Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Seeds of Libertarianism on the Left, Part II

We now come to the follow-up to my previous post on libertarians reaching out to the Left, and why the far Left offers better prospects than mainstream left-liberals. Last time, I talked about the idea of spontaneous order in voluntary social action. This time, I’d like to go into differences in attitudes towards the existing system.

The foundational belief of mainstream left-liberalism in America is that the modern American interventionist state is an essentially benevolent and positive institution. Without it, we would be Hobbesian savages or the wretched serfs of top-hatted plutocrats. The system is enormously beneficial and generally works well, and when it fails to work well it is because some malevolent outside force has harmed or interfered with it. (E.g. “Special interests, “market fundamentalists,” and so on, who are given much the same role as Trotskyite “wreckers” under Stalin or the Devil in many Christian sects.) Thus, the answer to any problem is to have the right people in control. If they are and yet some area of the government is still not working as advertised, that means the government does not currently have enough money and power, and should be expanded so that the right people will have the resources they need to do good.

Left-liberalism is thus antithetical to libertarianism; they are not, as it is sometimes claimed, sibling ideologies who disagree on details. Fundamental to libertarianism is the idea that the problems of statism are systemic, and improving the situation is not a matter of giving the machinery a tune-up or trying to find a better operator or removing a wad of gum that some malicious person has stuck into the gears. The state will never have the knowledge or the incentives or the coordinating power that the free market brings to bear.

Furthermore, not only does state action fail to perform as advertised, it is usually not meant to perform as advertised. Seemingly idealistic actions by the government almost invariably have some politically connected person or group profiting in the background. If the interventionist state’s justifications are taken at face value, much of its past and present behavior is inexplicable, and predictions of its behavior based on this assumption have a very poor track record. If the state is viewed primarily as a means by which the powerful can enrich, glorify, and emotionally gratify themselves at the expense of others, however, the actions of those in the government are both comprehensible and much more predictable.

Concentrated interest will always have stronger incentives than dispersed interests, and the powerful and privileged will always be better-equipped to control the state than the weak and oppressed. The problem is not that our government is malfunctioning, or has been hijacked or corrupted. The problem is that the government is working just as it is meant to work.

(Minarchist libertarians believe that some minimal night watchman state that actually works as advertised is possible, but like anarchist libertarians they agree that the interventionist state is bad by nature and not merely because the wrong people run it.)

This is not a revelation to the seasoned libertarian, but I think it’s worth spelling out in detail to make the contrast clear. This way of thinking is quite alien to most people. I think some 90’s conservatives came pretty close to it, but unfortunately that movement’s growing focus on the personal vileness of Bill Clinton led many of them astray by drawing fire away from the state itself. American liberals never even showed that much potential; even when many liberals were warning of an imminent descent into fascism and/or theocracy, there was little or no suggestion that the problem with the government went any deeper than Bush and his clique, who were somehow uniquely evil, their actions without precedent.

Liberal love for the state is unconditional. They treat the state the way an idealized mother treats her hooligan son: she might criticize the bad crowd Junior has started hanging out with, or insist that he tuck in his shirt in at church, but ultimately she always stands up for Junior, always insists no matter what he does that he’s a good boy at heart, and if he does something horrible it’s because someone else must have put him up to it.

Here, some areas of the far Left have much more to recommend them. Anti-market leftists misunderstand the market economy, and many of them (including a lot of ostensible anarchists) believe that the state could be the friend of the average working person with a suitable overhaul, but they have this going for them: they usually don't believe it's our friend now.

They are much more likely than mainstream liberals to see the government actions they rightly object to- corporate welfare, for instance- as part of a systemic problem, and not as merely an unfortunate and unintended glitch in a system that is for the most part benevolent. There is far more understanding that setting things right is not merely a matter of putting the right people in charge. Most importantly, they are far more likely to realize that the problem is that the state is working just as it is meant to. The government acts as an engine of exploitation and oppression because that’s what it’s for. That is its nature.

Left-anarchists usually grasp this; even statists like the Greens often have some idea. Their misunderstandings of market economies leads them into serious errors, such as regarding economic freedom as a form of government aid to plutocrats lumping it in with its opposite, government privilege. Nevertheless, in this important respect they have a much deeper understanding than most people.

This is by no means universal, to be sure, since a lot of avowed left-wing “anarchists” are little more than big-government liberals or full-blown authoritarian state socialists with a more bellicose and pseudo-radical rhetorical style, and I don’t take their supposed hostility to statism any more seriously than I do the Republican Party’s. Nevertheless, there are still plenty who do possess this important libertarian insight.

That alone isn’t enough, of course. Communists, Nazis, and the Taliban would all probably agree that the current system is fundamentally flawed too, after all. However, the reasons at least some of the antimarket Left condemns the current system overlap with libertarianism to a much greater extent than other ideologies, and the Left has other libertarianism-friendly traits, as discussed in my last post on the subject, and hopefully in a follow-up to this one.

The importance of this commonality is considerable. The progressive/good-government viewpoint is the bedrock of mainstream politics, accepted by both parties. It is the overwhelmingly dominant doctrine taught in the public schools, the news media, popular entertainment, and the churches. Whatever grave problems there are with the radical Left’s thought, they have at least partially rejected one of the central legitimating myths of modern statism, and that’s a rare thing.

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