

Libertarians and liberals (2)

Libertarian blog The Crossed Pond recently put up a post asking why liberals generally don't perceive libertarians as potential allies. I responded with a comment there, and a long discussion ensued. I also re-posted most of my first comment as a posting here, and more comments ensued.

The reasons why I and other liberals don't view libertarianism as a potential ally can be summed up as follows:

A) Libertarianism today puts very little emphasis on fighting for aspects of personal freedom which are important to liberals, such as abortion rights, gay rights, drug decriminalization, workers' rights, etc. It seems mostly interested in opposing taxes and regulation. (Ironically, The Crossed Pond has since put up a new post which serves as a perfect example of this; it brushes off the "social issues", on which libertarians and liberals often agree, as being of no practical importance. I posted a comment explaining how this looks from our perspective, but the response makes it pretty clear that further discussion is pointless.)

B) Libertarians embrace figures such as Ron Paul (anti-abortion), Rand Paul (hostile to the Civil Rights Act and by implication to other government efforts to stop private-sector discrimination), and Ayn Rand (good grief, where do I begin?).

C) Libertarianism seems blind to the fact that many major threats to individual freedom originate from powerful private entities, not from government. Indeed, today libertarians seem more comfor- table defining themselves with the phrase "small government" than in terms of individual freedom.

D) The de facto effect of libertarian policies would be a society with even more gross inequality than we have now, and with less real freedom because the government, in its role as a mitigator of private entities' infringements on individual freedom, would be much weaker. These real-world practical consequences are what matters, not the theoretical underpinnings.

E) Libertarianism is hostile to environmental concerns and often embraces global-warming denialism, probably because most environmental problems can't be solved without large-scale government intervention. I didn't mention this in my earlier responses, but it's important.

F) Libertarianism self-defines as a sub-set of the right. Its heroes and candidates, such as the Pauls, invariably run as Republicans. Whatever disagreements it has with mainstream conservatism are internal debates within the right.

The libertarian response was basically threefold:

1) Yes, disagreements exist, but that's no reason to ignore areas of potential agreement. I would say that these disagreements are so important that they far outweigh the areas of agreement that exist.

2) Even if libertarian candidates won office, their program could only be implemented incrementally; it would not all go into effect at once. I'd say that incremental moves in the wrong direction are still moves in the wrong direction.

3) The picture I painted of libertarianism was inaccurate and full of sweeping generalizations. I would dispute that -- but if it's true, given that this is the common view liberals have of libertarianism, shouldn't libertarians take a closer look at how they present their ideology rather than accuse us of willfully misunderstanding it?

I'm aware that a lot of libertarians support the right to abortion and the right of gays to marry, but do they put as much energy into arguing for those things as they do into arguing against taxes and regulation? (Again, see here.) And I've seen no sign that libertarians support worker protection or anti-discrimination laws, where the threat to individual rights comes from the private sector rather than from government.

There probably are individual libertarians who not only are with us on individual-freedom issues such as those mentioned in (A) above if you ask them, but also recognize those things as a priority and give them due weight in deciding what candidates and which party to support, and those are people I can recognize as being on the same side. There is even a special value in recognizing that individual self-determination, rather than some armchair vision of what an optimal society should look like, is the proper basis for those things. But mainstream libertarianism today has pretty much settled in as a sub-set of the right wing, even if it dissents from the rest of the right on some issues, and we're sensible to recognize it as such.


Blogger The Constitutional Insurgent said...

Please understand that there are Libertarians who ally with Liberals on many social issues.

One of my biggest peeves with the LP is the PR message, and the stars they often hitch their wagons to. In my humble estimation, the LP needs to back off of national politics [especially while the tea party has stolen the trappings and rhetoric of Libertarians] and focus completely on local and states races and issues, to build a solid core before spending money nationally.

12 September, 2011 03:58  
Blogger shreddakj said...

Well said. Much of what I hear from libertarians is just some form of a delusional pipe-dream that the free-market fixes inequality. It's tiresome to say the least.

12 September, 2011 04:25  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

Thank heaps for clarifying what libertarianism is or is not - at least in today's world. I've been more than a little confused when those on the "liberal" side, in fact many on the far left it seems, claim they are libertarians. Being a Libertarian just seems like a huge contradiction to me.

