Freedom is not a punchline

Earlier I posted about what I see as the ineptitude of the Democrats and demanded that they stand for something and someone.  I think it’s only fair that I spell out what I think that is.

First, what they should stand for.  It’s simple. 

Liberals stand for liberty.

Liberals, progressives, the left, Democrats, Greens – whatever you want to call them or however you want to group them – stand for individual liberty and freedom – the right of every human being to choose his or her own life, as free as possible from all forms of coercion.  By the way, that includes the coercion of markets.  Markets can be just as coercive as governments when a person doesn’t have the resources to provide for the essentials of life.  As FDR said in 1936, “Necessitous men are not free men.”

Second, who should they stand for?  Again, it’s simple.

Liberals stand for everybody, equally.  Everyone has a right to life and liberty, not just the select or the fortunate, however that is determined.

Last night, the liberal-progressive social group I organize held an election-watching party. Rand Paul came on to declare victory in his race for the Senate, and he spoke of freedom.  The entire crowd began making fun of him and, by extension, every Republican that has cried “freedom” to score political points. 

I’m afraid freedom and liberty have become punchlines to liberals and progressives.  Instead of joking about it, we should be angry – angry that conservatives have stolen our signature belief from us.

We stand for liberty – true liberty.  And it’s about time we started standing up for ourselves.

Sympathy for libertarians – well, the left-wing kind, anyway

Sometimes you just have to get something off your chest.  This is another one of those posts.
I’m sympathetic to libertarians.
During a meeting of the liberal/progressive social group I organize in Peoria, Ill., the owner of the place where we meet (the quite fine Kelleher’s) introduced a guest of his the other week.  This guest asked if we were libertarians, to which the whole group reacted with the equivalent of a “Pfft, hell, no!”  A similar reaction occurred just last night when I made a mention of libertarians.
Now, I understand where everyone was coming from.  But I’m going to argue that their reaction should be limited to – and was probably aimed at – the right-wing libertarians of the world, not the left-wing libertarians.
“Left-wing whats!” you cry.  I know; I know.  Let me explain.
You might have noticed at the top of this page that the subtitle of my blog is “Grinding the lens through which I see the world.”  You might have wondered what I mean by that.  I’ve explained before that the George W. Bush administration and its crony Congress radicalized me into becoming more involved in politics.  However, it’s one thing to know that the Bushies were horrible for the country and the world.  It’s quite another to know why you know that.  So for the last few years I’ve been working to understand my own political beliefs and worldview.  After all of that searching, I think the label left-wing libertarian fits best. 
Often people break all political issues into two categories – social issues and economic issues.  Well, regarding social issues, right-wing libertarians match up quite well with typical liberals and progressives.  They celebrate individual liberty.  They hate state and social intervention into people’s private lives.  They defend civil liberties and oppose the expansion of the Bush-Obama security state.  They’re all for the freedom to love/marry whom you want.  They’re for religious freedom.  They hate the drug war.  They hate militarism and imperialism.  Okay, so far.  I’d happily call myself a libertarian on these issues.
But when it comes to economic issues, right-wing libertarians and typical liberals and progressives – and me, as a left-wing libertarian – completely disagree.  Broadly speaking, right-wing libertarians hate the welfare state (Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance) and regulation.  Liberals/progressives/left-wing libertarians tend to support the welfare state and regulation. 
What’s the source of this disagreement?  It boils down to different understandings of economic freedom.  Right-wing libertarians only see economic freedom when autonomous individuals voluntarily interact in sink-or-swim markets, with little or no role for the state and – this is important – no regard for the market power of the individual actors.  Liberals/progressives/left-wing libertarians, however, see  economic freedom as being severely curtailed when the individual actors have wildly different levels of market power.  Put more simply, liberals/progressives/left-wing libertarians think markets are fine, but markets suck if you’re broke.
To expand on this, there is a difference in moral outlook here, too.  Right-wing libertarians say the world is right and just because markets deliver to you exactly what you deserve.  If you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be taken care of.  And if you’re not, well, that’s your own damn fault.  We’re under no obligation to help others.
Liberals/progressives/left-wing libertarians, however, say markets by themselves do not always deliver what people deserve.  Markets ignore people’s relative starting position (Did they come from a rich or poor family?) and the role of sheer, dumb luck.  For the world to be right and just, we must make attempts to account for these differences.  Also, liberals/progressives/left-wing libertarians also assert that we have a moral duty to help the unfortunate and reduce unnecessary human suffering.
Now having made these broad distinctions, let me clarify why I label myself as a left-wing libertarian, rather than just using some of the other labels, like liberal and progressive. 
First of all, there are some members of the left-wing of politics that flat out condemn markets.  I can’t do that.  Markets have been incredibly successful in recent human history at creating a massive amount of wealth and innovations that have benefitted everyone.  Also, I think that markets tap into some aspects of human nature, like competitiveness, that can be channeled into productive activity.  And finally, let’s remember that markets are about choice – individual choice.  That’s what freedom is supposed to be about.  The problem with markets is that you have no individual choice if you lack resources.
My second reason for using the libertarian label builds on that last sentence there.  I’m interested in people – all people – having the resources necessary to fully exercise their individual economic liberty. I’m not very interested in and am suspicious of state power.  I don’t particularly want anyone telling me what to do, and yes, that includes government bureaucrats.  Now, let me say that I’m not an opponent of regulation.  I support it in many cases that I’ll lay out some other time.  For now, I just want to make the point that the purpose of the state is to provide us all with the platform to exercise our individual liberty more fully, not curtail it.
There’s plenty more to be said, but let me wrap up with two more thoughts, seeing as this has become too long of a blog post.  Yes, I’m describing myself as a left-wing libertarian, but I’ve used labels like liberal and progressive in the past and will do so quite happily in the future.  That’s because these labels tend to broadly lay out one’s loyalties to left-side of the spectrum.  I’m all for that. 
And finally, as some of you might already now, none of this is particularly new.  Noam Chomsky has described himself as a left-wing libertarian. (More here.)  Markos Moulitsas, founder of dailykos, pretty much did the same in a blog post that caused a stir back in 2006.  There’s an active online community of left-wing libertarian thinkers.  And more recently, a couple of researchers were tossed out of the right-wing libertarian Cato Institute for advocating for a political alliance between liberals and libertarians that came to be dubbed liberaltarian.
That’s all for now.  I’ve gotten it off my chest.  Now, over time on this blog, I hope to lay out perspectives and policies that I think support a left-wing libertarian vision of society, especially on the economic side, where most of the disagreement seems to be.  In the meantime, have at it below.

