Whence I Advene

Greetings all, and thanks so much for the invitation. I’ve been calling myself a “bleeding-heart libertarian” (inter alia) for over a decade now, so this must be where I belong; but since there’s no one meaning that that label has for all the different participants here, let me say a bit about what it means in my case.

On the one hand, I’m committed to libertarianism in a fairly standard sense: self-ownership, the non-aggression principle, Lockean homesteading, private property, and free markets. On the other hand, I’m committed to a fairly standard set of traditionally leftist concerns, including opposition to such social evils as worker exploitation, plutocratic privilege, racism, homophobia, gender inequality, militarism, environmental degradation, and the prison-industrial complex. (Call them all “oppression” for short.)

I don’t think either the libertarian or the leftist commitments need to be watered down in order to accommodate the other; on the contrary, I think they strengthen each other. I see these two sets of commitments as related both causally and conceptually.

Causally, I think that oppression (including nonstate forms of oppression) and state power are mutually reinforcing, so that the best strategy for combating either one will include (though not be limited to) combating the other. For example, government regulations tend to bolster the dominance of large, hierarchical firms by subsidising their operating costs, socialising their diseconomies of scale, and insulating them from competition and industrial resistance; thus state violence narrows workers’ options and forces them into the hierarchical workplace. Compulsory government schooling tends to encourage habits of regimentation and subordination in children, thus preparing them for precisely such workplaces; these workplaces in turn reinforce this socialisation, thereby shaping a more obedient citizenry. Thus state bureaucracy and “private” plutocracy feed off of each other. (Hence, unlike many libertarians, I’m sympathetic toward unions, though I would consider the IWW a better model than the UAW.)

Conceptually, I think that even apart from their causal connections, oppression and state power are bad for similar reasons, so that it would be unreasonable to oppose one without opposing both. For example, if someone opposes state power because it pushes people around, it would be incongruous for such a person to be indifferent to the plight of people pushed around by nonstate forms of power (and vice versa).

Of course social evils that do not involve rights-violations must be combated in nonviolent – and thus nonstate – ways; but from a libertarian standpoint this is not a very restrictive requirement, since given the informational and incentival perversities that beset monopolies, state measures are generally not the most efficient means of achieving social goals anyway. My preferred strategy for social and political change lays less emphasis on electoral politics (i.e., trying to get the state to behave more nicely) than on seeking to render the state irrelevant via education, direct action, and building alternative institutions.

I’m very concerned about the tendency for libertarian free-market rhetoric to be co-opted by the establishment right, as well as for radical leftist rhetoric to be co-opted by the establishment left. Conservative policies are marketed as protecting ordinary people against big government, while liberal and progressive policies are marketed as protecting ordinary people against big business. But in actual practice, though some policies may favour the government side a bit more while others favour the business side more, both sets of policies tend to reinforce a ruling partnership between big government and big business at the expense of ordinary people, with the bulk of economic distribution going upward rather than downward (for familiar public-choice reasons); and the political battles that dominate mainstream headlines are thus mainly squabbles between two wings of the ruling class.

I see today’s political landscape as dominated by two closely related myths: first, that big business and big government are natural enemies, and second, that the economic system that prevails in most industrialised countries, including the u.s., is an approximation to a free market (rather than, as I see it, a long-established and ongoing system of massive government intervention on behalf of the corporate elite). These myths not only mask the corporatist reality of government/business partnership but tend to strengthen that reality; on the right (including, alas, large sections of libertarianism), the case for free markets is distorted into a defense of existing corporate privilege, while on the left, the case against existing corporate privilege is distorted into a case against free markets – so that each wing of the ruling class offers itself as an antidote to the other, and alternatives to both are rendered invisible.

