04 May 2010

Who are we!

What do we want!

I'm sort of amused when other people try to figure "us" out, or when people who self-describe as having leanings or opinions and political beliefs that are supposedly "libertarian" are involved in the study.

There's a couple major points that this study raises
1) Libertarians are, in the main, far more concerned about economic liberties than social. One reason for this is that economic liberties are easier to take away in pieces and thus have been for some time. You cannot take away partially the rights of voting, or of free speech. At least not as easily as you could increase the rates of taxation or the ability of people to consume a particular product, or employ whomever they wish as workers. Another element is that with economic liberties, many social liberties are perceived to gain their existence or advantage. Many conservatives stress the importance of the 2nd amendment on the basis that if a gun can be taken away, the state has the monopoly of force and can compel the obedience and restriction of other fundamental rights. In essence the argument for many libertarians is that if the state can seize your property and wealth for its purposes, then it can do as it pleases with you as well in determining what your civil liberties will be.

But the problem with this argument is that most Americans are complacent with the government and its level of involvement in our average economic activities. We've had Medicare for so long that people now shout at their town halls that they "want government out of their Medicare". We've had Social Security even longer. We've had major federal and state influence over education or the monopoly US postal service for longer still. These are all things that libertarians doctrinally complain about in some manner, perhaps objecting, at best, to the nature and form of government intrusion and paternalistic control over how the money shall be allocated for these public goods like education or basic health provision. These are not things that the average person, even the average conservative, feels a great deal of complaint or threat from. Perhaps they will joke and complain about the DMV lines, or the post office, or will use the joke about "if Ford made cars the way government runs things...". But this is not translated in strident conservative or otherwise popular opposition for useless, counterproductive or maybe even dangerous government interventions to economic liberties.

2) Part of the reason for this is that economic interferences are perceived, in many ways correctly, as having diminished over time, as part of the so-called Reagan revolution or some such. Marginal income tax rates, one of the most obvious interferences for most people, are much lower than during the post-war era running until the mid to late 70s. Economic deregulation in sectors like transportation is perceived as giving us considerable benefits (cheaper air fare for example and an expanded trucking industry). Price controls of various sorts, such as those of air fares, but also those of energy, have diminished or been eliminated entirely, leading to more efficient market-generated prices of supply and demand. Often lower than those set by government bureaucracy. Convincing the ordinary American that the US postal service, farm subsidies and trade barriers, or the Department of Education pose any challenges to their fundamental freedoms is very hard when gains like these, which are more obvious and apparent to consumers and citizens, exist, even before considering that many people hold considerable opposition to free markets and their operation (sometimes even under the less extreme notion that such markets can or would be restrained by prudent regulatory regimes).

3) Teaching Americans economics from scratch is bound to be much harder than explaining some basic property and civil rights as being under attack. Gun rights and eminent domain have, in some respects, become the province of libertarian intellectuals to defend because they are among the few rights which have broader recognition from conservatives, in particular, and, in some cases, liberals alike. Meanwhile the abuses of civil forfeiture clauses drawn up in the ill-fated war on drugs, the misuse and contortion of rule of law for the PATRIOT act and related surveillance programs, the control of immigration flows particularly at the upper boundary of our skilled labour force, and other broad civil rights objections to conservative agendas imposed over the last decade or so by government fell upon deaf ears. Liberals or Democrats were pleased to exploit these complaints and to take up dissenting votes from such agendas from the libertarian bloc of conservative political sectors, but have, thus far in power, done little to service these issues, and even seem just as ready to exploit these issues without regard to basic human rights as free movement or trade. Gains on social and civil liberties opinion have been made within the broader population, on issues like gay rights or the legalisation of marijuana, which enjoy much larger bases of support than was the case only a decade ago. But these gains have not come as a basis of subscription to a new libertarian ideal or been accompanied by other economic and civil rights of importance to libertarian philosophy or preferred policies. More invasive and obvious gains here were also made since the 70s, with the use of a mostly volunteer armed forces rather than conscription services, and the abolition of formal and legally sanctioned race-based segregation (Jim Crow). These gains as well make it harder to persuade average Americans that other fundamental liberties may be assaulted until they themselves feel the firm hand of the law upon them, rather than upon other powerless and unpopular groups.