The Daily Show’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” – a more critical take

I don’t mean to give too much weight to the Daily Show, but it is an influential liberal/progressive outlet.  So, I want to write a bit more about the view of liberalism Jon Stewart lays out in his announcement of his Rally to Restore Sanity.

In his announcement clip, he equally criticizes right- and left-wingers who liken their opponents to Hitler.  Okay, I’m down with that.  He also takes a couple of digs at the Tea Party types.  Naturally I’m down with that.

But he also goes on to imply that somehow the 9/11 truther movement is a left-wing cause.  And he highlights the anti-war group Code Pink.

It’s a false equivalence.

Currently none of the radical left-wing voices is anywhere close to the reins of power like the radicals on the right.  In fact, the right-wing nut jobs are threatening to take over the Republican party.  No one can seriously argue that Democrats are about to repudiate war-making or start a huge investigation into 9/11 being an “inside job”.

Stewart is right that our political discourse is dominated by the loud, motivated 15-20% of people in the country.

But even if 70-80%, as he rightly points out, “have shit to do,” that doesn’t mean that they don’t reflect or care deeply about what’s going on their lives. They have real problems requiring real solutions, like finding and keeping a good job that will help them to pay for the modern essentials of life (food & water, shelter, education, health care, transportation) for their entire lives.

It’s fair enough to criticize loud and clamoring activitsts, but sometimes you have to shout, especially when big things are at stake.  I’m sure “Give me liberty or give me death!” sounded pretty extreme.  Democracy was extreme at one time.  Slavery was the norm.  All change has come from the loud.  But it matters gravely what you’re being loud about!

