Sunday, January 29, 2012

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 with it 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 that 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 right of people to enter into marriage contracts.
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.
Libertarianism is not 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 that 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 that rights were inherent in each person and were not political grants or privileges. They supported freedom of speech and the right to criticize common wisdom of the day—including teachings of the church. They wanted depoliticized markets and said that when government existed, protecting rights of the people 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 that through state power the goals of liberalism could best be achieved. 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.

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 Left today.

However, this is not the general view of the Left leadership by any means. The political process guarantees that the worst get to the top, with few exceptions. The leadership of the Left is worse than the rank and file. Just as what 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 that seek. Typically, their heart is in the right place, but they don’t understand economics and the incentives that 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.

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 that you do want the poor to become wealthy,  you do want medical care for all, you want homes to be affordable to people, etc. Remember that the conflict between liberalism and socialism was 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 that the gay community never showed interest in them.  A few months later, the Pride festival was coming up and I suggested having a libertarian booth there. I said I would pay half the cost. They rejected the idea as too expensive, which I found that odd since every month they set up booths costing similar sums at gun shows with smaller attendance. I then offered to raise the 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.

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 just 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 they 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 to 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 that 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 that 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.

These progressives had other allies as well—communists. The Russian revolution created a state that many progressives praised at the time. That state did not wither away, as Marx had hoped. It was tyrannical and imperialistic. It took the conservative agenda to the logical conclusion of total (or near total) state power, but included none of the social goals of liberalism.

As the horror of communism became apparent, the few liberals remaining (or the Remnant, as Albert Jay Nock called them) started looking for allies. The conservative movement still had its love for state power, and still thought the state should be an arm of the church, and they still clung to the past. However, the past to which they clung was one with substantial liberal elements in it, no thanks to them. Between Bolsheviks and conservatives the latter was the least lethal.

Libertarians shifted their alliance from Progressive Left to Conservative Right. This led to many of them, such as H.L. Mencken, Nock, Oswald Garrison Villard, and others, being accused of changing their principles but they still had the same principles, when they only shifted allies.

That uneasy alliance existed until the collapse of communism and it did to libertarianism what the old liberal/socialist alliance had done. It corrupted libertarianism. Today, there are many people calling themselves libertarian who are anything but. They side with power structures, clinging to the concept that privatized power that oppresses people is permissible, and that religious values ought to be reflected in the laws. They are more conservative than libertarian.

NOTE REGARDING COMMENTS:  It appears that a lot of people want this essay to be about something other than what it actually is about. I am trying to keep comments on the topics raised which is about why libertarians and the Left need to talk with each other. It was not meant to be an essay justifying any particular libertarian position. Conservatives reading it want debates on abortion here, individuals on the Left want to debate private property, markets, Ayn Rand and other issues. And essays on those topics will be forthcoming or have appeared already, so debate on the topics is welcome there. But there are at least half a dozen people wanting to discuss other topics. It is not possible in the comments section to address all those issues, especially given the range of them and the limited time available to do so. In addition there are a lot of presumptions about what I do, or don't believe, many of them wrong. Just clarifying them would take a great deal of time. I am sorry but it is not possible to cover everything that multiple people want to discuss and a comment section is a poor place to do it. So please keep comments on topic.   


  1. It seems to me that the Democratic & Republican parties are just two sides of the same coin; both are big government Hamiltonian parties, pro Wall Street bailouts, pro war and anti civil liberties. As a person on the left who has come to find much in common with Libertarianism; this is a welcome article. I hope my Libertarian friends heed the message.

  2. Excellent post. Here's the single best example I've run across of the left reaching out to the libertarians and conservatives...Your Money, Your Choice. Also, here are a couple of my discussions with liberals...Selling Votes and Other People's Values.

  3. "the continuum between libertarianism on the left, socialism in the middle, and conservatism on the right"

    If you *must* define a continuum like that, please at least invent another axes description for it instead of "the left" and "the right".

    Locating the most individualist ideology on "the left" and all the other, more collectivist ideologies further towards "the right" defies all current and historic connotations of those terms in a political context.

  4. This is absolutely amazing. This articulates many of my thoughts on the matter. As a WOC, I have found that when I try to talk about libertarianism and eliminating racism and sexism - obviously not through regulation, but through social change and the market of ideas - I just get the same "but that's collectivism blah blah" from the hardcore anarcho-capitalists. It's a total drag.

    1. Same. I'm also a WOC, and one reason that my libertarian streak is so little expressed is my experience that many of the things I care about are not only unimportant but actually derided by most libertarians. I work primarily with left-wing organizations and probably am perceived as extremely liberal (which I don't mind but believe to be inaccurate), but libertarian and conservative approaches to feminism/anti-racism tend to be so pathetic that I honestly don't see that there's anywhere else for me to go.

    2. Trish/Kate: I'm with you on this. There is a sect of libertarians who are precisely as you both mention and they are doing a lot of harm to libertarianism. They simply don't know the history of this philosophy. I even had one recently tell me that libertarianism started with a split from the Right at YAF in 1969. Apparently he has no idea of the rich history of libertarianism prior to that one event. By no means was that the start. We have a lot of people who get a paleoconservative view of things from one loud and annoying wing of libertarian fundamentalists and then judge the entire movement based on their bad manners, intolerant attitudes and personal prejudices.

      Other libertarians simple are guilty of me-libertarianism. A friend recently told me that he was asked to contribute to a campaign on marijuana laws by a prominent libertarian. He said his response was:"I'll be happy to give. In fact, I will give double to this campaign whatever you donated to fight Prop 8 when it was on the ballot." To say the least, double nothing is still nothing.

      I hope you both stay in touch with us and/or join our email list. You can do that in the top right of the page.

  5. Maybe if libertarians ever once sided with an individual's liberty over the liberty of a corporation, they might be taken more seriously. Libertarians trust corporations more than their own government, and that is a scary thing.

    1. "Libertarians trust corporations more than their own government"

      Wrong. We trust *individuals* to make their own choices, including which corporations to make business with, instead of calling for government bureaucracy to replace those corporations and make the individuals' choices for them.

    2. In the narrow sense of coercive control over our lives, corporations and governments are the same thing. Just because individuals make choices for themselves on which corporation they will cede authority over much of their lives to does not make the corporation any less of a dictatorship.

      The fact that many of us voluntarily cede control over substantial portions of our life to the corporation does not make that choice a liberty enhancing ideal. Indeed much dystopian fiction is premised on a future where corporations and government become one.

      As noted in the essay, the libertarian love of corporations does not necessarily comport with individual liberty.

  6. Anonymous at 1:17. I am sorry to say it but you seem unfamiliar with history. The terms Right and Left came from the French Assembly. Supporters of the monarchy and the status quo sat on the Right. Opponents on the Left, which is precisely where that great libertarian, Frederic Bastiat sat. He was considered on the Left. You are merely interpreting history through you own culture and views and assuming it must fit your views, even when it doesn't.

  7. You think "libertarian" means "opposition to sodomy laws and opposition to restrictions on birth control and abortion." Right, so supporting a prohibition on a healthy woman terminating a perfectly healthy and "normal" fetus one day before her due date casts one out of club. OK, so what bedrock principle of libertarianism compels this stance? You don't say, do you. Interesting, and you consider yourself a philosopher? Well, you fooled me.

    1. You're damn right I do. But given that this isn't a defense of libertarian values on personal freedom issues, then exactly why would the article go off course to address your conservative values? The bedrock principle is that each person has total control over their own body and that includes women and whether or not they wish their uterus to be used by another.

      But given that this is not a discourse on abortion only someone completely clueless would demand the article be about something other than what is actually about.