12 September, 2011 05:40  
Blogger Nance said...

If liberal-ish Libertarians (and I have some friends on Facebook who claim to be) really want to join forces with Liberals on areas of agreement, they will need to first reclaim their territory from the tea party and right wing conservatives who are firmly squatted on it.

"and Ayn Rand (good grief, where do I begin?)." Grinned at this.

12 September, 2011 09:53  
Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

It may be the case that if you were to lay all the Libertarians end-to-end, they would point in different directions. The following are a could of excerpts from the Libertarian Party's official web site:

Tea Party -
"There are two kinds of Tea Partiers," said Benedict. "One kind is so blinded by its hatred of Obama and Democrats that it cannot see fault with Republicans. It's the other kind the Libertarian Party is reaching out to."

Abortion -
Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.

12 September, 2011 10:59  
Anonymous Brad said...

If you want to be able to just state flatly the stem cell research restrictions were the most impactful policies in the Bush administration, or that a justice's abortion views is the most germane consideration in picking Supreme Court justices, and then broker no further discussion or conversation on the matter because those truths are clearly self-evident to all right-thinking people: you're right, further discussion probably is pointless.

But the irony of the discussion - and I leave it to readers to see my and Cameron's responses to you and decide on their own if any of the points made are worthy of consideration - is that the ultimate dogmatist in this conversation is...you. I am a socially liberal libertarian, and unlike some fair weather Tea Party converts, I fought in the trenches with progressives against the Bush administration.

I also recognize,that we need to go beyond checkbox issues and instead see the bigger picture, which is: Is your vote ceding more control to the state, or attempting to wrest some of it back? There are some liberals that very much understand this position - Glenn Greenwald comes to mind - but the problem has been, with both the Democrats and the GOP, that voters willingly ghettoize themselves on the real live issues that are reformulating our Republic, preferring instead to wage mostly useless cultural wars. Voters, in essence, become enormously cheap dates, such that a Presidential candidate is fundamentally in favor of a Police State, an imperial executive, international militarism, and even is, say, against gay marriage or in favor of having poor taxpayers subsidize Wall Street - and here I am using Obama as the template - becomes worthy of your vote because some of those on the other side of the aisle is a Creationist.

To put that another way: when you sell your vote solely on what you are against, you lose sight of what you are for. The two parties do a great job of throwing out cultural totems like dog biscuits at their respective bases. They are then in no way beholden to A. actually produce anything of import on those issues, or B. adhere to the larger ideological underpinnings that presumably those other issues were meant to be in service of in the first place. So you get this bizarro situation wherein Republicans (not the libertarian kind) are thrown the FMA plus some bellicose rhetoric against the A-rabs, and in return, the politician in question is completely free to, say, preside over the largest expansion of the federal government in decades as well as a complete upending of the Republican non-interventionist intellectual tradition. And, when it comes time to hold that deviation to account, those voters instead get distracted by bullshit - John Kerry windsurfs! (ctd...)

12 September, 2011 17:39  
Anonymous Brad said...


Democrats get done exactly the same way, such that President Obama can preside over the normalization and institutionalize of every impulse and legacy of the Bush administration that liberals ought to hate, but when it comes time to think of holding them to account - look over there, some second string congresswoman nutjob from Minnesota thinks gays can be cured by Jesus! Or omg, that one guy actually doing what progressives wanted Obama to do on the major issues of the day is making a wrong-headed arcane philosophical point about the Civil Rights Act of 1964! To the voting booths! A World Net Daily column! To arms! To arms!

If you're going to unilaterly disarm by falling prey to partisan tribalism and voting based on cultural totems and identification with empty social rhetoric (versus, say, voting records or actual impact), you ought to have no reasonable expectation of getting what you want. Again, I think libertarianism has some great insights - both ideological and strategic - and I also think that libertarian-leaning politicians of ALL party bents (be they Feingold or Paul) are incredibly valuable additions to our body politic and national discourse - I'd rather have 10 more Pauls than 1 more Lieberman or Graham. But if you're going to fundamentally write all that off with a wave of the hand based, say, the fact that there are some libertarians who are pro-life...well, you have no one to blame but yourself if you suddenly find the country being plunged further and further away from the ideals of yours that made you sympathetic to libertarianism in the first place.