For example, in Stewart’s announcement, a short clip takes a dig at Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, who said on the floor of the House a year ago this month that the Republican plan for health care is basically “don’t get sick” and, if you do, “die quickly”.  Now, of course, most Republicans and conservatives don’t really want people to die.  But they also don’t view it as a social responsibility – a collective (gasp!) responsibility – to see that sick people get medical care.  If, in the end, you don’t have the resources for medical care, then it’s your own damn fault.  That is the current Republican/conservative line.  It’s worth being loud and obnoxious about such a worldview when there are, yes, “reasonable” alternatives.  (Of course, Republicans/conservatives want people to rely on charitable medical care, but where’s the evidence that charity would fill the gap?  And regarding emergency rooms, let’s remember that ERs only take everybody because of a federal mandate, signed by Ronald Reagan!)

Liberals cannot just sit back, stroke their chins, count on reasonable argument, and expect the 70-80% to come along with them.  No.  What is reasonable changes over time, largely based on what the loud and motivated are shouting about, the story they tell, and the values they celebrate.  We have to be willing to define “reasonable”.  And we can’t shy away from taking back important, resonant American words and ideas. People have to know what you’re willing to fight for.

I agree with Stewart that fear is the enemy of reason.  That’s what makes the “duel” between Stewart and Colbert so fun.  But simply appealing to the 70-80-percenters, without first articulating and defending the liberal and progressive worldview in the strongest, yet still reasonable, language possible, will never succeed.  Liberals have been trying that for my entire adult life with precious little to show for it.

Conservative core assumptions

I’ve discovered a new podcast called Best of the Left.  It’s a digest of many of the major liberal-progressive radio, TV, and podcast programs.  I find I’ve heard many of the segments before, but in a recent podcast, he pulled out some “vintage” Bill Moyers from soon after the Citizen’s United case was decided.

Moyers lays out how some Congressmembers were already trying to counter the decision, especially:

its core assumptions, that money is speech and corporations have the same rights as people when it comes to spending it.

That one line helps clarify for me two major differences between liberals and conservatives.

Watch the full segment.

No, Tea Partiers, you don’t get to own American history

So, last night, Tea Party types won big when Christine O’Donnell took the Republican party nomination in the U.S. Senate race in Delaware.  That might not work out so well for them, of course, but I’m more interested in something she said during her victory speech:

Don’t ever underestimate the power of We the People!

“We the People”, huh?  I hadn’t even known that she had used this line until my wife pointed it out after hearing it on NPR.  She brought it up because of a pin I wear:

I first saw this pin on a friend’s lapel at a meeting of the Drinking Liberally social group I organize in Peoria, and I had to get one.  Back in the dark, late-Bush, still-possibly-McCain-Palin days, I felt the phrase “We the People” went a long way toward signifying what I felt was at stake.  We the People – all of us, in this together – had a lot to lose if conservative-Republican rule continued. 

So, along come the Tea Partiers and swipe We the People.  They already lay claim to the Gadsden flag, like hardcore religious and economic conservatives don’t want to tread on the rest of us.  They claim the U.S. flag, of course.  They claim freedom.  And of course, they claim the Constitution.

In my experience, liberals and progressives tend to shy away form using American imagery.  That’s a mistake.  American history – with its constant advancement of individual freedoms and quality of life – is our story, not theirs.

Let’s take a quick look at the preamble to the Constitution:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

 Let’s review:

  • Justice – dare I even say social justice?
  • The general welfare – hello, social security and Medicare.
  • Liberty – for everyone, not just the select.

Six goals laid out in the preamble and easily half of them clearly liberal and progressive.  The preamble, remember, spells out why the entire rest of the document exists – to serve those goals.

Now, I understand the liberal and progressive impulse to not overly glorify American history.  There were a lot of mistakes – horrible mistakes – along the way.

But it is no solution to simply concede the words and imagery of American history the Tea Partiers and hardcore conservatives.  Nope.  It’s ours.  And we’re not giving it up without a fight.

Left-right unity

Over at the Nation, Christopher Hayes has a good piece identifying what’s going wrong in the country:

There’s a word for a governing philosophy that fuses the power of government and large corporations as a means of providing services and keeping the wheels of industry greased, and it’s a word that has begun to pop up among critics of everything from the TARP bailout to healthcare to cap and trade: corporatism. Since corporatism often merges the worst parts of Big Government and Big Business, it’s an ideal target for both the left and right. The ultimate corporatist moment, the bailout, was initially voted down in the House by an odd-bedfellows coalition of Progressive Caucus members and right-wingers. 

