Monday, January 02, 2012

Half a cheer for libertarianism

Ron Paul is having his moment and as a result everyone is examining his particular brand of libertarianism, in general finding it pretty odious what with its fairly strong connections to neocofederate racists and whatnot. All these libertarian-haters-come-lately annoy me, since I've been doing this for decades! So in order to go against the current, I thought I'd say a few words about what I like about libertarianism.

If there wasn't anything there that I found attractive, I would not bother with attacking it so much. Or in other words, my attacks on libertarianism are a reflection of an internal argument between different aspects of myself.

Up until a few years ago, I thought libertarians were basically just misguided nerds, who had fallen in love with the formal elegance of free-market theories and mistaken this abstraction for a viable system of government. This elegance may be hard to understand by those who are neither geeks nor libertarians, but for those who are one or the other, it exerts an almost metaphysical appeal. Markets are wonderful because nobody is in charge. Prices represent condensed chunks of information about supply and demand, and adjust themselves automatically, with no Central Bureau of Price Control. Money does in fact encode human needs and abilities into a readily exchangeable form, and that's a good thing.

That's the positive vision of libertarianism, and it's something that I can appreciate a bit, despite being aware of its limitations. The negative aspect of libertarianism, something I can also get behind, is their healthy distrust of government, authority, and centralization. Such tendencies are found on the moderate left too, but generally run into the problem that the moderate left wants to do things for society, and you can't do things without an institutional structure, and that generally means a government.

So the libertarian starts out with a couple of appealing ideas. The problem (or so I thought until recently) is that they just don't think them through enough, they don't understand that corporate power can be as damaging to freedom as government power, they don't understand that some centralization can be a good and necessary thing, they don't understand that society will be ordered one way or the other and refusing to acknowledge the machinery of society just lets others run away with it. But despite the manifest flaws, at least there is some underlying idealism.

But my picture of the libertarian movement turned out to be incomplete. Present-day libertarianism seems to involve at least four major threads:

  1. idealists motivated by the above vision, generally infused with some fictional support from Robert Heinlein or Ayn Rand;
  2. big-money corporate interests fighting regulation (see Kochtopus); 
  3. neoconfederates, racists, and the usual extreme-right whackjobs;
  4. leftover anti-communists from the cold war era.

The relative role of each of these is an interesting question that I don't know enough of the history to answer. My personal encounter with libertarianism happened through MIT and the early Internet, which has heavily biased towards (1). Recently I've become more aware of the other two motivating forces, which are probably more important politically since the appeal of (1) is limited mostly to nerds.

Ron Paul, on the other hand, is fatally compromised by his roots in (3). This manifests very noticably in his policy proposals. For instance, rather than opposing all drug laws as s strict libertarian would, he wants to devolve the issue back to the states, as if only the Federal government is capable of infringing on liberty. That particular view are easy to trace back to the so-called "state's rights" movement and general racial backlash.

It's a pity that the only candidate who opposes the American imperium is fatally contaminated by this kind of stench.

9 comments:

scw said...

Paul's wish to return jurisdiction over drugs, abortion, etc., to the states is not a reflection of "neoconfederate" roots, but of strict reading of the Constitution (of course, you may believe these things to be synonymous, but they are not). Under the Constitution, the police power of the Federal government is extensively limited by many provisions. Primary police power resides with the states, except as restricted under Article I, section 10.

It was the viewpoint of liberals (as they were then identified) in the early twentieth century that the states should be capable of wide discretion in the use of their police power, unrestrained by the strictures applicable to the Federal government. Oliver Wendell Holmes made such an argument in his dissent in Lochner v. New York [198 U.S. 45 (1905)]. The majority overturned a New York state statute that limited the hours of work in bakeries to ten per day or sixty per week, under the doctrine of "substantive due process" supposedly mandated by the Fourteenth Amendment. Holmes argued that the states should function as "laboratories of democracy" and were not restrained by such an application of the Fourteenth Amendment. Paul has himself used Holmes's phrase. Doubtless Paul would disapprove of wages-and-hours laws on libertarian grounds, but would agree with Holmes that the police power to enact such laws Constitutionally lay with the states. Holmes believed in states' rights. Was Holmes therefore a "neoconfederate"?

The accusations of "racism" are pretty thin gruel. What I have seen quoted from the newsletters in question as "racist" are a statement to the effect that the principal participants in the Los Angeles riot of 1992 were black males; that the riot ended when that the indigent were obliged to collect their welfare checks in person; and that young black males committed crimes in vast disproportion to their numbers.

The first statement seems quite uncontroversial. No one who was sentient in 1992 could possibly deny that the L.A. riot was a black race riot. The second is a testable
proposition - is it true or is it false? I don't know, but if the riot did end when welfare checks were issued, is the truth racist? Finally, the point about young black males and crime is backed up by FBI crime statistics, and is widely acknowledged by blacks as well as whites.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson once remarked, "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life to walk down the street and hear footsteps and think about robbery... then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved." Was Rev. Jackson therefore "racist"? He was just being candid. We cannot have an honest discussion either about race or about crime unless we are willing to discuss race and crime together with the same candor.

TGGP said...

I was surprised you were objecting to his stance on drug laws. He is a federal legislator and proposes repealing federal laws. I haven't heard any proposals for the federal government to prohibit states from restricting access to drugs (and my guess in that there are situations in which you wouldn't want it to do so). Since the status quo is that drugs are illegal everywhere (with California's decriminalization of medical marijuana meaning nothing to the feds), I suppose even radical libertarians don't bother asking for more.