    2. People can disagree as to how developed a foetus must be in order to be defined as an individual with individual rights.

      How is this germane as to whether or not Libertarians should "talk with the Left?"

    3. If there is any bedrock principle of libertarianism, wouldn't it be "self ownership"? And if you own yourself, don't you have the freedom to expel anything or anyone else residing in your own body?

  8. We waste too much time arguing over labels. There's really no point in trying to prove whether or not someone is "true" Libertarian. Labels can be useful as starting points, but when we spend more time defending our labels than our principles, we all lose.

    So, let's talk about the actual issues. My main issue with Libertarianism is that it puts so much faith in the "free market." It seems extremely naive to me to think that unrestrained capitalism could ever lead to a universally fair and prosperous society. In capitalism, monetary profit is the driving force, the bottom line. By definition, then, human welfare (and ecosystem welfare, for that matter) can ONLY be secondary. And we've already seen how capitalism naturally evolves into monopolies. How would having LESS regulation affect that in anything but a negative way?

    With regards to "civil liberties," the unrestrained free-market ideal of Libertarianism seems especially contradictory. If people have the "liberty" to discriminate against people due to race, gender, etc., in the workplace or in public establishments, is that not an infringement on the "civil liberties" of those being discriminated against? I've heard the argument that public establishments should be allowed to discriminate according to race (i.e. "WHITES ONLY" establishments) because, they say, this establishment would then suffer the wrath of the free market and lose business due to its discriminatory policy. Even if that were true (which I highly doubt), what kind of society would we be promoting? Racism, sexism, and homophobia are all very real, very serious prejudices that plague large parts of our society. They make it impossible for us to truly unite and work together. To the degree that we tolerate or allow these attitudes to flourish, they will tear our society apart. To think that repealing civil rights laws in favor of "individual liberty" in the free market would have a positive result for society as a whole seems to fly in the face of history.

    1. The post is about one particular topic. I know a lot of people wish it were about something else. But that isn't the case. So, sorry that it doesn't address your other concerns.

      You read into us things we never said. I spend most of time fighting bigotry yet you seem unaware of that and just assume otherwise. In fact, I think it fair to say that do more each day to fight such attitudes than you do. My articles on those topics reach tens of thousands of people per day. And excactly who here talked about repealing civil rights laws? I suggest you are putting words into my mouth and operating on the basis of your stereotypical view of a libertarian without any actual information about whom you are speaking.

    2. Um, the title of your post is "Why Libertarians Need to Talk to the Left". I took that as an open invitation to have a conversation to learn more about Libertarianism. I'm sorry you took it as an attack. I was truly just trying to have a productive conversation. I'm not putting words in your mouth, I never even addressed you specifically. I started by saying "My main issue with Libertarianism is..." And so, yes, I AM operating on the basis of my view of Libertarianism--what else could I possibly operate based on? If my view is "stereotypical," I apologize. I can only express my understanding as it exists in the present moment. But the whole point of me posting my view was to hear a response from you, a Libertarian. Nothing in my post was intended as a judgment of you.

      And, really, you think it fair to say that you do more each day to fight bigotry than I do? That is a completely unfounded statement, as you have no idea who I am or what I do. It's also completely beside the point.

    3. It was not an open invitation for discussing anything and everything in the comments section. There is a time and place for such things. Given that the comments were to my piece, they are going to be interpreted as referring to the me as the author. If you are talking about others I can't answer for them.

      I would suspect that given that my articles dealing particularly with prejudice against the LGBT community are read by tens of thousands of people per week, I would guess that it does more to combat these things. Perhaps not, but I suspect it is a good guess.

  9. Perhaps it sounds more feasible from the perspective of a heterosexual white male, the most privileged class of human being on the planet. And, to be clear, just because your Libertarian principles proclaim that all people should be treated as individuals rather than as members of groups, that does not make it so. It is admirable if you, as an individual, can espouse this ideal, but the VAST, VAST majority of the world does not operate that way. You cannot simply "believe" class systems or human prejudices out of existence. It seems both callous and foolish to suggest that we should go back to the days when people were allowed to discriminate openly and freely. Certainly, that would work out brilliantly for the heterosexual white male. But I do not see how a Libertarian free-market system addresses the historical fact of racial, sexual and gender-based discrimination and exploitation that continues to this day.

    The fact is that white males DO enjoy a position of privilege in our world. Special groups and privileges develop in society whether they are written in the law as such or merely emerge as a social norm. A society that TRULY cares about liberty and justice FOR ALL *must* protect the minority groups, the less-privileged individuals, from exploitation, whether that be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or, overriding all other forms of discrimination, one's inherited wealth (or lack thereof). It is both ignorant and cruel to simply say "rights belong to individuals" and ignore the very real group distinctions that exist in human societies.

    1. You really don't read this blog and are imposing your view on us, as to what you think we have to believe. I'm sorry but I don't think we live up to your stereotype.

    2. You're right, I don't read this blog. I just came across this post by happenstance, and it seemed like a good opportunity to speak with a level-headed individual who could help me understand Libertarian views and how they translate into the real world. Guess not.

    3. If you had read it you would see other posts discussing some of the things you raise and I think it unreasonable that you assume that the limited space of a comment section, about a blog post on another topic, was the place to address all your issues. It just isn't practical.

  10. Gosh MSI, I don't think it's fair to assume that anyone who came across this incredibly interesting article and want's to talk about it should have previously read this blog. Given that this article discusses very broad philosophies to which so many things are pertinent, why don't you just discuss some of the issues that people are posting about or at least have the courtesy to post a link to the places on the blog that you apparently feel would have maximum utility in discussing someone's comment? It seems from the comments that you just don't want to deal with S's question.

    1. Welch: Then which of the debates do you think I should have. The one S wants, the one Austin wants about the ethics of abortion, the other debate on the welfare state that was just requested, or maybe the land-use, property rights debate, or perhaps the claims someone made about Ayn Rand (who wasn't even discussed in the essay). That is precisely my point. It is impossible to address every issue that numerous readers want to discuss that is tangential to the actual topic.

      As we go along different topics will address some of those issue or already have. The problem is that a single question could required 2,000 words in response to clarify my actual position. Each of the topics is worthy of detailed explanations. Short ones won't satisfy anyone unless it is one of 100% agreement with their position. The process would become impossible. I see no alternative but to keep the comments related directly to the main point of the essay. I put up a note to this effect, especially since the two people wanting to debate different issues yesterday were supplemented by numerous other people overnight, all wanting to debate other topics as well.

  11. Note to all: The topic is why libertarians ought to talk with the Left. It is not a debate about abortion or other issues. Too often comments sections get hijacked and turned into debates about other issues. As the comment section is supposed to be a continuation of the discussion begun with the essay I try to stay on topic as it is too easy to veer off in other directions, which is frustrating to readers wishing to continue reading on the actual topic. For instance, I have three comments sitting in front of me. One wants to debate the ethics of taxation including a misrepresentation of Ayn Rand who was not part of the essay at all. As second wanted to debate land ownership, a third wanted to discuss the ethics of abortion.

    I realize people have lots of different issues but at any one time the comment section needs to stay focused on the initial starting point, which is the essay preceding it. Otherwise we end up with a dozen people all wanting to have different conversation talking past each other.

  12. Well I shared the article. It's incredibly interesting--you bring up so many interesting points, I sure do wish you'd open up the comments and at least let the readers discuss all of the things you say here. But since you only want to post comments that specifically address "why libertarians should talk to the left", (do we really need to enumerate the reasons we should be talking to each other?), I guess I'm SOL. Hope you get the conversation you're waiting for. Peace out.

