Blogs > Liberty and Power > I Thought Libertarians Were Neither Left Nor Right

Feb 29, 2004 4:00 pm

I Thought Libertarians Were Neither Left Nor Right

Gus diZerega’s comments on one of Roderick Long’s entries raise issues that could come up any time, but might as well be thrown open to debate now. Gus seems to be saying that libertarians must ally themselves with the Left; otherwise we apparently have no choice but to be complicit in the worst deeds of W. and his henchmen.

Maybe I read too much between the lines, but I am disappointed by the tendency of many libertarians to identify themselves with a “conservative” movement that is increasingly far removed from the limited government brand of conservatism. Except for LP types and some anarchocapitalists, they tend to identify politically with the right--even to appropriate the general term “right” as the broad kind of ideology they have.

I’ll have to speak for myself here. But since Gus’s comment was made in response to one of mine, he appears to have been saying that I, too, must be identifying with the Right. I do not support Libertarian Party candidates, except very occasionally on a local basis. (I no longer want any connection with the national organization of the LP, for reasons that should make sense to the author of an essay that I rather admire, on Why Organizations Lie.) And while I take the arguments of anarchists seriously, I have never been one.

More to the point, I have long understand libertarianism as an effort to get beyond the false dichotomies and package-deals that both Left and Right-wing designations entail.

To back his claim Gus says:

For example, in an article of mine in the often libertarian oriented New Liberal I attacked the “Radical Right” and a libertarian associated with the Mises Institute (if I remember correctly) took exception.

Maybe one of those folks who calls himself (or herself) a “paleo”-something, and attributes to Pat Buchanan libertarian leanings that remain undetected by Buchanan himself, or by nearly all outside observers? Someone else will have to explain the appeal of that position, because I never got it.

He continues:

By identifying with the “right” many libertarians have adopted a similarly disdainful approach towards the “left.” Yet I would suggest that today most on the left have abandoned the ideal of socialism and many have even become suspicious of the Progressive Era ideal of management by experts. Given this, on most actual issues of political importance I would argue the left - especially liberals - often comes closer to a libertarian position than the reigning rightists.

I only wish this characterization of leftists were generally true. For the most part I have gotten along fine with leftists who are willing to go beyond the stated intentions and seek after the real reasons for government action. But in my experience such individuals are a minority. At least where I hang out, in academia, there has been a loss of faith in socialism, but it has not widely led to repudiating massive coercion as a solution to social problems. It hasn’t even led to admitting Stalin and Communism as equal in evil to Hitler and Nazism. And faith in rule by experts (a role in which the academically trained do like to cast themselves!) keeps right on unabated. It is so woven into the fabric of academic psychology that in his keynote address at a recent conference Daniel Kahneman (a famous cognitive psychologist, and a Nobel Prize winner in economics) simply presumed that every psychologist wants to shape “social policy” (though we will have to settle for being junior partners to economists, whose whispers in the ears of government agency chiefs enjoy more credibility than ours would). Kahneman also casually presumed his audience’s agreement that only right-wing nuts, caught in the toils of the dreaded Chicago School, would ever oppose a minimum-wage law.

Commensurately, I will note that there are people on the right who wouldn’t mind being subjected to confiscatory taxation, if only they could be assured that no abortions will ever be performed again, that the licenses of “indecent” broadcasters will be yanked by the FCC, that some form of Christianity will be the State religion, and that (their kind of) prayer will be mandatory in every government-run school.

If you’re gonna ally with anyone, the right today is the farthest from a libertarian position of anywhere in the country. Wolf’s article wasn’t particularly important given all that is going on, and spending so much time sniping at a liberal feminist when rather more terrifying things are happening in Washington DC seems to me giving no aid at all to the cause of liberty.

I don’t fully know how to respond to this kind of exhortation, because I don’t know what Gus thinks the priorities ought to be. For instance: Does Gus think we should stop criticizing university administrators–as several contributors to L and P have been doing–because the president of the University of Alabama doesn’t have his finger on the nuclear button, the way W. does? Or because the president of Clemson can’t have people jailed without trial, as John Ashcroft can? Or because the president of Yale couldn’t have railroaded the USA PATRIOT act through Congress, as a bunch of powerful Republicans did?

I’m fed up with W. and his administration. But I’ve yet to conclude that getting rid of W. and his administration must now trump every other goal or concern. Must it crowd every other item of political discourse off the agenda? Must we now refrain from criticizing anyone else who thinks W. and Dick Cheney ought to go, no matter how illiberal that person’s attitudes may be?

Surely it’s a huge error to suppose that libertarians (all of them, as a bloc) should ally with either “the Left” (all of them, as a bloc) or “the Right” (the whole nine yards of them, as a bloc). Individuals who consider themselves libertarian can make common cause with individuals on the Left–on some issues. The same would apply, I should think, to making common cause with individuals on the Right.

I may have a chance to work with some conservatives, even social conservatives, on measures to break up the government K-12 monopoly. But they will get no aid or comfort from me should they back a constitutional amendment to block marriages for gays and Lesbians, or should they clamor for a militarized border so they can keep Mexicans from immigrating. I may be able to work with some “liberals” or leftists against USA PATRIOT–but they will not get my support should they push for zoning and land-use controls, or should they scratch and claw to preserve the government monopoly over K-12. And though I won’t presume to speak for other libertarians here, I don’t think I’m totally out to lunch expecting that some will agree with me about these things.

Which brings us to Naomi Wolf. Again, I don’t know whether Gus endorses Naomi Wolf’s cry of J’accuse against Harold Bloom and Yale University, and is convinced that only Right- wing culture warriors would ever find fault with it; supports Wolf’s overall views on the matters in question, but wishes she would retire as a spokeswoman for them; or objects to her ideology and her manner of promoting it, while fearing that in 2004 paying any attention to either would be a dangerous distraction.

In any event, I don’t think you have to stand where Gary Bauer or Linda Chavez or Bill Kristol stands to see Naomi Wolf as an illiberal feminist–a preacher of the doctrine that American women in 2004 are members of a permanent victim class.

What’s more, Wolf looks to be a consumingly narcissistic, hypocritical preacher. At the end of her article, she denies presenting herself as a victim, but how else is the reader to make sense of the preceding thousands of words? And in interviews surrounding its publication, she insisted she felt sorry for Harold Bloom, and denied seeking retribution against him. Neither of which exactly came through in the article.

I don’t believe that either holding academic administrators up to scrutiny or taking Naomi Wolf to task will induce libertarians to forget the occupation of Iraq, or neglect the present efforts to prevent gay marriage. There are lots of issues to contend with, and no simple prescription for political alignment is going to offer a satisfactory resolution to them all.

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