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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ultimately irrelevant reasons I'm not a libertarian

One of these days I plan to explore some of the fundamental assumptions of what I understand libertarianism to be and, staying faithful to those assumptions, explain I am not a libertarian.  However, today is not one of those days.

Instead, I'm going to list some of the side reasons I'm not a libertarian.  By "side reasons," I mean things that libertarians tend to do or say, or things that people, some of whom are libertarians and some of whom are not, associate with libertarians and libertarianism.  Almost by definition, these second-order reasons are at least partially unfair to the many good-faith libertarians I've met online and on some occasions in person.  These reasons are unfair in at least two ways:  First, they involve foibles that are common probably to almost any people who try to adhere to a system of thought or who identify with a political orientation.  Second, they involve things that libertarians have little control over.

Yet I do offer these as items that make it difficult for me to sign on as a "libertarian," no matter how closely I buy into some of the assumptions of libertarianism, properly understood.

First, the "ism" of libertarianism bothers me.  I have in the past subscribed to certain ism's, or at least watered-down versions of those ism's.  There was a time, for example, when I identified closely with Marxism, or what I understood Marxism to be.  There was another time when I identified closely with what I now consider to be evangelical Christianity, with "New Right" social conservatism, and a neo-con quasi-messianic foreign policy of the sort that would later be so evident in the drumbeat for war in Iraq.  (I'll acknowledge that those three views were not logically consistent, but hey, I was pretty young at the time.)

I'm wary of making the same mistakes again, of embracing a way of seeing the world that organizes it so neatly on some fundamental,  a priori, principles.  I do not mean this as a jibe against the libertarians I have met, or at least not against most of them:  most of them adopt a spirit of charitable discussion with people who disagree with them or see things differently, and they often go more than halfway.  I also realize that libertarianism is not a well organized ism in the same way that Marxism can be.  But I'm wary of (re)becoming a zealous convert.

Second, some libertarians are overfond of using "liberty" in an almost question-begging way that strikes me as dishonest.  I really do mean "some" and not "all."  I'm referring specifically to invocations of the word "liberty" when there are competing notions of what liberty is.  If someone is for "liberty" and who in their right mind would be against "liberty"?  Now, perhaps a precise reckoning of "liberty" jives pretty well with a libertarian understanding of the word.  In fact, according to dictionary dot com, the first four definitions of "liberty" refer to freedom from some kind of (usually state-imposed) interference, which appears to me close to what most libertarians mean.  But it can't escape them that in everyday speech, we often use the word "liberty" more broadly to mean something like "freedom" in general, and people have different conceptions of "freedom."  Some examples:  doing whatever one wants; living according to one's reason independent of one's "passions"; living with the knowledge that society will provide a minimal amount of material support (healthcare, affordable housing, etc.).

To simply say "I support liberty" is to elide all those meanings and put one's interlocutor on the defensive.  Some examples of this use:

From libertarianism dot org [emphases in original]:
Liberty. It’s a simple idea, but it’s also the linchpin of a complex system of values and practices: justice, prosperity, responsibility, toleration, cooperation, and peace. Many people believe that liberty is the core political value of modern civilization itself, the one that gives substance and form to all the other values of social life. They’re called libertarians.
From Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation [this quotation is from a series of posts he wrote fort he Volokh Conspiracy, the link is provided in the original, the emphasis in bold is my own]:

In Minnesota a few years ago, the Midwest Oil company charged customers less than cost at its four Minneapolis area gas stations. I don’t know why — seems like a foolish idea to me, but they have the right to sell their gas for whatever they want. (That’s called “liberty.”) Certainly there was no likelihood that this four-station chain would come to monopolize gasoline sales in Minneapolis, which is full of Shells and Mobils. Still, other gas stations (not consumers, of course) complained, and Midwest Oil was assessed a heavy fine.
Now, the point he is making is certainly a good one to consider, and it's one I'm particularly interested in because of my interest in the antitrust movement.  His conception of liberty is also serviceable.  But it's preachy.  The way he uses it here and in his other posts assumes that his notion of liberty is something that need not be proven, only asserted.

A few concessions and qualifications are in order.  My problem is when people use the freestanding word "liberty."  I have much less of a problem when people qualify it--for example, by saying "economic liberty."  I also acknowledge it is unfair for me to attack what is essentially a rhetorical style--take up a loaded word ("liberty") and use it in a larger argument that either stands or falls on its own merits--as the substance tout court of the argument.  I also acknowledge that many of the offenders do elsewhere make clear which notion of "liberty" they are invoking, and it's probably unfair for me to require them to redefine and remind me, the reader, each and every time they use the term.  Finally, not all libertarians are so clumsy with their use of the word.

