Monday, August 27, 2007

The danger of assumptions

Over at Unqualified Offerings, Mona raises a question: why do so many liberals and leftists have such wildly distorted views of what libertarians believe? The subsequent comment thread, ironically, consists in large part of liberals and leftists answering this accusation by… expressing wildly distorted views of what libertarians believe. So, what’s the cause?

Part of it probably comes from the use of libertarian-sounding rhetoric by conservatives. If most of the antigovernment rhetoric you hear comes from mendacious conservative statists, it’s understandable that you’ll associate the two. This hardly absolves liberals of blame, however; the confusion this creates is readily overcome if you read what libertarians actually say on various issues instead of taking the caricatures produced by statists on faith. If you can’t tell the difference between Murray Rothbard and a standard-issue Republican because both of them say they like private property, or you think George W. Bush is pushing a libertarian agenda (I’ve actually heard people say this), that doesn’t speak well of your powers of observation.

(Liberals aren’t the only people who do this, alas- see, for instance, the bizarre spectacle of a libertarian accusing left-libertarian anarchist Kevin Carson of being a statist because of his belief that current state interference in the economy gives employers inordinate power over employees. Whether you think this is the case or not, accusing Carson of being a state socialist is just baffling- unless, of course, you notice that Carson happens to use language that state socialists sometimes use, and draw conclusions solely from that.)

There are two other factors which I believe to be more important. Both, to a large extent, flow from the fact that many people don't or can't understand that not everyone is like them, or shares their assumptions.

I think differing philosophy plays a part. Liberals often seem to think, or at least strongly give the impression of thinking, that only statist means of pursuing desirable ends truly “count” as a way of showing that you value something, and seem largely incapable of understanding the idea of truly caring about something without wanting the government to support it, so it’s not surprising that they’d be aghast at people who don’t want the government supporting various desirable ends. In this respect, they are much like conservatives who think you can only meaningfully express disapproval of something by outlawing it. Similarly, when liberals hear libertarians (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) defend big business, I suspect some of them assume that libertarians therefore want business to be state-supported, because they assume that everyone shares their "If you like something, you must want it subsidized" mentality.

However, based on my own experiences and observations, I think the most important factor is the historical mythology accepted by most of the left in this country. The story goes that once, we had laissez-faire in this country, and it was horrible for everyone except a few malevolent capitalist fat cats, because the natural tendency of free markets is to create exploitative monopolies. Then the benevolent government stepped in, led by noble people like the progressives, and, motivated by idealism, compassion, and a passion for what’s right, saved us from the evils of unrestrained capitalism and created a more humane system through government regulation. Big Business fought against the creation of the regulatory state, because it stopped them from exploiting people and so lowered their profits, but they were defeated by the forces of good embodied in the state. If our government protectors are ever weakened by the malign forces of Big Business, however, the wolf Skoll will eat the sun all the evils created by unrestricted free markets will be unleashed and we would be ruthlessly exploited and dominated by big corporations.

Mainstream liberals believe this almost by definition, and it seems to be fairly commonly accepted further left as well; even a lot of avowed anarchists I’ve encountered seem to accept it, despite the extremely rosy portrait of the state it creates. Much of the right accepts it as well, at least to some degree. It is the doctrine taught in schools, universities, and popular culture.

The problem is that many libertarians who take an interest in history don’t accept this narrative, with good reason. The economy prior to the Progressive Era wasn’t laissez-faire, the economy of the late 1800’s wasn’t moving towards centralization and monopoly, and, most importantly, the laws created by the progressives benefited established plutocratic interests, rather than restraining them; indeed, they were often encouraged by those very interests. Aside from the historical record, libertarians have sound theoretical reasons for believing that unregulated markets don’t lead to monopoly and exploitation, that economic legislation will be subverted by the rich and powerful, and so on.

If you accept the official view of history taught by mainstream culture, libertarianism is at best folly. History clearly shows that the unrestricted free market is bad. Furthermore, the progressive good-government version of history is so ubiquitous- you could easily go your whole life without hearing any significant challenge to it, (except maybe Marxism, which of course paints the market in even darker tones)- that a lot of liberals probably don’t realize that alternative schools of thought even exist; if they do, they must be big business apologetics and not something libertarians actually sincerely believe. And if you assume that libertarians believe the same historical narrative that you do, since “everyone knows” what the pre-Progressive era was like, it must seem incredibly perverse that they advocate a system that that narrative portrays as cruel, exploitative, and beneficial only to the rich and powerful. From there, the only reasonable explanation is that libertarians are fools, tools of big business, or simply wicked- everyone knows that the regulatory state is what saved us from the horrors of capitalism, so why else could anyone oppose it?

That, at any rate, is what my experiences reading and arguing with liberals has led me to believe. There are liberals with more sophisticated understandings, certainly, but they don’t appear to be in the majority, and they certainly aren’t the noisiest. Thus, libertarians are monsters, and no amount of argument or explanation is going to convince liberals otherwise. As long as the good-government liberal historical myth remains dominant, that won’t change.

For some good reading on the issue of mainstream liberals’ misunderstanding of history, I suggest this compilation of Mutualist Blog posts by diabolical archsstatist Kevin Carson. Lots of good stuff there.



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2 comments:

Kevin Carson said...

"...once, we had laissez-faire in this country, and it was horrible for everyone except a few malevolent capitalist fat cats, because the natural tendency of free markets is to create exploitative monopolies. Then the benevolent government stepped in, led by noble people like the progressives, and, motivated by idealism, compassion, and a passion for what’s right, saved us from the evils of unrestrained capitalism and created a more humane system through government regulation. Big Business fought against the creation of the regulatory state, because it stopped them from exploiting people and so lowered their profits, but they were defeated by the forces of good embodied in the state."

Fess up: that's a direct quote from Art Schlesinger, isn't it?

Seriously, thanks for the link. The tendency you describe of avoiding particular positions because they sound like what someone you dislike also says, is pretty common. I've actually talked to people who feel that supporting "intellectual property" is the correct libertarian position, because "the commies" are against it. Of course, given the mirror-imaging of mainstream left and right on the "anti-business" motivation of the regulatory/welfare state, it's pretty easy to mess with their heads by pointing out they sound JUST LIKE THE OTHER SIDE!

Brad Spangler said...

And, darn it, if getting to mess with people's heads isn't one of the few perks of being a revolutionary, I don't know what is. ;)