4) It may well be that the libertarian will enjoy a much higher level of tolerance and support from liberals, particularly on these social and civil rights agendas. But it is far from clear that we will succeed in prevailing upon such people the difference between conservatives/Republicans "pro-business" agendas and that of a "pro-market" perspective. Or the advantages of the second position as opposed to the first which places business in its comfortable historical rivalry not with markets, as has become the case through political gaming of economic rents, but with labour, the long-standing ally of Democrats. Nor is it clear, despite claims by Zogby's study, that we are found to be "more comfortable" placed among conservatives. Conservatives, or at least Republicans, claim to reject us. Indeed, even when attempting to discuss economics, the field upon with the alliance of convenience between conservatives and libertarians is founded, we are rejected any more by the profound ignorance of the topic. Our free market dogmatism and criticism of existing structures for their non-market related habits (in particular the health care status quo) is now dismissed as "socialist". Let alone any discourse considering our favored discussions on national security, foreign aggressions, or the legal and economic rights of conservatively disfavored groups like immigrants, homosexuals, or minorities. All causes which libertarians would do well to continue to champion, and all of which draw the increasing ire of the conservative bloc of voters and political support upon which libertarians historically are perceived as naturally inclined.

5) The more likely conclusion I would draw from Zogby's study is that libertarians themselves are in political exile, as they have been for some time, certainly since the 9-11 attacks at the latest. But that the phrase or title, rather than its underlying philosophy, has regained some credibility among the minority party and its elite media spokespeople (Palin, Beck, etc) for use in their own purposes (the Tea Party). They would be correct to note that the Tea Party, a self-styled rejection of government without many clear and concise missions (other than the overturning of the recent health care bill) and without a strong underlaid philosophical grounding in actually opposing government expansiveness with policies of its own, is essentially an arm of the conservative movement. A movement which has expressed 70% support of John McCain during the '08 campaign would be hard to identify as anything other than essentially conservative, even if it does not want to identify as such (or at least as "Republican"). But I do not think it would be correct to identify libertarian intellectuals, their think tanks, or others generally supportive of libertarian philosophies as "conservatives". It would be more appropriate to simply say that they are rare. And a bit too strange to properly identify. Moderates? "Center"? Moderates are perceived politically as "boring", generally holding middle of the road views on a variety of subjects. We hold extremely radical views that are seemingly at odds with each other (according to the American political mainstream). That's hardly moderate.

One other note. While there are some within the libertarian movement who hold this philosophy as a sort of anti-government hate or vitriol (and the article from NR notes this distinction between Hayek and Mises, despite its relative irrelevance to the American political scene), the primary use of libertarianism is and has been for a strong but clearly limited and defined function of government. Things that can be left to cultural, social, or market forces to shape, for which laws would have no effect or create negative and often unintended consequences, are things that government should properly have little or no influence over. It is appropriate, perhaps, to have government act as a guarantor of basic rights, to administer standard contracts and ensure all parties abide by them (government included), to arbitrate the disputes of citizens and penalize, on behalf of aggrieved residents, their aggressors toward property, life, and well-being (including such objects as the national defence), and perhaps still further to extend over the provision of public goods, clearly defined as economic sectors with considerable externalities that must be captured or contained for the benefit of others (education, clean air/water, etc). Despite this apparently laundry list, this provides a mandate for the functions and behaviors of government which is still far less expansive than it is at present in the process of maintaining and performing and for which governments might be reasonably efficient and harmless at their execution. To the extent that its action is obviously harmful and unproductive, we are opposed and could be said to "hate governments". To the extent that governments and their agents and agencies have legitimate tasks to perform, we will abide. With the notice that we will inform and instruct where we think it is meddling needlessly and unproductively. The fact that we are free radicals opposed to many state functions at present, and are unquantified by the usual American political spectrum and thus an uncertainty, does not necessarily make us "radicals" who are dangerous to the public interest who must indulge ourselves by engaging in hostile resistance to the authority of the state.

Personally I live with speeding a little bit and rolling through stop signs or red lights at night as the only open and apparent resistance outside of my dialogues. I save the bombing missions and attacks for the social conservatives' wing-nut division.

(Post note: Glenn Beck actually defended the civil rights of the fellow who was arrested in NYC for the attempted bombing. This was in large part because he had the fortune to be an American citizen, which for some reason is distinguished from "a person found or committing a crime within our legal jurisprudence system", but I at least should credit that the man of no consistent principles in pursuit of entertaining the vast mobs said something which was principled: that American citizens are to be accorded their Constitutional rights. If he had read the Constitution, he would realize that the Constitution, in the case he's concerned about, provides those rights to anyone we arrest and detain, including foreign nationals. But I guess I can't have everything).
Post a Comment