wherein a right-libertarian sticks a toe in left-libertarianism and finds that the water is fine
Intellectual Honesty compels us to ask a question
Intellectual honesty means a lot to me.
Several opinions that I hold now (anti-anti-trust, anti-death-penalty, anti-abortion) were once anathema to me and I had a list of reasons to justify each…but none-the-less, in support of the virtue of open-mindedness, I decided to confront the best arguments of the other side and see if my opinions could hold up to the facts.
Of course, not every opinion I've held has been changed – sometimes I stumbled into the correct (or, rather, "not yet disproven") opinion early and stuck with it.
Both strike me as very fair-minded, seem to evidence respect for individual rights in the radical way that I usually only see from libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, and are kind in their interactions with those that they don't agree with.
If smart and decent people could adopt a philosophy it behooved me to at the very least investigate it. In short: I decided to read a bit about left-libertarianism.
My first experience was frustrating – what I could read didn't make a whole lot of sense, and I couldn't find anyone who had the time to explain it to me in terms that I could grok.
So I read some more…and it still didn't make sense.
Now, a note: there are two kinds of things that don't make sense:
- pure crap
- things that make sense but use a framework that's a bit more nuanced than the one you're used to.
The problem, of course, is that if you spend too much time thinking about something that turns out to be crap, you just waste some of your precious hours here on the planet.
The other side of the coin is that if you spend too little time thinking about something that might be useful, you never learn that thing, and – worse – you run the risk of pontificating that actually-useful-thing-X is stupid.
Worst of all, there's no way ahead of time to know if you're going to ever reach a decision.
The good news with my attempting to grok left-libertarianism is that I think I finally got an intellectual toe-hold in the idea.
What is left-libertarianism?
First, let us discuss what libertarianism is:
Libertarianism is the group of political philosophies which advocate minimizing coercion and emphasize freedom, liberty, and voluntary association. Libertarians generally advocate a society with significantly less government compared to most present day societies.
There are pedants out there who like to argue for days about definitions. While I am a pedant, I am not that type of pedant; this definition looks pretty good to me.
Now, most of what I associate with the left is the antithesis of this: top-down economic planning, social engineering to destroy the family, either empowerment of the working-class mob to oppress the productive middle class or empowerment of the fringe faux-intellectual elite to oppress the productive middle class, the establishment of thought-crimes laws and the suppression of free speech, etc.
So part of the problem I was having understanding the term "left libertarianism" was that it struck me as a contradiction bundled right in the terminology. It was a crazy nonsense term, like "philo-Semitic Nazi" or "pro-war Nobel Peace Prize winner". Sometimes, though, when words don't make sense, that's because you've got inadequate words. The concept of libertarianism itself was once confusing to me because I didn't understand how one could be against both government incursion in the economic realm and government incursion in the personal realm. The problem, of course, was not in the definition of "libertarian", but in the fact that my thinking was embedded in the terms that I had been handed.
The solution was the Nolan Chart.
So – what is left-libertarianism?
My take on it is that there's a third axis to this chart that we haven't yet teased out. In fact, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other axises we could add to the chart. "Appreciation for classical music" is one such axis. We'll find that where there used to be just four quadrants there are now eight sectors: right wing classicists, right wing modern rockers, libertarian classicists, etc.
This particular axis isn't very useful, so I don't intend to pay attention to it.
Other candidate axises are more interesting. For example "appreciation of nature". Add that axis and we'll find that there are some right wingers who backpack and really want to use social tools that the right endorses (contract law, private property, markets, some limited government parks) to preserve the environment, and other right wingers who would prefer to pave over every patch of dirt so that we can erect skyscrapers which are the truest expression of Roarkian individualism, or something.
Care / Harm
In this particular case, I think that the third axis that we need to add to explain left wing libertarianism is a social axis: "sympathy with business owners" vs "sympathy with workers". Like "appreciation for classical music", this is not an axis that directly leads to policy prescriptions, but it does, I suggest, indirectly lead to a few…but the largest effect is a social effect. Right wing libertarians find it a bit difficult to listen to left wing libertarians because they keep nattering on in odd terms and their focus is often distracted from the "interesting" stuff.
Here's one example of how right libertarians and left libertarians can end up talking about the same policy prescription but do so using different terms and rationales.
A left wing libertarian quiz asks this question
Rich societies should share wealth with producers in poor societies by allowing free entry to the goods and services they produce, rather than imposing trade barriers on them.
which is, for a variety of reasons, hippie nonsense.
This quiz, on the other hand, asks a good sane anarcho-capitalist question:
Are you for free trade?
Except, of course, these are the same question; it's just the social flavor and all the assumptions behind them that differ.
I, for example, think that there should be free trade because no politician has the right to tell me, an American, that I can't trade with some poor Mexican worker…and, as a side effect, both the Mexican and I will be made better off.
The hippie nonsense puts it the other way around: there should be free trade because some poor Mexican worker will be made better off…and, as a side effect, I get to give the finger to some American politician.
