Blogs > Liberty and Power > Left and Right and the Prospects for Hypocrisy

Jan 18, 2006 3:18 pm

Left and Right and the Prospects for Hypocrisy

Throughout the libertarian blogosphere I have seen a bunch of talk recently of left vs. right, and who is more libertarian. It seems that many libertarians take the position that the left is only better right now because it's out of power, that Ted Kennedy and Al Gore and others are only championing the Bill of Rights and opposing the imperial executive because they do not hold the reins to it.

There is absolutely much truth to this. But before getting into the million definitions of left and right, I want to consider the general thrust of the organized left and right during Republican and Democratic administrations, and ponder what, from a libertarian perspective, we should root for (or root the less against) in national politics.

I'm speaking in terrible generalization here, but I think a few issues are important:

—Who is worse, the left or right, when its side holds power?

—Is the left more critical of Democratic administrations, or is the right more critical of Republican ones? Whose criticism of their own party is more libertarian?

—Is the left more critical of Republican administrations, or is the right more critical of Democratic ones? Whose criticism of the other party is more libertarian?

—Which side is more hypocritical?

—How much does all this go out the window in times of war and crisis?

I think the answer to the last question is: A whole lot. On the matter of war and other crises, I have noticed a tendency for the party in power to be terrible and the opposition side to be better. See my article "Waco, Oklahoma City, and the Post-9/11 Left-Right Dynamic"

However, I do suspect that the better radical leftist critiques of warfare and police statism are more in play during Democratic administrations than are conservative critiques of despotism during Republican ones. Leftists opposed Johnson's war. Some even critiqued Clinton's handling of Waco and Kosovo.

I tend to think conservatives are more lockstep in support of their party, especially where it counts. This was certainly true on Berkeley's campus—not a good representation of American politics, I know! But I remember that the leftists were split among two dozen groups, each with a handful of vocal advocates, whereas all the campus conservatives were unified in the Berkeley College Republicans, the largest political group on campus. The Cal Democrats were even split on the Afghan war! (An event, by the way, that started me on my path of disliking the left less than the right.

Conservatives are very well organized behind their party, and seem to defend everything their president does. The question is: Will enough liberals continue criticizing the American empire when it's taken over by Democrats to make the switch, from our perspective, better? Will enough conservatives truly attack the Democratic administration for its unconstitutional despotism? Or will they instead encourage the Democrats to prove they can be tough by launching even more war and invasions of civil liberties than the current administration?

Obviously, the Clintons and the Bushes and the establishment in both parties are thoroughly statist: the difference between jackboot Democrats and spendthrift Republicans is nearly nothing. But what really matters to me is the overall political dynamic in society. In this regard, which party is preferable, from a libertarian standpoint?

Leave aside for the moment the question of divided government. I think we can all agree that a Republican monopoly on all three branches has been a disaster.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006


I've pressed you on this topic before and not gotten much of a response, but I suppose I will have to press you again now that you've repeated the same claim about Waco (in the embedded link): could you produce some evidence that the FBI sprayed machine-gun fire at escaping Davidians at Waco on the final day of the siege (or any other day)?

While you search for the evidence, you may also want to ponder the question: what political grouping in America is most addicted to bad conspiracy theories, the left, the right or the libertarians? And what does that say about each ideological group's inability to deal with reality?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

The infrared evidence can be dismissed on the following grounds:

1) Under controlled circumstances, investigators for the Danforth Report replicated the flashes by using thermal stimuli.

2) If you watch "The Rules of Engagement" carefully (I've watched it 42 times), you'll see that the infrared film indicates glints at locations where no one has ever claimed that there was gunfire. It also indicates "gunfire" from locations where there is no thermal evidence of a body holding a gun, and at locations where it would make no tactical sense whatsoever to place a sniper in the first place (in open space, exposed to fire from the Mt Carmel complex).

3) No Davidian bodies were found at locations consistent with the thesis that the FBI was shooting at escaping Davidians. Where Davidians were found dead of gunshot wounds after the fire, the physical evidence pointed clearly to the fact that they had shot one another.