12 September, 2011 17:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I explained why I consider Bush's stem-cell funding ban the most harmful thing he did. I explained why I consider abortion very much a live issue, with a critical right under a genuine, real-world threat. I explained why Rand Paul's hostility to the Civil Rights Acts is not just an "arcane philosophical point" but has real practical relevance to issues he might vote on today. I've written a lot of stuff to explain why I consider theocratic tendencies among politicians -- of which creationism is an important indicator -- to be a real threat. You never addressed my reasons for holding those views, but just brushed them off as unreasonable. That's why I say further discussion is pointless.

I responded to the original post by saying, in part, that the issues on which libertarians agree with liberals don't form a basis for an alliance because libertarians don't think those issues are worth fighting for. You all dismissed that, then the next thing I know there was a new post up over there which was a perfect example of what I'd said -- claiming that social issues aren't worth fighting for because there's no real threat to them from the right. I at least made some effort to explain why I believe there is such a threat. You're still not engaging with what I actually said, just using sarcastic language to ridicule the fact that I'm concerned about different things than you think I ought to be concerned about.

Is your vote ceding more control to the state, or attempting to wrest some of it back?

That's the libertarian criterion, not ours. I'm concerned with how much individual freedom people have, not how much power the state has. Some increases in state power are better for personal freedom, some are worse.

Also, you're quite mistaken that the approach to politics I advocate isn't getting any concrete results. During Obama's term there has been real progress on several of the issues that are important to me. Not as much as I'd hoped, but that's how politics is.

In short, The Crossed Pond initiated this discussion by questioning why liberals don't look upon libertarians as potential allies, even mentioning me by name. I commented and provided the answer as I see it. None of your responses have addressed the reasons I gave for considering these issues important. Now you're just doing the same thing, ignoring the substance of what I've said, and using rude, snotty, sarcastic language as well. You've answered the question of why libertarians don't look like potential allies to us pretty well, in your own way -- and you probably still don't have a clue that you've done so.

12 September, 2011 19:00  
Anonymous Jack said...

I will also take a shot at it, starting with your five lettered points:
A: This is just wrong. Libertarians spend a great deal of time talking about civil liberties, and the drug war and gay rights in particular. The fact that you choose to ignore or pretend they don't exist is a different issue. I have specifically pointed out critical libertarians on these issues.
B. Partially true. Ron Paul is rejected by libertarians as well. Others love him, many find him littel more than a states rightist. Ayn Rand is even more controversial in small l libertarian circfles. But by all means, paint us all with the same brush, and let's ignore the horrific acts of historical progressive while we are at it.
C. Libertarians are quite aware of this, and find that the single most dangerous entity is the collusion between government and powerful private entities. Libertarians, unlike say traditional movement conservatives, are far more in favor of free markets than corporatism.
D. This is not even an argument, merely a "just so" statement of faith.
E. Again, paint us all with the same brush. I expect little else. You are simply wrong about many of use. Even some of the most hard core libertarians I know are perfectly supportive of steps to deal with environmental issues, choosing to deal with this through a combination of the courts, peugeot taxes, and limited regulation.
F: We do not. It is you who choose to define all of us as a "subset of the right." No different than you have been doing in every one of these discussions.

12 September, 2011 19:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

On A & B: You keep claiming these things, but when I look at libertarian blogs and other writings, that isn't what I see. The Crossed Pond is very boosterish for Ron Paul in almost every reference I see to him there. The post to which I'm responding here, as I've already pointed out, dismisses those social issues I've raised as not worth fighting about, exactly as I described.

C: But you continue to ignore the role of government as a protector of personal freedom and rights against the excessive power of private entities. That's important too.

D: It follows logically from a reasonable assessment of the ideology, especially in light of C.

E & F: Remember, this started with you guys asking why we don't perceive you as allies, and me trying to explain the reasons why. If you don't agree with the way I and millions of other people perceive libertarianism, then rather than insulting me, you might want to take another look at how your movement is presenting itself and why so many people have an impression of it which you claim is wrong.

I've had it with this for now and I'm signing off. Any further comments that are written tonight probably won't get posted until the morning.

12 September, 2011 19:19  
Blogger Django Bango said...

I think you're actually very wrong. The problem- as libertarians see it- caused by corporations and private entities is that they get where they are by being in bed with government and it's restrictions on the market.

