Thursday, June 19, 2008

Exit Left?

In tomorrow’s regular weekly Retro-Journal entry (my fifth-to-last), I’ll have reached early 2005, which also happens to have been the peak of my (always grudging) pro-Bush sentiments.

But since we know that all that must come crashing down and with it perhaps the prospects for the Republican Party and conservatism for some time to come — and since my limited agenda, cutting government and securing property, can perhaps be achieved by other means — I can’t help thinking ahead and wondering what if any paths there are toward freedom on the left.

Obviously, I know plenty of people who look leftward and somehow perceive a more welcoming intellectual environment than I do. But, in all honesty (not just rhetorically), I want to ask: which aspects of the left would they suggest I “engage with” if my goal is to promote laissez-faire capitalism and smaller government?

The skeptical Frankfurt School Marxists? Power-fearing Foucault? The often-inspiring Enlightenment? The traditional Civil Rights movement? Utilitarian, wonky consequentialism (but how pragmatic as opposed to vision-driven are left-leaning activists really)? Maybe some dialogue with Habermas? Correspond with the self-critical folks at Telos? Rawls? Hippies? Anarchism?

It’s weird, foreign territory for the most part, full of statist pitfalls. How much can you cater to the partisans of those worldviews without encouraging their anti-liberty tendencies? And I think they certainly have them — not just a subtly different definition of liberty from my own.

We should never assume our foes have worse motives than they appear to — but at the same time, I think we should work harder to make people realize that many of their motives ought properly to be called evil. That is, just as a young German soldier might well have said in 1942: “What, me evil? What are you talking about — I’m nobly fighting to defend the Fatherland!” so too should we see as both naive and harmful people today who say, for example, “Making me sound like the bad guy is ridiculous — I just want regulations that force everyone to end up with roughly equal amounts of wealth or force them to work for the betterment of the environment regardless of whether they value it as much as I do!”

Right. Exactly. You may be a force-wielding, power-hungry person deserving less moral respect than you’re used to — and it may be important people see you that way instead of continuing to treat you like you have the moral and intellectual high ground.  Much as I respect Aristotle’s observation about the importance of finding common ground with your audience, if you flatter their sensibilities and speak their language too much, they feel no need to change.


Marc said...

Well, when they say ‘freedom’, they are talking about something completely different. Freedom from want, or freedom from annoying religious types. Freedom from having to buy stuff from or work for big, evil corporations. They think freedom is something provided by the state.

I feel your frustration. You would think that the issue of force would have more resonance. Leftists don’t like using force on other countries, on criminals, etc. It’s just hard to get them to make the connection between that use of force and the use of force on people to take away their income or keep them from making a living (i.e. unlicensed cabbies).

I wish I had some answers for you.

E5 said...

flag burning


free speech

blue laws

stuff like that is more likely to be more strongly opposed by the left (there are exceptions, of course)

Todd Seavey said...

And in the grand regulatory scheme of things, that’s a short list — a few scant freedoms strategically permitted by the left because they help undermine tradition, which they see as the real enemy.

That’s precisely why I think the left, most certainly including contemporary liberalism, is almost inevitably totalitarian: Just as the Roman emperors might have left the masses some bread and circuses to maintain their power over everything else, the left grants you (or a few of your hippie friends if not you personally) pot, transvestism, and gay sex (all things the right can’t do much to stop anyway) in return for which it will regulate every other imaginable area of life from oil drilling to fruit production to car size.

E5 said...

So your point is that what the left does correctly doesn’t mitigate what they do incorrectly?

I agree. I am not a leftist.

My understanding was the topic was essentially

“what aspects does the left get correct?”


“what aspects does the left get sooooo correct that one should be willing to overlook those things the left does incorrectly?”

Todd Seavey said...

Well, my real desire — if I must/should deal with the left at all — is to find not so much a short checklist of correct policy positions but a relatively large area of common ground _philosophically_ somewhere from which the case could be made, in a way those on the left might sympathize with, for removing government from the economy, which is where it does most of its damage.

