Julian Sanchez’s preresignation over the Kochtopus-Cato Kerfuffel has caused some commentators to gleefully point out the ‘hypocrisy’ of Sanchez and other lefty libertarians. Sanchez himself has a terrific take-down of this line of response. Here is my favorite part:
“I realize progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical worship of rich people, but as that’s not actually the case, the only irony here is that people think they’re scoring some kind of gotcha point when they’re actually exposing the silliness of their own caricature.”
Pretty awesome, isn’t it?
Somehow that response didn’t appease anyone (surprise!) Corey Robin writes that Sanchez’s presignation just illustrates how Sanchez affirms that it sucks when financial pressures ‘force’ people to do work that they find disagreeable or objectionable. Therefore, Sanchez himself is implicitly committed to the Marxist critique of capitalism:
So if liberty is the absence of coercion, as many libertarians claim, and if the capacity to act—say, by enjoying material conditions that would free one of the costs that quitting might entail—limits the reach of that coercion, is it not the case that freedom is augmented when people’s ability to act is enhanced?… That, it seems to me, is the great divide between right and left: not that the former stands for freedom, while the latter stands for equality (or statism or whatever), but that the former stands for freedom for the few, while the latter stands for freedom for the many.
While I don’t agree with Robin’s argument, I do think that something like this criticism does land against a certain kind of extreme libertarianism, the people who deny easy rescue ( e.g. Randians.) Certainly there are elements to libertarianism that do deny any positive duties and discourage any assistance.
But to say that libertarianism is intrinsically committed to this view is just as uncharitable as a libertarian’s caricature of the left as a bunch of state-worshiping freedom-hating neo-Stalinists.
Who’s really the hypocrite here? Critics on the left seemingly delight in attacking the most extreme version of libertarianism, and then attributing that extreme picture to every libertarian they meet. (Btw I think that there is something to be said for that extreme picture so it is worth fighting back even in favor of the extreme version) But libertarian thought as a whole is on much stronger ground than its most extreme strand.
I think one reason for the progressive resistance to the more moderate versions of libertarianism stems from the fact that moderate libertarians are in many ways beating them at their own game. As Glenn Greenwald and Matt Stoller have both brilliantly argued, libertarian politics is currently more in line with progressive values than popular progressive political candidates.
But I also suspect that there’s a deeper, more fundamental anxiety about libertarians that goes beyond politics. Internal to progressivism there is a tension between its historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots and its avowed concern for the worst off. In practice, it looks like direct governmental intervention and union support no longer works to the benefit of society’s worst off. Progressive opposition to policies like voucher programs are a great example of this tension, as is the current health care mess and the regressive social security system. In a lot of cases, market solutions do a better job of furthering progressive aims than the state run policies that progressives favor, and even the worst off value economic liberty.
I believe that the best version of libertarianism is one that cares about social justice. Similarly, the best version of progressivism is one that recognizes the power of markets. Insofar as we’re all concerned with helping the poor we should both set aside our straw men and get down to the business of figuring out a) what works and b) when (if ever) it is permissible to further social goals by violating economic and civil liberties. That’s where the real disagreement should be, not in whose caricature portrait of the other side is more awful.