Reaching Out to the Left

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The Basics

Should libertarians reach out to the Left? Why might it be important? And what approach should we take in doing it?

As libertarians, we have a goal of a freer world. Despite what some might think, the degree of human freedom in a society is not just a function of the type of people in power or the structure of government. It is ultimately a reflection of public ideology. What the average person believes has a great impact on how the state operates and what it does. If the overwhelming majority of Americans were fundamentally opposed to prohibiting drugs, for example, the war on drugs could not persist. If the majority wanted to ban alcohol, it would probably be banned. Government’s tendency is to grow and reach into the areas of life where it will meet the least resistance, including public resistance. It is for this that authoritarian regimes devote considerable attention to propaganda and censorship.

The reason the United States has enjoyed so much domestic freedom, at least compared with many other nations, is the classical-liberal heritage that has been prevalent since the founding. If the vast bulk of North Koreans were Jeffersonians, even their military dictatorship, as formidable as it now seems, would crumble. The people have to acquiesce to the state, however reluctantly, for it to survive. The state is, in the end, constrained by public opinion.

The libertarian movement and libertarian ideology thus have an importance far beyond what can be seen in electoral politics alone. Even when no libertarians win elections, a relatively libertarian culture can prevent the state from expanding as much as it would in the midst of a more statist culture. The extent to which liberals and conservatives accept certain premises of libertarian thought — the concept of private property, the rejection of slavery, the equal rights of people before the law — is reflected in the policies that liberals and conservatives will simply not tolerate and thus in the freedoms that remain for all of us to enjoy.

If we want more liberty, we need more libertarians to help spread these ideas and help them achieve critical mass in popular support. And since a very sizable percentage of the people are on the political Left, that fact alone requires that we try to encourage libertarian principles among left-liberal thinkers and activists. The less libertarian the Left or Right is, the more dangerous for liberty.

Many libertarians have balked at the idea of reaching out to the Left, supposing that the Left is somehow clearly more opposed to libertarian ideas than the Right. But we cannot neglect the need to reach out to the Left. It is true that many libertarians came in from the Right, such as the Goldwater movement more than 40 years ago, and to the extent that conservatives can be reached and convinced of the merits of libertarian principle, that is a great thing and must not be neglected. Even so, reaching out to the Left is in some ways easier than reaching out to the Right, and often does not require any compromise with principle to get a point across, as reaching out to the Right sometimes seems to.

Left, Right, and liberty

Probably most libertarians who deviate considerably from libertarian principle on important issues do so rightward. It is more common to find a libertarian who has a statist blind spot on war or immigration than on Social Security or gun control. But the error of right-wing deviationism goes further than this. Many libertarians, in attempting to embrace limited government, end up defending a government that is hardly limited at all. Since the police and military are the two major functions that many libertarians are happy to leave in the hands of government, they sometimes forget that those agencies constitute the violent-enforcement arm of the state, charged with forcibly implementing the many coercive and socially destructive policies we all oppose. Police brutality, wartime torture, violations of due process, and civilian killings — some of the very worst activities the government is capable of — actually come from the “legitimate” bureaus and offices of the state.

Not only do right-leaning libertarians sometimes unfortunately tolerate the more egregious government activities, they also sometimes confuse the current economic system of corporate privilege and pillaging as some sort of proxy for free-market capitalism. This can lead to a misunderstanding of economic reality, undue sympathy for certain big businesses that actually lobby for and benefit from big government, and a skewed sense of priority concerning which government programs are most destructive to liberty. A classic example is the free marketer who sees food stamps as socialist anathema but does not get so worked up by the multi-billion-dollar military-industrial complex.

The error of right-wing deviationism inspired Murray N. Rothbard, the great libertarian economist, theorist, and historian, to write his classic essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” back in 1965. The essay challenged the fallacy that libertarianism was a conservative doctrine and warned against rightward deviations. He wrote,

Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. As we have seen, Conservatism was the polar opposite of liberty; and socialism, while to the “left” of conservatism, was essentially a confused, middle-of-the road movement. It was, and still is, middle-of-the road because it tries to achieve Liberal ends by the use of Conservative means.

