Libertarians

Dana writes about liberals and libertarians. Asking whether liberals can support libertarians, he offers the conventional issue-by-issue approach:

I’m certain that most of my liberal friends who frequent [Liberal Avenger] wouldn’t have much problem with many Libertarian positions on drugs, constitutional rights (though I’d note here that the emergence of campus speech codes were not the products of conservative thinking), immigration, and abortion. But one wonders how they would see the party’s position on gun rights, on taxes, on welfare, and a host of other issues.

If there is one great value to the Libertarian Party, it is that they understand that freedom and the nanny state are incompatible: if the government is going to take care of you, then the government has to have some say, a lot of say, in how you live your life. The Libertarians wouldn’t care if you smoked or ate a lot of fatty foods or used currently illegal drugs. But they also wouldn’t pay to care for you when you got sick or fat or FUBARed on drugs.

The problem with the issue-based thinking is that it presupposes a libertarian view of things. In that view, every government action that isn’t intended to enforce property rights is categorically immoral. Therefore, liberals are good on free speech, gay rights, immigration, abortion, and separation of church and state, but not on taxes, health care, education, welfare, or anti-discrimination laws; and conservatives are the other way around.

Although it’s possible to make a neutral issue-based approach, the libertarian viewpoint has two problems. First, it categorizes issues artificially. Libertarians say liberals agree with them on social issues and conservatives do on economic issues. But in the US, liberals have a better record on budget balancing, which libertarians support, and are not any more protectionist than conservatives (in other countries, the liberal party tends to be the least protectionist in politics); and libertarians agree with conservatives rather than liberals on anti-discrimination laws, which are a social issue.

But more importantly, the libertarian schema leaves out issue emphasis. My list of positions on issues would shed no light about my political tendencies without the accompanying priority scores. This is especially important for libertarians, who arose as a group in opposition to the New Deal rather than Prohibition, who often found themselves defending fascism in the Cold War, and who are now likelier to vote Republican than Democratic. By the way, it’s not just an American phenomenon: the German Free Democrats are now solidly allied with the Christian Democrats rather than the Social Democrats.

The most important thing to know about modern libertarianism is not that it’s capitalistic. Neo-liberalism is just as capitalistic and tends to come to different conclusions on a lot of issues. It’s that it’s anti-empirical. Austrian economics lionizes factless analysis of principles over empirical data; I’ve yet to meet a libertarian who can distinguish “but it works better” realism from totalitarianism.

When Hayek said in The Road to Serfdom that the growth of government spending was a threat to freedom, he had an excuse: at that time there was no evidence to the contrary. But now when the correlation between social and economic scores on the Political Compass is strongly positive and when the liberal approach to taxing and spending has produced higher individual freedom than the conservative approach, to say that is just plain wrong.

Libertarians may think that the nanny state and freedom are incompatible. But liberals realize that unregulated capitalism is incompatible even with the crude conception of freedom, let alone the more refined idea of competencies. The failure of world governments to eradicate smallpox in 1900 even though it was possible to do so would kill 300-500 million people. Private health care is so inefficient that it requires consumers to spend more money out of pocket (in the US, its effect is equivalent to an across-the-board tax hike of 8%). And the only thing robber baron capitalism did was make people like communism.

In response to Dana’s final assertion, all I can say is, liberals don’t care if you smoke or eat junk food or do illegal drugs – at least, the civil libertarians don’t. All they care about is that you don’t kill people via second-hand smoke, or eat junk food because nothing else is available, or do illegal drugs because a drug dealer laced them with addictive substances.

Civil liberties can’t exist without some government enforcement. The freedom of the Internet is only possible thanks to net neutrality. Privacy was nonexistent in Gilded Age company towns. Non-enforcement of equal rights laws leads to nothing but wanton discrimination. Maximal freedom requires government interventions, unless you distort the meaning of the word “freedom” so much you might as well make up a new word.

One Response to Libertarians

  1. double-soup tuesday says:

    As Mr. Burns might say. …Excellent…

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