  13. First of all, I'm not convinced that topic drift in comment threads is anywhere near as bad a thing as you seem to think.

    But even if it is, if you want to encourage dialogue with the left, I would think a good start would be being *minimally civil*, rather than petulant and bullying, toward leftists who come here to participate in such conversations.

    At a minimum, "You raise some interesting points; here's a link to a related discussion where they would be welcome" seems an obviously preferable response over "How DARE you have the temerity to raise your issues HERE, of all places! Be off with you, sirrah!".

    Part of the grouchiness on your part seems to be that you take some of the comments being made about libertarians personally. But all S said was that SOME LIBERTARIANS hold the views he or she mentioned. This is perfectly true and you, in fact, say so yourself in this very post! Speaking only for myself, when you're that hostile to someone who's doing nothing more offensive than agree with you on this point, well, it makes me wonder if maybe they're hitting a little closer to home than you would like to admit.

    1. The topic drift is not as bad precisely because the numerous posts trying to take it off topic were not posted. No one said "How dare you raise the issues" only that this is not the time or place to try to cover every topic that people want to cover. And given that you haven't seen all the posts not approved, you wouldn't know precisely how many different topics were being thrown into the mix including issues NOT discussed in the article.

      As for the claims that were made by someone else, that this is censorship. Please! That is nonsense. Censorship is the denial of an individual the right to say their mind with their resources or those freely made available to them by others. If I closed their website it would be censorship. But this is not their website. And we establish rules to try to keep conversation on topic. In addition, there are entire sorts of comments that I would ban here entirely: such as hate comments, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, etc. I would not close down sites that allow such things, I just wouldn't participate there. Every site has the right to set the rules for participation and turning off comments is easy, but I don't do that. That is all I have to really say on that matter.

    2. It's certainly your prerogative to moderate the discussion however you like. That being said, this is the first, and hopefully last, libertarian blog I've encountered that has moderated comments. Please be well aware that you certainly aren't moderating the comments for my benefit. I certainly have the critical thinking skills necessary to determine for myself whether a comment is, or isn't, relevant to the topic...and it would be exceedingly conceited of me to think that I was exceptional in this regard.

  14. As someone (a moderate leftist) to whom this essay is encouraging dialogue, I welcome it. I would like to ask two honest questions of the author:

    1, I agree that, in general, free markets are the best way to organize economics (one has to look no further than North and South Korea to see that this is abundantly clear). That being said, do you think there might be certain markets in which the normal laws of economics break down? I'm drawn back to healthcare markets, where the odd public-private mix in the US performs so poorly when compared to socialized systems across the rest of the developed world. We in the US spend far more per capita on healthcare than, say, Germany, and yet have nothing more to show for it in terms of life expectancy or infant mortality. One way I self-define as a leftist is my support for universal, single-payer health insurance (as in Germany, but not as with the NHS in Britain). I'm curious what the libertarian view or views on healthcare are.

    2, I also generally believe that property rights should be protected. That being said (and here is the environmentalist in me), what would your response be to someone who uses his/her property to build a coal-fired power plant that spews mercury into the atmosphere and poisons people for miles around? Is there a limit to property rights? I believe that one should not be given carte blache to do whatever he/she wishes on his/her property if it harms others. The idea of the commons is a major one when it comes to environmental issues, and I don't know that I'm aware of libertarian thought or thoughts on how to deal with issues of the commons.

    1. Ian: They are good questions. The first, I fear, is not one easily answered in a brief space. In general I do not think the health care market breaks down, I just don't think we've had a health care market for decades and longer. It would take an entire book to answer the question fairly. I dispute that the US markets perform poorly compared to other nations. And this is the problem of trying to address it here. To explain just that would take thousands of words. In a nutshell, the US has higher treatment rates than Canada for instance, and higher survival rates than most other nations in serious diseases. Life expectancy was addressed here as a bogus issue and you can do a search on the site for that article. It explains why. I think we have a system that is manipulated for the benefit of pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, unions, etc. Everyone has lobbied to distort the market in their favor and that has gone on for decades. What results is not a market except in a very lose sense.

      The second issue is easier to answer. No one has the right to harm others. The situations you describe ought to be a crime and individuals should be free to file charges for those offenses. Libertarians have written extensively about the risks of the commons. It is one of the reasons we argue that common ownership is a problem, the incentives are skewed badly and encourage bad usage of land, air, water, etc. In fact, one of the more potent arguments in favor of libertarianism is that opposes the creation of additional commons where it need not exist. Politics is the commons writ large and there is an interesting parallel between the tragedy of the commons and US health policy which does create a commons that encourages over use and no price sensitivity: Third party payment programs do just that. People see health care as a big commons that can be exploited since it is all paid for by insurance. They over consume driving up costs. The other systems regulate that by restricting health care and forbidden treatment in numerous cases.

    2. The short essay addressing life expectancy and infant mortality are here:

      And this just covers the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. This illustrates the difficulty of even answering simply matters in the space afforded. It is even worse for the more complex issues like health care.

    3. Thanks for the quick reply. Yes, the healthcare issue is a complex one, and the US doesn't really have a privatized system anyway, so direct comparisons with Germany or Canada don't really work all that well.

      The environmental issue is a bit more straightforward, and I agree with what you say. I donate a lot of money annually to The Nature Conservancy, which is an apolitical organization that uses market incentives and property rights to protect the environment, because I think that's a more effective route to environmental stewardship than fighting trench warfare in the halls of Congress.

  15. I love this article and I intend to discuss it on Flaming Freedom this Wednesday or Saturday depending on when we can get to it. This is exactly the mindset I've tried to retain when I'm talking on a show directed to the broader audience of mostly-liberal LGBT listeners and not just the ones who already consider themselves (small-l) libertarians.

  16. Wonderful! This is a very cogently argued, practical applicaiton and update of Rothbard's revision of intellectual history in "Left and Right: the Prospects for Liberty."

    You are absolutely correct that for many libertarians (alas, all too often for myself as well), the most important thing in the world is winning the argument. We have the best arguments, to my mind, but we could win all the arguments and still lose the battle for hearts and minds if we come off as arrogant, narrow-minded, or callous (not to mention acontextual or ahistorical).

    I might mention, in the name of reaching out to the left, your use of the term "depoliticized markets." Libertarians tend to use "political" as a rough synonym for "statist," which of course has a negative connotation but the left ususally means something much broader than that (though still, unless they are anarchists inclusive of statism), to which they attach a positive connotation. Thus all the civil liberties struggles you mention are "political" struggles in the deepest sense. To become aware of your oppression and begin to fight against it is to become politicized. I don't believe that everything in the world is or should be a political issue, but many things absolutely should be. I note how conservatives lament how everything has become "politicized." (Many of the original progressives, too. They wanted apolitical management of a giant social machine. The modern echoes of this is are the attacks you always hear in mainstream media on "partisanship.") Leftists will often read "depoliticized" to mean sweeping inequality under the rug and calling it freedom. Nobody who seriously reads your essay should think this, of course.

    Again, great job.

    1. I do not use the term political or depoliticized in that manner. The word has numerous meanings and I am using it as in:

      Having or influenced by partisan interests: The court should never become a political institution.
      Based on or motivated by partisan or self-serving objectives: a purely political decision.

      I don't use the word "statist" and don't find it useful.

  17. It would help if libertarians would stop referring to the political left as "liberals" and in perjorative sense. Tim Virkkala had a good word for them. He calls them "prodigals." I often find myself wanting to scream at some activists saying: "We are the liberals."