“Conservative means” refers to the political devices and institutions of government — taxation, police, prisons, and all the rest. Indeed, for most of human history, government has been a conservative institution, on the side of reaction, economic privilege, theocracy, patriarchy, and militarism. Means and ends take on great importance in considering the relationship between libertarianism and the Left and Right. As Rothbard saw it,

Socialism, like Liberalism and against Conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, Conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc. Or rather, to be more precise, there were from the beginning two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of Conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State” and the “end of the exploitation of man by man.”

While modern left-liberals favor state-socialist means, which are immoral and socially destructive, they often do have laudable goals, mostly concerning the elevation of the common man. Yet it is a mistake to go too far with that and assume left-liberals are superior to conservatives across the board. Just as there were “two different strands within Socialism,” so too does today’s left-liberal movement have both authoritarian and anti-authoritarian strains. One key to reaching out to the Left is identifying how libertarian or statist a given leftist is.

A discussion with the Left

Some leftists care more about civil liberties than their pet socialist projects. Other leftists are the opposite. Throughout history, many leftists have even defended socialist regimes from Bolshevik Russia to Castro’s Cuba, believing their horrible records on human rights and free speech were worth the supposed benefits of their socialist programs. Others will find that view outrageous. Some left-liberals think even corporate criminals should get due process. Others will say throw away the key.

By asking a few questions, you can often tell whether a left-liberal is more interested in personal freedom and thus a potential convert to libertarianism; or more interested in managerial social democracy, and thus more unshakably devoted to the state. Another good clue is how skeptical he is of government power even when “his” party is at the helm. For all their flaws, many people in the ACLU were relentless in condemning Bill Clinton’s violations of privacy and the Fourth Amendment. Such people have a limited understanding of freedom, but at least they take it seriously and have certain standards regarding civil liberties that they will not capriciously abandon for the sake of partisanship.

Another consideration is just how hostile someone is toward free enterprise: does he think private property is inherently evil, or that markets are mostly just and efficient but just need some smoothing out? One who believes the former probably is less likely to adopt libertarianism than one who believes the latter, who might just need a few lessons on economics to understand that even small doses of socialism are unnecessary and destructive.

Also, a left-liberal who is radically anti-war and anti-police state will often be receptive to libertarian ideas, since he already distrusts the establishment and recognizes that statism can cause very real and significant harm to human beings. The best, and somewhat rare, combination is in a liberal who is much more antiwar and anti-police state than anti-capitalism. This is somewhat rare because, unfortunately, many leftists are more radically anti-authority the more anti-market they are, whereas the ones who are more moderate in their condemnations of free enterprise are often also more tolerant toward empire and the establishment.

When talking to the Left, the best approach, regardless, is to stick to principle. Often leftists are used to deconstructing the hypocrisy of the Right, which claims to be for smaller government but defends Big Brother and gigantic military bureaucracies. By maintaining radicalism and principle, a libertarian can distance himself from such right-wing hypocrisy and prove that his positions come from serious, principled thought and a genuine sympathy for the human victims of state aggression. Sometimes leftists are too quick to assume everyone is a victim, and yet libertarians should never downplay the huge toll big government takes on prisoners, foreign civilians at wartime, and the poor, both directly and by the great opportunity costs that cascade with large government expenditures and the resulting displacement of private-sector wealth generation. Since capitalism does indeed serve the poor as no other economic system does, there is a sense in which the poorest people are the primary victims of the government interventions currently saddling the economy.

