The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Why Libertarians Should Appreciate Harvey Milk

May 22nd is Harvey Milk’s birthday and come the 27th of November, it will be the anniversary of death, murdered by conservative ex-cop Dan White, along with Mayor Moscone in San Francisco.

Harvey Milk, though he was once a Goldwater supporter, came on to the American political scene as a candidate of the Left. So why should a libertarian admire and respect Milk?

There is a false assumption—a grossly false assumption—that libertarianism is some sort of Right-wing philosophy. I would assert most strongly, it is not. Properly understood libertarianism in its “classical liberal” incarnation was the original Left wing of politics. The Right wished to “conserve” the prevalent social order. Liberals did not. They wished to reform it in many different way including ending the feudal system, abolition of the church/state alliance and ending the government coddling of certain business interests through subsidies, monopolies and protectionism. There was very, very little which classical liberals thought worthy of conservation. The advocates of conserving the social order were called conservatives and their method for doing so was the use of State force.

When the socialists arose they embraced many of the goals true liberals were seeking. But these socialists thought it possible to achieve liberal ends through the use of State force, in other words while adopting liberal goals they clung to conservative means. As the socialist/communist movement evolved certain erroneous premises, which they had embraced, pushed many into a totalitarian camp. At that point these “Leftists” had ceased seeking even liberal ends and had become full-fledged conservatives preserving the political power structure through coercive means.

This created a crisis within the political Left. Many on the Left still passionately embraced the ends of the classical liberals. They opposed the totalitarianism of the conservative Left yet they were having problems giving up the idea that state power was the best method of achieving liberal goals. Most of modern Leftists, Harvey included, fall into this category. For the libertarian they are as confused as the modern conservative, at least as conservatives used to be until Trump came along and the Right completely lost the plot. Neither consistently advocated freedom yet neither consistently wanted to undermine it. Whether their premises undermine such freedom is a different matter, but neither did so intentionally, with the exception of the more extreme elements.

Conservatives historically wanted economic liberalism but shied away from social liberalism. Of course, under the leadership of Trump, American conservatives have almost completely abandoned free markets. Socialists and Progressives want social liberalism, and the results of economic liberalism, but cling to State power. So, for the true libertarian until 2016, both Left and Right shared similar flaws and had similar virtues. But many libertarians, who came from the Right, still clung to an irrational hatred for the Left. This blinds them to the common ground libertarians share with our friends on the Left.

A rational discussion of modern politics, from a libertarian perspective, requires us to understand, and appreciate, the common ground we share with the Left as well. Yet this is inadequately done.

It is from this perspective that I wish to discuss the impact of Harvey Milk.

One thing is clear from the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, Harvey passionately believed in trying to help those who were hurt, or oppressed, by the legal/political system of his day. He spoke of the needs of the various minorities to work together to defend their rights. This passion comes right out of the historical roots of classical liberalism. Unfortunately it is a passion many libertarians have forgotten, to the detriment of libertarianism in general.

Classical liberalism originated, not as an economic philosophy, but as a philosophy defending the rights of minorities. Freedom of religious dissent was a battle the nascent liberals were fighting well before Adam Smith penned his Wealth of Nations (1776). Milton’s neo-liberal defense of free speech, Areopagitica, was published in 1643. John Locke’s essay, A Letter Concerning Toleration, was published in 1689. Both of these documents, while pushing boundaries for freedom, still made compromises to state control which modern libertarians (or many left-liberals) would no longer make. But, certainly in their day, they were radical calls for expanding individual freedom.

It should be remembered these early liberals, while arguing for expansion of freedom of thought, faced obstacles later economic liberals did not face. While advocates of free trade were opposed by the landed interests and big business of the day, they did not face the Holy Inquisition, trials for heresy, mob violence, or execution. Of course, even today, modern libertarians find it easier to defend economic liberalism as “conservatives” will still do their level best to punish us for any forays into social liberalism — hence the reason so many “libertarian” think tanks and organizations don’t talk about social aspects of freedom. But, for a libertarian to avoid social freedom, it’s like a sprinter trying to run with just one leg. You can do it, but is it really worth the effort?

