Libertarianism and the Left
by Anthony Gregory
by Anthony Gregory
I recently wrote an article about how the left will, someday, regain dominance in America, and how it's up to those of us not on the left to do all we can to make this as good, and not bad, for liberty as possible. I dared to say that the modern left has the potential to be more libertarian than the modern right, and I even gave some suggestions for the left to succeed on a mildly classical liberal agenda.
For a long time, libertarians have looked at the left as if they were highly contagious lepers suffering from acute kleptomania. The left was the threat to freedom, against which we had to conserve the established, supposedly free order. But as the government has continued to grow — indeed, at an accelerated pace and in belligerent, imperialist ways — under Republicans and conservatives, it has become clearer to at least some libertarians that what the right now seeks to conserve is not liberty at all. I would go further and say that for a long time our tacit alliance with the right has been wrong-headed, and that many, if not most, conservatives have been for years mainly concerned with conserving the state, including its proclivity to expand.
Russell Kirk said that conservatives believe in the "permanent things." Insofar as traditional institutions can be conserved by the American right against encroachment from the state — insofar as the right sees the state and their traditions as being at odds with each other — the rightist inclination to conserve social order and combat statist encroachment is a wonderful, libertarian disposition.
However, in our country the state has done nothing but grow, kill, maim and gobble up more resources, all at a fairly steadily increasing rate since the 1950s. The Cold War and then the War on Terror, embraced nearly as ends in themselves by the American right, have together marked the post-World War II conservative movement as one of enthusiasm toward the warfare state, excitement about the police state, and a most unhelpful attitude ranging from a passive disingenuous opposition towards, to an outright acceptance of, the welfare state.
The "permanent things" of the modern conservative movement are not only family, church and community: they also include U.S. militarism, perpetual (permanent) U.S.-imposed Wilsonian global revolution, and domestic leviathan. These last three features of the modern American state are the ones that today's conservatives devote most of their energy into conserving. Whether they always have been is up to debate. That they are now is beyond question.
The American left, I daresay, shows more promise for embracing liberty, at least at this point in time. In response to my last article, I received e-mails from self-described liberals who only confirmed what I suspected.
One leftist said we need to get the government to obey the Bill of Rights and do nearly nothing else.
Another said he used to favor gun control, but now realizes that government can't be trusted to monopolize weapons. He supports the unqualified right of all people not convicted of violent crimes to acquire guns without restrictions.
Yet another said that he liked libertarianism, and agreed with most of it, though he would prefer to keep a few more government "safety nets" intact than would we.
These positions, while not the libertarian-anarchist ideal, are definitely more libertarian, and coincide with a freer society, than the status quo.
These e-mails were consistent with my experience at Berkeley. Perhaps no town in America better exemplifies the American left, and has all subspecies of the left represented. I know self-described Maoists, left-anarchists, green-anarchists, socialists, social democrats and all the rest. Many of them are rascals, ignorant of economics and history, or wannabe tyrants. And you know what? You'll find such people in the conservative movement, too, and even in the libertarian movement.
However, a good number of leftists are surprisingly libertarian-leaning. The Maoist I'm thinking about told me his favorite Congressman is Ron Paul. Now, is this symptomatic of Dr. Paul being a Maoist? No. It's simply that the Maoist has a gut feeling that Paul is more honest, principled, and determined to oppose the worst excesses of the government than any of the other Congressmembers. The Maoist doesn't understand enough about the world to stop believing in Maoism, or to stop thinking he believes in Maoism, which no one really believes anymore, anyway.
This Maoist guy isn't really a Maoist, of course. I mean, come on. I asked him if his ideal state would do anything to stop voluntary transactions that resemble capitalism that happened to emerge despite his worker's paradise. He said he'd do nothing. He'd let them do business in peace. Now, perhaps he, like most people, would change his tune if he were ever in a position of power. But he's not really advocating Maoism, even if he, quite unfortunately, identifies himself with the name of that mass murderer.
These days, a good number of radical leftists have no particular attachment to Marx or his murderous disciples, and really do seek a voluntary society. They just don't understand why it is that people go to work everyday, why we have businessmen and entrepreneurs, and why central planning will always fail.
I have a left-anarchist friend who does understand this. He believes in free markets and voluntary cooperation as the most tolerable and moral economic methods of exchange. He dislikes "capitalism" by name, but he votes against all bond initiatives, distrusts government (he's an anarchist, remember?) and is opposed to any state regulation of the marketplace. He doesn't like Social Security, the FDA, or income taxation, he agrees with most of the libertarian historical revisionism I espouse, and he has nothing but contempt for FDR and Bill Clinton. He is somewhat pacifistic, and yet he opposes gun laws (he understands quite well that gun laws require violence to enforce). He doesn't love all big corporations, but he sees monopoly as a creature of the state, not something to be combated through ridiculous anti-trust regulation. He is a libertarian. But he's a leftist, too.