My political outlook is “left-libertarian” in the sense associated with the Alliance of the Libertarian Left and the Center for a Stateless Society; that sense differs from some other ways that term has been used, e.g. to describe the anarcho-communist position associated with Emma Goldman and Petr Kropotkin, or the neo-Georgist position associated with Peter Vallentyne, Hillel Steiner, and Michael Otsuka. For example, my position is friendlier to strong private property rights than is either of these alternatives (though I also think it is possible for the general public to acquire common property via homesteading). For a good summary of left-libertarianism in the sense used here, see Sheldon Richman’s recent article for The American Conservative, “Libertarian Left: Free-Market Anti-Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal.”

Finally, my understanding of rights is neither purely deontological nor purely consequentialist. Following the Aristotelean principle that the content of any one virtue cannot be specified except through reciprocal determination by all the other virtues, I conclude that the content of a rights-oriented virtue like justice must be shaped in part by considerations appropriate to consequence-oriented virtues like benevolence and prudence; hence pure deontology will not do. But by the same token, what counts as a good consequence will be shaped in part by considerations appropriate to rights-oriented virtues like justice; so pure consequentialism won’t do either. (I also suggest that this approach is implicitly that of most professed deontologists and consequentialists as well, since all but the hardiest deontologists generally try to show that their favoured policies will in fact have good consequences, while all but the hardiest consequentialists generally try to show that they’re not committed to morally outrageous conclusions.)

  • I see that my post appears under the name “BerserkRL” rather than “Roderick T. Long.” But ’tis I.

  • Wikipedia lists “libertarian socialist” among its political classifications. When I saw that, I said, that’s me!

  • anarchobuddy

    “I don’t think either the libertarian or the leftist commitments need to be watered down in order to accommodate the other; on the contrary, I think they strengthen each other. I see these two sets of commitments as related both causally and conceptually.”

    I think this is a very important point that needs to be emphasized. It seems like a lot of the discussion on this website is debating whether property rights or social justice are more important values. But if they are irrevocably intertwined, then it seems that those of all libertarian stripes should basically support the same “policies” (though their justifications for doing so might differ).

  • This is simply beautiful. I have said for years that there is a disconnect in libertarian or conservative free market avocation whereby the government is nothing but corruptible. Yet at the same time business is perfect. I sit and look at Bernie Madof.

    • Tedd

      I agree, but what is it about our humanity that makes this a challenge for us? The problem of individual desires being in conflict with collective desires exists everywhere in the animal world, which is why highly collective species have rigid social structures with harsh penalties. (Or, in the lower species, little or no capacity to even operate autonomously.) There’s a lot of angst among humans today because we have a high degree of interdependency but at the same time value flexible social arrangements and personal autonomy. We cleverly developed two social arrangements that enable us to balance personal and collective desires: free markets and civil law. But then we started to undermine both with government, and now neither functions very well.

      All the examples of business misbehaviour you mentioned are limited by the combination of free markets and civil law. You’ll never stop the greed that motivated Bernie Madoff, but market based product evaluation in the financial sector would have exposed him earlier than government oversight did. (Whether through incompetence or through corruption, he slipped past government oversight for years.) Fear of lawsuits is a powerful motivator for safer, cleaner products. But government regulation undermines the system by insulating businesses from liability. I’ve worked as an engineer in four highly regulated industries (nuclear power, aviation, medical products, and elevators), and I’ve seen that effect repeatedly. Regulation acts mainly to protect vested interests, not to protect the public. (How many new elevator companies have their been in the last century?)

      I’m doubtful of the anarchist position that both free markets and civil law can be achieved without any government at all. I’d like it to be true, but I’m doubtful. But I do believe that most government action over the past century or more has eroded those institutions, not strengthened them. That’s the part of Long’s thesis that really resonates with me: We need to get rid of those parts of government that are, from the perspective of free markets and civil law, un-government.

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  • assman35

    I used to call myself a pragmatarian. But I think my new philosphical label will be a not-an-idiotarian. Because I think you libertarians, bleeding heart libertarians, socialists, liberals are fucking bat-shit insane. You have no freaking clue how the real world works.

    • Tedd

      I think “a not-idiotarian” would be more grammatically correct.

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