Quotes of the day--libertarians and liberals edition

>> Tuesday, January 03, 2012

It's as if there was a kind of theme going on today. Jung might have called it synchronicity, but it's more probable that my brain is just wired right now to perk up when someone takes the piss out of Ron Paul after I wrote yesterday's post. From two worthy posts to Hullabaloo and Salon:

Liberalism is and has always been about intervention. It is the opposite of libertarianism, and always has been. Liberals understand that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Left to their own devices, people with weapons and money will always try to exploit and dominate people without weapons and money unless they are stopped from doing so. It is not because we are taught to do so. It's just innate human nature. If this were not the case, libertarianism would work as an ideology. It does not, and never has at any point in history.


This is what liberalism is. It is unavoidably, inescapably paternalistic in nature. It is so because it understands the inevitable tendency of human beings to be truly awful to one another unless social and legal rules are put in place--yes, by force--to prevent them from doing otherwise.

Conservatives use force of government as well, of course, but not in defense of the weak and oppressed, but rather to maintain the power of money, of patriarchy and of the established social pecking order. Where the oppressive hand of government helps them achieve that, they utilize it. Where libertarian ideology helps them keep power in the hands of the local good old boys, they use that instead.

But a liberal--a progressive, if you will--is always an interventionist, because a liberal understands that society is constantly on a path of self-perfection, in an effort to use reason and good moral judgment to prevent insofar as possible the exploitation of one person by another.

Like other libertarians, Ron Paul does not understand American values. The American experiment is an experiment in creating and maintaining a democratic republic, not a minimal state. American political culture is founded not on the theories of Ayn Rand or Ludwig von Mises but on the reasoning of natural rights theorists like John Locke, for whom coercion in the service of communal self-defense is perfectly legitimate. In Lockean social contract theory, in order to protect themselves from human predators, people form a community and then transfer the pooled power of self-defense to the community’s trustee, the state, the better to resist invasion and crime. While abuses of military and police power are to be guarded against, the idea that the military and police and government as such are inherently tyrannical, a familiar theme in libertarian and anarchist thought, is utterly alien to America’s Lockean republican tradition.

Libertarians typically argue that only government, backed by military and police power, can be tyrannical. Lockean republicans in contrast believe that private power located in the for-profit or non-profit sectors can be tyrannical, as well. By means of their agent, the state, the sovereign people legitimately can protect themselves from predation by private sector tyrants as well as public sector tyrants.
-Michael Lind, "Race, liberty and Ron Paul",
Salon, January 3rd, 2012

Atkins goes on to observe that there are indeed divisions within liberalism as to the extent force may morally be deployed, with shadings ranging from the neoliberal to the communist, for instance; Lind, meanwhile, does an excellent job of pointing out that Paul is an at best an idiot and at worst a bigot and hypocrite who doesn't really subscribe to the idea that government has no authority when it comes to racial segregation: he would either de facto or as a matter of principle have that authority side with bigoted property owners.

My own further thought on Atkins' points, expressed briefly elsewhere, is that one also has to remember that in a democratic or republican society, The People are the government, a point Lind essentially makes when citing Locke. So, when "the government" exercises force to protect the vulnerable from the powerful, it is (assuming things are running the way they ought to) The People who are in fact exercising that force. One of the faults of libertarianism, generally speaking, is that it necessarily assumes that the government and citizenry are separate entities, which may be true in many of the myriad non-democratic forms of government human beings have experimented with in the long course of human history; this premise is simply stupid, however, in a functioning democracy (or republic), where your government consists of your neighbors and people you went to school with and friends-of-friends, as opposed to (say) a caste of oligarchs or hereditary leaders. It should be a matter of common sense, or at least a matter of ninth-grade Civics class, that if The People are unhappy with the way their delegates and nominees exercise the use of force, they have the right to strip the delegates and nominees of that power (you were the Chief Of Police, now the newly-sworn-in City Counsel is firing your ass as they were elected to do, for instance).

There is something of a schizophrenia in people who complain that "the government" shouldn't have the right to force them to do such-and-such. Well, in fact, the government does have that right so long as you're a part of a civilization in which The People (of which you're a member) have delegated that power, and if you don't like it, you retain the rights to assemble, petition and vote. Speaking of, I'm not saying such complainers aren't entitled as a matter of free speech to whine and complain, I'm just saying they're fools, since they're in essence complaining that they're abusing themselves.