I'm not trying to whitewash the left here. These guys have plenty of villains among them. But today's American leftists — not the Democratic establishment, but those intellectuals that read and think outside the box — do seem to have more of an anti-authoritarian strain than the modern right.
Let's think about atrocities. It's of course important to emphasize the tragedies, wars and imperialism that have resulted from aggressive left-statism put to practice. The Communists murdered something like 100 million people in the 20th century. No one else can touch that record of mass slaughter.
But how many leftists in America, aside from the few-and-far-between self-proclaimed "Maoists," defend these killers? How many radical leftists, these days, do you hear championing Stalin and Pol Pot? Maybe a tiny number, not many times greater than the number of idiots who actually believe Hitler was a great man.
On the other hand, how many conservatives defend Truman's dropping of the atomic bomb? Or Nixon's carpetbombing of Cambodia? Or Bush-Clinton-Bush's war on Iraq? How many hundreds of thousands — millions — of victims of the US warfare state have been effectively dehumanized by the modern right's infatuation with the glories of American empire?
The left is, I daresay, less pro-mass murder than the modern right. This alone should complicate any case to be made that libertarians have more in common with the right.
I've also made a good amount of progress talking to leftists on the gun issue. If guns are power, they belong in the hands of the people, I say. Bush rule has further strengthened the case for gun rights in many leftists' minds. As one social democrat friend told me, when you can't trust elections, maybe assault weapon bans aren't a great idea. This is revolutionary thinking, and it seems to fit in with the logic of the radical left as well as any other civil liberties issue.
Central banking? You can't trust the banking oligopoly to control the money supply. This isn't necessarily "conservative" reasoning. Introducing free markets in an area in which we've had no economic liberty for ninety years isn't a "conservative" proposal: it's radical, as are free markets in general.
Yes, it is true that the left is laughably, tragically, and at times inconceivably confused about economics. But so too is the right. Protectionism, taxation, mild redistributionism — these are not leftist principles anymore; they are mainstream ideas accepted by nearly everyone, especially in the center.
Let's think again about how libertarians, by and large, viewed leftists about ten years ago. These were the guys who believed in socialist healthcare and welfare, and so they must be opposed.
We already have Social Security, government schools, and Medicare. The right does not appear the least bit more opposed to them, in principle, than the left. Indeed, I've made good progress with leftists on these issues, stressing the ways in which they hurt the poor and needy for the benefit of the ruling class. To the extent that the conservatives understand this and yet do nothing about these evils when they are in the power to do so, they cannot plead economic ignorance as can the naïve left. No, the more intelligent among the modern right embrace or at least accept these evils despite their understanding of their destructive nature. When a leftist realizes something is wrong, he usually opposes it. If conservatives do in fact understand that government intervention in the economy is wrong, they have an awful lot of explaining to do.
On education, a bunch of my leftist friends took a class coordinated by students on campus about our authoritarian education system, inherited from the right-wing Prussian regime. You knew what the assigned reading was? John Taylor Gatto, libertarian hero and opponent of mandatory education. I'm serious, here. I know lots of leftists who are Gattoian on education. Of course, most leftists aren't — but most of them haven't been exposed to these ideas yet.
Corporate crime? I was in a class, filled with leftists, about the history of the criminal justice system. Someone made some snide remark about how corporate criminals deserve more severe sentences in prison. I pointed out the immorality and outrage of the US prison system, and how no one deserves to be sentenced to rape in a cage. The room went quiet. They began to realize that CEOs — even crooked ones — deserve some dignity in a civilized society. I also told the class that I didn't believe in racial profiling, which is why we shouldn't necessarily assume the DC sniper at large at the time was white. A week later, I was proven right, of course.
Martha Stewart? Just tell the left the details of the case, and point out that this is John Ashcroft's Justice Department that has persecuted her, after all. Some leftists really do hate the jailed rich woman more than the state. They can't be reached. Others soon realize that they shouldn't always call on or trust the $2.5 trillion federal government, characterized by global warfare and brutal drug-law enforcement, to judicially combat the allegedly unfair accumulation of wealth.
Indeed, leftists seem more willing to rethink government altogether when it is explained in terms of coercion, force, violence, and a power struggle between the voluntary sector and the political class. I've seen leftists rethink everything in one conversation. They like ideas, principles, and philosophy. Many conservatives do, too, of course, but these days most of them seem completely uninterested in arguments that the Iraq war has abrogated the natural rights of Iraqis, interfered with private sector savings and capital investment, or violated their beloved Constitution.
