Monday, October 5, 2015

Donald Trump as a Vindication of Left-Libertarianism

For libertarians, especially those among its more palatable flavors, election season isn't so much a time to savor sugary soliloquies. Nor is it a time to feel buried by the scorn of political defeat. More often than not, it's simply a time to shake our heads, and start important conversations.

But then there are those "other" libertarians; some just cannot restrain themselves from casting at least lukewarm approval upon one candidate or another. And while I don't have much of a dog in the fight as far as having...a dog in the fight, there is one thing that I find deeply disturbing about libertarian political support this particular election season; Trump. According to at least one recent survey (and we know how reliable those can be), the vast majority of "libertarian-minded" Republicans are throwing support behind the aforementioned reality TV phenom, while the most obvious libertarian favorite, Rand Paul, is being left in the political dust.

So what's my take on this? My take is that the left-libertarians have been right all along, and that their staunchest opponents have been more full of bluster and confusion than anything resembling a coherent stance.

Left-libertarians, to the consternation of their more mainstream counterparts, take a "thick" position on liberty. They believe that certain values outside of the general tenets of libertarianism are fundamental to its flourishing; particularly the values that underlie the libertarian stance itself - its reasons. It's argued that, if we do not support the adoption of these additional values, liberty will have a hard time thriving, or even getting off the ground at all.

Left-libertarianism's detractors don't buy into this story. They tell us that all libertarianism "is" is just what its tenets entail, no more and no less. Additionally, we're told, the attempts to broaden our defense of libertarianism either amount to or are conducive to the "hi-jacking" of libertarianism proper. And, indeed, most of the arguments (in particular the more hyperbolic) tend towards the former accusation.

Of course, there are some things that are problematic right off the bat with this counter-position. The first is that if these objections become too fervent, they lean into "thick" territory. This rarely stops at some meaningless argument about categorical distinctions. Instead, it typically devolves into this type of sentiment; "You should not adopt left-libertarianism. It's not really libertarian. They're socialists. It's dangerous for liberty."

If the issue isn't crystal clear, none of these positions, as advocated, are an essential part of libertarianism, in the "thin" sense. The maxims being lauded and pushed for are additional values outside of that thinly-viewed framework. Whether such views are coherent or not is one question. But it should be pointed out that, if opposition to left-libertarianism evolves upon these lines, it becomes a "thick" position, and thus whatever hope was had in these argument(s) for defeating thick conceptions of libertarianism instead whither and give way to its direct edification instead. And, in fact, it does seem to be the case that a great many of the people who (even just principally) reject thick views of libertarianism all-too-often outright embrace sociopolitical views that, by their own decrees, should be thought of as anything from "external to" to "irrelevant to" libertarianism.

This brings me to our crude-talking, toupee'd political savior de jour. What does left-libertarianism have to do with this clown or his popularity? Well, the idea behind a "thick" conception of libertarianism generally, and the left-libertarian incarnation of it specifically, is that being un-committed to these foundational, reinforcing values can lead you to misunderstand, misapply, or even unwittingly abandon the greater libertarian position. Enter Mr. Trump. What do all these so-called libertarians see in this prospect? From the back-and-forth I've been privy to, most generally, they simply like the fact that he's not politically correct. Embarrassingly, this seems to be the largest part of the whole unfortunate story.

Now, political correctness, or political incorrectness, is not a part of the "thin" libertarian line. But, it's true enough that a great number of more mainstream libertarians have, erringly in my opinion, adopted the political right's contempt for the notion. So what should libertarians think about something like political correctness anyways?

Well, contra our faux-thin counterparts, left-libertarians will likely tell you that the concept itself is a pretty mixed bag. There are a lot of things that are called "political correctness" that are reprehensible; various forms of thought-control and censorship chief among them. But they'll also likely tell you that there are many things called "political correctness" that are really just a call for civility, urging that we treat one another with the basic respect that is commensurate with acknowledging each other as persons...the same respect that our radical support of individual rights, properly conceived, flows directly from.

The values that best constitute our reasons for supporting individual liberties constitute reasons for respecting people in other ways. In fact, upon a minimal amount of reflection, it would be sort of odd if we had such a radical commitment to self-ownership and self-determination, but had absolutely no concern for the way that people treat each other more generally. This is the strength and insight of the left-libertarian view; it's dialectical. It allows us to sift the dross on issues like political correctness, and prevents us from falling into ideological positions that are ultimately untenable, or worse.

Beyond the issue of political correctness itself, many of Trump's supporters (and especially those of a "libertarian" persuasion) laud him for simply "bucking the system" with his politically incorrect pronouncements. Instead of seeing him for the hopeless pseudo-ideologue that he is, they see him as a brave maverick - someone who isn't afraid to speak his mind. While things like bravery are praiseworthy wherever it's found, it's worth considering what exactly constitutes bravery in the first place. In it's most base and popular modern conception, being courageous simply means attempting something dangerous. But, of course, there are more complex conceptions of courage, and what actions are going to count as courageous are going to be highly dependent on which conception you adopt.

For instance, the ancient Greeks believed in an idea called "the unity of virtue". They believed that all of the virtues were deeply interconnected. Any one virtue, properly understood, had to be informed by the others. So take the virtue of "courage" (or its rough equivalent). The virtue of courage is certainly concerned with our willingness to act in the face of danger. But that, alone, is not enough to be courageous. You could rush into a crowded street wielding a baseball bat and begin hitting people. Surely this is a dangerous undertaking. You're likely to be beaten yourself, and possibly killed. Should we call you courageous for overcoming your fears of reprisal and doing it anyway? The Greeks would have been inclined to say, "No." Having courage depends not on simply facing your fears, but facing them in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons. Giving into fear when you shouldn't is being a coward. Fighting the wrong fears is being a fool.

So, is Trump being brave by bucking this supposed "political correctness"? Well, on the ancient Greek view, he would only be brave insofar as whatever it is that he's doing fearlessly is good in the context of our other virtuous capacities as well; which is why I don't see him as brave or courageous at all. I see him for the populist sycophant he is, feeding on the misguided whims of the populace. And I see many libertarians all-too-willing to discard their principles in favor of him - because the commitments that underlie their belief in libertarianism are not grounded enough, and are easily uprooted by ideological commitments they've developed elsewhere.

But there's absolutely nothing about libertarianism proper that would lead me to that insight, nor the one about political correctness itself. Those positions are entailed by values external to libertarianism. But, more importantly, those are many of the same values that entail libertarianism itself too. This is a hugely important meta-political insight, and it's the difference between calmly maintaining a distance from evil and shaking its hand.