Question after question, the left wing libertarians are saying smart things in foolish ways – am I against welfare because it enslaves and belittles inner city blacks? No! I'm against welfare because no one has the right to steal my money…and, as a side effect, I guess, it also encourages a culture of dependency that is soul sucking. Am I against government funding and directing industry because it enriches the connected frat-boy MBA plutocrats (and also wastes a lot of money?). No! I'm against government funding and directing industry because it wastes a lot of money (and also, I guess, enriches the connected frat-boy MBA douche-bags).
So at least a large chunk of the difference between left-libertarianism and right-libertarianism is just phrasing, albeit phrasing that reflects an additional ethical basis that libertarians don't always score high on: care/harm.
In so far as I can currently see, this higher score on the care scale doesn't result in many policy differences.
Sympathy – with "the workers" or with "the bosses" ?
The second thing that seems to separate left-libertarians from right-libertarians is that the former seem to empathize more with "the workers" while right libertarians empathize with "the bosses".
There's a funny thing about Ren Faire geeks: they all love the idea of living in the Middle Ages…and most of them picture themselves living in a castle, having a huge library, having a retinue of servants to do their laundry, etc. Based on the clothing, the posters, and so on, very few women medieval-philes yearn for a world where they get pregnant at 15 and pop out kids every 18 months in between hoeing the garden patch and weaving homespun until they die of cholera at 30.
There's a similar issue in right-libertarians: most of us picture ourselves as captains of industry and not as workers. Ayn Rand wrote about a lot about copper mine owners and train barons, and not much copper miners working 12 hour shifts swinging picks in the dark.
Now, I don't juxtapose these two paragraphs because I've been convinced that they are exactly the same thing: I think that the Middle Ages sucked, in part, because there was no social mobility, no meritocracy, and the incentives were all wrong…and I think that the closer our society gets to a right-libertarian idea, the more there is social mobility, the more there is meritocracy, and the better the incentives are. In anarcho-topia, the pick-axe swinger is free to quit his job, buy his own pick-axe, and start his own copper mine.
…but is it really that easy?
Might there be either social realities or government regulations (even in the night watchman state) that make this hard?
The hard-core right libertarian in me wants to shrug this off. Heck, my own experience starting companies and dabbling in all sorts of minor ventures makes me want to shrug this off.
…but indulge me. Play a game. Do the Ideological Turing Test: explain to me (i.e. to yourself) why, from a left-wing perspective, it's not as easy for a social minority to start a new copper mine, or HTML consulting shop, or deli, as it is for "one of us".
Well, if I put on my left-wing hat, I guess I can be forced to admit that as a kid from the suburbs with an intact family, I learned a few things:
- the value of hard work
- the value of selling myself to clients
- the importance of first impressions
- the importance of socially appropriate clothing
- how to get a bank loan
- the fact that one can get a bank loan
- the importance of showing up on time
- the importance of treating customers appropriately
all of which might be harder for someone with a different background to grok.
Now, if we overreach here we run the risk of engaging in the "bigotry of low expectations" – it is undeniable racist to say "Oh, of course no black person can start a company – those blacks don't know that you have to show up on time".
…but we can express some truths with out overreaching: not everyone has the same "cultural DNA" that allows them to strike out on their own and succeed.
So, that being said, it follows that not everyone has the same suite of potential responses to being in a job they don't like. You or I, with our college degrees, equity in our homes, a panoply of fallback skills, a network of friends who have spare bedrooms we could crash in should worst come to worst, etc. can do something if we work in a copper mine and don't like it: we can quit and start a new firm, or quit and get a new job.
Yes, a black person, or a recent Hispanic immigrant, or an Appalachian white with a 9th grade education, etc. can do these things too, and tons of members of these groups have done exactly this…but that does not mean that it's equally easy for them.
As a right wing ancap, I deeply dislike the government getting in bed with industry. Most of my ire is aimed at traditional Democratic boondoggles: bailing out GM to buy off the unions and purchase votes for Obama with taxpayer dollars, pouring money down the Solyndra rat-hole ( showers with liquid crystal displays in them, anyone?), wind-farm idiocy, and on and on and on.
…but there is plenty of red state crony capitalism too: vast subsidies for the corn farmers of Iowa where we pay people to make terrible crappy fuel that destroys small engines and puts more carbon in the air for less miles driven.
I disagree with the Occupy Wall Street folks on just about everything, starting with culture, moving on to bathing, and running the gamut from there.
…but I've listened to their complaints, and it's becoming more and more clear to me that huge swaths of our economy are "too big to fail" institutions that are artificially pumped up by the government, and then kept running no matter how many bad decisions they make. Left-wing libertarians are better than right-wing libertarians at pointing these out: from the mortgage industry to the big banks to Hollywood (with the insanely long-term copyright laws that have been written just for it) to Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffet supporting high taxes but then using every loophole in the book to avoid them for his friends and cronies, and on and on and on, it's clear that huge swaths of our so-called "private" sector are deeply in bed with the government and have laws written at their behest that insulate them from their own bad decisions.