4) The claim that the FBI shot the Davidians doesn't even make sense on conspiracy-theoretical grounds. If the FBI wanted to get rid of the Davidians, why did it allow some of them to live when it could easily have shot them all?

5) Finally, the whole Waco episode was filmed by TV cameras on the scene. Why is there no televisual evidence of the FBI shooting at the compound?

I think that's sufficient to dismiss what is at bottom a huge leap of faith based on a few unanalyzed glints on an infrared film.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

1. The missing door has no bearing whatsoever on the actions of the FBI, since no one has alleged that the FBI shot through the front door. The missing front door is relevant to the ATF's actions on the first day, i.e., Feb. 19--not the FBI's. At any rate, a missing door doesn't prove that the FBI was shooting machine gun fire at unarmed Davidians.

2. Fire teams weren't allowed in because it is standard emergency procedure to secure a site from gunfire before allowing fire teams in. The Branch Davidians were alive until fire consumed the building and were heavily armed, so it made sense to assume that they might fire on firefighters. Waco was neither the first time that firefighters have been prevented from entering a crime scene and won't be the last. Again, fire teams are pertinent to the fire, not to machine guns.

3. The Mt Carmel complex was razed because it was a health hazard. In any case, the FBI was not the only holder of forensic evidence (there is no connection between the complex's having been razed and possession of the forensic evidence). Indeed, some of the forensic evidence was mishandled by local authorities, but no one has claimed that local authorities shot Davidians with machine guns. Finally, missing forensic evidence doesn't prove that machine guns were fired at unarmed Davidians.

The Danforth Report showed that the FBI did indeed lie about certain features of the Waco incident. But that is a far cry from the conspiracy theory being advanced here.

Mark Brady - 1/22/2006

"Btw, the term "lobbyist" is derived from the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where favor seekers met with Pres. Grant after his breakfast."

I'm sure they did! And after lunch! And after dinner! However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines "lobbyist" as "One who frequents the lobbies of the House of Representatives in order to influence members in the exercise of their legislative functions" and cites a quotation as far back as the Cornhill Magazine for January 1863 (p. 96): "A Representative listening to a lobbyist." As early as 1883, the Pall Mall Gazette (September 6, p. 3, col. 2) writes of "American manners, American lobbyism, and American corruption." And in 1888, in The American Commonwealth, vol. 1 (ch. 14, p. 213), James Bryce writes that "The arrangements of the committee system have produced and sustain the class of professional 'lobbyists',..who make it their business to 'see' members."

Otto M. Kerner - 1/21/2006

I'm finding it really hard to think in terms of generalisations in this case. There are so many different types of right and left, conservatism and socdem "liberalism" out there, as well as so many different types of personalities supporting both sides. Generally, neither the left nor the right are particularly amenable to libertarianism. I suppose one could probably say that the left is reliably better on foreign policy issues and the right is reliably at least slightly better on domestic issues. But I have no clue how to get starting trying to merge that into an overall view of which is better or worse.

This being the case, I think a lot of the talk about "which side to dialogue with" comes down to the personal predilections and comfort zone of the speaker. Long and Charles Johnson seem to prefer talking to leftists. Personally, I have the vague idea that I prefer talking to conservatives. This is not, incidentally, because I have deep rightwing sympathies -- I think it's more that, because I used to be a leftist a long time ago, I feel more in touch with the shortcomings of that position. Also, I feel that, with conservatives, simply getting them to engage in rational dialogue is half the battle, because a lot of rightwing ideas seem to arise out of an emotional anti-rationalism (the extreme development of which is fascism or Naziism), whereas the left is happy to chew your ear off about their various theories and discourses. So, there might be a selection bias based on the conservatives who are willing to talk and those who aren't.

Anthony Gregory - 1/19/2006

Yes, I remember hearing more criticism of certain Clintonian foreign policy atrocities from the left. In my movement from the minarchist paleo-right, I remember seeing a leftie professor condemning the Kosovo war on TV, and a neocon who shared the stage just kept calling her a communist. That made me very suspicious, for I had been under the silly impression that conservatives were more anti-war than the Democrats (who had launched the four largest American wars in the 20th century).