    That being said, libertarians now have much less in common with blue voters than they did four years ago. With a few exceptions, Obama has successfully destroyed left-wing peace activism. For the first time in its history, for example, _Rolling Stone_ is a pro-war magazine. In light of this, any leftist who still supports Obama is a lost cause.

    The libertarian movement has largely failed because libertarians try to reason with people. Trying to reason with people about their political beliefs is like trying to reason with a smoker about smoking. People smoke because there is an emotional payoff from it. People adopt political beliefs for the same reason. When libertarians give people with the kind of emotional payoff that they want, they will win elections.

  18. The article poses an excellent idea - being able to carry on a reasonable conversation with someone of a different viewpoint. What a concept!

    Speaking as a former libertarian who still holds two out of the three libertarian strains (foreign policy and social policy, but not economic policy - making me a "liberal" or "leftist" in the article's vernacular), I have come to the conclusion that most "libertarians" - and certainly most that I meet in my daily doings - are "embarrased Republicans", really only favoring low taxes and deregulation. If you libertarians would first do a better job of defining your ideology to liberals, we'd be a heckuva lot more receptive to exchanging ideas. This might require some internal screening, though, as your movement is taking on some unsavory characteristics in its elevation of taxation and other economic subjects to the exclusion of the other two legs of the stool.

    The perception of your movement as a bunch of rich white guys who want to be left alone is your biggest problem, imo. That's what the RNC is for.

    If the perception is wrong, you need better marketing.

    1. I have long said the fault in miscommunication lies with libertarians who have not done a good job on the matter. But it is not entirely our fault, to a large degree the media helps promote those stereotypes. For instance, look at how they repeatedly call a social conservative like Ron Paul a libertarian. Yet, when Gov. Gary Johnson was talking about repealing the Patriot Act, supporting marriage equality, legalizing pot, etc., they ignored him. They had only room for one "libertarian" in their reporting and shut the actual libertarian out in favor of the social conservative.

      One thing I can tell you is that most libertarians are not rich, just middle class. My father was a fireman, my mother a nurse. My grandfather a steelworker and my grandmothers worked in department stores.

    2. Another thing that you could clear up is the libertarian position on concentration of wealth and therefore power, as per the tendency of the free market to evolve into monopolies/oligopolies. Where are you on Citizens United? And if you believe that spending equals free speech, how can we prevent our "democracy" from going to the highest bidder? Again, the impression is that you're fine with that "natural outcome".

      If that's not what you're about, tell us the libertarian solution to the power imbalance that has persisted throughout our history.

    3. I don't believe historical evidence points to a tendency to evolve into monopolies but I do see them planned by politicians to be monopolies. The left historian Gabriel Kolko in The Triumph of Conservatism taught me that lesson. All the monopolies I've dealt with in my life were government sanctioned and created. I have lived where there are competing electric companies and now where that is against the law. When, Bell Telephone was a monopoly it was so via government regulation to "protect" the consumer. Anti-trust regulations were created by a lobby of big corporations pushing for it as a means of limiting competition. The end result was that a market that was more competitive became significantly less so.

      Who is fine with what "natural" outcome regarding politics? I don't tend to see the political process as that natural. First, what I think is happening is that as government takes on more powers than ever before the cost of grabbing power will increase. Every new regulation impinges some and benefits others dragging more people into the field to lobby for the controls to go in their favor. I see the high cost of running for office as directly tied to the number of favors and privileges that the political class can direct to those doing the bidding. The only way to reduce this efficiently is to reduce the privileges on auction. No one is buying is the man or woman, they are buying the power. This is not a market process at all as no market participant has the right or power to restrict access of others to compete. Only politicians and government do that.

      Government is a monopoly power and a very dangerous one. It doesn't mean that that the monopoly power it has shouldn't exist but when it gets out of the box it is more dangerous than any other monopoly.

      NOw the problem with restricting funding also exists. For instance, incumbents usually lose if they are outspent. Restrict spending and you have just passed an incumbency protection law. There are always trade offs. Protecting incumbents just means the highest bidders from previously keep their guys in office and the spending goes into lobbying, which is clearly free speech, and where the individual has no chance of competing.

      The reforms suggested, I think, are band-aids on gaping wounds. The whole electoral system is meant to protect a two-party duopoly. I think the only way around that is proportional representation which gives competing parties opportunities to be represented. That is off the table by the politicians. The reforms you speak of are always debated because the duopoly doesn't feel that threatened by them. Real reform would increase the number of parties represented in the legislatures.

  19. I fully agree that libertarians have essentially become comorbid with the modern conservative movement and, in doing so, have tacitly signed on to numerous policies that deny Americans many freedoms that we should cherish. That said, I've heard from other libertarians who want to try and create an alliance with the left, and the nearly unanimous position of those libertarians is to try and make people on the left cross the chasm all on their own. To me, that sounds like the Republican argument from last August that simply considering raising the debt ceiling was a compromise. Instead, why don't both sides try to build a bridge and meet somewhere in the middle? Libertarians can admit that the state has a legitimate role to play in the market while still pushing for a smaller state. One area I think the left and libertarians can find some agreement is in establishing markets that work in a positive way for all Americans.

    One example: how difficult is it for Americans to figure out how much a visit to their doctor or a trip to the hospital for a surgery will cost? Unless my experiences are way out of the norm, it's very difficult or impossible. Markets can't function when consumers don't know the prices of services and products. The state could mandate all providers and insurance companies use bundled payments and/or conspicuously publish a comprehensive list of all prices. That would make it easier for people to price-shop when possible.

    Another example: how difficult is it for Americans who don't have a lot of money to make their voice heard in Congress? Based on the numbers I've seen in campaign financing, it is overwhelmingly powered by people and corporations with a lot of money. The state could agree to reimburse the first, say, $50 of every taxpayer's bill as a voucher to be given to a political candidate whom they support. This would force politicians to compete for the approximately $7 billion in funds the people would have through this system. You could even grant candidates a binding choice of using public or private funds when they declare their candidacy.

  20. Bravo! This is interesting. I'm a far left liberal. I like markets a lot, because I like their dynamism and I like exchange: I like the freedom to transform oneself. I dislike the relentless essentialism of libertarians, which seems to me to be fundamentally conservative in the way it wants there to be "natural" bases for outcomes. That emphasis on "natural" difference was the underpinning of racist and sexist oppression and too often, libertarians were/are perfectly willing to overlook inequality if they could tell themselves it was a natural market outcome.

    I take your point--entirely--that libertarianism is tainted by conservatism, and that it seems far more interested in protecting the status quo. Ron Paul is an example--the talk about ending the drug war is undercut by the racist newsletters and the survivalist paranoia, which looks Bircherist, because in fact it IS.

    I would welcome a debate with libertarians about how to break the status quo, and about how to manage/assess govt. interventions in human life. But as long as markets are imagined as "natural" and govt as "social/political," we are going to have problems. Libertarians don't own reason, and they don't own the definition of liberty: the meaning of these terms should be as much subject to negotiation as any other aspect of exchange

  21. As a progressive (of the modern day variety), I like this article. A few things, though:

    1) A better treatment of the various ideologies of the "left" is in order. You seem to lump early-20th century progressives in with the socialists of that era, when they were bitter enemies. (By the same token, modern progressivism has little to do with that of Teddy Roosevelt's day). Even FDR, who is championed by many modern liberals as their great hero, was despised by those elements further to his left--socialists, Marxists, and even Huey P. Long. Libertarians may view these distinctions as only ones of degree; but quite a few libertarians are always eager to educate me on the difference fundamental differences between followers of Rothbard and Rand. By the same token, if you you want to talk to the left, give some credence to how we on the left describe and classify ourselves.

