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Reaching Out to the Left, Part 1: The Basics


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Should libertarians reach out to the Left? Why might it be important? And what approach should we take in doing it?

As libertarians, we have a goal of a freer world. Despite what some might think, the degree of human freedom in a society is not just a function of the type of people in power or the structure of government. It is ultimately a reflection of public ideology. What the average person believes has a great impact on how the state operates and what it does. If the overwhelming majority of Americans were fundamentally opposed to prohibiting drugs, for example, the war on drugs could not persist. If the majority wanted to ban alcohol, it would probably be banned. Government’s tendency is to grow and reach into the areas of life where it will meet the least resistance, including public resistance. It is for this that authoritarian regimes devote considerable attention to propaganda and censorship.

The reason the United States has enjoyed so much domestic freedom, at least compared with many other nations, is the classical-liberal heritage that has been prevalent since the founding. If the vast bulk of North Koreans were Jeffersonians, even their military dictatorship, as formidable as it now seems, would crumble. The people have to acquiesce to the state, however reluctantly, for it to survive. The state is, in the end, constrained by public opinion.

The libertarian movement and libertarian ideology thus have an importance far beyond what can be seen in electoral politics alone. Even when no libertarians win elections, a relatively libertarian culture can prevent the state from expanding as much as it would in the midst of a more statist culture. The extent to which liberals and conservatives accept certain premises of libertarian thought — the concept of private property, the rejection of slavery, the equal rights of people before the law — is reflected in the policies that liberals and conservatives will simply not tolerate and thus in the freedoms that remain for all of us to enjoy.

If we want more liberty, we need more libertarians to help spread these ideas and help them achieve critical mass in popular support. And since a very sizable percentage of the people are on the political Left, that fact alone requires that we try to encourage libertarian principles among left-liberal thinkers and activists. The less libertarian the Left or Right is, the more dangerous for liberty.

Many libertarians have balked at the idea of reaching out to the Left, supposing that the Left is somehow clearly more opposed to libertarian ideas than the Right. But we cannot neglect the need to reach out to the Left. It is true that many libertarians came in from the Right, such as the Goldwater movement more than 40 years ago, and to the extent that conservatives can be reached and convinced of the merits of libertarian principle, that is a great thing and must not be neglected. Even so, reaching out to the Left is in some ways easier than reaching out to the Right, and often does not require any compromise with principle to get a point across, as reaching out to the Right sometimes seems to.

Left, Right, and liberty

Probably most libertarians who deviate considerably from libertarian principle on important issues do so rightward. It is more common to find a libertarian who has a statist blind spot on war or immigration than on Social Security or gun control. But the error of right-wing deviationism goes further than this. Many libertarians, in attempting to embrace limited government, end up defending a government that is hardly limited at all. Since the police and military are the two major functions that many libertarians are happy to leave in the hands of government, they sometimes forget that those agencies constitute the violent-enforcement arm of the state, charged with forcibly implementing the many coercive and socially destructive policies we all oppose. Police brutality, wartime torture, violations of due process, and civilian killings — some of the very worst activities the government is capable of — actually come from the “legitimate” bureaus and offices of the state.

Not only do right-leaning libertarians sometimes unfortunately tolerate the more egregious government activities, they also sometimes confuse the current economic system of corporate privilege and pillaging as some sort of proxy for free-market capitalism. This can lead to a misunderstanding of economic reality, undue sympathy for certain big businesses that actually lobby for and benefit from big government, and a skewed sense of priority concerning which government programs are most destructive to liberty. A classic example is the free marketer who sees food stamps as socialist anathema but does not get so worked up by the multi-billion-dollar military-industrial complex.

The error of right-wing deviationism inspired Murray N. Rothbard, the great libertarian economist, theorist, and historian, to write his classic essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” back in 1965. The essay challenged the fallacy that libertarianism was a conservative doctrine and warned against rightward deviations. He wrote,

Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. As we have seen, Conservatism was the polar opposite of liberty; and socialism, while to the “left” of conservatism, was essentially a confused, middle-of-the road movement. It was, and still is, middle-of-the road because it tries to achieve Liberal ends by the use of Conservative means.

“Conservative means” refers to the political devices and institutions of government — taxation, police, prisons, and all the rest. Indeed, for most of human history, government has been a conservative institution, on the side of reaction, economic privilege, theocracy, patriarchy, and militarism. Means and ends take on great importance in considering the relationship between libertarianism and the Left and Right. As Rothbard saw it,

Socialism, like Liberalism and against Conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, Conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc. Or rather, to be more precise, there were from the beginning two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of Conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State” and the “end of the exploitation of man by man.”

