Friday, December 14, 2007

On Liberty, Libertarians and Liberal doses of irony.

Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute wonders aloud what makes a Libertarian these days.

Liberty - Am I a Libertarian?


Am I a libertarian? I call myself one, but some people hotly deny that I have a right to do so. Which raises the question: what's in this particular name? Who deserves the "libertarian" label, or who deserves to be stuck with it?

Lindsay differs with me on many significant issues, but our positions are still within what I would consider "liberty-first" politics. Possibly in part because I do not hang out at the Cato Institute, my problem is not so much that I'm told I'm "Not a REAL Libertarian" as that I'm often accused of being a Liberal.

Lindsay elucidates:

The people who contend that I don't deserve to call myself a libertarian argue that some of my political views are un-libertarian. Specifically, I support military action against Iraq, a position that has put me at odds with many (though by no means all) of my fellow libertarians, including the foreign policy scholars at the Cato Institute. And the disagreement goes beyond Iraq: although I am by no means a knee-jerk interventionist, I do believe that sometimes the projection of American military power abroad is necessary to safeguard American lives and advance American national interests.

Meanwhile, on the domestic policy front, I hold a range of views that many self-described libertarians consider to be, for lack of a better word, heretical. I support some types of health, safety, and environmental regulation, as well as tax-funded spending programs to aid the needy, educate the young, and ease the burden of economic dislocation. That is not to say that I support anything like today's regulatory and welfare state; on the contrary, I favor a dramatic retrenchment in government spending and controls. But I do not believe that the "minimal state," much less anarchy, is the desirable end point of reform.


I have to agree - minimally - with the first paragraph. I have only supported action in Iraq when I had reason to believe that the evidence given were factual, and the conclusions supposedly drawn from those facts had some connection with reality. Even then, I had serious doubts as to whether the concerns mentioned were best addressed in that way.

I supported the idea of a punitive invasion of Afghanistan - but I'll admit that was a visceral, rather than a reasoned political stance, and I tend to think that was and continues to be either the whole case or a significant bias for most people who continue to support the wider war. Be that as it may, I try not to abuse my philosophy to rationalize my actions after the fact. I still believe that ridding the world of anyone who ascribes to Taliban values is just an inherently good thing. I'm a bit more iffy on my responsibility to pay for the operation, or the prognosis for a successful surgery.

But no mistake - I LIKE the idea of turning fanatics into fertilizer. I liked it then, I still like it now. Still, charity begins at home, as the saying goes.

Perhaps it would be best if we concentrated on our own domestic sources of terror and stupidity. The Seven Hundred Club, Fox News and the Domnionist fifth column within the stupefied shell of the Republican party, for there is no greater foe to individual liberty than those who believe in imposing their wackadoodle idea of the Kingdom of Heaven upon us all.

The only reason these people are NOT detonating car bombs is because they have been quite successful in gaining control by means short of violence. But nothing in their nature, philosophy or doctrine precludes that option, as the popularity of the "Left Behind" series of religious pornography should chillingly illustrate.

But I digress.

Here's where Lindsay's essay becomes compelling and in many ways amplifies and clarifies my own thinking on the matter.

The root of the problem is that there are two very different libertarianisms jostling uneasily together under a common label. Call the first one radical or utopian, and the second pragmatic or reformist. Though they tend to generate broadly similar answers to many current policy questions, their philosophical underpinnings are miles apart.

The radical libertarian vision starts with an abstract ideal: a polity in which government's sole function is to protect individual rights to life, liberty, and property. A "true" libertarian, in this view, is someone who upholds this ideal as the summum bonum. True libertarians may get their hands dirty in the real world and advocate incremental reforms, and they may even be coy about their long-term hopes, but when pressed they must declare their allegiance to the ideal. Any deviation from the ideal, any support for any extension of government's proper role beyond rights protection, is seen as impure and compromised. Such deviations represent concessions to statism; they "open the door" to relentless and limitless expansion of Leviathan.

Pragmatic libertarianism, on the other hand, starts with the status quo in all its wretched messiness. Reformists share with their radical confreres a moral commitment to the sanctity of individual rights, and a deep appreciation of the fertility of competition and the limits of centralized control. But reformists apply their principles in a very different way: not as blueprints for an ideal society, but as guides to incremental reform. As to the precise outlines of an ideal society they are agnostic or even indifferent. For them the goal is expanding the real-world frontiers of liberty, not spinning utopias.
Indeed. And it's something of a frustration to me as to how many Libertarians advocate ideas - particularly in the realm of private property - that have the net effect of reducing liberty.