    2) And with that in mind--PLEASE lose the rejoinder "statist" (this is addressed to libertarians in general; this post doesn't make this error). It's is offensive and incorrect as "gun nut"--liberals don't worship the state, nor see its expansion as an end in itself. We see the state as a tool, much as RKBA supporters view firearms as tools, not as objects to be worshipped as an end. Conversely, gun control advocates (and libertarians) see the tool in question to be inherently dangerous. I'm not aware of any modern political ideology that views expansion of the state as a goal rather than as a means to some end.

    3) One place where libertarians lose the left--and here I speak mainly of the well-funded folks at the big DC think tanks--is that many libertarians talk about liberty and such, but then make the dismantling of the welfare state their first priority. Public assistance to the needy isn't itself coercive, at least not to the recipients. The taxes needed to pay for it might be, one can argue, but that's a different issue.

    And the third item, I think, reveals a big reason why libertarianism is frequently sorted as a conservative/right-wing ideology: that's where much of its funding comes from. The number of political dollars seeking out lower taxes, a reduced welfare state, and fewer regulations is FAR greater than the number of dollars opposed to the drug war, opposed to military intervention overseas, or in support of civil liberties. In short, right-libertarians are winning the argument and dominating the conversation because they have the money on their side: the Koch Brothers and others care greatly about low taxes and low regulations, far more than they do about infinite detention, legal marijuana, and getting us out of Afghanistan.

    1. A few points. I only made a couple of broad statements about American progressives in a historical context and there was no attempt to look at nuances because it was not a one minute history in a part of a larger essay on another topic. It would not go into detail since it was a side point in the larger essay.

      I never use the term statist, as I've mentioned and find it too cultic. In fact, its use is a red flag to me about the person using it.

      The only think tank in DC that I know of that is libertarian is Cato and while they discuss welfare reform they have never made it their first priority. I just looked at the first 100 books they published and out of them one dealt with welfare. This is hardly the obsession implied in your comment.

      And while we don't get funding from the Kochs, and mostly earn our own way, I think you are reading too much of the sort of material that Altarnet publishes (I said the sort of material, not them specifically) which is often dishonest. For instance they gave $20 million to the ACLU to fight the Patriot Act, detention, etc. They do give fair sums to Cato, who has done more books on a non-interventionist foreign policy than they have on welfare. Reason magazine spends a lot of time on civil liberties, police abuse, marijuana issues and they get funding. And, of course, the Kochs funded the evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian (they are not part of the religious right) and have been supportive of gay marriage. We shouldn't forget that the chairman of Cato is one of the two co-presidents of American Foundation for Equal Rights fighting the Prop 8 initiative in the courts.

    2. Thanks for your response. I see you mention in another comment your aversion to the term "statist"; that's good to hear, as it is a major category error.

      To be fair, of course, many on the left do tend to conflate libertarians and conservatives; and many conservatives LOVE to use libertarian talking points and themes as a fig-leaf for reactionary politics. (The Tea Party is but the latest in a long line of examples of this phenomenon among popular movements--it should be a big clue that these reactionary elements are mainly active when there's a Democrat in the White House. Likewise, many "elite" conservative institutions like to portray socially backward agendas as libertarian, even though most of them are no such thing).

      With regard to the broader picture, though... there are many ways to sort the various political factions in the US. (I'm going to ignore politics and political movements outside the US, both historical and modern, for now). The primary sorting criterion seems to be one's position on "redistribution", specifically redistribution from the wealthy to the poor. If you use this as your first razor, then it result in both libertarians and conservatives being sorted on one side, and modern progressives and Marxists on the other--which would explain why those of us on the left tend to view libertarians skeptically, while those on the right make equally absurd claims such as Democrats are really socialists.

      An unfortunate habit of many political junkies is to only make and recognize distinctions among those who are ideologically close, but regard distant positions as equivalent. Conversation requires recognizing and honoring the distinctions across the board, and this goes for all sides.

    3. There are plenty of areas where redistribution is going from the less well-off to the more well-off. I think we start there. The point is to start with the common ground first.

  22. The term libertarian was transplanted from Europe. It initially referred to anti-state socialists, specifically anti-state and anti-Marxist revolutionary leftists. While this may seem a semantic point, I think it does show that there are historical links between elements of the left and contemporary libertarianism.

    That aside, as someone who (sort of) identifies with the left (even though I find elements of current leftist thought silly and naive) and as someone who values civil liberties above all else, I've been saying that there needs to be a historic rapprochement between the two camps in North America. It's possible, necessary and, I think, beginning to happen.

    I'm Canadian and, although the repressive and surveillance. apparatus of the state hasn't expanded as much or as quickly as it has in the US post-9/11, it has happened. This is a threat to all of us, libertarian, liberal, conservative, whomever.

  23. This leftist finds your perspective refreshing. I've long lamented that "libertarianism" was focused on things that get in the way of white dudes who have money and own businesses (guns, pot, environmental/antidiscrimination regulations) rather than actual freedom for all people. I'll continue to read this blog and mention only one minor quibble: Both unions and corporations have state-sponsored powers, but you only mention those of unions as a bad thing.

    Of course, once I've read more of this blog, I'm going to come back and pick fights :)

  24. Another lefty (from South Africa) here that finds this article insightful. I guess this is in part because you say nice things about us, like that we have our hears in the right place :-)

    I guess it happens often in politics that two people may have the same goal in mind, but have different ideas of how to get there. In that case, much good will can be established between them. That's what you are proposing, and it makes a lot of sense.

    As an aside, I do understand that you want to keep this thread on topic; but I think some people have interpreted this article as an invitation to engage with the left, so they want to do the 'engagement' right here on this thread and don't understand that you want to keep the discussion to the meta-topic.

    That's why they're a bit confused with your reaction to their posts.

  25. Sorry, but as a moderate leftist myself, and after having read your very LONG essay, you haven't convinced me that we have a whole lot in common. Because when push comes to shove, libertarians/classic liberals/whatever you want to call yourselves all end up being the same thing: impassioned defenders of plutocrats and oligarchs. Look at the economy we are living in right now - THIS is what you fought so hard for, and continue to fight for. The Left does not have nor need people like you to muddle up its mission to destroy our corporate aristocracy.

    1. Well, I would have been surprised if it did since the purpose of the essay wasn't to even try to convince ideologues on the Left about the common ground. It was addressed to libertarians as to why such dialogue was important. See, once someone uses extreme ideological terms like "corporate aristocracy" I put them in the same camp as people who brand others "statists" or speak of "radical gay agenda." It gives away nothing about their opponents but it does speak of how extreme the speaker is himself or herself. By that criteria you would more likely fall into the category of people I said have no common ground or little common ground.

      But, at no point, was this essays on why libertarians should talk to the Left an explanation as why the Left should reciprocate. That is a different essay. And if I were to try to convince people on the Left of my views I would have to do a completely different essay than I set out to do. Your complaint is similar to being unhappy that the flight to Boston, doesn't go to Miami. Of course not, it wasn't meant to.

  26. Wonderful essay. But the Ron Paul Neo-Confederates made it almost impossible for the term "Libertarian" to evoke thoughts of your particular philosophy almost a decade ago. Hell, even by 1988, it was probably time for your sort to start looking for a new name to call yourselves.

    1. You are correct. BTW: libertarian is not capitalized unless you are specifically referring to members of the party by that name. None of us are members.

      While the media won't tell you this a number of libertarians were trying to warn people about these problems in the Ron Paul movement, which I consider to be paleoconservative, not libertarian. Paleoconservatives tend to have similar economic polices and a propeace foreign policy but are opposed to the social freedom and social liberalism of libertarianism.

