The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Why Libertarians Need to Talk With the Left and How to Do It.

Libertarians should talk with the Left and need to learn how.

First, allow me to define what I mean by libertarian. I use a broad definition to define libertarian. I’m an “old fashioned” libertarian, as I still hold the same basic principles of libertarianism that were present when I got involved back in the 1970s.

For me, someone who supports depoliticized markets is part way there, but only part of the way. Depoliticized, or free markets, also mean private property rights — including the right to collectively own property — voluntary exchange between consenting individuals, and the right to keep the fruits of one’s labor.

Someone who believes in a peaceful foreign policy is also part of the way there. They would oppose interventionist wars, support international trade and the free movement of goods, capital and labor.

The third leg of the libertarian stool, so to speak, is civil liberties. By civil liberties, I don’t mean just those civil liberties conservatives could embrace, such as the right to bear arms, nor do I just mean opposition to the PATRIOT Act. I also mean things such as ending the war on drugs, opposition to censorship, supporting separation of church and state — even at the state level. I mean opposition to sodomy laws and opposition to restrictions on birth control and abortion, I am talking about opposing things such as e-verify as well. I mean the whole plethora of infringements on civil liberties, including regulations restricting the rights of people.

By libertarian I mean someone who is good on economic policy, foreign policy and civil liberties. This is not a 2-out-of-3 game, where you are a libertarian if you are bad in one of these areas. I would accept someone as libertarian if they miss the boat here or there; but not if they are broadly bad in one category. They may be a progressive, a conservative, a paleoconservative, etc., but they are not libertarian.

Nor is libertarianism a variant of conservatism.

Look at history. Libertarianism is the direct descendant of classical liberalism. Given how many “libertarians” — please note the “scare quotes” around that term — channel conservative arguments these days, I often prefer using “classical liberal” to describe myself rather than libertarian. I don’t want to be confused with militia-loving, Birch Society, bigoted fundamentalists who think bed sheets are evening wear.

Classical liberalism was a revolutionary movement challenging the status quo of the day. It was not as consistent in application of its principles as libertarians would prefer, but it was a dramatic step forward in the history of liberty. Classical liberals opposed the alliance between church and state; they wanted to end the property system of the day, where might alone transferred property into hands of privileged, landed elites who grew wealthy out of monopoly privileges bestowed by the Crown. Classical liberals argued rights were inherent in each person and were not political grants or privileges. They supported freedom of speech and the right to criticize the common wisdom of the day — including teachings of the church. They wanted depoliticized markets and said when government existed, protecting rights of the people was its core, perhaps only, legitimate duty.

In opposition, were conservatives, who as conservatives tend to do, clung to the power structure of the day and defended the status quo, regardless of how unjust it was. Classical liberalism was a revolutionary system of thought that upset the entire social order of the day. It reduced the power of both church and state to control the lives of people. They didn’t support merely transferring state power to private institutions — for instance giving control of marriage to religion — they wanted the power of third parties to control people’s lives reduced, including privately-held power.

A third force entered the conflict between liberalism and conservatism, which attempted to achieve liberal goals through the use of state power. That movement was truly middle-of-the-road, even though some thought it more revolutionary. That movement was socialism. The socialist of that era believed the goals of liberalism could best be achieved through state power. They were an attempt to compromise, to find a third way. In many ways socialism, as Oliver Brett in his classic In Defense of Liberty noted, was conservative. It sought to preserve the centralized power structure, but turn it in a liberal direction.

Classical liberals found much to agree with socialists on and worked with them. There are risks in alliances, one of which is that you may be tempted to compromise principles to appease partners. Classical liberals started doing just that. Instead of liberalizing socialism, the alliance resulted in pushing liberalism in a socialist direction resulting in the bastardized version of what many people consider “liberalism” today.

This alliance remained in place until the early 1900s. During this time, classical liberalism waned, losing its intellectual power and appeal. In the end, the progressives not only destroyed liberalism, but made off with its name as well.

Just as classical liberalism ended up being corrupted by the Left, the modern libertarian movement has been corrupted by the Right. We have apologists for state restrictions on the free movement of labor, using racist arguments in the name of job protectionism. They claim to be libertarian while doing so, in fact, some even try to claim to be the only “pure,” “radical” libertarians, yet indulge in collectivist labeling of immigrants, other races, gay people, etc. They adamantly defend social conservatism as being part and parcel of libertarianism. They are harbingers of the conservative take-over of libertarianism.