While modern left-liberals favor state-socialist means, which are immoral and socially destructive, they often do have laudable goals, mostly concerning the elevation of the common man. Yet it is a mistake to go too far with that and assume left-liberals are superior to conservatives across the board. Just as there were “two different strands within Socialism,” so too does today’s left-liberal movement have both authoritarian and anti-authoritarian strains. One key to reaching out to the Left is identifying how libertarian or statist a given leftist is.

A discussion with the Left

Some leftists care more about civil liberties than their pet socialist projects. Other leftists are the opposite. Throughout history, many leftists have even defended socialist regimes from Bolshevik Russia to Castro’s Cuba, believing their horrible records on human rights and free speech were worth the supposed benefits of their socialist programs. Others will find that view outrageous. Some left-liberals think even corporate criminals should get due process. Others will say throw away the key.

By asking a few questions, you can often tell whether a left-liberal is more interested in personal freedom and thus a potential convert to libertarianism; or more interested in managerial social democracy, and thus more unshakably devoted to the state. Another good clue is how skeptical he is of government power even when “his” party is at the helm. For all their flaws, many people in the ACLU were relentless in condemning Bill Clinton’s violations of privacy and the Fourth Amendment. Such people have a limited understanding of freedom, but at least they take it seriously and have certain standards regarding civil liberties that they will not capriciously abandon for the sake of partisanship.

Another consideration is just how hostile someone is toward free enterprise: does he think private property is inherently evil, or that markets are mostly just and efficient but just need some smoothing out? One who believes the former probably is less likely to adopt libertarianism than one who believes the latter, who might just need a few lessons on economics to understand that even small doses of socialism are unnecessary and destructive.

Also, a left-liberal who is radically anti-war and anti-police state will often be receptive to libertarian ideas, since he already distrusts the establishment and recognizes that statism can cause very real and significant harm to human beings. The best, and somewhat rare, combination is in a liberal who is much more antiwar and anti-police state than anti-capitalism. This is somewhat rare because, unfortunately, many leftists are more radically anti-authority the more anti-market they are, whereas the ones who are more moderate in their condemnations of free enterprise are often also more tolerant toward empire and the establishment.

When talking to the Left, the best approach, regardless, is to stick to principle. Often leftists are used to deconstructing the hypocrisy of the Right, which claims to be for smaller government but defends Big Brother and gigantic military bureaucracies. By maintaining radicalism and principle, a libertarian can distance himself from such right-wing hypocrisy and prove that his positions come from serious, principled thought and a genuine sympathy for the human victims of state aggression. Sometimes leftists are too quick to assume everyone is a victim, and yet libertarians should never downplay the huge toll big government takes on prisoners, foreign civilians at wartime, and the poor, both directly and by the great opportunity costs that cascade with large government expenditures and the resulting displacement of private-sector wealth generation. Since capitalism does indeed serve the poor as no other economic system does, there is a sense in which the poorest people are the primary victims of the government interventions currently saddling the economy.

No compromise on principle

Given our agreement with many left-liberal goals and some substantive agreement on a lot of issues, it is in fact something of a curiosity that left-liberals and libertarians often have the animosity toward each other that they do. On civil liberties, foreign policy, and indeed some economic issues, there is at least some common ground. Much of the mutual distrust is due to poor communication, and while leftists are not totally innocent of this, we libertarians must make an effort if we want our ideas to spread. This means emphasizing certain points and even rephrasing some of their rhetoric. We can show how liberty involves genuine societal justice. We can appeal to the anti-violence tendency among the pacifist Left and explain how the state’s actions are intrinsically violent or at least predicated on violence. We can explain how big government is an institution of corporate benefits and privilege and show just how damaging that is to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The answer is not, despite what some libertarians say, to compromise our actual principles or to try to meet liberals “halfway” on issues. We need not accept any aspect of the welfare state or cave in to the idea of huge bureaucracies to fight global warming. Some libertarians have called for an alliance with the Left by emphasizing certain personal liberties and downplaying our steadfast opposition to central planning. An irony is that some libertarians advocating more outreach to the Left are themselves actually weak on our best issue for such outreach — foreign policy.

Libertarians sometimes come off as callous and cold, but when speaking with left-liberals, it is easy to stick with principle while demonstrating how much we actually care for the people hurt by the state, many of whom the Left is aware of, but many of whom they’ve forgotten or didn’t know exist. In this sense, when addressing issues ranging from crime to poverty, we libertarians can take the moral high ground that left-liberals are often used to occupying, at least in their own minds, when talking with conservatives.

With just some effort and understanding, libertarians can approach the Left and have huge influence in swaying them on all issues — not just the ones we more superficially agree on, such as war and civil liberties, but indeed on economics and private property as well.

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    Anthony Gregory is research fellow at the Independent Institute, a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation, author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and a history graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.