      But years before any of the major media cottoned on to the problems with Paul various libertarians sites were exposing those problems. In fact, I know that some major media outlets contacted such sites for information, wrote the exposes of the Paul problems, and then pretended they stumbled on this information all on their own. Most think James Kirchick first brought this to light, but there are libertarians sites that did so several years befor Kirchick even graduated from school.

    2. As someone who teaches at George Mason University (though not in economics) I'm able to attest to the fact that there was a sharp schism in libertarian circles between the Rothbard/Von Mises Institute people and the Cato/Koch people. Rothbard/Von Mises are the "paleolibertarians" who decided that embracing racism was a good idea as a strategy. It's their strategy you see in the the Ron Paul newsletters. As far as I can tell this wasn't simply strategy with them; they were basically racists. The Koch/Cato wing disavowed the racism, and made its peace with civil rights. It's hard not to be troubled by the vast sums of money the Koch brothers shower on the econ. dept/public choice/IHS. It looks like large amounts of money spent to insure policies favorable to the operations of the billionaire Koch brothers, because that's what it is. It's conservative in the sense that it seeks to conserve a frame in which the Koch brothers continue to thrive.

      Most lefty types don't know this about libertarianism, and think it's all one thing.

      Putting that aside, the central point remains a good one--there is much for leftists and libertarians to discuss, and remembering the common origins of "liberalism" and "libertarianism" is a good idea.

  27. Well I guess the question is are the differences between the Left (of which I consider myself a part) and Libertarians great enough to make talking a waste of time? It's not only do you care about pillar x but how much do you care about pillar x.

    For instance I care more about economic issues than social issues because I think fixing the economic issues will actually advance the social issues. Meanwhile fixing the social issues seems to have made the economic issues go backwards for various reasons in my view.

    1. I'm sure there are a lot of ideologues on the Left who so want economic controls that they will sacrifice civil liberties, the rights of gay people, immigrants, and a pro-peace foreign policy in order to get it. Just as there are conservatives who pretend to support small government but will abandon that goal in order to bash gays and immigrants. To them there is nothing I have to say. When people throw the rights of others under the bus, in order to achieve, their higher purposes, I don't care if they are on the far Left or the far Right, they are the very people who I think are doing the most damage to the nation and responsible for the rapid decay in civil liberties.

  28. As a former Libertarian, what I see missing in your excellent essay is the concept raised by JS Mill of the role of 'economic rent'. My experience is that Libertarians spend a great amount of time and effort defending rentiers, a group they confuse with entrepreneurs. I see on the news, Libertarians praising state capitalist Romney as an example of the free market. It is the clearly evident that Libertarians as a group do not clearly examine the sources of profit and capital that those they praise employed.

    Also missing is the evolution of many Classical Liberals into Social Democrats on the Scandanavian model. Social Democracy does address the issue of rents, and does deal with the basic 'smash and grab' of the rentiers.

    My own experience of Libertarianism is of a group of white men who admire other white men. And have no appreciation for how people made their money. Just that they have money.

    1. There sure are a lot of "former libertarians" who ran into people I've never run into, or at worst, were exceptions. I read the major libertarian websites daily, the publications and deal with, on any one day, probably 100 different libertarians through the course of the day. I have yet to see one who praised Romney in recent years. Some years back, Romney was governor of Massachusetts and was rather socially liberal then. He got some appreciation for that, but since he turned into a raving conservative to placate the base of the GOP I've not run into any libertarian of prominence who praised Romney.

    2. The fact that the media has a "libertarian" praising Romney should be the first clue. The media is pro corporatist and conflates corporatist systems (ie banking system, military industial complex etc) with free market systems. Libertarians are pro peace and Romney is as much a warmonger as Obama.

  29. To follow up, my own break point with Libertarians came after I came out as Gay. I went to a meeting and brought up an issue: a large apartment developement refused to rent 1 bedroom apartments to 2 men; they would rent it to 2 women or a man and a women. I was told it was solely the owners right to do so. When it was pointed out that the owners had used the state to eminent domain the property away from minority owners, and then borrowed the city's bonding authority to finance the project, and relied on government funding to finish the project, I was told that it did not matter how the owners got their property, all that mattered was that they owned it.

    Recently I met a Libertarian who told me that using tax money to treat people with active, infectious typhoid was a restriction on his liberty. Could you explain how people are better off when those with highly infectious diseases are both untreated and able to work in jobs that spread their fatal disease? How does the freedom of people with typhis to work in restaurants increase individual freedom? I feel that the rational for universal health coverage rests on the infectious nature of disease: it is self defense.

    1. You are right and to put it in technical terms, you were dealing with some real assholes. This was not so prevalent 30 years ago. But in recent years some really disgusting conservative types have flooded into libertarianism trying to change the nature and tone of the philosophy. You ran into a whole herd of them.

      Just remember that a philosophy is different from people who claim to adhere to it. I know many prominent libertarian philosophers who would say you were correct and that these asses were in the wrong.

      The big mistake they are making is that they have thrown out the purpose of libertarianism—which is to protect rights—and replaced the ends with the means—liberty. Liberty is a means to a goal and in a huge number of cases the only means or best means. But sometimes restrictions on liberty achieve rights—such as when we arrest people for rape, or stop other criminal trespasses. We restrict liberty when rights are being violated. I believe you were dealing with what I call anarcho-fundamentalists. Not even all anarchists would agree with them, they are particularly obsessive and rude bunch like all fundamentalists tend to be. I'm sorry you went through that. I could introduce you to hundreds of libertarians, including very prominent ones, who would not have sided with you. I can assure you that the fundamentalist nutters in libertarianism routinely attack those people as well. They are, in fact, enemies of libertarianism who do it a great deal of harm.

    2. Again, kudos for continuing the dialogue. However, I am now more confused than ever. I hear you saying that those "libertarians" who would restrict gay men from renting on "liberty" grounds are "assholes"/anarcho-fundamentalists and therefore not true libertarians. Well, wasn't that the whole argument over Civil Rights laws? Didn't Goldwater campaign on the libertarian view?

      You imply that imposing on this landlord/rentier a bar on discrimination would be appropriate under libertarian doctrine. Did I get that right? Cuz if I did, it seems that the major schism between the left and libertarianism has been breached.

      You go on to claim that libertarianism is first and foremost about protecting rights. This will hook a liberal/leftist every time, but then again let's go back to our "gays seeking housing" example. What we have there is a classic example of a competing rights - the right of the gay men to find housing in an open market vs. the right of the owners of the housing development to choose their tenants.

      This competition of interests is writ large across the entire spectrum of socio-economic matters - progressive versus regressive taxation, polluters vs. breathers, outsourcers vs. unions, Catholics vs. contraception, etc.

      It seems to me that you may have strayed off the reservation when you called your libertarian brethren "assholes" here. I'd really like to understand the distinction you are drawing and how real libertarians would/should resolve those competitions between competing interests. Do you weigh the value of competing rights in some sort of heirarchy of "good" and declare the holder of the greater value the winner (I think that's what liberals do)?

      Again, this "protect rights" is a great starting point for dialogue, but it needs a lot more fleshing out from the libertarian side.

    3. Lin: The difference in my opinion and your assumption is the context that disappeared in your discussion of it. If you go back to the description of the situation you will see the context. The apartments in question were described as having come into existence, not do to competitive forces in the market, but to political manipulation of the market.

      I thought these alleged libertarians were assholes because they were completely ignoring this context.

      First, remember the difference between a market transaction and a political one. In a political transaction, The politicians Y do "business" with Z (in this case the apartment complex) but do so by imposing costs on everyone all, lets say people A-X.