The paleo right was always upset about national sovereignty, globaloney, sacrificing American blood for nation building — and this is not a sentiment I would discourage — but the emphasis was rarely on the human rights of Clinton's foreign victims. It is similar to a critique some Randians make of foreign wars of "altruism"—wars that drain America of its blood and treasure for foreigners who don't understand freedom. If this is the main emphasis in one's opposition to government—that it steals from the virtuous and strong and gives to the weaklings who don't even deserve or fathom what they recieve—then, aside from raising other problems, we can expect the superficially libertarian positioning to be quite situational.

I notice a somewhat similar difference between left anti-globalists and right protectionists. Lefties emphasize that trade hurts the poor in other countries and makes them poorer. The right protectionists emphasize that America cannot continue being the most bad-ass and rich country in the world if it lets poor Chinese people make our products.

Now, I do not want to sound overly harsh to the right, here, nor let the left off easy. Both sides' misdirected and ignorant advocacy of trade restrictions translates into human misery in the real world. But I find much of the conservative critique of the state to be unreliable. The conservatives love the nightstick and the tactical nuke, and will tolerate taxation and inflation to finance them. They might want to cut welfare a little, but I don't find their anti-state critique any more plausible than what we hear from the left, much of which at least admits to believing in big government. I consider a government to be quite big if it can afford to jail hundreds of thousands of people every year, spy on our personal lives, and constantly bomb foreign countries—even if it doesn't issue food stamps.

Roderick T. Long - 1/19/2006

Maybe so; during the Clinton years there was a lot of left-wing criticism of the Clinton administration (though mostly not from those leftists who got onto the talk-show circuit).

Anthony Gregory - 1/19/2006

So if there were a Democratic takeover of the executive, and maybe of the Congress too, do you think the activist, movement, less-corrupted-by-power left would be <em>more</em> critical of the regime than the right is of the GOP rulers now? Obviously, the rightists would be more critical than they are now—but would they be more critical than the left is now?

Roderick T. Long - 1/19/2006

While I'm "famously" (within our tiny circle) a booster of the "left," when I talk about the left and the prospects of libertarian outreach thereto, I'm definitely not talking about Democratic Party politicians, who as far as I can tell are mostly a bunch of power-hungry micromanagers, who have attracted support on the left only for lack of any serious alternative. Despite differences in rhetoric and emphasis, the Democratic Party is generally just as war-happy, censorship-happy, and corporate-welfare-happy as the Republicans. Most of the left-wingers I know are deeply unhappy with the Democratic Party and support it only faute de mieux.

Anthony Gregory - 1/19/2006

Well, my question is not which hangman is kinder, but rather which hangman is less cheered and more booed, by both his partisan allies and partisan critics, and thus has less opportunity to hang as many people.

Sudha Shenoy - 1/19/2006

Which make better hangmen -- the 'left' or the 'right'? Would you rather be hanged by Bismarck, Hitler, Stalin, or Trotsky? Which concentration camps were the kinder -- the Nazi or the Stalinist?

Power-seekers seek power -- over their fellow-humans. They differ only in the excuses they offer.

William J. Stepp - 1/18/2006

"The Republicans have turned Congress into an auction house for sale to the highest bidder," said House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
(The above quote is from a news story on the internet now.)

So they want to pass a new law shutting down "play to pay" arrangements between lawmakers and lobbyists.
(Btw, the term "lobbyist" is derived from the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where favor seekers met with Pres. Grant after his breakfast.)

This is so typical of Democrats (and truth to tell, most Republicans), who think that all that's necessary to fix corruption and influence payments/peddling is to pass a law or elect a more honest Congress.
Mark Twain had a tart comment about the honesty of Congress, which oddly has never been overturned by a new election.

