Why libertarianism offers a unique perspective

This article was originally posted on CinemActivism

The easiest way to compare political ideologies is to compare each side’s narrative of the world. When you do, you’ll see that libertarians have entirely different narratives to both the progressives and the conservatives, contrary to those that would paint libertarianism as either ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’.

Consider the issue of poverty and welfare. The conservative narrative is that society can be split up between two classes of people: the hard-workers and the scroungers; those that achieve a stable life for themselves through drive and graft and those lazy folk that seek to siphon off the wealth of the productive. If there is to be a welfare state, it is to be offered to a select few that have demonstrably proven that they are willing to work and are genuinely disadvantaged.

The progressives spin that on its head and argue that poverty is largely the result of an institutional imbalance in favour of the rich, which impoverishes and disadvantages the poor. A generous welfare state, then, is an important means of correcting that imbalance.

Libertarianism is uniquely indifferent to these broad claims about the work ethic of certain sections of society. All a libertarian wants to know is whether an individual is peaceful or aggressive. If a person has been proven to have aggressed against the property of another, they must be punished, but if they have not, they must be left alone. This is so regardless of wealth, race, gender or sexuality.

One of the few genuinely decent criticisms of libertarians is that they too often focus on petty welfare scroungers rather than the blatantly more egregious rent-seeking of corporations. Compared with the mind-boggling wealth that big business earns illegitimately by regulatory favouritism, subsidies or by being part of the central banking cartel, “Benefits Street” is small fry. Libertarians can offer a novel analysis by pointing out that both kinds of hand-outs are ill-advised.

Libertarians must also recongnise that the economy is indeed structured in a way that aggresses against and impoverishes the middle-to-lower classes. The excessive regulation and restrictions libertarians often complain about massively inhibit the poor’s ability to increase their wellbeing. And central banking is inherently inflationary, benefiting the first receivers of the printed money (usually the big banks); by the time the poor have the money, inflation has taken its toll and the money is hardly worth the paper its written on.

So the proper libertarian response to the debate is that, yes, there are institutional shackles that inhibit the poor, but the welfare state creates moral hazards that the right rightfully point out, and moreover, we can be scarcely confident that the aggressive welfare state will even achieve its aims.

The libertarian’s main critique of the left is not that their social aims are universally wrong but that their apparently unthinking trust in the state to solve problems is misguided and dangerous, and is bound the violate the liberty of others.

The right, too, look to the state to fulfill their social utopias. Conservatives have a healthy sense of community, and are protective of their family and wider social group. They are quick to call out any conceivable threat. Unfortunately, this important instinct is often misplaced, transmuting their rational protectiveness of society over to the nation state as a whole. Then, any threat to the government is perceived a threat to the country, the culture and even the family. As a result of this, their policy recommendations (police state, drone strikes, aggressive foreign policy) end up violating the rights of peaceful people.

Libertarians must tell the right: we may care for the protection of our community as much as you, but the answer is not to give this institution, the state, more and more power over our lives.

It’s a mistake to characterise libertarians as ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative’. It is more or less true that libertarians agree more with the left on social issues and foreign policy and more with the right on economic issues, but this is incidental. What we have to pin down is the grounds for what people believe. When we do that we can see that the libertarian narrative is fundamentally different to both the left and the right.

Libertarianism offers a unique view of the world that transcends traditional partisanship.

The left is turned on by words such as fairness, equality, whereas the right likes community, justice, sacred and loyalty. The libertarian isn’t necessarily into any of that; they are most concerned with one thing: freedom.

Libertarians see liberty as the source of all social cohesion – the basis for any civilization. Everything we love about humanity is born of the voluntary cooperation and trade of free people, grounded in well-established rights of person and property. In turn, most of the things we hate about the world are the result of freedom being suppressed, and when humans, instead of cooperating, resort to aggression. Libertarians see the ultimate culprit as the state: that monopoly of legal aggression.

The implications of this view are that humans must be free from aggressive interference in all aspects of their lives. It means that personal behaviour that does not harm another person must not be limited or prohibited by force, that people should be free to hold any views and worship any entity they like, that nobody should be compelled to pay for war and that individuals should not be prevented from using their property in the market as they see fit.

“So libertarians support capitalism – how is that a meaningful difference to what conservatives believe?”

The right’s general support for free-market capitalism comes from a different framing device than libertarianism. In the conservative world, the free market is a useful tool for creating a strong community, and rewarding the stable and productive and punishing the lazy and irresponsible. Libertarians might agree with this, but it’s clear from this view that conservatives are not supporters of the free-market on principle. If it turned out that the free-market did not create the society conservatives desired, they would probably abandon the position. It is the belief that the free market does not always produce good results that explains why many conservatives support protectionism, central banking, medicare and medicaid, and other state interventions. On the other hand, libertarians declare a loud ‘no’ to any and all interventions in the market because they would represent an unjust violation of individual liberty.

“So libertarians are for non-interventionist foreign policy – how is that a meaningful difference to what liberals believe?”

Liberals are more likely to oppose foreign intervention that conservatives, and this comes from the wider tradition of liberalism, that includes libertarianism, that advocated peace amongst nations, and this is usually more associated with non-interventionism. It has become clear in modern times that the modern left, with the toning down of anti-war rhetoric, has placed peace as a secondary concern (although it’s not quite clear whether this is a change in principle or an abandonment of it due to partisanship). But the libertarian is anti-war as a matter of course. The non-aggression principle demands that no state must aggress against another, nor force anyone to pay for any war.

It’s clear that the modern political landscape has transformed from a left-right spectrum to a triangle, with libertarianism as the third option, representing a distinctive way of looking at the world that expands the boundaries and enhances the quality of the debate. As the libertarian movement grows, both left and right will be compelled to defend their position in new ways.

Libertarians will not be satisfied with a participation award in the political arena, however. They think that they are correct and wish to see their preferred policies fulfilled. But it won’t be a case of attempting to convince everyone to see the world through libertarian glasses. This is just about an impossible task as one can think of. Liberals, conservatives and libertarians just think differently, and if any change can come it will come slowly and undramatically.

Although the political consciousness has changed throughout history and in many ways changed for the better, it is probably not the case that humanity has had a fundamental change in they way they see the world. Liberals today probably thought in the same way 500 years ago, but applied their view of the world differently – the same with conservatives.

A more modest aim for libertarians is to push policy in a certain way as to relegate the differences between the left and the right to a cultural debate rather than a political one. In such a society, where aggressive state intervention is severely restricted or even impermissible, whichever view of whom the ‘scroungers’ are will be important, but not that important. The prevailing view will not be imposed on anyone. Those that wish to provide a safety net for the poor are free to contribute to it, and those that do not will not be forced to. The debate over who is deserving of welfare will rage on, but it will not have such damaging consequences.

Libertarians will probably struggle to imagine a liberal they know, at any point in the future, thinking in the same way they do. At best, they might be able to imagine this person saying “OK, I can see why the welfare state is not a good idea, but I’m sure as Hell going to fight for a fairer society!”. And their token conservative friend might finally be convinced that instituting a police state is not the best method of protecting ourselves against terrorists, but they’ll buy a bunch of guns and swear an oath to the nation. On that day, the libertarian ought to be satisfied.