Liberalism, Centrism, and Libertarianism

Since I have been called a “fake liberal” recently, I thought I’d delve into the subject once again.

I am a liberal mainly because the rather short arc of liberalism traces pretty well alongside the equally short arc of human progress, out from the bonds of poverty and class dependency and toward something better, toward something more human. The liberal project, to me, is a project to tear down the false humanity of oppression and prejudice and try to replace it with a deeper humanity.

I see liberalism as the effort to free as many people from domination as possible – Ned Resnikoff would call this small-“r” republicanism, perhaps – and not just from the domination of powerful states, but from the domination of poverty, violence, culture, prejudice, hunger, ignorance, exploitation and so on and so forth.

That’s why I can nod along with libertarians when they’re talking about free markets or ending the war on drugs and the danger of war, but can’t really nod along once we’re talking about universal healthcare or public education. I get the basic libertarian critique. I just find it lacking, or maybe too idealistic. A lot of good can come from libertarian ideas, especially in regards to the guys breaking legs. I’ve internalized the libertarian critique in many ways on this matter. It’s the crutches where it all starts to fall apart.

The liberal answer to poverty, lack of access to healthcare, public education strike me as more practical, more likely to result – alongside some of the very libertarian ideas about the drug wars and so forth – in freedom from domination, in the tearing down of barriers to exit poverty. Crafting a smart welfare state is hard work, of course, but necessary work.

Maybe it’s a certain cynicism on my part, but I think I know how it all plays out: Medicaid gets hit before Medicare. We cut spending on teachers before we cut spending on bombs. We slash funding to national parks before we let the nonviolent offenders out of our overstuffed prisons. I think liberals and libertarians can often agree on these things and still come to different conclusions.

This is also why I think that libertarianism – at least its more liberal wing – is better situated in the liberal tent. There are plenty of conservatives who call themselves libertarians, but I know plenty of libertarians who are more at home thinking of themselves as some sort of classical liberal rather than a branch of the right.

As I’ve said before, though, I’m not a centrist simply because I hold divergent views. I wrote, not long ago:

[T]he label I hate more than anything is ‘centrist’. This is the laziest of all possible terms. Am I a centrist because I believe in free markets and the welfare state? Does that put me at the center of two extremes? Which extremes are those, and how do they define the ‘center’? The worst policies are almost inevitably the centrist ones, brokered in the halls of power between the old vanguard of the status quo.

I don’t want centrism. I want radically more free markets including an end to all US trade barriers and tariffs, an end to all corporate welfare, a drastic drawdown of the defense budget and of our presence overseas, the complete decriminalization of all drugs, an end to the PATRIOT Act and all domestic surveillance programs (see, up to this point I sound like Ron Paul…) universal healthcare, a carbon tax to help combat global warming, more aggressive stimulus spending, the breaking up of big banks, etc. etc. etc.

I know plenty of people with similar views and I wouldn’t call any of them centrists. Centrists want to preserve the status quo. They want small wars and small changes to entitlements. They want to keep fighting the war on drugs, and more and more laws to stay tough on crime. They want to keep sending out favors to their well-guarded districts.

That’s not entirely fair. A lot of centrists probably believe a number of the things I believe. But centrism in American politics, in the halls of power at least, is usually the worst of all possible worlds. Centrism is where shit sandwiches are born, and good ideas – like Ron Wyden’s healthcare bill – come to die.

I’m not sure if this all makes me a neoliberal, a liberaltarian, or a fake liberal, or a terrible statist. As I’ve said before, I think liberalism is a big tent.

Next up: Beyond Culture.

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110 thoughts on “Liberalism, Centrism, and Libertarianism

  1. , My friend, you need a pick-me-up, so I recommend this to get the ball rolling.

    Something for everyone, liberal tree hugging (literally about certain trees), Libertarianism (open and shut case of abuse of power), conservatism (how DARE they do that_) and so on.

    And not a word about mansplaining in the bunch.