Reformist libertarians eschew utopianism, not because they are less intellectually rigorous than their radical cousins, but because they are more intellectually rigorous. A utopia of pure rights protection, upon careful scrutiny, turns out to be a will-o'-the-wisp. Let's start with examining one niggling little problem: that full-fledged protection of property rights is incompatible with industrial civilization. In the normal common law of property, we are able to enjoin trespassers from coming onto our property, even if their trespass causes us no tangible harm. If I own a 5,000 acre spread, and my neighbor makes a daily practice of stepping onto one far corner of it, I can go to court and get an injunction ordering him to stop it. So if that same neighbor runs a factory that sends effluents into the air over my spread, I should be able to stop that, too. I shouldn't have to prove that it constitutes an "unreasonable" nuisance; I shouldn't have to prove that it imperils my health; the only thing that should matter is that there is a trespass on my property that I don't like. Which means that all it takes is one property-owning green zealot per airshed to shut down the whole economy.

It's not the illustration I would have chosen, given I have a broad Green stripe within my native conservatism. It is, however, an intuitive and accurate illustration of one very apt criticism - that doctrinaire Libertarianism amounts to the assumption of the right to be an asshole with total impunity.

Aside from the question as to whether that's a legitimate ideal - good luck with the "impunity" part. In the case illustrated above, the problem goes away when those property rights are transferred to someone sensible, so no doubt, at a last resort, that happy outcome would be facilitated by one means or another, regardless of the ideological, moral, ethical or legal purity of the action. All of these necessary limits on individual action can be trumped by sheer necessity. I believe "don't be an asshole" is as needful a concept as "non-initiation of force."

And this leads us, of course, to the most valid critique of absolutist Libertarianism, where no valid Commons is admitted to exist.

The starting point of this critique is of course The Tragedy of the Commons - but I will bravely take the observation a step further - that without a broadly accessible commons sustained by broad, common social investment, liberty is constrained to being a moot point, with every Libertarian trapped within the bounds of their own heavily fortified castle. Indeed, the more one has to lose, the more one has to defend against those who need or want and do not have, the more obviously true this becomes.

When it is not just preferable, but the only reasonable course to live in a gated community with private guards and to have an armored vehicle for those rare times when one ventures forth, it is the antithesis of Liberty. When your insurance carrier informs you that your continued coverage depends upon taking such steps as mentioned above, one has lost any meaningful pretense of self-determination.

I've come to the conclusion that meaningful liberty exists only when freedom of action is as little dependent upon or constrained by wealth, power, influence or circumstance. Therefore, I must concede that in every cases where the liberty of another individual is transgressed, I must take it very personally indeed. The concept of Liberty is not conditional. If I wish to be free, I cannot accept freedom that only exists so long as my actions either do not offend or come to the attention of someone who might wish to curtail or punish my actions.

Any group, person or government that acts in that way is a direct and most personal threat who simply hasn't noticed me yet. The simplest expression is this: if they do not respect the rights and liberties of people on the current shit list, that means that their only definition of "respect" is "not on my shit list right now."

I rudely reject the right of our government - or ANY government - to arrogate unto themselves the right to pick and choose which citizens, which taxpayers, indeed, which individuals of any provenance, to respect and accord the inalienable human rights recognized in our Constitution.

The clue-by-four responsible for this insight was twenty years living in Canada where, despite my best efforts and intentions, I ran into a perfect storm of circumstance and emergent mental disability that forced me first to resort to welfare and later, after having my nose rubbed further in my embarrassing incapacities, to apply for and gain full disability status.

This was far easier than my dignity found comfortable. Indeed, embedded within that process were assays and tests that said that I really ought to be gibbering and twitching rather more than I was. I took that as a sort of backhanded complement, actually.

However, this brings me to the point of the matter. In the Canadian system, both welfare and disability (which, by the way, are the same system with a difference in criteria for different people) are designed to support people while encouraging and toward independence, or (in the case of the disabled) to achieve as much as possible toward becoming functionally independent, with as little support as needed, with the sure knowledge that if you do need it, suddenly, it's immediately there.

And that is an understanding that every Canadian has in the back of their mind - that if everything in their life goes pear-shaped, they will be able to walk into a welfare office and get help - and they will be treated with dignity and the assumption that, obviously, everything in their life went pear-shaped despite their best efforts.

The beauty of the Canadian governmental and social philosophy is first, that if it comes to help you, it is trained and equipped to do so in an arguably professional way, actually feels an obligation to achieve positive results, and best of all, will actually go away if you decline their help, even if that's the most amazingly stupid course of action imaginable. The only exception is, literally, when you present an obvious and immediate danger to yourself or others.

The equivalent systems in the US are essentially designed to prevent the disabled from achieving anything, or being of any use to anyone, enforced by a bureaucracy who's prime mandate is to assume that all clients are lying all the time, with a paperwork burden on clients that is unreasonable to expect of the inarguably sane and fully functional.

Welfare is even worse. Both systems are designed explicitly to shame those in need of their services, and make the fact that those services are needed conspicuous to other citizens. Food Stamps, for instance, are an exercise in public humiliation at the checkout line.

It strikes me that even those who think using tax money for welfare is unconscionable, that it should be obvious that using welfare to humiliate and dis empower peoople an even worse use of government money than just giving it to people. It's the use of money as a form of force to abuse people for the sake of trying to effect a social change on an individual level.