Still, I'm dealing in "side reasons."  Invoking "liberty" so clumsily is a noise-making drive-by argument that turns off people who might otherwise be willing to listen.    It's naive pedantry for me to insist that people elucidate the assumptions behind a key word every single time they use it, but sometimes a word can become a crutch--in the event the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the health insurance law, I can hear even now some libertarians or people who claim to be libertarians say "This is a great advance for liberty."--and if libertarians wish to gain converts, they might wish to reconsider how they mark their key concept.


Third, libertarianism is too associated with conservatism, even the non-libertarian social conservatism and militaristic conservatism.  Probably at least since the New Deal, some movement closely allied with the Republican party and what one might call nascent conservatism used rhetoric of what we might today call libertarianism.  I'm thinking of the "Liberty League" that campaigned (and failed) against F.D.R. in the mid 1930s, particularly the 1936 presidential election.  Over the years, something that might be called "libertarianism" or a libertarian streak allied itself with the GOP, as instantiated in, for example, Barry Goldwater's "extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice" quip in 1964, Ronald Reagan's famous admonition that government is not the solution to our problems, but that government is the problem, and the various efforts by the GOP to claim the policies of Chicago school economists as their own.

Now, I have performed a sleight of hand here and elided some key concerns.  Just because the Liberty League called itself the "LIBERTY League," that doesn't mean that all or much of what it supported was properly libertarian, nor does it mean that there weren't good reasons to oppose at least parts of the New Deal.  If people are out of work and starving, for example, did we really need a policy aimed at increasing the price of food?  If people agree that a surfeit of competition is what bedevils the economy, a claim that is at least debatable, is it necessarily a good thing to have a cartel system, operating under rules set by the president with minimal Congressional oversight and enforced by criminal penalties?

Moreover,in the mid-twentieth century, someone who liked "liberty" in the way libertarians seem to define it would have a good case for allying with the GOP.  The Democratic Party was the haven of Jim Crow politicians.  Both parties were complicit in the formation of the national security state that has eroded civil liberties, but it was  Harry Truman, a Democrat, who presided over what were arguably the crucial first steps in that direction.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a case was to be made that some regulations were onerous and some policies were downright unjust, and the GOP under Reagan lent some moral support to this position even though the Democratic party also adopted it, even before the days of the Democratic Leadership Council.  (For example, Carter's deregulation of the airline industry (sometimes wrongly attributed to Reagan) set in motion a process that led to cheaper air fares (although some have raised concern about the implications for the safety of air travel).

It's probably true that the GOP / libertarian alliance was more equivocal than not.  The War on Drugs--variously attributed to Nixon and Reagan even if presidents of both parties have pursued it since the 1970s--led arguably to the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of citizens (and resulting social costs) whose primary crime was acting on the desire to get high and led (perhaps more arguably, but the causal chain seems at least reasonable) to extra-statist cartels ("gangs") that used violence to control their competitors.  Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative and his increases in military spending generally--again, the increased spending represented a process initiated by Carter, but Reagan appears to have pursued it more vigorously--may have helped hasten the demise of the Soviet Union (something libertarians might sign on to), but it was also a boon to rent-seeking weapons manufacturers, the National Administration for Space-scientists' Alms, and the national-security state generally.

These qualifications aside--and add to them those libertarians who have been vociferous critics of Republicans as well as Democrats--it is still probably the case that in 2012, to identify oneself as a "libertarian" is to identify oneself as someone who supports the GOP for more than strategic purposes.  (A strategic purpose in this case might be, for example, a wish for divided government, or a preference for a non-ideologue managerial president who was instrumental in coming up with the template for the current health insurance law over a more ideological president who signed a very similar law.)

My linking of libertarians with the GOP, despite some of the historical linkages and the ronpaulian racism and homophobia that a disturbing number of libertarians tolerate even if they disapprove, is unfair.  Many of the libertarians I have met online have been very careful to define the terms of their libertarianism.  It's not their fault that others adopt the term for partisan advantage, and it's probably not fair to ask them to conjure up another name any more than it would be fair to demand that I use another word for my liberalism (say, petrocornellianism?) which differs from what most people seem to call liberalism today.  Still, the linkage is there, and to aver libertarianism without the GOP baggage is hard; and it's something that turns me off.

Fourth:  I'm suspicious of whose interests are served by libertarianism.