That is why we need to speak to the Left. We need to counterbalance the corruption from the Right. Yet, we must carefully consider where we are allied. We can’t enter into wholesale alliances with either Left or Right. We must be selective in the battles we fight.

Between Left and Right, the reality remains that the Left is still closer to our ideals. They are more likely to agree with our social liberalism and foreign policy even though they are economic interventionists.

I have to define who I speak of on the Left. By Left, I don’t mean the party elite in the Democratic Party. I don’t mean advocates of private power structures that inhibit individual freedom, such as those who overly praise unions and want to give them state-sponsored powers. Just as private power of the church has to be opposed, I think the private power of unions has to be opposed, as well.

I am speaking of the average person who sees himself as a moderate leftist. They don’t like the gay bashing of Republicans and conservatives. They don’t care for the wars. They aren’t thrilled by the anti-immigrant rhetoric, aren’t fond of the PATRIOT Act, don’t wish to regulate abortion or ratchet up censorship. They aren’t libertarians by any means, but on the continuum between libertarianism on the left, socialism in the middle, and conservatism on the right, they are closer to the libertarian side of things than they are to the conservative side. I personally believe this is the bulk of the rank-and-file Left today, those who are more likely to say they are moderates or liberals than say they are “Leftists.”

However, this is not the general view of the Left leadership by any means. The political process guarantees the worst gets to the top, with few exceptions. The leadership of the Left is worse than the rank and file — just as what often passes as libertarian leadership has progressively gotten worse because of the corrupting process of politics.

Most rank and file members of the political left are not hard-core socialists. They aren’t particularly fond of high taxes, but they aren’t sure how else to achieve the just society they seek. Typically, their heart is in the right place, but they don’t understand economics and the incentives Mises talked about in his book Bureaucracy. They want to do the right thing and don’t know any other way of doing it. They often believe people need to be helped and state power should be used to achieve that.

Contrast that with the modern conservative. Where the progressive often sees people as needy, the conservative often sees them as sinful. The progressive wants to wield state power to help people, but the conservative wants state power to punish evil-doers and enforce God’s law. As annoying as people who want to “help” can be, they are usually less offensive than those who want to punish us for our sins. One side thinks government is there to help people; the other side thinks it is there to punish them. Given that unpalatable choice, I prefer the Left.

Libertarians, however, are often shitty communicators when it comes to talking to the Left because they sound like conservatives.

The first thing you should realize about the Left is they are extremely well-intentioned, but naïve about the risks of state power. They honestly think they can improve the lives of people through political manipulation and judge others by whether or not they are similarly well-intentioned. Sometimes you can, but much of the time it only makes things worse. It’s not an all or nothing option.

This means you need to establish your credentials with them, which means defending the rights of minorities faced with social oppression. You need to make it clear you want the poor to become wealthy, you want medical care for all, you want homes to be affordable, etc. Remember the conflict between liberalism and socialism is one of means, not goals. It was conservatives who opposed the goals of liberalism, not socialists.

This is why classical liberals were in the forefront of abolitionism and conservatives opposed it. Classical liberals, such Moorfield Storey, were active in the civil rights movement, along with socialist allies, while conservatives opposed it. Classical liberalism rightly promoted the equal rights of women, which conservatives opposed, and it supports the principle of equality of rights for gay people, which conservatives oppose.

Libertarians who see themselves as allied with conservatives play down their differences with conservatives, which causes libertarians to ignore important issues that expand individual choice and freedom. During the period of alliance with the Right, libertarians, for the most part, were silent about the injustices that plagued the country. Nathaniel Branden noted this long ago in a Reason magazine interview:

But it would have been immensely important had Libertarians been the first to speak up on these problems. I think it’s unfortunate that Libertarians so often leave the initiative to the Leftists. For example, it was the Leftists who were the first — publicly and in a big way — to oppose our involvement in Viet Nam. It was the Leftists who were the first — publicly and in a big way — to oppose the draft. It was the Leftists who were the first — publicly and in a big way — to denounce racism in this country.

Libertarians don’t seem to know what the vital issues are, where the battle lines most need to be drawn, and which issues should be attacked first. They don’t seem to have a good sense of practical reality in these matters.

