My Zimbio
Top Stories

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Libertarian Left

Sheldon Richman has an article in The American Conservative titled Libertarian Left. In it Richman argues for the historical connection between classical liberalism and historical leftism -- at least, French liberalism and leftism, which sided against the royalists (the right, who sat on the right side of the assembly). On many social issues, the relationship between the left and classical liberalism should be obvious, but on economic issues, the connection is less clear. If look at the right as primarily mercantilist in its economics, then the anti-business sentiments of both the left and classical liberals can be seen to have similar roots. The difference, then is that classical liberals are anti-business, but pro-market, while the left are anti-business, anti-market.

Why, then, do we see the contemporary left more likely to associate itself with pro-business, anti-market types? This is the position of the modern day Democratic party, and is the very definition of fascist economics (fascism as an economic system, not a social system). The progressives have historically been anti-business, anti-market -- but also have a nasty history most modern day progressives would like to forget. It was only because of the even nastier actions of National Socialists that many of the social positions of the socialists and progressives were abandoned. Suddenly anti-Semitism and eugenics didn't seem so "progressive." Thus on social issues, the left actually took a turn toward classical liberalism -- and started calling itself liberalism as well. Nevertheless, we still see some remnants of progressiveist eugenics in the location of ~75% of Planned Parenthood clinics in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods, while the overall distribution of abortion clinics is much more proportional to population. Why the difference? Well, PLanned Parenthood's founder, Margret Sanger, was an avowed eugenicist, who wished to target not just certain ethnic minorities, but also the poor in general (see Eugenics and Euthanasia in the linked article).

So why the association of classical liberals with conservatives in the U.S.? Well, for one, there is the issue of economics. Contemporary American conservatives at least give lip-service to supporting free markets, even if, in fact, they are mostly pro-business. One could classify them as pro-business, pro-market, if this isn't an entirely contradictory position to hold (to the extent that you support established businesses, it tends to be at the expense of the market and of new businesses). And those conservatives who are the most economically literate also tend to support more classical liberal social positions. Hayek's support for evolution within tradition also allows for a certain bridge to be made between traditionalist conservatives and classical liberals (Burkean conservatism and Larry Arnhart's Darwinian Conservatism are similar bridges). It is also possible to personally support "traditional values" and politically support classical liberal policies. More, if we consider the U.S. to have been founded in the classical liberal tradition, then to be a true conservative in the U.S. is to be a classical liberal. Naturally, this is not always -- or even primarily -- the case. Starting with the civil war within the Democratic party during the civil rights movement, the right within the Democratic party left, and then joined the Republican party due to Nixon's Southern strategy and Reagan's social conservatism (which wrapped up bringing the Southern right -- which was truly right in the sense of being essentially royalists). While the typical Southern Democrat was anti-market in economics, the abandonment by the Demcorats of the very social issues taken up by the Republicans resulted in the South going Republican. For the Southern Democrats, social issues were more important than economic ones, so they put up with the pro-market beliefs of Reagan (though they were more comfortable with the anti-market ideology of Nixon). The result is that the Republicans became more right-wing in ideology.

Of course, the parties are no indication of ideology. The Republicans, for example, went from abolitionist to progressivist to Keynesian to supply-side/social conservative to pragmatic to whatever it is trying to become now. The Democrats have been loosely populist from Andrew Jackson on, with globalist tendencies, a turn toward facist economics with FDR, the development of full-blown welfare statism and an embracing of civil rights and liberal social ideology starting in the 1960's, which ended with Clinton's pragmatism, and finally to Obama's Keynesian pro-union, pro-business, anti-market ideology. Each party contains elements of each of these ideologies. So one should not necessarily associate a political party with a particular ideology, even if the GOP is loosely right-conservative and the DNC is loosely progressive-welfare statist. All things considered, then, it is the libertarians, the classical liberals, who fill the left-libertarian gap (notwithstanding a handful of libertarians who wanted to win elected office in the GOP).

All of these things get mixed up in political discussions in the U.S. If one criticizes the Democrats or progressives, one is accused of being a right-winger. If one criticizes Republicans or the right -- or some foreign policy issue -- one is accused of being a leftist. It may be that one is neither. It may be that one abhors the ideologies of the right, the socialist left, the progressives, the fascists, the Keynesians, the populists, the welfare statists, and the social conservatives, and the past and/or present racism and xenophobia of members of any and all of these parties. The last I heard, that would make one a classical liberal.

4 comments:

Prof J said...

Troy,

This is a very nice article. It gets to a matter that is central to the poor discourse in the U.S.: categorization.

I like being able to categorize because it helps my thinking. As you point out, though, most people categorize and then stop thinking.

Truly, if people ask me my leanings in the future, I will say "thinker" and then let them stew about that.

Also, Chomsky calls himself a libertarian leftist, and claims that Adam Smith and similar folks were too. Apparently, this means that they want some benevolent tyrant to free them from the economic machine. Or something. Ever heard that one, or know what that story is? Beyond Chomsky not reading Smith, I don't know what to make of it.

Troy Camplin said...

"Thinker" -- I like that one. :-)

Chomsky's about as libertarian as Ron Paul is a Marxist. There are unfortunately too many who call themselves libertarians who are conspiracy theorists, like Chomsky, though. Conspiracy theorists believe that the world is ordered by someone, and would be chaotic without those orderers. They believe the same thing as do socialists, only they think it's already happening, while the socialists want it to happen. Their objection, then, is to who the secret orderers are. We see the same kind of paranoia on the left among feminists who think there is a conspiracy among men to oppress women, socialists who think the world is controlled by capitalists, etc.

Frederick Turner said...

As clear an analysis as I have seen for a long time. I love the way you play with the distinction between market and business--like Swift's between the Church and Christianity....

Troy Camplin said...

Thanks, Fred. I think it's a distinction which needs to be made over and over until it begins to sink in for most people.