Sunday, May 17, 2015

The differences between a "Leftist" and a "Liberal"

It is an almost constant source of annoyance to me that all too often these days people in the US on the political Left persist in referring to themselves as “Liberals”. This is nonsense. The essence of “classical” Liberalism is to minimize the power of the state, and to limit it to simply protecting individual rights. In particular, Liberalism extols the virtues of the free market, i.e., capitalism. But the dominant position of the modern Left is anti-capitalist. I can only guess that it is at least partly the fault of academia (in the liberal arts areas), which tends to be dominated by a statist philosophy, and is also staffed by a high percentage of people of the “Baby Boom” generation, who were taught in the 1960’s onward that they were automatically on the side of the angels, and hence get to call themselves by a self-congratulatory name. After all, “Liberal” sounds like a good trait---as indeed true liberalism is!--but quite often the only way the people on the Left are “generous” is with other peoples money and property.

I need to qualify what I mean here by individual rights. I refer to what libertarians term “Negative Rights”, a concept which means that your rights can only be violated by another person, group, or agency initiating force against you. Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying that the state’s only purpose is to prevent people from initiating force and thereby causing injury to innocent people. Positive Rights would mean that a person has the right to another person’s property or labor in the absence of a mutually acceptable exchange being involved. True Liberals should not recognize the existence or “Positive Rights” in a free society.

The other term in common use by the American Left is perhaps even more annoying. Namely, the term “Progressive”. Well, everyone is in favor of progress in some sense, but it is the height of arrogance to refer to ones personal political philosophy as embodying progress in a form that all would agree with. At least this term, and its application, has a historical precedent, going back to the early 20th century (for example, Theodore Roosevelt was associated with the Progressive political party).

Classical liberalism today tends to go by the name of “libertarianism”. But there are two flavors of libertarians:

One type argues that freedom is desirable because of the beneficial effects it has on society. These are usually termed “consequentialist” libertarians, for obvious reasons. For example, the Free Market is praised and advocated, because, it is argued, Capitalism this leads to an economic situation that is to the benefit of all the citizens; or, at least, that it is optimal. The late Milton Freeman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Ludvig von Mises would be seem to examples of this camp.

By contrast, the other kind takes an Individual-Rights based stance, and argues that the purpose of the state is simply to vouchsafe individual rights, and it is irrelevant whether this leads to optimal consequences for the society that the state serves. Here rights are to be understood as “Negative Rights”, in the sense that each individual has a right to not be the victim of force initiated against her/him.

An an example, consider the issue of marijuana legalization. The consequentialist type of libertarian would likely argue that people should be free to use any drug for personal enjoyment, as long as the effect of this freedom does not prove harmful to society at large. But the deontological libertarian would profoundly disagree, noting that making a law against using marijuana violates a persons’ right to put anything at all in his/her own body. But he/she would quickly add that some activities would involve violating the rights of others, if done under the influence of such a drug (for example it would be, quite properly, illegal to drive a car while stoned).

Now, it is still true in a sense that the deontological libertarian believes that his/her philosophy is indeed good for everyone, because a government that properly represents individual rights, benefits all. But it may not maximize some societal traits that some might consider “Good”, such as preserving traditional marriage, maximizing the GNP, or discouraging future drug use , etc.

As for me, I am a firm advocate of the deontological brand of libertarianism.

Why is our society today divided almost 50-50 into the two poles of Left and Right? First off, one must realize that libertarians are not “Right Wing”. As the recent book on Liberalism by science writer Timothy Ferris points out, the political spectrum is really better represented by an equilateral triangle, with two of the vertices representing Left and Right, and the remaining vertex being Liberalism (or, to a good approximation, libertarianism).

The Wikipedia page on Libertarianism points out that “Liberal” only means left wing in the US. In Western Europe the term means “laissez faire” economics and individual freedom.