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    • I don’t get it. Gibson allegedly purchased an illegal shipment of an endangered species and concealed (perhaps unwittingly) the final destination; Fish & Wildlife Service is now investigating their materials. What’s in this for anyone unless you’re broadly against regulating endangered species?

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      • The story, as I understand it, is whether the US ought to be enforcing the laws of other countries.

        There is another minor story about whether the US ought to be selectively enforcing the laws against other countries against corporations headed by people with particular political views (but not against corporations headed by people with others).

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      • Quote from the article: Consider the recent experience of Pascal Vieillard, whose Atlanta-area company, A-440 Pianos, imported several antique Bösendorfers. Mr. Vieillard asked officials at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species how to fill out the correct paperwork—which simply encouraged them to alert U.S. Customs to give his shipment added scrutiny.

        There was never any question that the instruments were old enough to have grandfathered ivory keys. But Mr. Vieillard didn’t have his paperwork straight when two-dozen federal agents came calling. Facing criminal charges that might have put him in prison for years, Mr. Vieillard pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act, and was handed a $17,500 fine and three years probation.

        This is fair on what planet? Gibson says, “The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier,” but that isn’t good enough for this administration. But of course you’re in favor of MORE regulation because as we all know regulation is WONDERFUL.

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  2. It seems to me like your philosophy is closest to classical liberalism (with the exception of your views on welfare and universal healthcare). Liberals and libertarians need to form more issues-based coalitions. However, liberals should consider joining the libertarian movement, instead of the other way around. Libertarians are not beholden to any political party, and there is a divergence of opinion within the movement. Most liberals seem to blindly vote Democratic, while conservatives are also guilty of blindly propping up Republicans. A prominent issues-based coalition is a much better way to attack the political duopoly. Until then, both parties will continue to take everyone’s vote for granted.

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    • game theory, my dear. game theory. there will be two parties because it is a more stable system. Since the professionals have defaulted to the Democrats, we do everyone more good by voting Democrat. Because if the republicans get a bad enough defeat, they might split into two parties. And the middle party MIGHT be libertarian.

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        • … what’s hilarious is that I believe most of the republican establishment in my state is doing the same damn thing (friend talked with a couple of them). They want their fucking party back (and I’m not in Massachusetts. Pennsylvania is pretty damn centrist). It’s been taken over by the South (and yes, there are plenty of nice things to say about the south — I disagree strongly with their politics, however).

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          • Well I’m very socially liberal, and very much a supporter of safety nets, environmental causes, etc. so I’m probably still a damn hippie compared to a lot of moderate Republicans. But I take your point.

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            • But this is exactly what I’m talking about. Classical liberals (hi) want to splinter both parties. If the Republicans are vulnerable to such a split, so are the Democrats. To say one party takes their constituency for granted and not the other is just false. How’s the restoration of our civil liberties going under President Obama? What about the Drug War? How about foreign militarism? Real actual libertarians are interested in policy, not politics. Just because we may disagree in good faith on some economic policies shouldn’t ruin the whole notion of forming issues-based coalitions and holding elected officials accountable. E.D., you might actually be a Bleeding Heart Libertarian.

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              • I don’t mind issue based coalitions. those are FINE. I mind the idea that a 3-party system is FEASIBLE and STABLE in America, with current elections.

                It’s just NOT.

                So either you change the elections (your perog, but hard), or you forge coalitions within a two-party system.

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                • I guess I’m just more of an eternal optimist about human nature. The reality is more and more registered voters self-identify as independent or un-affiliated, and the trend continues to move in that direction. And since there is no third party right now, I think liberals should take a serious look at Gary Johnson. If anything, it just might help splinter that Republican Party you so loathe.

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                • What you say is generally correct, though there arguably is a place for certain kinds of third parties if they focused less on the executive and more on the legislative (specifically, districts where there is only one competitive party). Even then, of course, they would almost certainly need to caucus with one party or the other in a predictable fashion.

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                  • Will,
                    That’s still a two party system. It occurs in San Francisco (Green vs Dem) and in large swaths of Texas (Libertarian vs Republican).
                    I don’t argue that there can be minor parties, just that a two party system is the only stable one for our electoral system.

