Left Libertarianism is Real: Why Liberals Are Our Intellectual Bedfellows

“The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus. Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent. But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic “invader” of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain. Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body.  Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.”

-Murray Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty

 

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by
Micah J. Fleck

1

O
ver the course of my personal political sojourn thus far, I have taken many interesting turns and kept plenty of intriguing company. Yet nothing has proven more simultaneously compelling and infuriating than my relationship with libertarians. As it stands today, the liberty movement seems to exist in two parts – the purists who fall in line with a predetermined ideology, and the more philosophical libertarians who came to this crowd through merely lining up with its principles by chance, yet pledging no dogmatic allegiance. I’m most certainly in the latter category, yet as a result find myself more and more admonished by the former.

Let me be very clear: I am a “libertarian” on most political issues in the same way I am a “liberal” on most social issues or a “conservative” on fiscal issues. In other words, I can be any, all, or none of these things depending on which specific topic is part of the conversation at any given time. I do not adopt libertarianism as a once-and-for all answer to every problem I might encounter, because I’m not a religious man and don’t approach any problem in such a way. I would argue this makes me no less a libertarian than any other, as long as one accepts that libertarianism can itself take the form of either a hard set of political positions or a looser philosophy on how to go about living one’s life.

As the philosopher rather than the ideologue, I still approach many political topics like many other libertarians, but I do so by adopting the following self rulebook: Protect the autonomy of the individual, try to do so whenever possible with less government rather than more, and stay as intellectually honest and objective as possible along the way.

This last point is very important, as it holds my thought processes accountable for any missteps I may take along the way and measures any position I hold against an objectively verifiable backdrop. When scientists build theories explaining observed phenomena, they are supposed to follow the evidence wherever it leads before developing an opinion about the end result. If they do not do so, ultimately their personal biases are weeded out by the aforementioned scientific method when reputable scientists revisit the same evidence. This ensures that the evidence is the same everywhere, regardless of who is observing it, and can support the same conclusion every time. A similar type of self-checking approach can and should be applied to everything else based on evidence, as well – including political conclusions. For me, adopting that approach to measuring the evidence I uncover leaves me open to always have my mind changed if new evidence comes along that may overturn a previous position. Again, it keeps me honest but also (unfortunately) sometimes puts me at odds with libertarians who have gotten settled into their opinions. This is where the admonishment I previously mentioned comes in full tow.

While the problems many of my fellow libertarians raise with me range from the ridiculous to the more reasonable, the one complaint that seems to crop up more than all the others is that I’m somehow lying about being a “true” libertarian because I openly profess an intellectual kinship with left-libertarianism. I am told that it doesn’t really exist, and that I’m just peddling socialism under a different name whenever I refer to myself under that distinction.

Allow me to squash the easiest argument: Left-libertarianism has been around for a very long time. If you choose not to acknowledge the history of this rich philosophical tradition, then you’re entering tinfoil hat territory and even a hundred articles like this one won’t convince you otherwise. If you are willing to look at the evidence, then congratulations: you’ve just taken your first step into a larger world. Without the likes of Murray Rothbard, Sheldon Richman, Brian Doherty, Robert Nozick, Karl Hess, Carl Oglesby, J. Arthur Bloom, Kevin Carson, Charles Johnson, Roderick Long, and countless others, libertarianism wouldn’t be where it is today. Yet all of these minds, their brilliant ideas included, are often discarded or forgotten about completely in the modern liberty movement, which seems much more interested in falling in line with the strictly paleoconservative brand of libertarianism promulgated by the Paul family and their visible allies. There is nothing wrong with these men having their voices heard as well, but not at the expense of actual conversation and dissent within libertarianism today. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what the movement is currently suffering from.

As for the accusation that left-libertarians like myself are really just socialists, I can only really argue that this is (in my opinion) a real failure to see nuance and individuality in our positions. When Ludwig von Mises (largely cited as the grandfather of Austrian economics) attended a meet with the monetarists (Chicago School economists) in the ’70s led by the likes of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, Mises stormed angrily out of the room the moment any form of welfare programs were brought up at all, shouting, “You’re all a bunch of socialists!” Hayek and company, of course, were hardly socialists, and yet because they had begun basing their economic theories on evidence rather than philosophy (a key difference between the Chicago and Austrian schools, respectively), their conclusions were altered – just a little – from the previous conventional wisdom.

My question obviously follows, what’s so wrong with that? What’s so incorrect – morally or scientifically – about changing one’s mind based on new evidence and/or current social circumstances? Are we really so drone-like and reverent to what came before that we would allow our entire political outlook to stagnate and lose its relevance and influence? I submit that for libertarianism to go on living, it must stay self-aware and open to external influence – not for the sake of conforming to the status quo, but rather to keep standing out as the true outsider – but an outsider that can back up  its positions on the modern debate stage, base its views in good science and other evidence-based research, and remain empathetic in an increasingly smaller world.