The Koch's want to avoid regulations for their business, but they're also pretty clearly idealists of a sort. There are a good number of other rich folks and businesses, the Koch brothers are clearly outliers. Most other billionaires aren't the offspring of founding members of the JBS, and most of them didn't attend Robert LeFevre's "Freedom School".

mtraven said...

@tggp -- lazy so outsourcing reply to Corey Robin

Even people, no, especially people who focus on Paul’s position on the drug war should think about the perils of his federalism. There are 2 million people in prison in this country. At most 10 percent of them are in federal prisons; the rest are in state and local prisons. If Paul ended the drug war, maybe 1/2 of those in federal prison would be released. Definitely a step, but it has to be weighed against his radical embrace of whatever it is that states and local governments do.

Paul is a distinctively American type of libertarian: one that doesn’t have a critique of the state so much as a critique of the federal government. That’s a very different kettle of fish. I think libertarianism is problematic enough—in that it ignores the whole realm of social domination—but a states-rights-based libertarianism is a social disaster.


In practice, devolving power to the states is anti-liberty, and usually those who advocate it are crypto- or not-so-crypto neoconfederates.

TGGP said...

On Corey Robin's specific point, I'd say he's right that federal prisoners are a small percentage of the overall imprisoned population, but I think he neglects federal culpability for those in state prisons. The federal government gives local police departments grants to pursue the drug war. State and local police didn't grant people the protections of the Bill of Rights early on in the 20th century, and they shot people more frequently, but the prison population was much smaller and federal drug policy played a large role in that change. I expect a lot of states would retain drug laws out of simple inertia, but enforcement priorities would be a lot different without the federal government. Underenforced drug laws still lead to some crappy outcomes in my book, but crackdowns are some of the biggest instigators of violence (as we're seeing in Mexico now).

TGGP said...

Josh Barro has also been complaining about libertarian localism recently. But annoyingly, it's on Twitter rather than a place with decent permalinks.

TGGP said...

Rather than having you read a Twitter conversation, I've compiled the relevant comments here.

scw said...

You write, "In practice, devolving power to the states is anti-liberty, and usually those who advocate it are crypto- or not-so-crypto neoconfederates."

So, do you agree with the majority in Lochner that it was "anti-liberty" for the state of New York to set the maximum length of bakers' work days and weeks?

The record is not at all clear on the effects of allowing power to reside primarily with the states as opposed to centralizing it in the Federal government. Federal authority has become measurably more obtrusive and intrusive during the last three presidential administrations than it was just 20 years ago. Has the Federal effort to negate California's medical marijuana law been pro-liberty? How about the Federal effort to negate Oregon's law allowing assisted suicide?

Moreover, the use of Federal authority to suppress personal liberty has a long history. Before the Civil War, several Northern states enacted "personal liberty laws" that deliberately hindered slaveowners seeking the return of runaway slaves. These laws allowed runaways the right to the writ of habeas corpus and to jury trials. Wisconsin and Massachusetts, among others, consequently became sanctuaries for escaped Negroes, because it was impossible to get jury verdicts ordering their return to their masters.

The resultant situation caused Southern political interests to obtain passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which relied on Federal supremacy over states' rights to enforce the legal ability of slaveholders to get their property back. This act was widely resented in the North, where states claimed great autonomy, appealing to the principle of federalism. The Dred Scott decision, upholding Federal supremacy, led some abolitionists to urge Northern secession, as New England interests opposed to the War of 1812 had earlier done at the Hartford convention during 1814-15.

The only conclusion to which the study of history can lead is that a loose reading of the Constitution that takes an expansive view of Federal authority simply serves whichever party or interests may happen at the moment to dominate in the legislative and executive branches of the Federal government. That party or those interests may be favorable or unfavorable to liberty.

Your characterization of the advocates of federalism as "crypto- or not-so-crypto neoconfederates" appears to reflect a fear that a stricter view of the limitation of Federal authority will permit the states to reimpose Jim Crow or even slavery. I cannot think of anything less likely. You must see a Kluxer under every bedsheet.

Anonymous said...

"In practice, devolving power to the states is anti-liberty, and usually those who advocate it are crypto- or not-so-crypto neoconfederates."

Thought you were trying to stop the self-branding of your self...sweeping statements like that 'out' you as a big government uber liberal ( but closet crypto fascist). Can't have certain States not going with the 'San Francisco' flow, best to use a top down approach...just like in China ( which you approved of in a previous post) but perhaps in a more liberal manner..say EU style. When we all talk the same , act the same , think the same (else get destroyed for some sort of hate speech/action) our evolution through regulation, thought up by our betters ,will be complete.

Hey here's and example which is topical- Take Proposition 8 , which after it was passed ( after intense opposition by many)a Federal judge declares the institution of marriage to be in violation of the equal protection of the laws and over turns the will of the people.

Soon to express the opinion that marriage should be between a man and a woman ..will be hate speech. Crossing the road when approached by two black people - hate action.
Driving a petrol guzzler or using air conditioning - hate crime against Gaia.

The past may be a different country , but the future is going to be The Wasteland.

Thomas said...

Are you giving the Koch brothers faint praise? Most big money interests are trying to capture their regulators so they can use them against new entrants and enforce an oligopoly.