No compromise on principle

Given our agreement with many left-liberal goals and some substantive agreement on a lot of issues, it is in fact something of a curiosity that left-liberals and libertarians often have the animosity toward each other that they do. On civil liberties, foreign policy, and indeed some economic issues, there is at least some common ground. Much of the mutual distrust is due to poor communication, and while leftists are not totally innocent of this, we libertarians must make an effort if we want our ideas to spread. This means emphasizing certain points and even rephrasing some of their rhetoric. We can show how liberty involves genuine societal justice. We can appeal to the anti-violence tendency among the pacifist Left and explain how the state’s actions are intrinsically violent or at least predicated on violence. We can explain how big government is an institution of corporate benefits and privilege and show just how damaging that is to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The answer is not, despite what some libertarians say, to compromise our actual principles or to try to meet liberals “halfway” on issues. We need not accept any aspect of the welfare state or cave in to the idea of huge bureaucracies to fight global warming. Some libertarians have called for an alliance with the Left by emphasizing certain personal liberties and downplaying our steadfast opposition to central planning. An irony is that some libertarians advocating more outreach to the Left are themselves actually weak on our best issue for such outreach — foreign policy.

Libertarians sometimes come off as callous and cold, but when speaking with left-liberals, it is easy to stick with principle while demonstrating how much we actually care for the people hurt by the state, many of whom the Left is aware of, but many of whom they’ve forgotten or didn’t know exist. In this sense, when addressing issues ranging from crime to poverty, we libertarians can take the moral high ground that left-liberals are often used to occupying, at least in their own minds, when talking with conservatives.

With just some effort and understanding, libertarians can approach the Left and have huge influence in swaying them on all issues — not just the ones we more superficially agree on, such as war and civil liberties, but indeed on economics and private property as well.

The Issues

Communicating libertarian ideals to the Left can be a challenge, but it can also help bolster our own understanding of our principles. Often, libertarians try to appeal to the Left by emphasizing our areas of agreement, which are conventionally seen as mostly including personal liberties and war. But even when we discuss those issues, it is important that we show how our positions stem from a consistent ideology, and explain to leftists how their own libertarian instincts conflict with their managerial, collectivist ones.

Civil liberties

Classical liberals and modern liberals share a respect for civil liberties, but whereas the libertarian position flows from principles of self-ownership, property rights, and freedom of association, the conventional leftist position on civil liberties is often inconsistent with other leftist positions, and sometimes internally inconsistent as well.

Indeed, the very concept of civil liberties is incoherent without some conception of property rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t include the right to scream obscenities at someone in his own private bedroom while he’s trying to sleep. No one has a right to enter onto someone else’s property for the purpose of prayer without the owner’s consent. No, our freedom to speak, worship, and do with our bodies as we wish is somewhat conditional — it’s bound by private-property rights. That is why questions regarding locker searches and prayer in public schools are so difficult: they do not involve clear property owners, but rather the muddied commons of public property. This is an important lesson to impart to the Left.

Meanwhile, we should show how serious we are about our common ground. Libertarians have done fairly well as it concerns the drug war, leading the reform movement and articulating the idea of self-ownership on the issue of drug use. Some libertarians have complained that we focus too much on the issue, but this is absolutely not true. When hundreds of thousands of people are imprisoned and the Bill of Rights has been ravaged, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the issue. It is also a good way to introduce a left-liberal to the real viciousness of which the state is capable. After all, a state that will put half a million peaceful people in cages where rape and violence are endemic is perhaps not the best organization to promote a humane and caring world. Also, a point can be made about paternalism: A government big enough to provide one health care and other necessities is surely going to have an invasive interest in his lifestyle.

Civil liberties and criminal justice are also opportune issues for explaining the essence of state violence. All political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and that gun tends to be in the hands of a cop. Left-liberals will often distrust police and question the justice of the prison system. Far from taking the conservative stance of defending these institutions, we should use such leftist skepticism as an opportunity to explain how all government programs are ultimately enforced by the police and jails that the Left questions. If leftists are sympathetic to the accused in criminal cases, they should also be less quick to think the worst of anyone accused of regulatory infractions. If they understand the civil-liberties implications and practical futility in banning drugs, they should see the problems with banning firearms. If they think the system is unfair to the disfranchised, they should be reluctant to cheer when tax dodgers are jailed.

