Thursday, July 23, 2009

Roderick Long could use your help

Roderick Long of Austro-Athenian Empire and the Mises Institute has fallen into financial crisis as the result of some sort of credit card company billing screw-up (See here and here), and has requested emergency help in the form of either donations or loans. Long has been a significant influence on my own thinking and ideas, so if you like what you read here please consider chipping in something to help him out. And if you haven't before, check out his essential essay "Equality: The Unknown Ideal."

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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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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Palin 2012: Somewhat Less Godawfulness You Can Believe In

I’m actually a little sad to see Sarah Palin go. I was no fan, but of the four candidates and running mates during the election- McCain, Palin, Obama, Biden- I found her the least objectionable. I admit that my opinion may be shaded by my reflexive sympathy for virtually anyone who manages to inspire such an impressive eruption of raw hate from the Democrats, but put alongside the relentless denigration of private life in voluntary society and creepy calls for “service” to the state that dominated the rhetoric of both McCain and Obama, she seemed like the only one of the four to have any real regard at all for the value of activities other than glorious self-sacrifice to the Fatherland. Perhaps that’s part of the reason her large number of children seemed to hit such a raw nerve with some; it suggests an unseemly interest in selfish, uncommunal, drearily bourgeois activities like family.

However much both McCain and Obama may talk about community and family and the like, at the core of both of their visions is the idea that service to the state is the highest of all callings and the basis of a virtuous and meaningful life, unlike the petty selfishness of voluntary society. One of the things that has always repulsed me about both the great bulk of the American Left and the neocon and “national greatness” portions of the Right which John McCain exemplifies is their disrespect for the things of normal, day-to-day life for the average person- work, family, business, social groups and organizations, personal interests, neighbors.

It’s a common attitude, widely shared by fascist militarists, spoiled lefty bohemians, and five-year old boys, but it was troubling to see how pervasive this juvenile attitude has become in both parties. Despite the frequent cracks made about her intelligence, it sometimes made me feel like Palin was the only adult in the whole campaign.

I realize that it’s rather sad to praise a politician for being merely authoritarian rather than implicitly totalitarian. What can I say? If you’ve been kicked in the crotch five or six times in a row, a mere kidney shot comes as a sort of relief.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my pejorated name

Kevin Carson has an interesting article at the Center for a Stateless Society about the assorted meanings of the term “socialism,” which at one point was self-applied not only by statists but by individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker. Among the left-libertarians, there has been some effort to reclaim the term and use it in this sense.

I sympathize with this desire. I’m still bitter about the loss of the term “liberal”; my frequent practice of referring to the American mainstream Left as “left-liberalism” instead of just “liberalism” probably has as much to do with spite as it does with terminological precision. That said, rehabilitating the word “socialist” seems like an even greater lost cause than “liberal,” which still has at least some pro-freedom connotations in everyday English.

It’s too bad since, as Carson points out, “socialism” would be a pretty good term for libertarianism were it not already taken. Instead, perversely, the defining trait of people who are today called “socialists” is the desire to minimize or destroy the power of people in communities willingly working together for mutual benefit and replace it with a system of control and compulsion through the threat of force. When people speak of “socializing” an industry, they mean removing it from the control of society and giving it to an elite.

Once you cease to identify the society and the state, it really is quite bizarre. Such an ideology deserves the name socialism only if your idea of “society” is something along the lines of a prison farm.

It’s frustrating that many of the terms that have been used for libertarianism- liberalism, capitalism, individualism, anarchism- are so thoroughly poisoned by widespread association with ideas hostile or antithetical to it. “Libertarian” itself may suffer this fate, given the continuing abuse and distortion of the term by opponents of the free market. When I consider the fact that the machinery of public opinion is largely controlled by people whose ideology depends on confusing terminology and distorting the difference between economic freedom and economic statism, I suspect it may be unavoidable in the long run.

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