What they fail to understand is that the problem is not the payment part of "pay to play," but the play part, without which influence peddling and pillage brokering could not happen in the first place.
Republicans didn't turn Congress into an auction house--that was done by the framers of the Constitution in the commerce clause, Art. 1, Sect. 8, which gave Congress power to regulate commerce between the states, as well as many other powers it had no right to expropriate, either on the alleged authority of the 55/39 framers (see Spooner above), or anyone else.

To get rid of corruption and influence peddling, take the purse strings and power to regulate business away from Congress. Then
go down the list of Art. 1, sect. 8's grant of powers to the Feds, and remove them one by one.
Then the Abramoffs of the world will have to go to Washington to do the right thing, and find a bath tub big enough to drown the government in.

Mad Prophet - 1/18/2006

I doubt that anyone will get the FBI to admit to doing such a thing. But there are a few things that lead me to believe what transpired is different than the "official" statement.

1. The metal front door to the Davidian complex was taken into evidence, but has since "disappeared".

2. Fire and rescue crews were not permitted to approach the burning complex. It could be argued that this was for the safety of the fire and rescue crews, it could also be argued that the agent-in-charge preferred to not have eyewitnesses on the scene.

3. The burned-out complex was levelled with days of the blaze, making the FBI the sole holders of forensic evidence.

Anthony Gregory - 1/18/2006

Hmmm. That's interesting. I don't know if I totally agree off the top of my head, though. I seem to see plenty of policy suggestions from the left, and it is in fact there that the left gets on my nerves. When the left attacks militarism, corporate welfare and corruption, and so-called social oppressions (many of which are valid subjects of social concern, as Roderick Long has done so much to demonstrate to libertarians), I am often in agreement or at least not that hostile. It's when the left starts talking about solutions—universal healthcare, campaign finance "reform," erosion of property rights, raising taxes, grabbing guns, giving more power to the United Nations for more multilateral global bullying, etc.—that the left totally loses me.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/18/2006

I think most of your points are quite on the mark.

I also don't think that generalization is terrible: sometimes it necessary to express our accumulated experience and knowledge. There's always room for quibbling, but that's why these discussions go on.

I'd like to offer a slight modification of the generalization: I think there is more criticism of Democratic power and politics from the Left, but less discussion of policy; I think that conservatives are less likely to criticize the actions of the president/congress, etc. but are more likely to offer concrete (though, to my mind, often oversimplistic) policy alternatives even to politicians they otherwise support.

Just a thought.

Anthony Gregory - 1/18/2006

You said "bad conspiracy theories." Not just "conspiracy theories." I was unfairly responding to what you said last year about conspiracy theories, which I took as a more general point.

But to answer that question, I'd say that bad conspiracy theories seem to me to be popular all across the board. I do think that a lot of them are more valid than some people might think, however.

Anthony Gregory - 1/18/2006

I am not all that convinced by your anti-revisionism. How could that infrared evidence that so many of us have seen in Waco: The Rules of Engagement be dismissed as "thermal events," as an official strangely put it?

I would say that leftists, rightists and libertarians are all willing to embrace certain conspiracy theories, some of which are true and some false. I am confused by the invocation of the term "conspiracy theory," as if conspiracies never occur, as if people never act in concert to achieve mutually desired ends. The conventional understanding of al Qaeda is a conspiracy theory, as are so many other narratives in conventional history. Just because a theory involves people working together to achieve a goal doesn't make in invalid.

On Waco, certainly a conspiracy was involved in planning the initial raid, which was criminal and unconstitutional. The use of poisonous gas was a conspiracy. As was the coverup of the use of incendiary devices that was finally exposed in the late 1990s.

The state itself is a conspiracy by its nature, and the administration has involved itself in one conspiracy after another to cover up its criminality. This of course doesn't make all conspiracies valid. I don't believe that NASA faked the moon landing. I don't believe in many of the nutty ideas embraced by people all over the political spectrum, including the theory that Saddam—or Bush—was personally behind 9/11.

Lumping all theories of conspiratorial action together and referring to them as "conspiracy theories," implying that they're something that categorically shouldn't be believed, seems unwarranted to me. Do you believe that conspiracies simply don't happen?