This is a great occasion to cause cognitive dissonance in the leftist mindset, which is important in trying to reach out or convert. Demonstrate how leftists’ own values conflict with some of the positions they hold. Ask them how they could have actually supported John Ashcroft’s corrupt Justice Department when it went after Martha Stewart, or District Attorney Rudy Giuliani when he went after junk-bonds venture capitalist Michael Milken. You might be surprised how many left-liberals will concede they really don’t know much about the issue if you politely point out that some of their leftist prejudices seem to conflict with their proclaimed core values of fairness, due process, and civil rights.

Foreign policy

Especially as it concerns nationalist wars of the Bush variety, the Left tends to be better than the Right on foreign policy. This is another opportunity for more education. Why should a leftist who sees how his own democratic government practices murder and torture abroad trust the state to be kind and cuddly at home? And, for those liberals who were soft on Clinton’s wars, why can they trust some politicians to bomb civilians, but not others?

War is actually the classic example of government central planning, and the failures of U.S. nation-building exercises abroad are not so qualitatively different from, or more surprising than, the inability of socialist domestic programs to produce and distribute goods fairly and efficiently. Furthermore, politicians lie and distort reality to promote their wars and exaggerate serious threats to the public safety. If leftists can understand that politicians frequently are dishonest and incompetent when it comes to their one most agreed-upon proper function — protecting their citizens from foreign aggression — then perhaps they should be able to understand that those human flaws and organizational problems apply to domestic policy, too.

Indeed, left-liberals insist that they don’t have to support foreign dictators such as Saddam Hussein to oppose the U.S. government’s intervening against them. And they typically acknowledge just how monstrous such foreign dictators can be. Libertarians can point out how we have the same logic as it concerns other domestic ills, such as corporate greed. Certainly, if government violence and intervention might not be warranted against a true dictator such as Saddam Hussein, there might be some problem with administering government coercion against far more benign characters, such as Bill Gates, even if we don’t like everything they do.

Where foreign policy and economics intersect, the Left is sometimes better than the Right. Many on the Left have been especially critical of the economic interventions against Cuba, Iraq, and other nations in the form of trade sanctions. This is a libertarian insight, whether or not they recognize it. They see the cruelty involved in cutting someone off from voluntary, commercial exchange. It is a matter of life or death for millions of people. This is a great starting point for discussing the importance of trade in the maintenance of civilization and peace. For libertarians only take their opposition to draconian trade restrictions to its logical extreme, opposing any and all violations of the freedom to contract and voluntarily exchange, whether within a country or internationally.


It might come to some as a surprise, but libertarians can make a lot of progress talking to the Left about economics. Unfortunately, such dialogue is often counterproductive. Some of the fault lies with libertarians more intent on attacking the Left than actually persuading them.

First off, it’s important not to come off as insulting. Don’t disgustedly call the left-liberal a “commie” — unless, of course, you want all the leftists to keep believing in the socialism that is so destructive to our economy. If anything, encourage some cognitive dissonance by asking why your liberal friend is such a conservative, defending big government, which is as old and reactionary a political idea as any.

Without empire, the police state and corporate welfare — all of which liberals are at least skeptical about — the government would be much, much smaller and taxes considerably lower. During big wars, especially, conservatives are not particularly better on economics than liberals are, considering how much they want to tax (or inflate) and spend abroad.

But our economic common ground with the Left can actually go further than this. One thing that the Left should understand, but which we need to understand too if we want to explain it, is the profound ways in which big government actually advances big business and tramples over small entrepreneurs, fixed-income earners, and the working poor. An important book by leftist historian Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History (1963), explains how corporate leaders in industry pushed for new regulatory agencies so as to help entrench themselves in a regulated market and bust their competition. This was also true during the New Deal (the head of General Electric was instrumental in the design of Roosevelt’s infamous National Recovery Administration, for example), during the Great Society, and today as well. Often, it is the very interests being regulated who benefit most from the regulation.

One of the greatest big-government tools of corporatism is central banking. By inflating the money supply and giving the freshly printed dollars to its cronies in big banking, big business, and the military-industrial complex, the government effectively redistributes money from the poor and middle class to certain segments of the rich, who get the money first, before prices can adjust. By the time the people lower on the economic ladder get it, prices have gone up. Inflation is therefore a hidden tax and a regressive one at that.

