Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Reflection on Vulgar Libertarianism
The seemingly rising prominence of left-libertarianism on the interwebz has given lots of self-professed "plum-line" libertarians pause for thought. And, for the most part, rightfully so. There are lots of libertarians who easily fall into the habit of supporting or denouncing things with the most superficial of litmus tests. From dismissing and excoriating the downtrodden to throwing down for any corporate entity that comes under public fire, libertarians have a habit of being the contrarians - even if it engenders inconsistent lines of thought.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why this is the dominant tendency in these circles. I think a lot of it could be chalked up to transition costs. Most modern American libertarians start out on the political right. And as their thoughts on the state radicalize, then maybe so too do their thoughts on its victims and beneficiaries. That isn't so bad in and of itself (heightened awareness). But you can certainly have a radicalized ideology without transforming legitimate views into caricatures of themselves.
Sometimes people really do struggle with the most basic things in life (a shock, I know). And sometimes companies really do have bad practices or treat their employees poorly. The flaw with the more right-leaning versions of libertarianism is that there is this tendency to believe that if you acknowledge such social problems that you are ceding ground. But this is, in fact, the very notion that ideologically binds the non-libertarians to the Hobbesian state. The refusal to acknowledge these problems is, too often, just a shadow cast in the wake of a deeper concession - that the state is the only manner in which such problems could be rectified. I don't think this will prove to be a winning strategy in the long-run.
But, of course, it's also true enough that there really are many people across the libertarian spectrum who do buy into these "vulgar" (as left-libertarians have dubbed it) ideas. And while they might feel they're piercing some kind of politically correct veil, they're also helping to ensure a shaky foundation for the movement as a whole. There's little excuse for it generally, and that left-libertarians have brought it to the table should be noted (with humility and gratitude). They've provided an excellent source of perspective for swaths of radical libertarians out there. They've probably changed the course of the movement for the better, almost without a doubt. However, I believe right-leaning and more neutral radical libertarians could offer some humble criticisms in return.
My experiences with left-libertarians (a few excluded) leads me to believe there is a "vulgar" type of libertarianism that creeps within their community as well. It is the inverse of the well-noted pandemic in right-libertarianism. Instead of blindly supporting capital and excoriating labor, there is a tendency to blindly support labor and excoriate capital. I don't make these accusations carelessly, as left-libertarians bring light to a lot of issues and inconsistencies that dominate much of libertarian thought. But nevertheless, among them is surely the analog of right-libertarian "vulgarism." And while it's important that they point out that there are certainly both lower and higher order social problems that exist and that can be dispensed of in serious ways without aggression (in the libertarian sense), it doesn't follow that all of the problems that they point to are truly problems in a politically meaningful sense, or that the supposedly non-aggressive solutions to them are righteous.
This phenomenon extends to non-economic portions of the social front as well. Too often we see libertarian in-fighting around tenets of political correctness. While I'm inclined to believe that there really is something to the concepts that generate politically correct thought (from sexism to racism and all kinds of other matters of prejudice), I'm not quite sure that either side is appropriately weighing the scope of each individual issue at hand. Right-libertarians, for instance, are sometimes automatically dismissive of prevailing forms of sexism, while left-libertarians seem to find a lot of it that isn't (obviously) apparent. And this says nothing of the post-collision detractions pointed at one another, which often come across as equally nonsensical and intolerant. No, I don't think it's "right" when men generalize or demean women. But I also don't think it's right that we gun for some type of "non-violent" social exodus of such people either. It's one thing to push in the direction of good will and understanding. It's another to imprison people in their own thoughts and feelings for fear of ostracism.
I'm not going to pretend lines like that don't get blurry either. There really are people who proceed with bigotry and malice, and an evolution of tried solutions might reach towards public condemnation and excoriation. On the other hand, there really do seem like many instances where we're left trying to prove too much about the motivations of people, and not leaving them much room for tolerance and temperance in our judgment. I don't want people to have values that are objectionable to my own. But I also don't want to live in a world where all objectionable values are met with strong castigation either. Libertarianism is rife with schisms. The bridges between its factions aren't going to be easy to build, if they can be built at all. But even the most contentious slivers therein bring something to the table - they tend to better ground each other with small concessions and temperance. It's then not that surprising that for all left-libertarianism has provided the movement in terms of variance in perspective, the movement will inevitably push back against it with it's own (hopefully coherent) criticisms. This is a start.