                    If you wanted “Real” third parties, you should look up the curious case of Bernie Sanders, and how the policeman’s union elected a Democratic Socialist.

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                    • This ties in to an aside I had with Tom the other day, on Tim’s post about the overly-fuzzy nature of scope of government.

                      If we really did have *any* sort of reasonable demarcation of authority, wherein the polis made their rules, the state made their rules, and the feds made their rules, but everyone actually made a real attempt to keep the scope of work limited to the appropriate sphere, then we’d probably have better regulations, and we’d probably have more efficient government without having to go all top-down on this mofo, *and* we’d have the case where people could vote for regional parties in regional elections; party N for the polis-level positions, party N+1 for the state, etc.

                      This wouldn’t get rid the two party system, of course, because typically the parties would gravitate towards aligning and associating with each other anyway.

                      The Los Angeles Libs would have a large amount of overlap with the California Blue party and again with the national Democratic party.

                      But they would still be not quite the same. If nothing else, it would change the way caucusing was done in the House.

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            • … Midwestern republicans are not the same thing as Southern republicans. Trust me, I’ve known both. Ike, with his 90% marginal tax rate, would blow a fuse at the modern republican party (he was the guy that black folks voted for, if you remember… because he was good on their issues).

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            • Take actual Christianity as described in the Bible, then find the complete reverse of everything it says (blessed are the rich; hate, murder and torture not only your enemies, but the innocent; oppress the weak; be hostile to the stranger, the alien, to anyone different from you). That’s southern fundamentalist politics in a nutshell.

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                    • the south used to be a much better place (particularly places like Tennessee, which for about forty years had attracted good scientists, with Oak Ridge and the TVA, and a general policy to “live and let live”)

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                  • Really? Where are scientists fleeing from and to? Last I checked, there were still some pretty big tier 1 research institutions in the south, and I haven’t heard about scientiests fleeing them (I picture them in Model T’s with all of their belongings strapped, and their children, strapped to the top).

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                    • Indeed. The dynamics are not as simple as made out here. One of the reasons that North Carolina is trending blue in presidential elections is the rise of the Research Triangle. Virginia is experiencing the same effect as white-collar professionals agglomerate in Arlington, Alexandria, and the neighboring suburbs.

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                    • Tennessee, as I mentioned in another post. This is mostly anecdotal (how many scientists are in the state? It’s possible to know a good deal of them), but my friend mentioned that most physicists have left, and at least one frosh bio professor. Getting shot at in church tends to make you want to leave the state. Let alone being shunned simply for teaching biology. (the bio guy headed out to France.)

                      The brain drain is drying up, and you can find evidence of that in all walks of life in America, mostly by looking at (repatriation?) of graduate students… Or, if you’d rather, look at the sheer number of modelers/engineers that are fleeing to New Zealand, Australia, or Europe.

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                    • Ryan B,
                      northern virginia is now not the South, as ethnically/socially/economically/politically constructed, I believe.
                      I wasn’t referencing the research triangle, and I do agree that it does provide a countervailing force, so long as NC doesn’t pass any laws forcing the teaching of creationism.

                      It’s worth mentioning that one still sees discrimination against scientists nearby the research triangle (not inside). kinda like how Atlanta’s kinda diverse, but going outside city limits too far and you hit a whole different crowd, who don’t take too kindly to certain folks.

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                    • Even in Texas, which is a very red state, the big cities (Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso) are increasingly blue (all voted for Obama), in part because Texas has been importing brain power on a massive level (with the Texas education system, it’s not like they’re growing it at home).

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                    • Ryan B,
                      What in particular? I don’t think anyone’s considered Maryland part of The South for fifty years… I see the border between The North and The South as drifting southward. [and you’ll note that I’m not making that claim on the research triangle, which seems to be trying to integrate more than displace]
                      Then again, I don’t count WV as being The South either, despite the stars and bars on people’s pickups.

