Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Rose by Any Other Name

Am I really a liberal Democrat? That's the question posed to me recently by a reader of this blog and a regular commentator at Catallarchy, Steve Podraza. I'll let him speak for himself. In a very nice e-mail to me (which he kindly gave me permission to quote here), Steve submits that:
You insist that you are not a libertarian, but a liberal and a democrat. My own reaction to this is to believe that you are now discovering that you are now and have always been a libertarian, but are suffering some sort of liberal seperation anxiety. Alternatively, you are a libertarian who likes the word "liberal" so much that you insist on defining it to suit you. I just don't think it is possible for a person to be a true liberal democrat AND be as reasonable and appreciatitve of libertarian and anarchist thought as you are. You can understand us, can speak our language, and I've never known a liberal capable of even that.
I'm still not quite sure how to properly answer Steve. I suppose that I can begin by saying that at the very least, I'm pretty sure that I wasn't always a libertarian. I've had some leanings (or at least sympathies) in that direction since reading Anarchy, State and Utopia as an undergraduate. I became less convinced that Nozick really had gotten Locke right in graduate school where I was, understandably I suppose, swayed first by John Christman's and then even more thoroughly by John Simmons' interpretations of Locke. I was, moreover, strongly persuaded by Simmons' arguments for philosophical anarchism. I tend to think he is right when he claims that all of the philosophical arguments that one might muster in defence of the moral legitimacy of the state simply fail to work as justifications for any state that actually exists. Thus, if a state is to have any justification at all, it will have to be a pragmatic justification. That is, a state can be justified if and only if it is the best (weak version) or only (strong version) means of bringing about some other states of affairs that we have independent reasons for valuing.

Given my position as a philosophical anarchist, I'm not in principle opposed to minarchy or even to anarcho-capitalism. My objection to both is that the state may well turn out to be the best (or possibly the only) means of bringing about certain kinds of social goods. My very first guest post at Catallarchy, for example, argues in favor of what I called natural rights of recipience. (Those of you who are regular readers will know, of course, that when I use the term "rights" I mean it in a pretty loose sense. I'm still a consequentialist.) That post is pretty clearly being written by a liberal in the modern rather than classical sense.

So I guess that the answer to the first part of Steve's question is that, no, I've not discovered that I always have been a libertarian.

It's the second part that gives me a bit more pause. Am I now a libertarian? And the answer here is, I don't know. I agree with libertarians on a whole lot of issues. On the entire range of social issues, I doubt that you'll find a libertarian who is more radical than I. If you're looking to go out on a flag-burning, meth-snorting, pornography-reading, cross-dressing, gay-polygamous good time, then you just have yourself a ball. Hell, I don't care if you want to bang your cousin on primetime television and then ride your motorcycle home at 140 mph without a helmet. They're your heads; do with them as you please.

On the fiscal issues, I've a lot of sympathy for libertarian--or more specifically, marketists--positions. I like free markets. The elitist in me may make fun of Wal-Mart for selling a lot of cheap Chinese plastic crap, but when I go out to buy my groceries later today, guess where I'm gonna get them? I'll go to Harris Teeter for better quality if I'm going to cook a really nice dinner in place of going out (or better still, when I can convince someone who actually knows what she's doing to cook a really nice dinner in place of going out). But when it's just me and Matthew here, I'm gonna do my part to make the heirs of Sam Walton just a little bit richer. Why? Because it's cheap. I like capitalism. I like the fact that it makes us all rich enough that we can buy all sorts of things that we don't need. I really like the fact that it's made us rich enough that we now think of all sorts of extravagances as basic necessities (my wireless phone, my wireless broadband, a shelf full of DVDs, etc.)

So why doesn't that make me a full-blown libertarian? After all, what I've written so far could have been written by most of the people at Catallarchy. And maybe I'll end up there at some point. But I still hold on to one core insight of liberalism: respect for autonomy means more than just non-interference. I can have all sorts of freedoms from various things, but those freedoms don't mean a damn thing if I'm too cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated to exercise them. And I remain convinced that, at least for right now, the only way to ensure that everyone has the shelter, medicine, food, education, and access needed to enjoy his/her freedom is through some form of redistribution. Insisting that you redistribute part of your wealth is no more a violation of your autonomy than is insisting that you refrain from hitting me in the nose. Both hitting me in the nose and refusing to help those too poor to exercise their freedoms are violations of autonomy.

Notice, though, that my argument here is a consequentialist one. I think that the state should exist and should redistribute wealth because I think that that is the best way of ensuring that everyone's autonomy is respected. But I realize that there are those who disagree. I also realize how little economics I really understand. I've learned both of those things by talking with really smart libertarians. (I suppose that I should get around to learning something from smart conservatives. And I'll do that just as soon as I meet one. So far, all the smart ones I've encountered turn out really to be libertarians.) Over the past year, I've found myself going back and rereading my college economics texts. I also read Hayek and Friedman. There is something to be said for the argument that an unfettered market will increase wealth and that the overall increase in wealth will, in the end, help the poor far more than will redistribution now. So I think that I currently find myself somewhere in the middle. Let's deregulate markets. But I submit that we're rich enough that giving up some future wealth in order to provide a safety net now isn't an unreasonable thing to ask.