      In a normal, depoliticized market Z has no coercive powers over A-X, that is he can not take their land, and use their income to fund his project. Once he used the state in the project to take from the public coercively he ought to be treated as an arm of the state, he is, after all, effectively existing in this context only because of his coercive theft of the land of other people and the taking of their tax monies.

      When the state provides a service or pays for the service through such methods the state or those to whom the wealth of the public is redistributed (usually from the less wealthy to the more wealthy) have lost their rights to indulge their private, petty prejudices.

      If a grocery store acts in a bigoted manner I can typically go next door, or down the road to half a dozen other stores. Our town is a small one and and we have around 10 such stores not counting those in neighboring towns. NOne of them can force me to fund their existence. They must act competitively, which in fact, acts as a huge incentive not to indulge their prejudices too much—if they do it is being done at their expenses and people tend to be less bigoted when paying with their own money. (Lovely illustration is the scene in the script for Milk when Harvey goes to the liquor store filled with gay customers, while months before the owner was spouting bigoted comments to him. Such a store existed. I lived on the same block, and while Milk was dead by then, I could see his camera shop every day from my window, it was across the street from me.)

      Those who use state manipulation to do their business or to enjoy protected spheres of business have ceased to be private. If they can force me, or you, to pay their costs, and we are no longer free to take our funds elsewhere (because competition is banned--such as for our local electric company--or because they confiscated our funds to finance the company upfront) then it loses any claim to act privately.

      I don't think competitive markets are likely to be discriminatory in the overwhelming number of cases because of the nature of competition. There is a reason that the worst cases of segregation required the force of law to uphold them and the police to enforce them. But, monopolistic instutions that rely on government coercion, are not competitive and should have the same obligations as the state that sustains them—which is to treat all those people who are forced to help fund them equally.

    4. So then you're saying that one loses one's "protection of rights" by the state when one takes advantage of certain state privileges as per this housing development, and consequently, under libertarian theory, one can be compelled by the state to adhere to anti-discimination policies but only if one accepts those state privileges. Right?

      But then, every business, every entrepreneur, relies to some degree on government services, whether it's building and maintaing roads and other transportation means, enforcing intellectual property rights, enforcing fair trade laws, policing private property, etc etc.

      At what level of assistance does the "libertarian imperative" recede?

      I'm not getting the sense that your kind of libertarianism has a cogent way of addressing the "competition of rights" inherent in these analyses. Would you please try again? Thanks.

    5. One does not lose all rights. But if others are forced to pay for services you provide, without consent, then the right to discriminate against them is out the window. People who are made to pay for something have the right to receive what they pay for.

      I didn't say that everyone who receives a government service, but those who got a privilege. A privilege is different. Roads are used by everyone, eminent domain benefits only those with political clout.

      We all pay for highways and all benefit from highways, though to varying levels. But, an apartment complex that only exists through state power and enriches the owners of that complex doesn't benefit everyone.

      But, the highways, for instance, can't discriminate. Or the schools, or the post office. Or, for that matter, marriage law (if properly seen). Everyone uses the post office, but we don't have a choice in that. Everyone uses the roads. Same principle.

      So the receding takes place when they use state power to gain for themselves a privilege which is not provided to everyone else. Getting a letter doesn't qualify but stealing another person's property via eminent domain does, taking funding to build your business does, driving down a road open to all doesn't.

    6. Ok. I get it: you're basically back at the libertarian starting point, which is the position Goldwater and others took on the Civil Rights Acts (and which Ron Paul continues to assert today), but you've provided a caveat that revolves around the acceptance of privileges from the state above and beyond those which are offered to everyone. Therefore, this particular housing development could be compelled to rent to gays, but others who did not accept the condemnation and other special assistance from the state would be free to discriminate.

      I can see that being a logical distinction (although nearly impossible to parse in the real world, I would suggest), but it brings me back to this: how in the world can you then maintain that libertarianism is all about protecting rights when you ignore the rights of the gay would-be renters (or those black lunch-counter patrons of the '60s)? You're simply willing to ignore some rights in favor of others.

      While I can see the logic of this (we must protect all rights so long as no one else's rights are being compromised in the process), I would challenge you to read some court rulings and related commentary on the subject of "public accommodations". The libertarian position strikes me as putting ideology above people (and certain people's rights), and that strikes me as a bad proposition pretty much universally. Certainly, this is something to chew on.

      Cheers, again, for your good sportsmanship.

    7. Sorry, but I am not with Ron Paul regarding the Civil Rights Act. Once again context is very important. In the South state-sanctioned violence prevented competitive provision of services. Anyone who allowed integration not only faced state laws forbidding it and the threat of legal sanctions, but there was organized violence against them and the states refused to use their police powers to protect these rights. Often the Klan and the police were in cooperation to violently prevent a competitive market from providing services to all races.

      Thus the trade-off that we faced historically was between two competing situations that violated property rights of individuals. Between the two the Civil Rights Act was the least lethal because it helped end a violent era that was killing people. So, while each could be seen as state intervention in property rights the latter also reduced murder, arson, vandalism, etc. Rarely are we offered the chance to pick between options that don't involve tradeoffs. And sometimes the tradeoffs are hard to weigh against each other, but in the Civil Rights Act I don't think the tradeoffs are that close to each other.

      I would also mention that property right are not the rights of property but the rights of people. Just as marriage rights are not the rights of marriage but the rights of people.

    8. Allow me to preface the following by saying I understand my position to be primarily one of philosophy and not of practical application. The truth being I have no good answers for the existing problem of the apartment owner, I only wish to stop further abuses of power by the state.

      I find a fundamental disagreement with the purpose of Libertarianism here. Libertarianism is not for the purpose of protecting rights, (whose rights, which rights, is this a right or is that...) but rather to promote the only universal right which is self ownership. I own me and you own you.

      This distinction solves the diminishing returns problem Lin speaks of. The correct action is not to use more government power to force the apartment owners to rent to those we want but rather to NEVER use government power to take from the people to give to the bigot who won't rent to Lin.

      Come on guys, this is simple stuff. It is a lesson your grandmother taught you when you were five. "Two wrongs don't make a right." Such is a far more proper position, ethically and morally, to the antinomian idea of the end justifying the means. The end NEVER justifies the means. You argue better versus worse when you should argue right versus wrong.

    9. The state is not abusing the person who takes funds from it to build apartments. The person abandons his right to do what he wishes with his property once he voluntarily takes the funding and uses the state to confiscate the land on which he built it.

      As for your second paragraph. It just doesn't make sense to say it is not about rights and then assert it is about a "universal right." That is just bad categorization. And, all you are doing is asserting a fundamental right and then have to parse out all the implications of that right, which means getting into the same discussion of rights that you are trying to avoid.

      Whether we should never have used the states (who is we?) in the first place is like arguing about what the world be like if there is no gravity. Irrelevant to the discussion, because there is gravity. And irrelevant to the discussion because the apartment owner DID use the state. The questions is how do you respond to the real situation, even if it is not what you fantasize for a perfect society. Such fantasies may be useful in determining directions but of little use in answering moral dilemmas that actually do exist. And, me, I find it more useful and rational to discuss reality.

      AS for the end never justifying the means, you have to justify the ends first, and that justifies the means. If ends don't justify means what does?

  30. Actually, except for the typoid guy, all these examples were from the period 1967 to 1980 when I was active. I can still remember the screams and yells whenever anyone suggested a Libertarian contingent in an anti-war march. And the large numbers of Libertarians who protested the Viet Nam anti=war marches. Rothbard called them 'anarcho-patriots' and the Libertarian movement was filled with them 45 years ago. So, this is not something new.