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                    • Kim, you’re bullshitting again. You’d do well to stick to facts, because you’re clearly smart, but you have this habit of just pullsing shit out of your ass.

                      Tennessee, particularly Middle Tennessee, has seen a massive influx of tech companies and tech jobs over the last 10-15 years (Nashville, Brentwood, Franklin, etc.). I doubt you could name a tiny fraction of the scientists in the Cool Springs area, much less in the entire state. In East Tennessee, ORNL is thriving, with thousands of scientists (none of whom, I suspect, you’ve ever met). Jackson, in West Tennessee, is also home to tech companies and scientists in increasing numbers.

                      So, again, I wish you wouldn’t make shit up. It serves no purpose.

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                    • Chris,
                      never been to huntsville. can’t be as bad as the florida panhandle, I figure, but what the hell do I know?
                      … you can either assume that I’m bullshitting or that your frame of reference (or sample set) is different from mine. Does it say something to you that you assume the former? [me, I’m trying to learn to be more charitable myself… ;0]

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                    • Kim, the difference is that my frame of reference is facts, and yours is… what? A few people you knew? Shit you made up? I’m inclined to think the latter. The fact is, Middle Tennessee has seen a massive influx of high tech, which includes scientists. An influx, if you don’t know, goes in the opposite direction of an exodus. ORNL is thriving, as evidenced by the number of people who work there and the research it’s putting out. Jackson is getting more high tech industry. That covers pretty much the entire area of Tennessee.

                      And Huntsville has tech, including NASA. That’s why I mentioned it. If you don’t know about Huntsville, you don’t know about science in the south.

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              • It’s always helpful to describe people in groups that dissent from or are different from our own in such a hostile manner and with such a large brush. Who wants to call dibs on urban black politics? Southern California Latino politics? Oh, what a productive conversation it will be…

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                • ya, it actually is helpful. Because when Limbaugh does it, it’s mostly just projection.
                  1) Muslims want to take over the country and install sharia law — instead, Christians(dominionists, actually) want to take over the country and install biblical law.

                  2) Feminazis want to emasculate men! — instead, Limbaugh-esque conservatives believe that women ought to act “feminine,” herein defined as “needing protection and guidance” (aka Sarah Palin, last election. South ate it up when people started saying “but you can’t backtalk her because she’s a Lady”)

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      • There are two parties because of particular structural features of the american electoral system. Particularly, is the fact that the head of government is elected directly through a series of runoff votes. Multiparty systems are far more common in parliamentary democracies. Since coalition governments are in principle impossible under a presidential system, this automatically suppresses third parties because voting for a third party splits the vote whereas it need not do so in parliamentary systems.

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  3. I think you’re pretty close on liberalism, E.D. It’s about pursuing a multi-definitional concept of freedom that balances meritorious understandings of freedom according to value (how’s that for vague?). Rensikoff is confused about republicanism, however. That’s a totally different thing.

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  4. Lately I’ve been contemplating the notion that the government should be very deeply involved in the insurance industry, but completely out of all others.

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    • Unless you are expanding the definition of “the insurance industry” to include the military, police, courts, monetary policy, diplomacy, and perhaps a few other things, I don’t see a very large coalition supporting this idea.

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      • Well, you’re right: I’m limiting my field to those industries that are already perceived as such. And certainly a long way from seeking a coalition, just rolling the notion around in my head.

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    • Insurance is a poor fit for the “for profit” model, as there’s not much way to innovate that doesn’t involve ripping people off by virtue of power differentials.
      You write a program that IDs people who have AIDS (not HIV) and put them on the “slow train” to getting money from your corporation. Voila! You get money — by cheating the most vulnerable members of the population.

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      • Insurance is amortization of risk. Pretty much by definition, it works best when the population is covered, less well as you start to cover fewer people, and practically not at all when you reach the inflection point.

        Competition in the insurance industry is built on a profit model where revenues are the only metric. Well, duh, now every player in the insurance market has a massive incentive to game the system such that the most expensive members (claimants) are ejected and the least expensive members (predominantly young, healthy people) are recruited heavily.