The larger point that I'd like to make, however, is that I'm pleased that Lind and Atkins aren't shying away from what all of this is really about: that conflict between liberals and libertarians is not about tyranny versus freedom or the size of government or some other red herring, but about the moral use of force in a republic. It seems to me that a libertarian comes in two shades, basically: those anarchists who would abrogate the moral use of force altogether and thereby leave the weak to be exploited by the strong, or those who would define the moral use of force in such a way as to protect those who have from those who want (and therefore possibly leave the latter prey to the former). Whereas a liberal--of whatever stripe--believes in intervening on behalf of the weak to limit their exploitation by the strong, though liberals will disagree about where the pivot point lies between abstaining and interceding. I suspect (at least partly from personal experience) that liberals shy from putting things so bluntly: force often becomes synonymous with oppression even though the latter is merely an extreme degree of the former; i.e. if any use of force is oppressive, every controlled intersection in America is a pocket exercise in totalitarianism. We ought to be candid about it: yes, having the police enforce the rights of racist storeowners against minority "trespassers" and having the police provide a protective escort to minority children threatened by an angry mob are both exercises in state power, but there is a stark difference in the moral statement made by the first and that made by the second. I know which of those moral statements I want to make myself a part of when I decide who will use force on my behalf.

POSTSCRIPT, January 5th, 2012: Seth and I had quite a bit more discussion about this topic at his blog here, here and here, for anyone interested.


sibusisodan,  Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 10:01:00 AM EST  

Very, very thought-provoking and clarity-inducing post, Eric. Much thanks.

Seth Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 11:14:00 AM EST  

On the other hand, Eric, it's not clear, from history, that government power will always, or even usually, be mobilized to protect the vulnerable from the strong, even in a democracy. You're correct that every exercise of state power is in some way an exercise of tyranny, and that we all live with it, all the time, for the sake of convenience and safety (traffic signals, etc.). But once you put the tools of tyranny in place, someone is always going to use them for evil. And that is just as true in a democracy as it is under any other form of government, since the majority is capable of brutality to the minority without much of a second thought. (I refer you to both the drug war and the entire history of white people's relationship to black people in this country -- to say nothing of our treatment of Jews, atheists, Muslims, etc.)

I think libertarians are mistaken when they suggest that government is the only avenue for the abuse of power, and that we'd all be happier if government would just go away. As Noah Smith points out in this excellent post, when the government backs away, what he calls "local bullies" are perfectly capable of oppressing people on their own.

I think the point is that power over others, of any kind, invites abuse, and I think libertarians are right to be skeptical about endowing others with power over us, democratically elected or not. On the other hand, I agree with Smith that power relationships always exist, and that sometimes government can be a balance to other abuses of power. So what we need -- and what we theoretically should have, but often don't -- is a government that is heavily checked in its ability to act capriciously against its citizens (or foreign citizens, for that matter).

I think there's a nugget of goodness in Paul's message, something of value to be extracted from a lot of the ridiculous economic cant. And that nugget, to me, is simply this: we've left the government unchecked for too long. We've made it too easy for presidents to go to war; we've let our 4th Amendment protections against police overreach be shredded; and we've become quite accustomed not only to massive levels of incarceration, but to the government handing over its carceral duties to private companies who have a vested interest in yet more incarceration.

In other words, for all his crazy, Paul is the only major candidate who's talking about the way we've let the government dog off the leash. And even if the dog is us, in some collective, Pogo-ish way, it's still an instrument of potential abuse that needs to be kept tightly under control.

So I give him props for that... despite the crazy.

Eric Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 12:48:00 PM EST  

Seth, the exercise of power is undeniably tricky. I agree with you there, and I agree that it's necessary to impose checks on that power.

Part of the problem with libertarianism, however, is the depth and nature of their skepticism. The fact that something is tricky--or even dangerous--doesn't mean that it's unnecessary or that responsibility for it can be exercised. As you point out, local bullies can be just as effective as distant ones; neighborhood bullies, indeed, may be more dangerous than governmental ones.

The one historical constant across practically all human communities is the delegation of power by default or design. This is as true in a feudal community in which castes have assigned, specific, hereditary responsibilities (e.g. providing national defense, settling disputes between persons, agriculture) as it is in a constitutional republic in which equal citizens assign themselves roles and periodically assemble to delegate portions of their authority. What libertarians perhaps fail to understand is that there will be a potential for the use of violence or force whether there is a big government or no government, the difference is whether we agree that we, as individuals, will renounce the use of force and entrust it to select individuals (whom we can, at least in principle, take it from should they abuse the trust) or whether we'll each become our own robber/vigilante/enforcer. (It is worth noting that the common charge that Somalia is, in fact, a libertarian "paradise" is a completely fair one. It is a short road from minimal government to de facto government by warlords.)

If our government has become so dysfunctional that we can no longer revoke the power we've granted it, the failure is fundamentally ours as citizens. That's an unpleasant conclusion because solutions appear unpalatable or ineffectual, but it is what it is. The Founders' solution to that problem was not only to fire up the presses, but to commit treason, a "solution" I can't possibly endorse for all sorts of reasons. In theory, democracy means we have the ability to periodically have "bloodless revolutions" to overturn the government, but our current model seems to have broken (it's worth noting that there is arguably an advantage in parliamentary systems in which no-confidence votes may be called, and in forms of government--such as the French--in which the constitution is subject to frequent revision or recall).