So for example, the Frankfurt School Marxists, while being very, very skeptical of capitalism, were also admirably wary of the state and of corporate-state collusion — not that “Frankfurt!” is exactly a popular rallying cry among your average U.S. Democrats, but some intellectual space over on that side of the spectrum where such ideas can breathe is really what I’d like.

I should note that my friends at Spiked-Online are leftists who may not exactly share my limited-government agenda but are a great model of criticizing p.c., greens, relativism, and other nonsense while retaining a leftist perspective — and since I just wrote a short piece (part of a forum on science) for them, why not link to it now…

E5 said...

I always view leftists as having potential.

Roughly speaking, I feel that they understand the life and liberty parts of natural rights and just misunderstand property rights.

Most of the lefts flaws stem from a belief that property (not just real property but say money in my possession I want to trade with you for your labor) simply isn’t something one has a moral right to… and this leads to just about all their regulations.

Their rank and file do seem to mostly understand the non aggression principle from a personal standpoint… so it would seem that if you HAVE to deal with leftist your best course would be to try to bridge this gap and show them that your economic liberty you seek is really rooted in property rights which is really just rooted in the same personal liberty and self ownership they claim to cherish.

but what the fuck do i know.

Ken Silber said...

Good question, E5.

Dylan said...

I think there are ways to engage people who fancy themselves leftists. As a former leftist myself — although I was always fairly skeptical of things like political correctness and relativism — I feel I can say this, because it was being made to think about property rights and whatnot that led me down a more libertarian path. And the utilitarian aspects of libertarianism, which, Todd, you seem to feel are some of its most attractive qualities, are a good place to start. I mean, a lot of people who lean left do so not because they really have some sort of lust for power over others. Yes, certainly some do, especially those actually seeking political power — but a lot of average people do so because they “care” about social problems. They think poverty is bad, they think toxic waste is bad, they think everyone should have the opportunity for a good education and access to health care, etc, etc. They’re just stuck in a mindset that there are no ways to deal with these problems except through government. I can’t think of anyone I know or read — right, left, or whatever — who actually thinks poverty is good (OK, maybe some of the really loony environmentalists), that skinny-dipping in Love Canal is a groovy idea (which reminds me of a great Reason piece from the early 80s that’s in their online archives and roots out a lot of the real culprits in that debacle), or that people shouldn’t be educated or be able to go to the doctor.

Unfortunately, that mindset can be a tough nut to crack, as I was reminded in an — admittedly alcohol-fueled — argument with an acquiantence not too long ago. The topic was school vouchers, educational choice, whatever you want to call it (And I realize that vouchers aren’t a pure libertarian solution. They still involve wealth redistribution, but they — like Milton Friedman once said — subsidize the consumer rather than the producer and thus allow choice and competition, which I’d say is a good part of the utiltarian argument for free markets). Anyway, his argument was one huge straw-man, and not even a very interesting one at that: “You don’t care.” It didn’t matter how much I tried to emphasize that I do care, otherwise I’d just say let the little fucks languish in the rotten public school system. That was it. If I think that there may be better ways to educate children than having the state do it, I obviously don’t care about them — end of argument.

It can be frustrating, but not everyone is that thick-headed, and I know I’ve managed to make some people at least think about these things and realize that it’s not merely “Dylan doesn’t care.” I even think I’ve managed to change a few minds about some things. When liberals start realizing that libertarianism isn’t just people who think single mothers in the projects using food-stamps to feed their kids is an outrage, they start listening more. Doesn’t mean they’ll end up agreeing, but it does make them more receptive to ideas about how government is often a major player in screwing over the poor for whom they claim to feel sympathy, and lining the pockets of the rich and powerful they claim to resent.

Anyway, I’m rambling a bit. Good post.

dave said...

