Libertarianism: Right and Left
There is more to libertarianism than is generally assumed. What is referred to as libertarianism in the media, as well as by most libertarians, is libertarianism of the right. Well, there is another side. Here is an overview.
by J. Todd Ring (Centrist Liberal Libertarian)
"Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth."
Libertarianism is a term that has come to be identified with the right, with limited government, ideals of freedom, free market capitalism and laissez fair economics, however, the term originally meant libertarian socialism, a libertarianism of the left. The distinction of two kinds of libertarianism, or more appropriately, a spectrum of views within what is called libertarianism, is important. Both right and left libertarianism have a deep skepticism about excessive concentrations of state power, encroachments of government power in the lives of individuals and communities, and a belief that ultimately, "That government is best which governs the least." Beyond this agreement, there are considerable differences between libertarianism of the right and that of the left. But before the distinctions between left and right libertarianism can be discussed, we need to clarify just what is essential to a libertarian perspective, and also, to distinguish between the ideal and the immediate in terms of advocating or working towards specific goals for human society.
Thoreau expresses a very clear and lucid view of the subject, recognizing the ideal, yet also the immediate reality: ideally, and "when men are ready for it," no government, which we shall have, and which shall be a degree of liberation not yet seen or imagined; but in the immediate sense, not "no government, but at once, a better government." In other words, work toward and keep in mind the ideal freedom from state power messing up and intruding on the peoples' lives, liberty and communities, but also seek more limited victories in the short term: a better government.
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have..But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
- Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience
Bertrand Russell also came to the same conclusion. His cool, rational conclusion, after a very fair-minded and objective analysis, was that anarchism from the Latin, an-archos, meaning absence of an over-arching power, not chaos is likely the best form of human society (as well as the full and self-consistent application of libertarian values), but we are not likely ready for it; in the short term, what he called libertarian socialism is the best order for society to which we can aspire. By that he meant limited government, with all government power kept as close to the community as possible, and as close the hands of the people as possible as Jefferson urged but also with strong values of voluntary free association and human cooperation for mutual aid and benefit (a la Kropotkin). Ideally, and in the short term, he recommended we work toward a society where power lies primarily, not in the hands of a few bureaucrats and lobbyists in a far away capital where power is centralized, but in the hands of the people at the level of community, with federations or networks of human cooperation and solidarity, trade and communication between and among communities and individuals for their mutual benefit and protection. Jefferson would certainly agree in spirit if not in all details.
Chomsky clarifies the distinction between long-term ideals and short-term goals within a reasonable and clear-headed perspective which is skeptical of concentrated political power, or any form of social power for that matter:
"Classical anarchist thought would have been more opposed to slavery, feudalism, fascism, and so on, than it would have been to parliamentary government. There was a good reason. Classical liberal thought, and anarchism coming out of it, were opposed to any concentration of power, that is, unaccountable concentration of power. It is reasonable to make a distinction between the more unaccountable and less accountable. Corporations are the least accountable. So, against the corporate assault on freedom and independence, one can quickly turn to the one form of social organization that offers ... public participation and ... that happens to be parliamentary government. That has nothing to do with being opposed to the State. In fact, it's a sensible support for the State."
- Noam Chomsky
This is precisely why I can admire a democratic socialist like Hugo Chavez, who was democratically elected in closely monitored free and fair elections, who has introduced and held public referenda on every major decision faced by the people of Venezuela a thought inconceivable to the elitist politicians of Washington, Ottawa, London, Paris or Berlin and who is presently utilizing, with great popular democratic support, the institution of constitutional parliamentary democracy to protect the people of Venezuela from the greatest threat to human freedom and well-being on the planet today: the tyranny of unaccountable private empires the global corporate raiders. It is no contradiction to say support libertarian socialism, or left libertarianism, while admiring a social democrat like Chavez. As Chomsky put it, it's sensible support for the state under certain limited conditions.
Chomsky as well expresses a view of libertarian socialism. And Chomsky, as well or better than any other, clarifies the distinction of right and left libertarianism. Libertarians across the spectrum are opposed to excessive concentrations of political power, as it is viewed that such high degrees of concentrated political power in society have more often than not created more harm than good a view that is shared among Jefferson, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Kropotkin, Chomsky and many others.
The history of the world shows that this view is the most realistic perspective on government and political power. The opposing view, that government is the saviour and redeemer of humanity, has brought about Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, Maoism, and lately, neoconservatism, among other evils. The view that is opposed to the libertarian desire to keep political power firmly in check, sees government as a kind of benign big brother, a paternal or maternal figure, a parent that treats citizens like children, who need to be coddled and scolded, controlled for their own good. It is a dangerous elitism, breeding naturally authoritarianism. It comes from a fear of freedom, as social psychologist Eric Fromm correctly pointed out, and not just megalomaniacal dreams of power.