Many liberals I've talked to want to keep their favorite destructive government programs more than they are enthused about adding new ones. But they want to cut the military, shut down the empire, gut the police state, and maybe even reduce the tax burden for the average income-earner. What do conservatives want to cut, seriously? They seem to be more interested in adding to government than subtracting. Neoconservatives want total global hegemony. Even many paleoconservatives, despite their good ideas on many issues, think that the answers to many cultural and economic problems are more restrictions on trade, a federal war on indecency, and a military presence all along the borders to keep out immigrants. This reveals more than a belief in the moral rightness of the state: it shows that conservatives think the state can achieve their conservative goals.
Many establishment libertarians have even supported the war in Iraq and aspects of the post-9/11 surveillance state. As painful as it is to say, there are plenty of leftists that are more libertarian than many self-described libertarians — and certainly if we count the most hawkish "let's-nuke-the-Arab-world-and-let-Ayn-sort-it-out" Randians in our analysis.
I would bet that, at this moment, the average liberal's ideal government would be smaller and less harmful to liberty than the model state of the average modern conservative.
It might sound nuts, but I think it's true.
Many liberals have also come around to decentralization, albeit for reasons that are mixed in their implications for liberty. Some liberals want to be able to regulate energy companies locally and more vigorously without federal interference. But many are also coming around to realize that when John Ashcroft, from his office 3,000 miles away, can deploy armed agents in battle fatigues to shut down locally legalized facilities that dispense a locally legalized plant — a plant that grows ever so easily, and hence is referred to as "weed" — a plant that has been used as medicine for thousands of years and is now decriminalized statewide for use by the very sick and nearly dying, the entire concept of a nationalized central state that determines the choices of a quarter billion people is, to say the least, a little flawed. I have a leftie friend who believes in some local government welfare, but "absolutely no federal taxes." That's not too bad, compared to what we have.
Who wants to be left alone more these days, the left or the right? Who's more likely to leave others alone, including others in foreign lands?
Yes, the left needs to understand economics better — much, much better — which is all the more reason we must try to explain to them the wonders of markets and the perils of the state. Some leftists, though certainly not all, are coming around to adopting the second component — distrust of the state — and many are even beginning to understand that, in the end, the state is much more of a threat to them than Wal-Mart. And insofar as Wal-Mart doesn't play by the rules of the free-market, using eminent domain and so forth, it is worth criticizing. The left and libertarians have in common an opposition to state capitalism, something that is defended, even celebrated, on the right.
I have made much progress with my leftist radical friends, and have gotten them to promise me that if they ever do embrace capitalism and markets that they will retain their antiwar, anti-authoritarian radicalism and become libertarians, rather than retain their fondness for central management and thereby become neoconservatives, which is what many leftist radicals do once they start making good money. I think most of them will keep their word, and I suspect they will smell the free-trade coffee eventually. We need to get through to as many leftists as we can, for a leftist-activist-turned-libertarian is a glorious thing; a leftist-turned-establishment-conservative is the kind of monster currently calling the shots in the most respected policy foundations, and bankrupting America with its crazed schemes for worldwide Trotskyite-state-capitalist-social-democratic imperialism.
It might be said that the left is only better now because they're out of power. Well, I say we convert as many as we can now that they've been enlightened a little about the evils of the federal government. And from the looks of it, even if the Democrats take over, I don't think the left will be quite as complacent and accommodating of Democratic rule as the right has been in respect to Bush. I doubt we'll see many books advertised in leftist magazines extolling the divine personal intimate relationship between Howard Dean and God Himself, for one thing.
I have a socialist friend I talk to from time to time. He doesn't understand economics and clings onto the reactionary labor theory of value. But he doesn't trust the U.S. empire, and is open to discussing anything seriously. He and I have very similar views on the history of America's wars, though they're certainly not identical.
After Ohio was called for Bush, I was a little sad about the whole thing. I'm a libertarian, through and through, and not a partisan hack for the Democrats in any sense. And yet, I couldn't help but root against Bush, along with most my friends.
I told my socialist buddy that I was disappointed that Bush won, to which he replied, "It doesn't matter. The two parties are the same, anyway."
A more moderate liberal in the room protested, saying that Bush was a warmonger.
To which my radical leftie friend replied, "Oh yeah. The peace-loving Democrats. The only party in the world ever to drop a nuclear bomb on civilians."
I'm telling you. There's some potential there, I can sense it.
January 6, 2005
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.
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