The Canadian model, on the other hand, effectively employs people on disability and welfare to contribute to the volunteer community - which is much broader and more effective than in the United States - and also as the most cost-effective means of putting money to work within economically depressed communities.

That is to say, direct welfare to individuals replaces a great deal of corporate and intergovernmental welfare and transfer payments, relying on the fact that poor people must spend their money and have a compelling incentive to spend it as efficiently as possible, while being structurally required to spend it within their own communities.

And if this means that a largish number of people must seek alternate employment or resort to welfare, rather than depending on a middle-management government or not-for-profit sinecure - is that not all to the good? Those who are unsuited for any other employment will at least be paid less - and not detract so greatly from the end result.

You will not find many conspicuous urban slums in Canada - but it's not due to any "slum clearance" policy. And, as as side-effect, there are few, if any places a wealthy or well-known person would need to take security if they wished to go there.

Canada has neither large standing armed forces or a huge and hugely expensive prison system, which serve in the United States as politically acceptable alternates to a proper, fiscally responsible, concern for the actual welfare of individual Citizens.

It occurs to me that the reason why Canada is, paradoxically, a freer and more open society is due to the fact that they value the dignity and liberty of the individual without trying to directly assign a dollar value to it - that they consider each and every citizen part of and inherently entitled to the commons that is Canadian society as a whole. And yet, if you walk around any Canadian city and compare it to any US city of the samish size with a similar economy, you will be unavoidably drawn to the conclusion that it's a freer, safer and far wealthier city, when measured in terms of individual quality of life, freedom of movement, association, etc.

Canada has a pragmatic realization that even in the minority of cases where welfare is supporting those who are simply a waste of space, that the cost of doing so is painlessly spread, rather than directly, catastrophically impacting random individuals through theft and violence.

It's certainly not a traditional Libertarian approach, much less the ideal of either social OR economic conservatives. But Canadian Conservatives DO run the numbers and are persuaded by them, even when they must clench their teeth and admit that theory and practice seem to differ. Rather than overturn these adventures in Socialism, they pragmatically made them cost-effective, and supportive to both society and business.

It seems obvious to me that certain social costs are unavoidable. The only choice is in what coin we will pay, and how those costs will be distributed. In the case of the United States, because we have an unwholesome and entirely negative view of poverty and it's root causes, we spend about as much time, money and effort not helping people as other nations do on helping them because we refuse to admit that there will always be some number of people in any population that due to various factors that cannot be reasonably controlled, predicted or completely prevented, will be incapable of full independence.

By one means or another - subsidy or crime - they will do their best to survive with the tools they have, and it matters very little what moral censure or social engineering we direct against them. If they could change, they already have more than enough motivation to do so without piling insult upon incapacity.

Furthermore, our approach to poverty in general is isolative, effectively forcing the poor into ghettos where they have no contact with "real people." This of course makes any talents and virtues they might have utterly inaccessible to the culture as a whole. That, aside from being moderately evil is conspicuously stupid, particularly in a nation where the vast majority of our citizens are a paycheck away from feeling lucky to have a place to live in a ghetto.

Rhetorical question: What is the most common cause for bankruptcy and job loss? The answer, of course, is "Medical Expenses." And that's even in the case where people have medical insurance.

In civilized nations, it's recognized that universal health care with minimal hassle and expense is a universal concern, and therefore, it's a reasonable thing for government to be doing, so that the risks and expenses are distributed as widely as possible and the expenses shared across the whole of the economy.

There are many different ways to go about doing it, some work better than others, but there is no reasonable argument that can counter the evident positive results contrasted with the results of our own, equally expensive, non-performing system.

Indeed, I would argue that it's one of the few really obvious government mandates, now that it is inarguably both economically and practically possible to address the issue at all. If things that may become a critical threat to any citizen at any time are NOT something our governments are concerned with, what the hell are we paying them for?

My final thought is that Liberty cannot be and must not be ever considered to be conditional on any standard of "ought" or "should." I could construct an ethical argument, both long and compelling, but I'll short-cut it as being moot.

No system or philosophy of government or social organization that let a theoretical ideal of a proper citizen trump the reality of the variable nature of people has ever long survived, much less prospered.

Visit any nation which has fallen into domination by religious fanaticism of any stripe. Or consider, if you will, the track record of equally fanatical secular movements such as Maoism or Marxism.

Liberty, in order for it to be Liberty, requires that Liberty exist for all, that it never be conditional on wealth, privilege, access to power or politically correct behavior - save the necessary restrictions on interpersonal and mob violence we all have an inherent right to protect ourselves against and therefore must be the most fundamental duty of government to ensure.

We must all be free to make mistakes and we deserve government that values and encourages people exploring the limits of liberty to see what of interest may be found. This encouragement of creative ferment and a toleration of those who try and fail also creates a context where more successes occur in an absolute sense - simply by empowering people to take the risk in the first place.

It may seem counter-intuitive that a libertarian goal of maximizing freedom for all may actually require some approaches common to socialism - but in the end, it's not the means, but the end that makes a society what it is.

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