        Our employer-based system is ludicrous, taken in that light.

        You could make a set of market incentives that would encourage a workable insurance private market, but it would pretty much immediately lead to a monopoly. Rather than have a nice cushy government-subsidized existence to some private company (which has its own ugly failure modes), it makes more sense to have a single-payer system for the large glut of productivity-killing medical expenses, and have a private market for those people who want additional coverage.

        The trick there is that drug companies will have a huge incentive to get Cialis labeled as “productivity-killing”, and insurance companies in the private market will have a huge incentive to get things that are covered by their additional coverage plans suddenly added to the list, too… so that they can take all that cheddar that they’ve pocketed to cover future expenses and blow it on a company party.

        Anywhere you move these guidelines, you’re going to have problems at the edge cases, admittedly.

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  5. Kucinich and Sanders would be better than Obama, and so would Russ Feingold – at least on civil liberties, the drug war, and foreign wars. We may part ways on economics, but without free speech to advocate free market policies, we’d have nothing. Libertarians aren’t unreasonable. However, I’m perplexed that you disagree with Johnson to such an extent. He is much more liberal than Ron Paul. Even though you probably won’t vote for him, visit his site and check out his stances on the issues (if you haven’t already done so). You may be pleasantly surprised… or at least you might walk that 90% opposition number back just a bit. Either way, feel free to comment over at SpatialOrientation.com so we can find some more common ground wherever it may lie. Thanks for the great post, E.D. – I always enjoy reading your work! And thanks to all who engaged in this thread…

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    • I don’ t know about 90%, but it’d be a tough, uphill climb to get many liberals on board with some of Johnson’s signature policy preferences, such as:

      – Immediately cutting Medicare & Medicaid by 43% and converting both to block grant programs.
      – Actively opposed to universal health care of any sort.
      – School vouchers as silver bullet for all ills in the schools (sigh).
      – Opposed to all federal-level spending or regulations on education, transportation, and energy.
      – Endless tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations.
      – Opposed to regulations on food safety, environmental protection, net neutrality, and pretty much everything else.

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  6. Views like yours (which are quite close to mine) are what I like to describe as ‘market socialist’, the key features being:

    1) Market mechanisms as effective allocation calculators, _if_ distortions and failures are removed. (Pigouvian neoliberalism when taken alone.)

    2) Social/collective preferences as the highest goal of policy, _given_ that individual ‘revealed’ preferences are often incompatible with collective preferences. (ie, many of us would prefer not to have health insurance, but we are collectively better off if we all do – so a reduction in freedom on one hand increases freedom greatly on the other). This point also means that questions of distribution are at least equal to questions of total output; that employment is at least equal to profit, and other social preferences that are not reflected in market mechanisms are often more important than those that are.

    Altogether the philosophical flow is the opposite of neoliberalism. There, what the market produces is proper _because it is said to reveal our preferences_; here, we reject that assumption, state our preferences first, and use markets to acquire the necessary information and enact those preferences.

    Personally I have found that Post-Keynesian economics makes good use of these foundations – it has built a number of models where the key outputs are distribution and employment (instead of output and profit), and so illustrates how we can make the market mechanism produce the outputs we truly desire.

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  7. “Social/collective preferences as the highest goal of policy, _given_ that individual ‘revealed’ preferences are often incompatible with collective preferences. (ie, many of us would prefer not to have health insurance, but we are collectively better off if we all do – so a reduction in freedom on one hand increases freedom greatly on the other).”

    Oh my. Is this what E.D. believes? So long individual rights, we hardly knew ye.

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  8. EDK –

    This is the most cogent and meaningful description of your political philosophy I’ve ever seen from you. (Admittedly, I’d missed the First Principles post to which you link.)

    Avoid the temptation you show at the end to reduce all this to a simple label. The labels are the problem, as they all apply inadequately. Just link to this post (with the First Principles link embedded, of course) whenever anyone asks you to self-identify. It will save you a lot of effort.

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