    One of the best comments on the subject came from the last issue of a newsletter. The writer just gave up on the movement, lamenting: 'There has got to be more about freedom than protecting a bunch of bigots.'

    1. Good lord, that is depressing. The people I knew during those years were fairly decent and libertarians I knew were active in the anti-war movement. During those years I was a co-chair of the Chicago Coalition Against Registration and the Draft and we sent a group of libertarians to the CARD national conference in Ann Arbor.

      I knew Rothbard too well to take him seriously. And the more I learned the less seriously I took him. But he whooped it up when the US pulled and the Vietcong took Saigon, he told people "we won." I thought that ludicrous, even if I opposed the war myself. I personally think Murray set modern libertarians totally off course with some of his nonsense. Of course, poor Ron Paul, is probably lamenting ever allowing Rothbard and Rockwell to pen stuff under his name. But he knew what he was getting into so I don't feel that bad.

  31. This is great and I totally agree. I feel a split between right-libertarians and left-libertarians is imminent. Those of us on the left need to start working with the Democratic party as those on the right have worked with the Republican party.

  32. Not sure if my comment will be approved so I'll keep this brief. What we need are more libertarians like Jeffrey Miron who acknowledge that there is free-rider problem double standard and more liberals like Cait Lamberton who understand the value of the invisible hand.

    In this blog entry...Libertarianism and the Free-rider problem...I share three possible compromises and would be interested in hearing both libertarians' and liberals' thoughts on which compromise, if any, is the most reasonable.

  33. As a liberal-progressive-technocrat, let me say I am intrigued, and heading off to read the rest of your posts.

    One point to raise: just because we have a different understanding of economics, which leads to the difference in our means toward achieving liberal ends, that doesn't mean we're naive. You might, for instance, disagree with Paul Krugman, but he's neither uneducated nor stupid. We might disagree on government's role in markets, but it would do the conversation well to acknowledge that the technocratic left does actually have an internally consistent framework where government's goal is to correct for market imperfections (and that all markets are imperfect, to varying degrees) and we're willing to discuss it on its merits. Please don't call it naivete.

    1. Dale: When I say that many on the Left are naive about economics I am not referring to Krugman, who at least gets the basics, even if he denied their was a bubble and said those of us who warned there was were wrong.

      Clearly the article distinguishes between the rank-and-file modern progressive and the leadership. Though I think many leaders know no economics at all. Here are the kind of examples I'm talking about.

      When people say that raising the cost of labor via various regulations will not reduce the demand for labor, all other things being equal,that is naive.

      When they claim that raising taxes won't reduce investments. Less private capital means less investment.

      Or take the belief that govt. spending increases private wealth under some multiplier effect. (The most recent NBER paper on that showed the effect is less than 1, meaning it destroys more wealth than it produces.)

      When we say markets are imperfect remember that "market" is merely a device to describe human economic action. Humans make mistakes. The problem I have with the technocratic assumption is that humans can plan for the mistakes that humans make. That is, the same imperfect humans who err in the marketplace are the same imperfect humans who err in central planning or top-down approaches. And, worse, the tend to not have a direct stake in the decisions they make, unlike market participants, and thus have less of an incentive to get it right, and are most susceptible to political influences to skew the results to favor one group over another.

      But many Left economics are not naive, I just think they are wrong. But certainly the rank and file I speak to have had no economic training whatsoever and regularly repeat myths that even most Left economists admit are not factual. It is those people who are naive. By the way I would say the Right is naive in history, very naive in history and regularly repeat myths that have been debunked there. I'm an equal opportunity offender. But I call it as I see it.

    2. PS: Calling it as I see it doesn't mean evidence can't convince me otherwise. I've changed my views on many issues due to further investigation and new research. So I hate to imply that any conclusion I hold now will be identical to what I believe in the future. I've change my mind enough times already to not rule it out as a possibility in the future. And, in fact, I don't have a lot of confidence in people of any political strip who are not regularly changing their minds as they become more knowledgeable. What I really hate about ideology is that too often it becomes an excuse to stop thinking and investigating.

  34. I couldn't ask anything more of you.

    Although your specific points about simple economic truths that the left gets wrong do remind me of this:

    I, too, promise to do my best to keep an open mind.

    1. Dale: I read that article several months ago. First, I think there are some libertarians who are very ignorant of economics, especially from particular subgroups within libertarianism. Or I think they misapply it. Far too many of them only know what they believe and know nothing about other arguments. Nor do they understand the various schools of economics many of which are compatible with libertarianism. Some wrongly think that only the Austrian school is libertarian. That is wrong several ways as the Austrian school included socialists for instance.

      In regards to this article I went to read the actual study on which Klein based it, I tend to do that when I can as I wish to verify the context. Now, it has been a couple of months since reading it but I believe Klein noted two questions that libertarians missed which caused the results to change from previous studies. Unless I misremember the two questions that did seemed to be confusingly written to me. That is the question asked one thing but could have been asking something slightly different. If you interpret the question in the first direction you get a wrong answer, if you interpret it as asking the other interpretation, you get a correct answer.

      I remember writing on FB at the time that the two questions seemed particularly badly written and clearer questions were needed. It was sort of like me asking where Johannesburg is located. You say South Africa and I say: "Wrong, it's about 100 miles east of Bakersfield, CA." Your answer is right and so is mine, it all depends on whether the question is clear and if there is more than one way to interpret it. And those two questions struck me as particularly confusing.

  35. I am arriving at this discussion late, I apologize.

    I believe you have fallen into the trap presented by stateists who define the political structure as right and left. You may be trying to use this framework to facilitate discussion and understanding, considering how well researched and intelligent the article is, but I find it confuses the issue further. Let me explain.

    Libertarianism is not on the left end of a spectrum with conservatives on the right and socialists in the middle. Libertarianism is outside this argument. The spectrum you present is properly described as monarchy on the far right and communism on the far left. Conservatism is middle right while socialism is middle left. Libertarianism is nowhere to be found. Why? Everyone described in this spectrum is a stateist.

    Libertarianism is on a spectrum, we'll call it up and down, with collectivism at the bottom and anarchy at the top. This would put libertarians a little north of top-middle and put stateists a little south of bottom-middle. I make this argument in recognition of Libertarianism being about individual sovereignty.

    The final axis is moralism versus secularism. I find you miss-define conservatives when what you truly describe are moralists. For instance, a conservative can be a secularist if he supports state power in the hands of a few, i.e. the King. But he could also be a moralist if he supports state power in the hands of a few, i.e. the Cardinal.

    So, it is my assertion Libertarianism is primarily a matter of individualism, not which end of the stateist argument we should support. Libertarianism is anti government power. At this moment in time, Republicans tend more toward reducing that power (if only slightly). What concerns me is your personal animosity toward the Tea party activists. The primary goal of the Tea party is to reduce state power. This is THE central libertarian precept. I do not deny factions within the tea party ranks are moralists, bigots, war mongers or what have you, but it is axiomatic to say the Tea party wants to shrink government. They should be our ally. So to should the Occupy Wall Street movement be our ally. Sure, they understand nothing about markets or business cycles. They know nothing of what it takes to build an enterprise, but they do know one thing. The lives of many are controlled by the hands of a few. Prime targets for education by libertarians. I understand, as libertarians we like to support free trade and open markets and that would tend to put us on the side of Wall Street but, when business becomes one in the same with government power we must revert to our first priority, personal sovereignty.

  36. Notice: Some comments seem to have been lost somewhere. Sorry, I'm not sure what happened.