Might the answer not be to leave ideologism behind and ask their pragmatic goals? you wouldn’t truly find people looking for equality of income as much as a shared responsibility for basic needs. Universal health care, no matter how the right paints it, doesn’t have a purpose of ‘making rich people have the same money as poor people’ with a side effect of people affording health care. It has a purpose of having people have access to health care, and a practical answer of having others who can better afford it pay for it. (of course an argument in itself, but a differnt one from the straw man one suggesting it’s about egalatarianism, rather than healthcare)

Perhaps there is a free market, rather than a govt. answer. But that would be the common ground. A true fan of free markets would relish the opportunity to present that as a solution. Personally, I’m not sure where the market answer to healthcare needs lies. I’d love to hear it, though.

Stubbornly holding onto one question can work, and that one question is, “Where does the value come from?”

kism said...

Here’s a scorchingly libertarian documentary about the disintegration of civil liberties in the UK. Although the pic is British, our traditional rights of Americans are also under assault. (The culprit is mainly the right, albeit with ample support from the center and mainstream left.)

Right to Protest, Right to Freedom of Speech. Right to Privacy. Right not to be detained without charge, Innocent Until Proven Guilty. Prohibition from Torture. TAKING LIBERTIES will reveal how these six central pillars of liberty have been systematically destroyed by New Labour, and the freedoms of the British people stolen from under their noses amidst a climate of fear created by the media and government itself.”

We need a thoroughgoing skepticism about power. We don’t have to be stubborn but we must be reasonable and determined. Defending a sort of epistemic conservatism–science, rationalism, skepticism–is perfectly amenable to making friends with liberals. After all, we classical liberals share a name with the modern liberals for a reason (reason).

kism said...

Ach, here’s the link for the documentary.

kism said...

Todd Seavey!

You want to see coalition politics with the left that can protect freedom? You want to see one that’s drawn from our nation’s history, not abstract theory?

I got your libertarian-leftist pro-freedom movement right here.

Dylan said...

OK, my last post was too long-winded. Ways to engage leftists:

1) Emphasize over and over again that “government is force and violence” (yeah, it’s redundant, but who cares if it gets your point across). That is, play to their pacifism. Leftists generally at least consider themselves pacifists. They don’t like violence. The cops are “pigs,” but they can’t seem to connect the power the cops wield to the laws the government legitimizes.

The awful American government has waged horribly wasteful (in terms of lives and treasure) wars throughout the 20th century. Honestly, I’ll say this as a libertarian: The only war that the U.S. waged in the 20th century that’s even remotely defensible is WWII. And even that has its rational detractors (but I’m not about to be dismissed as some paleo-kook).

2) Emphasize also a snippet of a blog you wrote several weeks ago:

“The beauty of the marketplace is the successful avoidance, a billion times a day, of the need for a consensus, one-size-fits-all way of doing things. If we’re dumb enough to render something governmental (whether conservative, moderate, or even progressive-social-democratic), we’re going to get one widely-agreed-upon version of that something. The National Music Album, if there were one, would almost certainly be something by Frank Sinatra, no matter how confident certain pockets of the population are that Doolittle by the Pixies (which I’m listening to right now) is better (or The Wall or Synchronicity or whatever) — and it wouldn’t be because the Frank fans are haters or would-be oppressors. Indeed, given the unfortunate constraints of the situation, Frank might be the correct answer.”

In other words, play also to their “individualism”. Hammer in the point that it’s free markets, not centralized bureaucracy , that create the atmosphere for out-of-the-mainstream people to thrive. Leftists like to identify with the little guy, until the majority of little guys decide that “Jerry Springer” is what they want to watch.

Yancey Ward said...

Leftists do not and won’t support the right to individual property. This is the dividing line between the Left and Libertarianism, and, in my opinion, is unbridgeable. For every Dylan that eventually makes the transition, there will be a 100,000 that will never accept the idea of inviolable, individual ownership of property.

Marc Steiner said...

Agree with Dave. My sympathy for and appreciation of Libertarian is rooted in it’s hard nosed analysis of human behavior and the efficiencies of market based solutions to social problems. Focusing on the benefits of more libertarian policy solutions that address liberal concerns (e.g., fewer people being born to parents who don’t care for them properly and grow up malnourished or intellectually impaired) will engage more liberals.