Classical liberals were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement, a cause that was very unpopular when they started. But the evil of human slavery, defended by Scripture and conservative interests, was eventually abolished. After the successful campaigns regarding religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and the abolition of slavery, we see the first real move toward economic liberalism. Freedom of markets did not lead the liberal movement until the creation of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1839 — slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 but Vermont had banned it in 1777 and Massachusetts in 1783.

Even when Richard Cobden and John Bright created the Anti-Corn Law League the emphasis of much of their work was on the dire effects state protectionism had on the working classes and the poor. Much of the impetus for promoting economic freedom was how it was necessary if poverty and hunger were to be abolished. That passion, to see the most vulnerable in society made better off, was a primary motivation of our liberal forefathers. And even our promotion of economic freedom was intimately tied to this desire.

State power always has been, and always will be, the sanctuary of the rich and powerful. It protects them from the competitive nature of markets and from the wishes and will of the consumers and workers. This is why true liberals have opposed efforts by pseudo-liberals on the Left to expand state power. We believe such power is inherently counter-productive and destructive to the well being of all but a rich and powerful elite. Such power structures, however, are particularly destructive to the well being of the most vulnerable groups in our society.

True liberalism was aligned with European movements that sought to end the ghettoization of the Jews, something promoted by the Church and religious elements of society. Liberalism worked to extend the franchise and legal rights to women. It was closely involved with the movement to extend equal rights before the law to African-Americans as well. And, for all ages, classical liberalism was a major force in opposition to imperialism and war.

Classical liberalism has always been about the emancipation of all people and the legal equality of all, in a regime of freedom. Economic liberty is incredibly important, but not as an end in itself. Economic freedom is necessary to achieve the social goals of classical liberalism. Economic freedom means the power elites can’t confiscate the wealth of the working classes. Economic freedom makes emancipation of the Jews, women, gays, and even “illegal” immigrants possible. Economic freedom is always a necessary component in the real liberal’s agenda: the full emancipation of the individual to live their life, as they wish, provided they respect the equal rights of others. Economic freedom is the means to the social goals of liberalism. Classical liberals would argue economic freedom is the necessary means for achieving those goals.

When one studies the life of Harvey Milk one finds the passions he shared were, for the most part, liberal passions — and I mean classical liberal passions. In his short political career he broke ground for the rights of gay and lesbian people and opposed the horrendous efforts of the bigots around the Briggs Initiative. It should also be noted many libertarians were very active in the campaign against Briggs and the libertarian-leaning Ronald Reagan even opposed the measure and wrote an editorial against it.

Nathaniel Branden said:

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.

Never mind that the Leftists had their own motives for doing so and that those motives would not be the motives of Libertarians. The fact remains that we should have never have involved ourselves in Viet Nam, the draft is evil, and racism is contemptible. Libertarians — the true defenders of individual rights — should have been the first to speak up on these subjects, loudly and clearly and publicly.

I don’t mean that these are the only issues to which Libertarians should address themselves. Far from it. But it would have been immensely important had Libertarians been the first to speak up on these problems.

It is vital, if modern libertarianism or classical liberalism is to remain true to its roots, that we revive this passionate defense of those most under threat by the expansion of state power. We are the only consistent advocates of freedom for the oppressed and the powerless. And when we see others, even those who fail to understand the link between social and economic freedom, who are passionate about individual rights we ought to applaud them and encourage them. There were aspects of Harvey’s political program real liberals could not support. But we can appreciate his passion for the oppressed and embrace that aspect of who he was. We can acknowledge the important role he played in helping further individual rights in modern America. We can do these things — and we should.

This was given as a speech at a conference with a special session on Harvey Milk. Also presenting was Carol Ruth Silver, who was a member of the Board of Supervisors with Milk and his closest ally. She was also target by Dan White for assassination that day but had stopped for coffee on the way to City Hall.


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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.