I’ve noticed this, as well.  Many commentators and voters seem to be objecting to the same things, and as Hayes writes, some leading progressive and right libertarian writers and activists have been calling for some sort of political alliance.  But it’s hard to see this coming to pass, based on the sources of the two side’s outrage:

I don’t think that coalition is going to emerge in any meaningful form. The right’s anger is born largely of identity-based alienation, a fear of socialism (whatever that means nowadays) and an age-old Bircher suspicion that “they” are trying to screw “us.” Even in its most sophisticated forms, such as in Carney’s Obamanomics, the basic right-wing argument against corporatism embraces a kind of fatalism about government that assumes it will always devolve into a rat’s nest of rent seekers and cronies and therefore should be kept as small as possible. 

Basically, conservatives and libertarians hate government.  Period.  They see it as an irredeemable institution.  And they hate taxes.  Period.  Taxes are theft.  It’s hard to see how these two sides can come to an agreement.

Still, I think this is valuable to explore.  While in general the right hates government and taxes, I think many who currently identify as conservatives could be persuaded otherwise.  I have this saying, “Many people are liberals.  They just don’t know it.” 

Hayes has more:

(T)he corporatism on display in Washington is itself a symptom of a broader social illness that I noted above, a democracy that is pitched precariously on the tipping point of oligarchy. In an oligarchy, the only way to get change is to convince the oligarchs that it is in their interest–and increasingly, that’s the only kind of change we can get. 

 That argument could be starting point.  Sadly, paying off the oligarchs has been the story of the last year.  And it appears our Master of the Universe are still weighing in.

“The Future of Liberalism”

I have some recommended reading: “The Future of Liberalism” by Boston College professor Alan Wolfe.

Liberalism – and by extension its politics, politicians, and causes – have been on the defensive for decades now. I believe we liberals and progressives should shoulder much of the blame for that. We’ve been unable, and maybe unwilling, to articulate and defend what liberalism is, what it stands for, and why it’s important. We might intuitively know what it is, but that only takes us so far. It might be great to commiserate with like-minded people, but we also have to be able to explain liberalism to those who might be hostile to it at first, but remain persuadable. This is the realm of political independents, and it’s the ground on which campaigns and causes are won.

Only in the last few years have I seen more books articulating and defending liberalism. I guess that’s something, in a perverse way, for which we can be thankful for the Bush administration. Wolfe’s book is among the best of those books that I have read.

“The core substantive principle of liberalism is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take,” he writes on page 10.

True freedom is not just freedom from interference by others. That’s more libertarianism. True freedom is also having the capacities to make something of our lives in ways that we choose. That’s when we get the turn into liberalism, and it’s the principle from which flows many of the initiatives that libertarians and conservatives criticize, like the welfare state, health care for all, income protection, etc. (By the way, I think “welfare” state is a horrible label. “Freedom” state would be better, but more on that in another post.)

Wolfe also writes, “Equality is liberalism’s second substantive goal.” This dedication to equality often gets expressed elsewhere as “equality of opportunity”, which is directly related to the ideas of liberty in the last paragraph. Everyone deserves to have a roughly equal shot to develop their capacities so that they can live the freely chosen life that they pick.

So, for Wolfe, those are the key propositions of liberalism. He goes on to describe some of liberalism’s other features, as well. There is procedural liberalism, which is the system of rights, checks-and-balances, and democratic deliberative politics that’s enshrined in our government to give us all equal protection under the law. And there is the liberal temperament – the open-minded approach to the world – that allows all to find that approach to the world that works for them.

Obviously, I could go on. As I said above, this book is well worth the read in order to understand liberalism, even if you are a liberal.

Wolfe makes clear that liberalism is truly about liberty – true liberty – and as one of the chapters is titled, “The Most Appropriate Political Philosphy for Our Times”.

Tacking against the country’s rightward course

Naked Capitalism is a great financial/economics blog written by Yves Smith. I consider it a must-read for anyone who is suspicious of the directions that the various financial system bailouts are taking.

But up until a post today, I didn’t realize that I shared her feelings on and take on recent American political history. I’m going to quote liberally (of course!) from it:

One of the things I find truly remarkable is the degree to which Americans (or at least commentary in pretty much all American media) have bought into certain ideological constructs as if they were gospel truth.

