Monday, May 16, 2005

Flogging A Terminally Ill Horse/Don't Be A Narc

The biggest impediment to the Matt Welch "Goldwater Democrats" project (which, let's be fair, some of us thought about independently) is that an entrenched segment of the Democratic base is simply opposed to anything like a libertarian politics. Cf. Dan Munz's attack on libertarianism at Ezra Klein's place. I think I understand the point he's trying to make---liberalism is about using government to help people, therefore anti-statism is bad for liberalism---but beyond disagreeing (which I obviously do), this argument seems to me to go to the heart of the Democrats' malaise. Even if liberal intellectuals find something of value in a slogan like "get government on my back," it's not the sort of thing that will ever be able to win over electoral majorities---and never has been. Americans didn't begin disliking government intrusion into their lives when Ronald Reagan declared government to be "the problem"; they began to do so when the British impressed them into service in the French and Indian Wars. Anti-statism is at the heart of our founding documents. It is a cultural current that runs deeper than the transient alignments and affiliations of our contermporary political scene; that fact is what's going to save us from the designs of the theo-totalitarian right, if anything does.

Libertarianism itself is a kind of centrist politics---i.e., in the center of a political axis spanning two ideal-type anarchisms, anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-capitalism (if it's helpful to think of those as left and right, then by all means, but the analogy is inexact). As such, sensible libertarians recognize that the axioms of their ideology leave room for moderation and compromise; affirming the legitimacy of the state itself is a compromise position. Even so, libertarianism exhausts a set of principles that are analytic components of any politics deigning to call itself "liberal." The anti-libertarian arguments of Dan Munz and others are premised on re-legitimizing the potential good uses of government power; as I've said before, I think a suitably conceived left-libertarianism could accomodate certain specifically defined uses of such power. Yet the anti-libertarian position runs up against a damning flaw: Strip liberalism of all libertarian principles---and that would be entailed by arguing, preposterously, that liberalism is non-ideological---and liberalism simply has no answer for the abuse of state power. Or put it another way: if it could be shown that an intrusion on personal freedom could be justified by utility-calculation, anti-libertarian liberalism could not voice a principled objection. Many liberals would do so, but that only goes to show that liberals really do maintain some libertarian principles.

The point of the foregoing is to allow me to make this point: Civil and economic libertariansm, far from being distinct and independent, are close conceptual relatives and at least partly entailed by one another. For the sake of argument, let's assume that a government program could be shown to improve the lives of a great many people without harming anyone at all; there is still a trade-off here. Empowering the government to act in the private lives of citizens, no matter what the end, establishes a precedent for future interventions. There cannot be an expansion of government power without a price at the very least in potential loss of personal freedom. Hopefully liberals can understand that, and further appreciate that by acknowledging such a trade-off, they are not committed to free-market anarchism.

Pace Dan (and Howard Dean), "we" are not the government. There are far too many of "us." In an ideal world, our government would be perfectly representative of us; since this world is not ideal, our government varies in its proximity to perfect representation, never achieving it. As a consequence, government authority as a thing in itself has to be treated with skepticism. It should be resisted whenever it acts against our best interests, and treated with terrific wariness when it acts in what it perceives to be our best interests. Hence the indispensibility of libertarianism. It is not, as Dan puts it, "basically an ideological aversion to using government to help people." It is an ideological opposition to any infringements on individual liberty; in practice it is an opposition to such infringements on the part of the state, because the state is quite well-positioned to commit such infringements. I wish that libertarians were more willing to acknowledge the ways in which concentrated blocks of capital can act as restrictions of individual freedom; nevertheless, any principled opposition to the use of government to hurt people will be an essentially libertarian critique. Any liberals who don't think that government can hurt people are, despite their distaste for this administration, simply unconscious to the realities of Bush Republicanism.


At 1:50 PM, Blogger Nostradamus said...

From the title, I had high hopes that this post was about Schiavo... Oh well. Re: Libertarianism: I just imagine a group orgie involving Greenspan and Ayn Rand, and that is enough to convince me that whatever logic there might be to your point, you are completely wrong, and libertarianism is in fact nothing more than a kind of justified selfishness... But no matter, what do I know?

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Liam said...

"nothing more than a kind of justified selfishness." Maybe...but then you are just oversimplifying (over generalizing vis overobtusifying) Koffler's point.
But my personal favorite kinds of Justified Selfishness are as follows:

1. Smoking Pot

Justification: Oooh life sucks, I'm anxious, "hurry up and cash it Actual God is coming" etc.

2. Libertarianism (this was almost first)

Justification: sorta circular

3. Taking up space / consuming resources

Justification: Me First. I.E. You have NO ACCESS to my "inner reality" Whatever I assume about you, your cousin and the starving masses to make this all more like TV don't hold a candle to that lovely line between us .


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