As to social and civil liberties, I don't know any libertarian who does not believe the same way as most liberals. (the major exception is abortion- but because they view the fetus as a life having it's rights violated). However, I DO know several libertarians who are MORE interested in some civil liberties than many liberals I know. Open border, unrestricted travel, the 4th amendment, etc. Also, I think many libertarians feel that a mandatory union (as opposed to right to work) actually imposes on individual liberty of the employer and the employee.

The bottom line, however, is economics. This is what divides us. To believe that you have the right to the earnings of another human being that he does not willfully share- and to believe that taking these earnings to spend in ways he disagrees with is NOT theft and morally abhorrent- is a huge obstacle to overcome. To admit that a man must pay for social services he does not use or want to use means that you admit the individual- at least in part- is not only less important than the state/whole, but is, in fact, owned by the state/whole. You cannot deny or accept this and ally with a libertarian for long.

12 September, 2011 20:33  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Man oh man ... some of this stuff get's confusing to me, I mean, it was confusing enough just hearing the different level's of the left and right, extreme, moderate, so- so, etc, etc ... but I read this stuff and come across title's and such like "Constitutional Insurgent", and Brad is a "Socially Liberal Libertarian", then Michele Bachmann being called a "Evangelical Feminist" (by CNN), etc ... no insult here intended, but some sound's a lil complex ... I am just a simple democrat voter open to any view's even from the right, or the inde or whatever that are practical and work.

12 September, 2011 22:55  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

DB: All those points have already been brought up and addressed in one form or another. Anyway, I think you misunderstand the thrust of the discussion.

RC: I agree it can get confusing, but I have basically the same approach -- what will get the right results in practical terms is what's important, not so much the theory.

13 September, 2011 04:41  
Anonymous Brad said...

I wasn't really meaning to be snotty here, but I explained, for instance, why people who are seeking to maximize personal freedom might have legitimate disagreements on, say, abortion, and you dismissed that out of hand, going so far as to call it self-evidently absurd. So to on stem cell research, where you made a grand, unquantified statement, Cameron gently corrected you on the rather limited scope of Bush's impact, and you just declared that, too, as not up for discussion - conversation over, and anything we might say from then on is "unproductive". All this other stuff too, I've been responding directly to your issues and putting them in a big picture, systemic context and explaining why I feel boiling it down to the surface issues and not the systems is strategically counterproductive, and you respond by running back here and declaring us all perfect examples of why libertarians hate freedom.

So as the to the larger question, I think liberals and libertarians CAN have a productive dialogues, if either party is interested in actually trying to understand different systemic ways of thinking about liberty and government and different strategic or ideological perspectives on how to achieve those aims. But that's not how you're approaching it. If all you want is somebody to co-sign without argument every stance you take on all your pet issues - and to declare them flatly hostile to freedom and self-evidently wrong if they don't - then you're right, it's probably not going to be very constructive. It's not really ideology at that point, it's dogma. You're not looking for different ways of thinking to try and understand or learn lessons from - you're evangelizing.

13 September, 2011 09:57  
Blogger Dusty,Hells most vocal Bitch said...

I love this post as it says it all for my leftwing ass. Thanks sugar! ;-)

13 September, 2011 12:59  
Anonymous Brad said...

Oh, and despite the spat, you still do really good work here. I'm really not meaning to criticize you personally or even your views (almost all of which, incidentally, I personally share) so much as your approach. There is a reason guys like you, Ed Brayton, Kip Esquire, Virginia Liberaltarian, et al, feature prominently on our blogroll.

But I do wish that civil libertarians of all stripes would work less on purity litmus-testing and more on engaging people who might hold views they sometimes find distasteful or unideal (and I frankly wish politically-minded people of all stripes were able to find a little humility and putting themselves in other people's shoes - even assholes). Say what you want about Ron Paul, but at least he's taking the message (or a strong variant of it anyway) into the Lion's Den, rather than preaching to the choir or just listening to himself talk. On the whole, I think that does far, far more good in the long run than his quixotic pro-lifeness does bad. To my mind, it's not even remotely close, which is the whole point, really, of this discussion, or a fair emblem of it anyway.