Libertarians seem to believe, with much reason, that libertarianism benefits all and has special promise for the most oppressed and disfranchised among us.  That belief inspires such libertarian-inspired sites as the Moorfield Storey Blog, and Bleeding Heart Libertarians.  I buy this claim to a large degree.  Aggressive enforcement of civil rights by the federal government, for example, can be argued to be "libertarian" without much of a stretch, although I will leave aside the point that the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlaws some arguably private activity that a freedom of conscious loving libertarians would want to defend, not necessarily out of agreement but as a matter of principle, against state intervention.

I too think that some libertarian projects may benefit those who suffer most from state repression.  Curtailing the war on drugs would curtail a policy that functions as a way to target and incarcerate poor people, with an emphasis on persons of color.  Even something as simple (or apparently simple) as zoning requirements might hurt the least affluent people.  I suspect that one of the many factors that contribute to the food-desert phenomenon in the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago, for example, is the fact that a large retailer like Walmart has to go through special negotiations--that sometimes last years--with the city council and with dues-seeking unions to open one store.  All the while we hear the plaints of alderpersons who are concerned about the "small businesses" that, if they really exist, must charge high prices (because of tight margins and, probably, bribes to alderpersons) to those least capable of paying them.  Walmart, of course, is not the simple solution some claim it is.  But I would suggest a less restrictive, or at least more standardized, zoning or licensing practice might encourage competitors to Walmart; as it is, it appears one needs to have the resources of a Walmart to negotiate with the city for the privilege of going into business without the support of a local alderperson.  There are probably other advantages of libertarian-ish policies for the less affluent and otherwise less advantaged members of society aside:  one that comes to mind is less restrictive immigration policies, which would probably counteract some of the extortionate power that employers of undocumented labor now enjoy.

Leaving these (probably very real) benefits aside, however, it seems that those who stand most to benefit from a generalized libertarian program are, unsurprisingly, those most in a position to take advantage of them.  Some specific disadvantaged people might support one or two libertarian policies:  for example, an undocumented worker might support less restrictive immigration policies; or someone from a service-deficient neighborhood might want it to be easier for a Walmart to open shop.  But in general, the range of policies promoted by libertarians seems, as a generalized program, to benefit most those who have the most, or who have the types of marketable skills, or aptitudes for such skills, that would benefit them most in a very libertarian polity.

I am being deliberately vague (as opposed, I guess, to "being spuriously vague") about which policies I'm referring to.   I am mostly describing my sense of a lot of the policy preferences of libertarians.  A political-economy, for example, that arranges its incentives so as to permit  the right to pursue a lawful calling best benefits those whose lawful calling commands the higher wages.  This doesn't mean that others don't benefit.  It's probably a positive good all around; and rising tides lift even tugboats.

At basis, this particular "side reason" is a spiteful ad hominem.  Yet I confess it gives me pause.

Fifth, the Koch brothers vs. Cato imbroglio.

As some of my readers may know, the Koch brothers have initiated a lawsuit to try to gain more control over the Cato institute, which they either founded or played a strong role in funding.  That suit began a couple months ago, and I don't know its status.  One of the reasons why this is all a turnoff is the way some of my online libertarian acquaintances have reacted to it.

Before the lawsuit, at least some of them vigorously defended the Koch brothers, simply as people who promoted some libertarian policies and who were unfairly being vilified for participating in the public sphere.  Now, some of these same libertarians are (probably justly) denouncing the Kochs' lawsuit as an attempt to destroy or bring under a conservative (non-libertarian) fold, what is / was a bona fide libertarian think-tank.

I don't know all the in's and out's of the Cato-Koch suit, and I still know too little about Cato to speak intelligently on it as a think-tank (although what I've read of Jason Kuznicki's writings on marriage give me reason to think favorably of it as a serious, good-faith intellectual endeavor).  On some level, there's something that smells bad here:  as recently as a 18 months ago, the Kochs were all right with their conservative program as long as they were nominally libertarians, and now they're almost evil because they have declared war against real libertarians.

My charge here is rank ad hominemism.  Petty--or even not so petty--legal squabbles like the Koch-Cato suit mean nothing for the efficacy of libertarian policies or the rightness of libertarianism.  Similar squabbles can happen and have happened among any combination of interests, libertarian or not.  I should know better than to base my approval or disapproval on a dispute that could happen between any two interests.

In fact, I should know better than to base any objection to libertarianism on what I call the "side reasons" I mention above.  I recognize their irrelevance.  Still, I confess that they play a part in my reluctance to identify as a libertarian.