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Left-Right-Libertarian

by John McPherson

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For what it's worth, the old notions of "Right" and "Left" politics, categorized along only a single dimension-spectrum, have been updated. David Nolan expanded the categorization to a two-dimensional field, the axes of which are personal-lifestyle freedom, and economic freedom.

For an illustration of the new grid, try out the World's Smallest Political Quiz hosted by the Advocates for Self-Government.

The Nolan grid shows the difference [between the Statist positions of Right and Left]. In general, the 'Left' tends to be more tolerant on personal-lifestyle choices, and the 'Right' tends to be more tolerant on economic choices. Libertarians in general are tolerant on both, while hard-core Statists in general are intolerant on both.

Libertarians, or anarchists? This topic has come up many times on the libertarian lists which I host or belong to. Each libertarian differs (like everyone else) on the degree to which he/she is willing to commit, on any given class of issues, to the Principle of Non-Aggression: the formulation that the fundamental evil/wrong in human affairs is the initiation of potentially lethal force upon peaceable, honest-dealing people. (Note: self-defensive force is not the initiation of force, but a response to protect oneself and others from it.)

Those willing to commit totally to a world based on the principle of non-aggression (hence to a world free of "governments", institutions which depend upon the initiation of force simply to exist) are, in the old scheme, considered to embrace "anarchism", a term which quite ironically has been laden unfairly with connotations of high aggression. Thus this noblest class of libertarians are smeared as their opposites. Some theorists of this group are: Herbert Spencer ("The Right to Ignore the State"), Thoreau (at his idealistic best), William Godwin (at least in genesis), David Friedman (Milton's son), Murray Rothbard (probably), Lysander Spooner, etc.

The next major class are those who tend to believe that government seems to be a necessary evil, to be used only in the extremely limited functions of national defense, police or night-watchmen to protect people from violence/coercion and property crimes, and a simple justice system to resolve disputes on such issues. A significant percentage of libertarians embrace this position (e.g., Objectivists, admirers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand).

The next major class is a large one consisting of "classical liberals," "Constitutionalists," etc. These people tend to have some variation along the left-center-right dimension, so we begin to see significant debates between left-libertarians and right-libertarians. This class has a lot of history, with contributions from the likes of Mill, Jefferson, Paine, Adam Smith, Locke, Charles Murray (to name a modern), etc.

Nearly all libertarians are somewhere in the above three classes.

The next major class of people, currently a majority, are those allowing a greater degree of government intervention, coercion, taxation, etc., "for the common good," namely in the form of the Welfare State. This class has arranged for government-run public education, highly regulated health care, industry, housing, transportation, etc. There are many theorists in this class, such as Keynes, Samuelson, Clinton and Bush. Here, the "left-right" dimension blossoms into fullness and we have ongoing raging public debates between people who insist upon the same general magnitude of government power, but who seem diametrically opposed on many/all issues.

The next major class of people, a minority in the West but perhaps a majority elsewhere in the world, consists of those who want lots of government intervention, involvement, taxation, coercion, etc. Typically they support single ruling Parties or dictatorial leaders, perhaps wish to impose a single form of religion on the populace, generally wishing to strongly control the lives of the people and the economy/trade of their nation-state. You won't find any libertarians here. Key theorists and notables are Marx, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Hussein, Amin, Mussolini, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, etc. ... you get the picture.

Win Wenger:
Free online is my book, Incentives As The Preferred Instrument for Corporate and Public Policy. I'm sure that leftists reading it will accuse me of being in the far right, while rightists — including Libertarians — who read it will accuse me of being in the far left. But if you read it with fresh eyes, I think you will see just how far wandered from meaning are those two terms, "leftist" and "rightist."

John:
I tend to see your general strategy here as a classical-liberal trojan horse in a welfare state society. It's more "libertarian" than most common proposals these days, and that makes it better than most in my opinion, even if it's not ultimately where I think society needs to go. But I figure that if it works, then the implicit point will be made that ultimately all progress is made by individuals taking initiative/responsibility to make things happen, and that's a valuable and much-needed message to send.

Win:
Libertarians have been known to object strenuously to what I propose in this book because it "legitimizes government."

John:
Well, it relies on the pre-existence of coercion (institutionalized in the form of "government"), since it proposes to lessen/remove coercion/penalty if people act in certain ways that the bureaucrats in charge of a given project want them to act. Since coercion is rampant in our society and not going away any time soon (in fact seems to be increasing), we have to resign ourselves to work with it in a way such as you propose, at least in terms of "public policy."

Privately, many individuals will succeed in avoiding government coercion via loopholes, technicalities, systems such as Terra Libra, operating in the underground economy, keeping a low profile, etc.

Win:
Those on the left object because what I propose would greatly minimize direct, overt, expensive, powerful government, accomplishing effectively through private initiative under adjusted incentives what government now seeks to do so ineffectually and expensively.

John:
We need a test case to focus on to furnish the evidence to them that your proposal works. Then, those on the Left who truly care about the outcome rather than the method (government) will see the truth and support your idea.

Win:
So far as I know, this incentive approach is the only way to reduce the power and stakes and misbehavior and size and cost of government.

John:
Given the current condition of government, you may be right. The best alternative would seem to be that people get so fed up that they simply withdraw and begin a program of rugged self-reliance. For instance, one group finally got tired of petitioning their city government to pave their offramp, that they raised the money among themselves and just did it themselves ... rather than waiting another 2 years for the city to maybe get around to it. But how many folks will have this kind of productive response?

Win:
Efforts to cut back government without otherwise addressing the various public needs which call government into being in the first place, so aggravate and multiply those needs that we then end up with much more government, not much less.

John:
Yes, it's ironic how government often acts prematurely to force a "solution" in their effort to "do something about" an undesirable situation that will eventually work itself out (given appropriate freedom, property rights, etc.) ... only to have that "solution" backfire, cause other problems, which then government has to "fix," cascading a series of mis-steps and blunders seeming to call for ever more government. Henry Hazlitt gives numerous examples in his neat little book, Economics in One Lesson.

Win:
Most of those needs are real and need some address which the private sector, entirely on its own, simply cannot provide because of indivisibilities, external economies and diseconomies, and other such factors originally enumerated by none other than the father of free market economics himself, Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations.

John:
Adam Smith made a wonderful start, and more recent theorists (e.g., Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, Bruce Benson, Randy Barnett, Julian Simon, to name a few) have built upon and extended his work, addressing many if not all of these points.

Win:
Let self-governance and free market initiative prevail over a far wider span of economic activities —

John:
Agreed.

Win:
— by using incentives to offset the disturbing factors which thrust many market outcomes away from the general good and public interest.

John:
Agreed provisionally (see above).

O

John McPherson (JMlib@genius.ucsd.edu) is host of the
Professors of Liberty email network.



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