An occasional misconception is that libertarians are “rugged individualists”. While it is probably often true that “rugged individualists” are libertarian oriented, the converse is certainly not the case. Libertarianism generally recognizes the immense value of Society to the individual, and notes that we would be little more than wild animals (and short lived, being poorly equipped for survival by our natural bodily features) in the absence of it. In fact, the power of society, apart from how it is represented in the state, is something that is unfortunately little recognized by left and right.  Disapproval by society is often all that is needed to deter a great deal of anti-social behavior. For example, a business owner that refuses service to some group of people, on grounds that are generally considered bigoted, will not long survive in the marketplace, because a critical percentage of prospective customers with tend to shun that particular business. Of course, the stronger the majority of society that considers such an attitude bigoted, or unfair, the more rapidly will the “bigoted” shop owner’s business fail.

It is only fair to say that both left and right take libertarian positions on some issues. For example, those on the left are usually in favor of gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and separation of church and state, all by themselves pillars of libertarianism. Those on the right quite often favor free market economics, in alignment with libertarianism. Indeed, one often hears libertarians say that they are “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”, which perhaps gets across the approximate idea, but requires considerable qualification.

Finally, I believe that most every reasonable person assumes what is essentially a "libertarian" position in private dealings with individuals that he or she associates with. I cannot recall anyone threatening violence against a colleague or friend lest---for example-- they give a third party money for lunch. The "live and let live" attitude that is basically the idea behind libertarianism seems to be universally adopted in private practice in the western world today. Oddly, it seems to get lost when abstracting or generalizing this philosophy to the state and society at large.

1 comment:

Joshua Hamm said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

I struggle with what you say here: "The consequentialist type of libertarian would likely argue that people should be free to use any drug for personal enjoyment, as long as the effect of this freedom does not prove harmful to society at large." You go on to define the deontologist as one who argues that such harm is NOT sufficient for a prohibition.

What is meant here by "harmful"? I would submit, and I assume any consequentialist would as well, that if by harmful we mean deleterious to others ("greater society") in a way that diminishes their well-being (a prerequisite for enjoying rights) or imposes involuntary cost, then the result of action that produces harm is tantamount to an initiation of force on others; which the deontologist uses as a principle for determining if an act is permissible in the first place.

The pragmatist in me resists the declaration that there are NO sets of consequences that serve to justify an initiation of force. Granted, I think these are much fewer than your typical leftist or rightist would (significantly fewer), but even the acceptance of a single consequence as being sufficient for the application force is enough to make one NOT a deontologist. I would also argue that deontology even logically breaks down in ethical dilemmas where the consequences are sufficiently large in scope, even if such dilemmas are rare and extreme.

For example, if faced with a dilemma wherein initiation of force is the only thing that could possibly prevent some large-scale natural disaster from extinguishing all beings even capable of possessing rights in the first place, then to do the "deontological" thing would have the (presumably undesirable) consequence of all these "rational ends unto themselves" ceasing to exist - tantamount to destruction of the deontological enterprise itself, since rights cease to exist along with the beings supposedly in possession of them. Faced with such an extreme dilemma, I doubt there is any deontologist who would accept such a consequence for the sake of consistent application of principle.

Granted, our current social dilemmas are not this immediate or extreme, but scaling down, I submit that if the actions of some person(s) produce an effect that can be quantified as having some deleterious effect on non-consenting third parties (equating to some negative consequence for society as a whole), then application of force in preventing people from doing this is justified. This is the same as saying that one does not possess the right to do things that, even if by accident, impose some form of cost upon others.

This is not the same as saying, however, that it is justifiable to initiate force or prohibit something because doing so produces a POSITIVE effect for society. You seem to agree, since you talk about "positive" versus "negative" rights. I would also caveat the definition of harm with the stipulation that one is not "harmed" merely because they are forced by others to tolerate actions they personally find morally unsavory.

Given what I have to say in response, I would argue that initiating force to PREVENT direct harm or imposition of cost (whether great or small) to others is justified; but initiating force is NOT justified simply because it is likely to PRODUCE greater goods. So I suppose I am more of a consequentialist. And at any rate, I think we both agree that true greater goods tend to be produced, at least in the long run, by allowing the naturally selective process of free markets of economics and ideas to do their naturally selective work. Work that is prevented by initiating force in order to produce so called "greater goods", which usually amounts to maintenance of the cultural status quo, which has diminishing returns.

Josh