Plato was the most famous and influential of the "government as saviour" camp. The philosopher kings, the wise few, would rule with benign despotism over the hapless and ignorant many. Sounds desirable, maybe, until you reflect that if you do not trust people to govern themselves, how can you possibly trust them to govern others? (A flaw of basic logic which was not missed by Jefferson.)
Hobbes furthered the view, presenting the anthropologically ignorant and incorrect view that life before civilization, by which he meant life before centralized government, was "evil, nasty, brutish and short." The revolution in anthropology that occurred in the 1970's with the discovery of new and conclusive evidence about our human history prior to the age of empires, refutes Hobbes unequivocally. Hobbes knew nothing of anthropology, of course, and the data would not be revealed for another few centuries, but he was wrong, and we know that now or at least, we can know that now, although almost no-one is aware that such a revolution has occurred in anthropology and our knowledge of human history: we live in a pre-Copernican time with regard to the general culture's understanding of anthropology and human history; most still believe the sun revolves `round the earth, though the evidence to refute this fallacy has been made clear.
In any case, Hobbes was engaging in a kind of rational self-deceit. Hobbes view of human beings was jaundiced and pessimistic in the extreme. He felt, as many do, that if there was no powerful over-arching force to restrain human beings, they would instantly rip each other's throats out, and everything would descend into a war of "all against all." Again, the anthropological data refutes this terrified view, but even if one were to accept it for sake of argument, it simply begs the question. If you do not trust people, then why would you give a few people extraordinary power? Would this not seem even more dangerous? Who did Hobbes expect to govern us, aliens? Hobbes did not trust people, so he argued that some people have an all-powerful position in order that these people protect people from people. This should strike us as immediately self-contradictory, ridiculous and absurd.
As Jefferson said, "If you do not trust people to govern themselves, how can you trust them to govern others." It is therefore not idealistic and utopian to think that government should be kept to a minimum of centralized, concentrated power, but on the contrary, it is a healthy and prudent skepticism that informs such a view.
(When you combine Plato, Hobbes and Machiavelli, you get the neoconservatives or their mirror image, neoliberalism. You get wildy elitist, authoritarian, ruthless, predatory, self-delusional, megalomaniacal empire fetish. That is what we are experiencing now.)
Thoreau demolishes Hobbes' fantasy-scape with a few strokes on the pen:
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. - Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"
Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? - Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. - Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"
Libertarianism: Right and Left
The libertarianism of the right has a view of power that does not keep to its own self-consistency. It views political power as potentially dangerous, having the great potential to be abused, and therefore needing to be kept in close check. But it does not recognize economic power as a power in society, which is an oversight that is hard to fathom, such power being so plainly obvious. Because libertarians of the right tend not to recognize economic power as a form of power in society, they are unconcerned with its concentrations even when concentrations of economic power become staggeringly large, as they have over the past twenty or thirty years. This is an oversight that is frankly dangerous, if not delusional.
Libertarians of the left share the skepticism of highly concentrated political power, but, naturally, recognize the potential for harm and abuse from excessive concentrations of economic power. Thus, in the present order of things, corporate power is to be addressed equally, along side state or governmental power. To do otherwise is to contradict oneself, and worse, to leave the door open to fascism, to serious and extreme abuse of power, due to the lack of fore-sight to correct and put in check all forms of great concentrations of power in society.
Right libertarianism questions, challenges, and repudiates high levels of concentration of political power in society - and rightfully so, I believe - yet it is, or at least has been until recently, unwilling to question the role and nature of high levels of concentrations of economic power.
This is frankly a gross oversight, and one that makes right libertarianism a contradiction in terms: you cannot advocate limitations on powers that unduly constrict human freedom and pose threats of tyranny in a self-consistent, coherent or even reasonable manner if you are only willing to look at one form of power in society. Economic power is every bit as real as political power, some would say more so.
The 500 biggest corporations on earth now have combined revenues that total three times the GDP of the world's biggest national economy - that of the United States. If this does not constitute power in society, I'm not sure what would.
OK, well, corporations have immense power, but that does not mean it translates into political power - does it? They are competing with one another. Yes, they are competing with one another, and they also share common interests: drive labour costs and wages down, eliminate or circumvent labour and environmental standards, find the cheapest source of labour and resources and move there, then dominate them, open borders to free flow of capital, but not to labour.....The commonalities are pretty clear.
And do they meet, discuss common interests, work together cooperatively? Of course. Wouldn't you if you were in their position?
Do teachers join together to pursue common interests, such as decent pay, pension plans, etc.? Do janitors get together to pursue common goals of better pay and working conditions?
It is, or should be, obvious that there are common group - or, heaven forbid we use the term - class interests, that bring otherwise competing parties together to pursue common goals. The corporate elite are no different. This is not a conspiracy, but simply common sense.
The world's corporate elite gather, among other places, at Davos Switzerland every year for the World Economic Forum, and there seek to push governments to their will, to advance common interests among the elite global investment class, to the extent that they are able - and that is a considerable length.
It is impossible to deny the very real power of corporations in society without digressing into ideological fundamentalism and willful blindness. Refusing to challenge economic concentrations of power while espousing a libertarian philosophy is self-contradictory: right libertarianism is an oxymoron.