So, continuing with our Ideological Turing Hat firmly in place, we might not reach for our "if they don't like it they can quit" stick quite so quickly and express some sympathy with them. My point here is not that we should quickly reach for the typical left-wing solutions of school breakfasts, more after school programs, and racially discriminatory college admissions that funnel minority students into useless majors like "African studies" – the left-libertarian does not, and we should not either. My point is, instead, to merely create some sympathy.
Now, with this sympathy, how might our view on the political economy differ? True, if we were being perfectly logical Vulcans before, the mere act of sympathizing should not change our thoughts on political economy – our opinions were arrived at by pure reason, and should not be changed by gross feelings, eh?
…and yet, I, a bastard as heartless as any other, do find that when I approach things like this, my viewpoint does, in fact, shift a bit.
If I put on my "single black mother with a high school degree" hat and am asked to start listing annoyances, indignities, and structural barriers, I can rattle off a bunch:
- perhaps I work at a factory, and I find it demeaning that I'm given a demerit if I'm even five minutes late, despite the fact that my daughter was sick that morning
- perhaps I take the bus to work, and the buses clump up: instead of one every 15 minutes, I get two back to back, and then nothing for 30 minutes
- perhaps my foreman at the factory, with seniority and lifetime tenure, talks down to me and seems to positively delight in sticking me on the one machine I don't like
- perhaps when I complain to his boss, he's too concerned about the paperwork on his plate to do anything about it – he knows that I'm replaceable
- perhaps I attended an event by a local bank on starting my own small company, but it turns out that hair braiding requires 500 hours of classroom time
- perhaps despite this, I started a small company and then I got a threatening letter from Disney because I used a painting of Mickey Mouse in the window of my shop
- perhaps when my business folded I wanted to go back to my old job, but the factory had moved out to the suburbs and the city bus-line doesn't run there.
Again, we right-libertarians have answers to all of these problems: if you don't like it, leave. If you don't understand copyright and trademark law, then just use Wikipedia to learn more. If you can't get a loan, then you don't deserve a loan.
…but none of these address the core problems that left-libertarians and other leftists raise.
Leftists of various stripes (left-libertarians, anarcho-syndicalists, etc.) come back again and again to "the bosses". I suppose that I've never been deeply upset by bosses because I've always had half-way decent bosses, and I've always found it easy to get a new job. Clearly "the bosses" are a bigger problem for people with bad bosses or with no ability to change their bosses. Heck, even a UAW worker making an obscene amount of money can't take his salary with him if he leaves a company – his salary is tied deeply to his employer, and not to his market value. What must it be like to have a bad boss? It occurs to me that since we are so much social animals, that part of the problem with having a boss is not just in having a bad boss, but in the very nature of having a boss. A very skilled, very well paid friend told me recently that he was told that he "had" to work over the weekend. Having been self-employed for over a decade now, I found this a little hard to wrap my head around. If I was told that I "had to" do something, it'd be hard to keep the words "go fuck yourself" from exploding from my lips.
There is something in human nature, yes, that likes a hierarchy.
…but there is also something in human nature that despises a hierarchy that is too close, or too micro-managing.
I don't mind receiving my just deserts for my labor, or for my sloth (run your own business and you'll see this).
I don't even mind receiving deserts that come from an unlucky roll of the dice (run your own business and you'll see a lot of this).
What would gall me, though, is someone telling me that I had to change my weekend plans.
My friend, despite having a salary that is probably twice mine, and far fewer headaches and fears about bank loans and such, tells me at least once a week "I envy you; you're your own man".
Let's get back to the c4ss.org quiz. There's this question:
Self-employment or work as a member of a cooperative or partnership is generally preferable to working for a boss, all other things being equal.
This, I think, is the final major bit of the distinction between right-libertarians: the left-libertarian has a deep appreciation that it is more fully human to chart your own path. This is, of course, a radical anti-American – no, I'm joking. It's just Jefferson's concept of "yeoman farmer" in the 21st century.
Many left-wing market anarchists embrace Georgism, thinking that there is something special about land, or think that legitimately owned resources that are not currently being used in production can be morally expropriated, and I find this not only morally dubious (at best) but also harmful to maximizing total utility (if I can't keep a factory in reserve against market fluctuations, then I am forced to run it at some minimal level in order to keep the squatters at bay, and that costs money and destroys overall societal utility).
I think I've identified four ways that left-libertarians differ from right-libertarians, and that Left-wing market anarchism differs from right-wing anarchocapitalism:
- moral basis: an emphasis on care/harm
- social basis: sympathy with "the workers"
- economic basis: greater emphasis on how large swaths of the "free market" are really crony capitalism
- self-fulfillment basis: an acknowledgement of how individual autonomy is necessary for dignity and achievement of "the good"
I find that a lot of the cultural baggage of the left is still deeply distasteful to me: if I met a white kid in dreadlocks named "Starfinder" who wanted to know if I had any weed he could borrow while he told about how "The Man" is responsible for the fact that his ska band still hasn't recorded their first album, I'd be have a greater desire to borrow a cop's truncheon to beat him with than I would have to invite him over to my house for coffee.
…but on policy prescriptions, criticism of crony capitalism, and thoughts on self-fulfillment, I find that there's not a lot of light in between my views and what I take to be those of left-wing market anarchists.