Friday, July 29, 2011

Vulgar Libertarians: Left Edition

I was just recently listening to a Thinking Liberty interview with the infamous Kevin Carson. Having never heard him speak, while having read several of his pieces at C4SS, I found the interview pretty interesting. For one, the calibre of questions provided by the hosts and the listeners seemed to be quite high given the subjects. It was a nice departure from my frequent audio stomping ground, Free Talk Live.

Part of what I found particularly fascinating were his critiques of right-leaning libertarians; a group he more broadly has termed as "vulgar libertarians." His claim is that the supposed "vulgar libertarian" defense of free-markets tends to give way to an ipso facto defense of the business structure that has been established in our current not-so-free-market. I actually agree with a good deal of this proposition as far as it goes. But I think it ironically, and conversely, describes another form of vulgar libertarianism that forms on the left portion of that spectrum.

It's worth noting that there are plenty of people both on the right and also within the libertarian ranks who simply do not realize how many corporations operate at an advantage, in some aspects, because of the absence of a free market. Of course, on the other hand, they operate at a disadvantage under the current regime in other respects, but that may be a discussion for a different day. In any case, Carson is right to call such people out. And he is right that many libertarians are too quick to defend the corporate beneficiaries of the state while attacking beneficiaries among the lower classes (I won't delve into the class-analysis here). But I would like to say something in defense of ANCAPS, propertarians, thin libertarians, and even some paleo-conservatives out there...

I think, perhaps, that the left-leaning libertarian belief that a freer state of affairs will result in a more equitable state of affairs has led them, paradoxically, to engage in a similar kind of vulgarism when they defend lower-class privilege (at the behest of the state) from right-leaning critics. Of course, a lot of this does depend on who you believe is benefiting from the state and who is not, and it's even more tenuous when you break advantage down to an individual level (on net) instead of an aggregate at the class level - a lazy analysis which I believe is woefully inappropriate. I think this creates a mutual distrust and misunderstanding between the two groups more generally. Left-libertarians often end up defending various forms of welfare, or at least its recipients, public employees, state-regulated unions, and other privileged groups within the lower class in precisely the same way their detractors often unwittingly defend the upper classes.

My basic thought on this is that those on the left have a political thrust centered primarily in at least a somewhat consequentialist social-egalitarianism. There are plenty of exceptions, but many believe that free markets are good precisely because their results are more equitable. Those on the right (within the libertarian spectrum) have a thrust grounded in a deontological view of property rights and justice. The right-leaning side sees massive expropriation born out of redistributive social programs to help the lower class. They sympathize with the perceived victims of expropriation. The left-leaning side sees a class of people they sympathize with at the start (because of their egalitarian beliefs) and consequentially (that is important to note) they believe in a system that will help those who need it. The difference between this group and normal leftists seems to be largely that they see free markets as a vehicle to move in that direction while their political brethren don't.

So while it is certainly true that many "vulgar libertarians" do not consider the many advantages higher classes receive at the hand of government, I think many left-libertarians are so wrapped up in their consequential egalitarianism that they fail to see the many rights-violations that the more "Randian" among us so vociferously object to. It's not even, necessarily, that those on the left are wrong - I'm sure there are countless instances where they are right. However, if their support for various political advantages enabled by the lower class is simply that the upper classes, on net, take far more from the poor than the poor take from them, then they must engage in an effort far more empirical (sorting through all effective taxes and subsidies of all natures) and on an individual level in order to make wildly general claims about the relative feast or famine of entire classes of people. It's the least I would expect from anyone wanting to call themselves a "libertarian."

Many other people have certainly tried to sort through this confusion among left and right with regards to free markets (Roderick long denotes something he calls conflationism). I have a feeling there's much more to story - and I'm not really aware of too many people taking what I would consider a neutral look at the problem (on both sides). But I think a good start would be for those more oriented on the right side of the spectrum to question their wayward support of specific corporations should an argument move in that direction. But I also call upon those on the left to recognize the deontological arguments at hand and to question the line of thought that leads them to believe that every low man on the totem pole is worse off than he'd be in a truly free society - my guess is that it's often not the case.

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