Should a laissez-fair, free-market capitalist who supports only limited government - a libertarian as it is known on the right - be considered an oxymoron or a self-contradiction if he was also a slave owner? Of course.
It is not very different if a libertarian advocates checks and balances on political power, yet does not question the giant corporate monopolies and oligopolies that now wield more power than democratically elected governments.
Right libertarianism is truly a contradiction in terms, unless by that you mean a conservative libertarian who also questions and challenges excessive concentrations of corporate power, and not only state or governmental power. U.S. Congressman and 2008 Presidential candidate Ron Paul, for example, I would describe as a conservative libertarian in this sense. He has his head on his shoulders when it comes to corporate powers, as far as I can tell. He is not stuck in ideological dogmatisms.
The left is equated - wrongly - with heavy-handed, bureaucratic, if not totalitarian government: at least this is the view of the left we get from the right; however, there are broadly speaking two wings or schools of thought within what has been called the left, and only one of the two fits the above description.
In the socialist movement of the 1800's there was a definite rift and fierce debate between the two kinds of what is loosely described as left political views. Marx led the wing we are familiar with, Bakunin the other. Bakunin and the libertarian socialists were ousted, lost the battle, and were to some considerable degree eclipsed from history. Bakunin warned Marxist ideas would lead to a new form of tyranny, and of course he was right.
Now, with the Marxist-Leninist school of thought being in full disgrace within the left as well as the broader community world-wide, the alternative is becoming clear to many. I would say it deserves attention, and merits respectful consideration. That alternative is libertarian socialism, a libertarianism of the left. And, I would add, it is much closer to the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy than anything currently present or offered in any of the capitals of the Western world. It should be, in Thomas Paine’s words, "common sense." Perhaps soon it will be so.
The War on Democracy: Unchecked Power Out of Control
Under what we should more honestly call monopoly capitalism, the era of the small shop owner being the primary economic player having long ago vanished, corporate power has become so concentrated that is, economic power has become enormously concentrated that it now threatens to engulf and eviscerate all remaining democratic power of societies world wide. We should be concerned. Jefferson warned of this 200 years ago. We did not listen. We are now facing the results of our lack of foresight.
Those on the right and left with a libertarian perspective would do well to communicate. There is a natural allegiance here, if we can learn to speak in ways that are mutually understandable. There is too little time for bickering or ideological warfare. We need to get together to protect the basics: decent, although flawed, human, imperfect limited government, within the framework of constitutional democracy and basic human rights and freedom.
If we do not come together, and not just right and left libertarians, but traditional liberals, conservatives, social democrats, and all who oppose the by now undeniable drift into fascism, and stand together for constitutional democracy and freedom, all other considerations will become merely abstract.
The Whitechapel presents Cornelia Parker's latest work â€“ her interview with world-renowned writer and theorist Noam Chomsky. The exhibition will ne on view from 13 February to 30 March 2008.
Cornelia Parker's new film Chomskian Abstract, 2007, sees the great thinker and Nobel Prize winner discussing the environment and globalisation. The exhibition is presented in partnership with Friends of the Earth, who are encouraging visitors to pose their own questions about the state of the world. These questions will form part of an installation at the Whitechapel and used to provide inspiration for a one-day event on Saturday 29 March, bringing together a host of artists, thinkers and activists to explore the issues raised.
Cornelia Parker's 40 minute film presents her interview with Noam Chomsky. By answering Parker's questions Chomsky addresses the failings of government, corporations, institutions and the media to take responsibility for the ecological safety of our planet. He urges us to take responsibility, change our lifestyles and bring about socio-economic change.
Cornelia Parker has said there is an ever-increasing chance that the planet may not be able to sustain human life by the end of this century, but her work prompts reflections on collective responsibilities and the possible solutions.
Also on show are the artist's Poison and Antidote Drawings, 2004, featuring black ink containing snake venom and white ink containing anti venom. The format of the drawings reflect the question and answer fomat of the interview with Chomsky.
This powerful theme inspired the Poisons and Antidotes event on Saturday 29 March which will explore some of the environmental measures suggested by Friends of the Earth and others. The one-day event will mark the end of the exhibition and bring together artists, thinkers and activists to answer questions raided by visitors to the exhibition.
The exhibition and event launch a collaboration between the Whitechapel and Friends of the Earth that will explore responses in the visual arts to environmental issues.
Tony Juniper, Friends of the Earth Executive Director, said; 'Many of the themes addressed in Cornelia Parker's film resonate with the work of Friends of the Earth. But the piece also stimulates us to think about the empowering nature of enquiry. With our involvement in this exhibition we hope to inspire people to ask their own questions about the state of the world and get them thinking about the solutions. Our one-off Poisons and Antidotes event on Saturday 29 March will give the public a chance to hear the answers offered by some of Britain's most exciting thinkers and doers.' -- www.whitechapel.org