You need to let the Left know you care about these social issues and expansion of freedom in those areas. If you can’t do that you can’t talk to them. Your talk will be dismissed as nothing but words. Unfortunately, for many libertarians such talk is nothing but words.

If you want to get people on the Left interested in our issues, you have to show interest in their issues. It is a trade of value for value. Too many libertarians want something for nothing; they seek political welfare, where everyone pays attentions to their concerns while ignoring the concerns of others.

A local libertarian party group once complained to me the gay community never showed interest in them. A few months later the Pride festival was coming up so I suggested having a libertarian booth there. I offered to pay half the cost. They rejected the idea as too expensive, which I found odd since every month they set up booths costing similar sums at gun shows with smaller attendance. I then offered to raise funds for them, if they wanted, and said I would staff the booth most of the time. They declined all offers, preferring to direct their attention and resources to gun owners.

Why?

Because they are infected with what I call “Me-Libertarianism,” that myopic kind of libertarianism that only sees issues as important if they impact the typical libertarian. Who is that typical libertarian? A middle-aged, white, heterosexual male. Issues that don’t impact that demographic just aren’t important and many bluntly tell you so.

Abortion rights aren’t important. Immigration isn’t important. Equality of rights for gay people isn’t important. They ignore all those issues because they don’t impact them. Their solipsistic view of liberty is, “If it doesn’t affect me, how can it be important?”

Worse, they start to sound like conservatives by not only ignoring issues that don’t impact them directly, but by attacking people who are affected. They criticize feminists who talk about women’s issues, whine about immigrants, and put down gay people, often using juvenile insults of the kind heard in grade school. When it comes to the ability to see the state of liberty through the eyes of others, many libertarians have evolved no further than that of a playground bully throwing a temper tantrum.

If you want people interested in your issues, be interested in their issues.

Also, try to listen to what people are saying instead of playing word games with them. For instance, many people discuss rights in a way that sounds as if they could mean rights reside in groups. Libertarians like to play one-upmanship with them and pounce on bad use of language to score points. They aren’t out to change minds; they are out to “WIN” debates.

So, someone asks about “gay rights” and the libertarian says precisely the same thing the conservative tends to say. Rights don’t belong to groups, only to individuals, this is just asking for special privileges, blah, blah, blah. And, I do mean blah.

They aren’t trying to understand what the person meant. Over the last 30 years, one thing I discovered is most people who say “gay rights” mean pretty much what libertarians mean, or what they should mean. Most on the Left don’t think gay people have “special rights;” they mean they should have the same rights.

The conservative, however, attacks this as pleading for special rights and then pulls a bait-and-switch by defining “special rights” as meaning the same rights. For the conservative, if you let gay people marry, just as straight people do, that isn’t the “same” right, it is a special right. The people who distort the meanings of words, in this case, are conservatives, yet, it is conservatives many libertarians mimic in their reply.

The libertarian who pounces on the term ends up sounding like the conservative, and is interpreted in the same way as the conservative. Their little academic discourse on what rights means, comes across as saying: “No, gay people shouldn’t have the same rights.” That is the case even if they don’t mean it that way. If you do verbal imitations of conservatives, don’t be surprised when you are mistaken for one.

Look at political discourse with the Left as an investment. You accumulate capital and periodically spend that capital to get something in return.

When you talk about issues that matter to them, when you actually manage to show them you do care about these issues and about the rights of all people, not just those of white, middle-aged straight men, and when you are able to communicate ideas without sounding like some Tea Party bigot, you accumulate political capital. Then, when you raise your issues, you spend some of that capital. You can talk about property rights, or depoliticized markets, or deregulation, and they don’t immediately dismiss you. You have accumulated political capital with them. They don’t hear someone who is just another conservative. They remember when you stood with them, so when you differ, they are far more likely to listen with respect.

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SUPPORT THIS PAGE AT PATREON

Your support to fund these columns is important, visit our page at Patreon.

If you are a follower of this page, would you consider donating $5 per month toward keeping it alive. We do not hide behind the pay wall Medium allows. (Lower than $5 usually means much of it is now eaten up by fees to process it.) You can also make one time donations to the page.

Follow our daily comments at Twitter. If you are looking for discounted libertarian books visit our Freeminds website. If you wish to subscribe, free of charge, to this page you can have all new essays emailed to you. Just sign up here.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.