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 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”.