Now in fact, most of us operate from ideologies of various sorts. For instance, reasonable people can differ on the tradeoff between individual liberty versus greater social good, on efficiency versus fairness. But casting them as some sort of objective truth dulls thinking and impedes coming up with solutions.

It is also important to recognize how far the country has moved to the right in the last generation plus (when I was a kid, I considered myself to be pretty indifferent to politics, and middle of the road on most issues save civil liberties, where I was left leaning. My views have not changed, but the rest of the country has). Joe Klein (via Brad DeLong) is more pointed:

We are at the end of a 30-year period of radical conservatism, a period so right-wing that many of those now considered “liberals”–like, say, Barack Obama–would be seen as moderate pantywaists in the great sweep of modern political history. The past 30 years have… [seen] such a profound destruction of the basic functions of government that a major rectification is called for now–in rebalancing the system of taxation toward progressivity, in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, not just physically, but also socially and intellectually.

Again, reasonable people can differ on how much of a reversal is needed, but the sorry record of the Bush push even further right (and his big business corpocracy is a form of conservatism, even if it betrayed small government Republicans) means a retreat is in the cards.

Back to the beat of this blog. One of the canards that has become instilled over the last 20 plus years is “government is every and always awful, the private sector is every and always better.” There are some compelling illustrations of the former (the postal service versus Federal Express. But gee, we made the Post Office private, sort of, to fix that problem. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t made things better). There are also examples of competence, indeed high skill levels, in government. Would you want air traffic control in the hands of the private sector? I’m belatedly reading Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s The Black Swan, and he goes to great lengths to describe how defense analysts have a far greater appreciation of risk and the “unknown unknowns” that can create true disasters, than their vastly better paid counterparts in finance.

Recall that the “if you are in government, you must be no good” myth is based on the idea that government pay scales are no good, and everyone in America is motivated solely by money. The latter is clearly not true, and the inefficiency of the education and labor markets in the US mean that plenty of good people (in terms of native intelligence, work habits, and personality) may nevertheless not wind up on the social/educational tracks that could land them in big ticket jobs (of course, now that the economy is tanking, those less lucrative but more stable government tracks don’t look as shabby as they once did). I have run into way way too many people who had every bit as much to offer as the Ivy League types but for reasons of family background (where they went to high school, most often, since you need to go to a strong secondary school to have a shot at a top drawer private college) were unlikely to be accepted. And I have met plenty of people who went to fancy schools who are idiots.

In addition, I have had the pleasure of dealing with the occasional well run government department. New York City has a great housing office (phones answered quickly, information detailed, with reference to the statues and procedures, courteous manner) as well as the New York State Insurance Department (prompt action on correspondence, even agents making multiple calls to find answers and getting back to me in less than 24 hours. I seldom get that in the private sector). Admittedly, this is anecdotal, but the prejudice of the reverse sort is not based on much more. And that’s before we get into the considerable graft and waste involved in outsourcing.

I can identify with much of what she expresses:

  • That all of us have ideologies. What matters is whether we can transcend them from time to time.
  • That the country has shifted right, while my basic outlook didn’t shift too much. Three to four decades ago, I would have been one of those “pantywaist” liberals that Klein describes and that were lampooned by Phil Ochs on the Left. (Of course, the country didn’t just “shift” right. It was “shoved” by a radical, unrelenting conservative movement that demonized all of the beliefs I hold dear, until ultimately, it was too much for me to remain as I had been – “pretty indifferent to politics,” as Smith describes it.)
  • That not everyone is motivated by crass materialism and the status competition of those who strive for the ever-bigger paycheck. It just so happens – given the system we have – that the rest of us somehow end up being in the thrall of these Type A nitwits. Sometimes things are worth doing for their own sake. Engaging in the project of democratic government is a noble and worthy enterprise all of its own that can and should attract bright, capable people – regardless of the pay. (I’ve often thought that military personnel and veterans could identify with this sentiment. The military doesn’t exactly pay Wall Street wages. And let’s not forget stay-at-home spouses. They work for nothing, but their work ensures the future of the world.)

Again, a great post of hers. Read this blog regularly.

Also, read the rest of the post I’m featuring as she goes on to connect these thoughts to the cries against “nationalization” of the banks and the Obama administration’s lackluster response to disciplining the financial services industry so far.