Does that make me a libertarian? I still don't know. Some libertarians (Hayek, most famously) argue in favor of a safety net. Maybe the term libertarian is broad enough to capture me. Perhaps I still haven't said anything all that different from what at least a couple of hardcore libertarians might say. I'm not sure. Ask me in another year.

In the meantime I'll continue to identify as a liberal. The label fits either way, after all. And I'll continue to shell out money to the DNC. That's not because I'm a die-hard Democrat. It's rather that I find the social conservatism of the Republican Party far more morally repugnant than the socialism of the Democratic Party. There's also one other point. Republicans have held the White House for 22 of my 34 years. Guess how many of those years the party of fiscal restraint has managed to spend less money than it took in? Zero. (FY 2001 was Clinton's budget). The Democrats haven't exactly showered themselves with glory, but a Democratic president did manage the feat 4 out of 12 years.

Until further notice, I'm still a Clintonite neo-liberal.


Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

Eh, potato potahto. This is really due to a longstanding and annoying (for me) confusion arising from the way people use the same word to mean at least two very different things, and are rarely clear about which they mean. Some people refer to libertarianism as if it were a unified moral doctrine ("thick" libertarianism), while others use it to denote a generally laissez-faire set of political positions ("thin" libertarianism).

I don't particularly care which meaning wins out, I just bloody wish one or the other would. I really have nothing in common with Murray Rothbard aside from the fact that we happen to end up in similar places; the totally different means we use to get there render him and his ilk as alien to me as Marxists. I'd be just as happy to leave the word "libertarian" to the thick folks and use something else for the thin political positions which you and I mostly share. "Liberal" works fine for me.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

Sorry, that should have read "which they and I mostly share."

You and I, on the other hand, seem to be in moral agreement while being in (minor) political disagreement, the inverse of the situation with the thickies. I would basically agree that "respect for autonomy means more than just non-interference," so does this mean my libertarian card is revoked?

12:48 AM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

I'm sure it means that the Rothbardians will revoke your libertarian card. It shouldn't be that hard to replace, though; surely someone will sell you a new one.

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Mitchell Ullman said...

The thing that really started to get under my skin about the libertarians (keep in mind I was a hard-core libertarian when we first met) is very similar, if not the same, problem you brought up. Non-interference just isn't enough. I take this core argument just a little further than you, however. While I do think that a safety net is one of those pragmatic rights humans in general should appreciate within a society (I'm going to say here that I am speaking of rights that I have, in the past considered to be 'natural' but are merely derived from an is claim, creating an ought... hence natural rights of the pragmatic sort) I'm also going to consider letting a little bit of that interference back in.
By this, I mean that there are other people affected by my decisions. For instance, if I want to smoke and booze myself to death, that will directly affect my wife's life in a way that we did not agree on when we signed the marriage license. Keep in mind that marriage is one of those things that I think the government should keep their grubby noses out of. Perhaps that was too weak. How about smoking in restaurants or bars. I know that is one that typically gets folks 'riled up' as Jimmy would say. The typical retort is that the people who aren't or can't smoke should just go to another restaurant or bar that doesn't allow smoking. It is a libre country, after all. To this, a simple reply is given: there are none. So, low and behold, after either government enfluence or market pressure (see pretty much all of Savannah for evidence of this one) the restaurants prohibit smoking. You want to smoke... do it at home (and stop killing your kids while you do it, damn it).

This sort of thought pattern, according to some, leads directly to Nazis and concentration camps. *cough*fallacy*cough*

Oh, btw, I keep my libertarian card right next to my public library card. :P

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Steve Podraza said...

Certainly neither of you are "liberals" in the popular sense of that word. My comment wasn't so much about labels as it was an observation that Joe is different in a fundamental way from those who share his preferred label. That fundamental way being the way he engages libertarians (thick or thin).

He doesn't come out with the usual tired accusations of self-interest, greed, or elitism. He doesn't try to paint us as guilty by association to conservatives or Bush. He doesn't constantly remind us how few votes the LP gets, or how libertarians are really just "republicans who want to bang liberal women". He isn't interesting in taking cheap shots or using bullshit tactics.

In this way he is different from pretty much every other modern liberal I've ever known. Maybe I don't know enough. But no person determined not to identify as libertarian has ever given as much respect to libertarian ideas as Joe does. And I don't think this is simply because Joe is a nice guy (though he is). My guess is that it has something to do with Part 2 above.

9:02 AM  

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