There are other blatant ways big business benefits from big government. Eminent domain has increasingly and famously been used to seize private homes and businesses and give the property to big stores such as Costco. The local governments get more tax revenue and the companies more profits — again illustrating the connection between government power and corporate privilege. Minimum-wage laws and other regulations tend to benefit bigger businesses, which is why such corporate fat cats as the Wal-Mart CEO often favor them. Bush’s prescription-drug program, the biggest expansion in welfare benefits since the Great Society, has also amounted to an explosion of corporate welfare for the pharmaceutical industry.

Environment and education

As for the environment, property rights and the common law were stricter against pollution than the new regulatory bodies favored by big business, starting in the Industrial Revolution, as a way to socialize the costs of pollution all in the name of the “common good.” Moreover, many businesses have jumped on the global-warming bandwagon, recognizing that the regulation of carbon emissions can be hugely profitable for established businesses in the form of subsidies and licensing agreements.

Even public education is potentially a winning issue with the Left, once you expose the history of public schools as instruments of nationalist propaganda and brainwashing and factories for churning out loyal workers, citizens, soldiers, and taxpayers. This is another area where moderate, middle-of-the-road libertarianism is often misguided. Reformist ideas such as school vouchers — which might effectively offer more choice to some parents while doing nothing to cut the government and indeed increasing government intervention into the private-school sector — are often more offensive to left-liberals than the radical idea of separating school entirely from the state, as we do with religion, and for many of the same reasons.

Privatization and free markets

A similar trap comes with advocating the privatization of certain institutions such as Social Security, prisons, and war.

Social Security is a socialist redistribution program that inevitably relies on coercion; thus there is nothing there to privatize. The best thing would be to reduce spending on it, however quickly, until there is no program left, and also to free today’s taxpayers from the payroll-tax burden as quickly as possible. Since Social Security is a regressive tax, left-liberals are sometimes more open to a principled position on it than schemes to “privatize” the program by enacting mandatory savings plans, establishing de facto subsidies for Wall Street, all the while socializing part of the stock market.

The irony is, such seemingly halfway reforms not only often fail to move us toward liberty; they are met with special resistance from the Left, which is particularly skeptical of any plan to hand social democracy over to corporate interests.

As for such things as prisons and war, we shouldn’t push for privatization here, either. A partnership between business and government is not libertarian — indeed, it’s a defining attribute of fascism — and that it might do its job more efficiently does not mean we should favor it. Some government programs are immoral and so we do not want to see them done more efficiently.

The true free market offers real liberation for everyone. The radical decentralism of power that comes with robust property rights means more equality and freedom for workers and less privilege and protection for the corporate elite. It means a fighting chance for the disfranchised. We should never fail to emphasize that.

Often, it is inconsistency or lack of clarity that makes libertarian thought scary to the Left. We should especially be careful not to be hypocrites. Yes, we should praise the glories of the Founding Fathers — but not pretend the Left doesn’t have a real point about the origins of American government as an expansionist and aggressive slave state. Yes, we should champion free markets — but not give a pass to politicians such as Ronald Reagan, whose rhetoric was oftentimes good but whose policies were more often than not horrible for liberty.

All the while, a key is showing the leftist the obvious error of his ways. Confront the nonviolent activist with the violence inherent in gun control. Confront those who claim to speak for the poor with the regressive nature of Social Security and much of big government.

Even if you disagree with me on just how receptive the Left can be to libertarianism, we have no choice but to engage them on these issues. If we want to advance the cause of freedom, we must convince ever more people of its virtues. Many people are on the political Left, and such people tend to be interested in activism and ideas and are especially valuable to the cause of liberty when they finally come around and embrace the consistent libertarian program. Ignoring them is not an option, and belittling them is not a luxury we can afford. We instead must reach out to them, showing the ones most receptive to our ideas that liberty brings social justice, private property brings liberation, and free enterprise is the economic system most compatible with a peaceful world.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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