I am a libertarian not because of the current state of the liberty movement but rather in spite of it. As such, my positions aren’t always going to line up with the expected libertarian norm at the moment, but that doesn’t make me any less libertarian at the core of what it means to be so. I still want less intrusive government when it makes sense to fight for such a thing, but I recognize that the state can still have a role in stepping into domestic or market disputes that might be jeopardizing a minority’s Constitutional rights. I still fight for upholding the non-aggression principle, but recognize (through both the scientific evidence and libertarian philosophy) that sometimes that means being in favor of emission regulations (if your smog pollutes my air, I have a right to put a stop to that – legally, if necessary).

I’m not a climate change conspiracy theorist, because I’m scientifically literate enough to understand the evidence. I’m not conspicuously against the “T” portion of the LGBT community, because I truly understand the concept of bodily autonomy (and don’t presume to somehow know better than Ph.D. holders in the field of psychology). I recognize that there are better alternatives to raising the minimum wage than simply doing nothing, such as the Basic Income or the Guaranteed Minimum Income. Are such economic models permanent solutions? Of course not, but baby steps are how we got here; therefore, it is baby steps that will have to bring us back.

In short, I’m not an idealist. I’m a realist. And if that makes me unpopular with the libertarian crowd at large right now, so be it. All my sensibilities actually lead to is an opportunity to reach across the political aisle and have real conversations with those different than me and potentially forge a mutual agreement that could inch society forward in a positive direction. One would think such a conversation would be highly sought after by those claiming to be as action-oriented as modern libertarians. And yet, if one’s positions do not completely align with their own, the purists still exude primarily scorn and incredulity.

Why is this important to point out? Frankly, because a large majority of politically active Americans are left-of-center like myself and willing to have a conversation, while most liberty movement activists I’ve rubbed shoulders with sadly have more in common with the aforementioned purists than not. This makes it, in my opinion, very difficult for us as a movement to make any real headway when our outward appearance exudes judgment and anger rather than the inclusivity we all claim to stand for. More voices in the liberty movement need to represent the left, since on paper and historically there is no reason for libertarianism to not be every bit as rich a political prism as the world that has borne it. Yet that isn’t happening. Instead, libertarianism is superfluously making its own world ever smaller each time one of its representatives ostracizes someone for standing out from the crowd.

A prime example of this is how anti-Democrat many libertarians seem to vote and speak these days. When Dennis Kucinich (D) gets it right on healthcare issues such as patent protection and free market incentives to drive drug costs down, I hear crickets from my fellow liberty-lovers. When libertarian-leaning Congressman Jared Polis (D) speaks the truth on civil liberties and fights against the drug war with his votes, we act as though he doesn’t even exist. But here comes the hypocrisy – Jared Polis teams up with the libertarian-leaning Republican Thomas Massie on a publicity stunt to deregulate farming practices, and suddenly he’s being talked about by people in my crowd. Why? Could it be because he openly showed support of a Republican libertarian that he finally became “okay” with us? Or could it be less sinister than that, and be rather because most libertarians these days simply don’t pay attention to the Democrats at all? After all, Ron Paul didn’t endorse Polis on his website, so perhaps they were at a loss on whether or not it was kosher to like him.

I have known about and been a fan of Jim Webb’s policies for a very long time, and was pleasantly surprised when I saw that he made it to the first Democratic 2016 Presidential Debate. When he started talking sense on the stage and the status quo Democrats obviously tried to silence him, all of a sudden I saw scads of posts by the libertarians on my Facebook feed amounting to the following question: ‘Who is this Jim Webb guy? I like him!’ But it took Webb outwardly admonishing the Democrats to finally warm libertarians up to him, even though he was already pretty appealing to libertarian sensibilities to begin with. And say what you will about why you think the Democrats are somehow the worst of the two evils, but that party has been far more consistently correct on civil liberties through recent history. I’ve said it before, but it apparently bears repeating – most modern liberals are only an economics lesson away from being libertarians themselves. To me, that is a far easier hurdle to clear than the plethora of others most Republicans (i.e. mainly social conservatives and neocons) have before them. And yet, who do modern libertarians buddy up with more? Why, the same party Ron Paul served. But I’m sure that’s a total coincidence.

Which brings me to my last point – having established by now that libertarianism is not as limited as it appears and that social liberalism is arguably a closer ally to our cause than the contrary, why do we continue to bang away at the dead horse that is the GOP libertarian candidate? The Paul family is clearly not welcome by the RNC, as seen by its violation of (and subsequent retrofitted amendment to) its own rules so that it could throw Ron Paul’s delegates out back in 2012 and replace them with Mitt Romney’s. The Koch Brothers, for all their philosophical alignments with libertarians, were confused and ultimately snubbed by the Rand Paul campaign, prematurely dooming its financial viability. With such clear antagonism and unwillingness to play ball happening in the most powerful circles of the GOP, I cannot see how or why so many libertarian voters – paleoconservative or not – stay so loyal. Why not seek to prop up a Jared Polis or a Jim Webb? Why do we only seem to care about the boys in red when real political power is at stake?

Presumably, based on the heated discussions I’ve had with others in the movement, it’s because left-leaners aren’t welcome here. Yet they might just be our salvation. And since we claim to possess the best qualities of both major parties, I find the one-sided allegiances not only inconsistent, but deeply and metaphysically disturbing.

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