13 September, 2011 14:20  
Blogger Norbrook said...

In an ideal world, the libertarian fascination with the free market might have some point. In the real world, a study of any history since the Industrial Revolution would show that it's actually a fantasy. In the real world, businesses tend to form monopolies, both vertical and horizontal, and do everything to crush any potential competition. They don't - no matter what they say - like competition. What government can do is to level the playing field, by establishing a set of rules by which the game is to played, and fairly enforcing them. Within that framework, it works much more like a "free market" than what the Libertarians espouse.

There are points, as you pointed out, where Libertarians and Liberals can agree, but there are many others where they don't. Even more, I dislike the waving aside of history in pursuit of their ideal. For example, if you listened to Ron Paul talk about FEMA and compare it to the 1905 and 1915 Galveston hurricanes, you'd assume that back then they were all self-sufficient people who rebuilt the city all by themselves. Which rather ignores the massive (for the time) federal spending on building protective infrastructure for Galveston in the aftermath.

13 September, 2011 16:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

DHMVB & Norbrook: Thanks. I'm glad this exchange has proven of value to someone. There's a wealth of actual history available, as you say, to show us what things were like before the modern superstructure of regulations and safety nets was put in place.

Brad: I wasn't really meaning to be snotty here,

Well, you nevertheless succeeded spectacularly. Were you even listening to yourself?

going so far as to call it self-evidently absurd

No, I said the fetal-personhood position was self-evidently absurd. I did not say that people with different views on abortion being able to cooperate in other areas was self-evidently absurd. Pay attention.

So to on stem cell research, where you made a grand, unquantified statement,

No, in response to your second post, I gave reasons why considered it such a serious matter, reasons which your side ignored.

I've been responding directly to your issues and putting them in a big picture, systemic context and explaining why I feel boiling it down to the surface issues and not the systems is strategically counterproductive,

Bullshit. None of you have responded to the actual substance of what I've said. I gave reasons why I don't agree that social issues are "surface issues", and why, for example, the threat to abortion is real and not just hypothetical. You all never engaged with any of that but just re-asserted that those issues are peripheral.

If all you want is somebody to co-sign without argument every stance you take on all your pet issues

I've never implied that.

You're not looking for different ways of thinking to try and understand or learn lessons from - you're evangelizing.

Evangelizing? This started out with your side asking a question about why we look upon libertarianism the way we do, and mentioning me by name as someone whose attitude you were questioning. You were inviting me to explain my viewpoint. I was responding to that.

But I do wish that civil libertarians of all stripes would work less on purity litmus-testing

None of what I've said has constituted purity litmus-testing. It's been pointing out that libertarians disagree with us about issues I consider critically important. Maybe you don't think I should attach such importance to those issues, but I do, and in several cases I've explained why, and you've refused to engage with my reasons.

engaging people who might hold views they sometimes find distasteful or unideal

And you have no fucking clue how much of that I've done over the years.

I'm really not meaning to criticize you personally or even your views

You really weren't listening to yourselves at all, were you? Through this exchange, your side of it has shown yourselves as not only intellectually dishonest and unwilling to pay attention to what I was actually saying, but total assholes as well. And you apparently weren't even aware of it. For the umpteenth time, you need to consider the possibility that the reason libertarianism is perceived so negatively by liberals is not because we're all willfully misunderstanding it, but because you stink at presenting it.

I don't see much hope of the libertarian movement being perceived as an ally by much of anyone, if what I've seen here is an example of how you engage with people who disagree with you.

Do not comment on this blog again or contact me, and please delete me from your blogroll. I have no intention of putting up with any more of this crap, period.

13 September, 2011 17:22  
Blogger J-rod said...

I guess this whole spat kind of answers the original question then, eh?

17 September, 2011 06:38  
Blogger Dusty,Hells most vocal Bitch said...

But Jack, the Libertarians always toss these things back to their old 'states rights' bs: This is just wrong. Libertarians spend a great deal of time talking about civil liberties, and the drug war and gay rights in particular. The fact that you choose to ignore or pretend they don't exist is a different issue. There are certain rights that most of us consider inalienable, even the states rights privilege shouldn't be able to fuck w/those. And on many issues I do believe in states rights..just not those.

17 September, 2011 07:15  
Blogger Dusty,Hells most vocal Bitch said...

Thanks for telling me about the link, this is actually the part I read first LOL and was hunting for. I will include it as well in my post on yesterdays show's discussions as an addenum. ;-)

24 December, 2011 09:33  

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