Eric Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 12:48:00 PM EST  


But there's also, frankly, another question that has to be asked at this point: is a democracy in fact broken if it produces results that a majority implicitly wants even if the majority expresses disappointment and displeasure over them. As much as we might complain about lobbyists and unfettered campaign expenses and whatever, if there's a consensus that government's "broken", and yet everybody keeps re-electing the same bozos into office (or their equivalent), isn't it possible that the citizenry (to borrow a line you used elsewhere) aren't idiots? Maybe the unpleasant fact is that regardless of what Americans say they want, what the majority actually wants are policies that result in the War On Drugs, policies that make it easy for presidents to go to war, policies that encourage police overreach. (Anecdotally, at least, I can say that even experienced criminal defendants seem to have no problem letting the police search their homes or running down to the station to fill out a confession--at least not until after they're told they didn't have to do that, and even then I'll sometimes hear, "Well I wasn't going to lie about what I did," still not grokking that you don't lie, you don't tell the truth, you simply say nothing. Anyway.)

I suspect we agree on much of this. Where we disagree, strongly, is in taking Ron Paul's conclusions as being worth anything when they align with us, without consideration of the process. Sure, Paul is talking about citizens ceding too much to the government, which may be a problem, and he's talking about The War On Drugs being wrong (which is something most liberals agree with) and he's anti-war (which many liberals agree with). The problem, though, is that Paul gets there by saying that all use of Federal power is fundamentally immoral, whereas a liberal ought to be getting those conclusions by saying that Federal power is being ineffectively or inappropriately used. This is a fundamental, basic difference.

I think, as I suggested in a comment at your blog, that the late Christopher Hitchens is instructive and illustrative on one of these points in particular. It is a fact that my position on the Iraq War coincides with Ron Paul's and is in opposition to Hitchens'. The irony, however, is that I agree with Hitchens and disagree with Paul on the fundamentals: I am willing to consider that it may be an appropriate use of a nation's power to neutralize tyranny, as opposed to Paul's willingness to abrogate human responsibility. Hitchens wasn't wrong about the principle, he was wrong about the particulars: the international sanctions regime was working to neutralize Hussein as an international threat, regime change was too complicated a task for one nation to attempt alone (especially with opposition at home and within the international community), there were compelling realpolitik concerns suggesting that Hussein's crimes against his own people might be a poison to be endured for the sake of regional stability and particularly as a counter to the odious Iranian regime. (Other reasons Hitchens was wrong might be added, but that will do for now.) On the other side of it, to embrace Paul's theory that only "existential" emergencies should prompt the deployment of force means that Lend-Lease was immoral in 1941, that the United States had no moral obligations to assist the international community in Bosnia or Darfur, that the United States had no obligation to support Libyans seeking to overthrow Qadaddi.

Eric Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 12:49:00 PM EST  


Indeed, to jump back to WWII again: the sole "existential threat" to the United States was almost entirely the result of Japan's (rightful) concern that the United States would contest Japanese hegemony in the Pacific; presumably, had Paul been president instead of FDR, he would not have cared if America's trade partners were Japanese or Chinese, French, British and Dutch, and he possibly would not have cared to defend American colonialism in the Pacific (especially in the Philippines); it seems only logical that he would have kept us out of World War II, doesn't it? The Japanese would have simply had no reason to bomb Pearl Harbor, Germany would have had no reason to declare war on the United States to comply with their treaty obligations (even less, since it's unlikely a Paul administration would have supported the Allied effort by providing war materiel). Whatever Germans did to Jews and Japanese did to the Chinese really could not have been less Americans' business, could it? (Not unless one feels a moral disgust towards oppression?) Naturally this is all hypothetical; perhaps it's even unfair. But maybe not--I'm only applying Paul's stated principles to a historical problem with well-known data points. And the result we get can't be the right one, can it? No matter how vigorously it was in fact endorsed by most Republicans until December, 1941.

I'm not going to give Paul props for coming to the right conclusions on several issues for the wrong reasons. That would be like rewarding a student for completely messing up every step of a math problem because he managed to somehow randomly guess the answer at the far end of it; he still did it wrong, and a student who did everything correctly but wrote the wrong number down is more "right", ironically enough. Paul's answers sound good, sure, it's just that when he shows his work, you realize he's a choad.

Seth Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 5:11:00 PM EST  

I don't have a lot of follow-up to that, though I've really enjoyed the conversation. But I did want to point you to this brief post by Fred Clark, which I think you will enjoy.

Eric Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 6:37:00 PM EST  

I've enjoyed it, too, Seth, and thanks for the link.

The way I figure, a big rock can be carved up into bricks that are easy to carry and can be assembled into whatever kind of structure you need, or set aside for later. :)

Eric Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 1:28:00 PM EST  

Sort of an update: I think Atkins knocks it out of the park again in this post, which I think is worth a read for anyone who cares about the discussion.

Nick from the O.C.,  Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 3:48:00 PM EST  

I'm just leaving this gem here for contemplation:

The Constitution “is a series of balances—first, between the Federal Government and the States, and then between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches, and finally, between freedom and order.”

-- Richard M. Nixon

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