But when you imply that I must agree that property rights are inviolable for us to find any common ground (or for me not to be on the side of “evil”), I lose interest b/c man, that just ain’t where I’m at. Sure property rights deserve deference and respect, but they’re just an artificial construct useful for maximing happiness, and I don’t agree they should always take precedence over other values like preventing unnecessary deaths and suffering, even at the expense of marginal impingements on human liberty like taxes.

Yancey Ward said...

Like I wrote, the divide is unbridgeable.

Marc Steiner said...

Yancey –

Defining the “Left” as everyone who doesn’t currently accept the idea of inviolable, individual ownership of property, and that stating (without any backing reasoning) that the gap is unbridgeable doesn’t add much to subject.

It seems to me you can arrive at the conclusion that property rights are inviolable in three ways:

1) You come to “believe” it, like people come to believe in God – through upbringing, a book that really spoke to you, genetic predisposition, divine revelation, brain lesion, whatever.

2) You conclude logically that it must be a fundamental truth woven into the fabric of the universe, like physical laws

3) You analyze human behavior and conclude that the concept of property rights is a useful to propogate as a social norm because it maximizes some other value you’ve come to hold, via 1 or 2.

Why is the gap unbridgeable – b/c the Left is too ungodly for #1, too blind/dumb to understandand the proof of #2, or ignorant of analysis that supports #3?

#1 hasn’t happend to me (and I would hope to “god” I would distrust it if it did), I’ve haven’t seen convincing evidence/proofs for #2, and I see way too many examples of how _inviolable_ property rights work against my general goal of maximizing happineness and minimizing suffering to buy into them via 3.

And if I remember correctly, I think Todd became a Libertarian via path 3. To the extent he wants to encouarge the left to embrace Libertaran ideals, the more examples he provide to back up 3, the more likely he is to convince them that a free market based built on a foundation of strict property rights would better achieve their goals of reduced suffering or whatever than govt taxation/regulation. It’ll be easier to turn Leftists into Consequentalists than into Miniarchists or Anarchist Libertarians.

If that’s an unacceptable compromise, what’s your alternative for making the world safe for your brand of Libertarianism? Kill them all and let god sort em out? Circle the wagons and despair of the mass’s inability to open their hearts to the truth so plainly revealed in [Atlas Shrugged, Anarchy State & Utopia, whatever?]

Seriously, I remain open to the idea that the optimal world might be achieved through minimal/no government. But I do wonder whether some libertarians assert that the primacy of inviolable property rights should be self evident because trying to convince others that it leads to the “best world” is really hard.

Yancey Ward said...


I would probably say that I reached my philosophical bent through a combination of, mostly, #2 with a dash of # 3 that you listed above. That I should not use of threat of physical violence against those who have not threatened me is a principle I take as a fundamental truth. Statists of all stripes, Left, Right and all others in between, simply don’t accept this principle. I have yet to find a method of persuading a single adult that this principle should form the fundamental basis of human interaction.

Leftists, in particular, hold as a fundamental principle that outcomes should be equalized regardless of abilities and effort. This necessitates a lack of respect for private property. You wrote in your next to last comment the following:

property rights deserve deference and respect, but they’re just an artificial construct useful for maximing happiness, and I don’t agree they should always take precedence over other values like preventing unnecessary deaths and suffering, even at the expense of marginal impingements on human liberty like taxes

And there is the problem- what you have outlined has no deference or respect whatsoever. It is based on the principle that says, “What is yours is yours until we decide we need to take it.” There will always be unnecessary suffering that allows a further impingement on human liberty. A Libertarian cannot resort to violence to take from one to give to himself or another, and a Statist cannot draw a line from principle that states, “This far and no farther.” The philosophies are fundamentally at odds with one another.

Even when I can demonstrate that completely free interaction gives the optimal outcomes for the maximal number, a Leftist always then points out some did not benefit, and then proposes that the outcomes be equalized to some extent.

I write that the divide is unbridgeable because, for all practical experience I have with the matter, it is.