English libertarian Sean Gabb recently gave an excellent speech, “Libertarianism: Left or Right?”, to the Manchester Liberty League; his blogpost is reproduced below. The the audio file is here, and also streaming below.
Sean Gabb, speaking to the Manchester Liberty League on the 2nd December 2011.
In early 19th century England, radical liberals – who may be regarded as libertarians on account of their views - were often in sharp opposition to conservatives. As such, always allowing for the overall lack of meaning to the term, these people were on the “left.”
By the end of the 19th century, people holding the same views had often closely associated themselves with the conservatives.
The reason was that the growth of municipal socialism and the increasing volume of collectivist legislation – usually brought in by Liberals. The Liberty and Propery Defence League was set up by conservatives and classical liberals to resist this growth of statism; and our libertarian ancestors became identified, and identified themselves, as on the “right.”
This identification was completed by the state socialist revolution in Russia. Between 1920 and 1990, politics became a tug of war. You could choose your ideological views. Once this was chosen, however, you gave up all control over which end of the rope you would be pulling. You also gave up any choice of allies.
This has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The tug of war is over. We are free at last to have a good look at our allies; and big business is not particularly libertarian. Actually existing capitalism is largely the economic wing of an exploitative ruling class. It benefits from limited liability laws, infrastructure subsidies, and tax and regulatory systems that favour large scale business.
Now that we no longer risk becoming useful idiots for the Communist Party, we should be reaching out to ordinary working people and explaining how big business and big government stand in their way.
So far as left and right have any real meaning, libertarians should align themselves on the left as well as on the right.
Over at the Center for a Stateless Society, Michael Kleen asks whether compassionate libertarians can agree to oppose sweatshops as a matter of social justice. Ah, but what does he mean by “oppose” and “social justice”?
Libertarianism is not about people just getting by; it is about maximizing human liberty. Liberty cannot be achieved as long as eking out a living in dangerous conditions for 12 to 14 hours a day is an individual’s most attractive option.
So there could not have been liberty prior to modern times?
Either this line of argument was not thought out or Kleen subscribes to a Marxist-style determinist-materialist conception of history. I hope for the former, as these lines strike me as a propagandistic rhetorical flourish.
Incidentally, the conception of liberty used by Kleen here equivocates between the libertarian conception (i.e., not being subject to the threat or use of initiatory physical force) and a more left-liberal/socialist conception of liberty as positive economic freedoms. I’m afraid compassionate libertarians cannot get on board with such a conflation. To treat both as a matter of political justice is to try to wed contradictions, because “promoting” positive economic freedoms in this way will necessarily require the violation of rights (liberty). This is the mistake made by statist socialists and left-liberals.
Although Kleen uses the term “social justice,” he actually conflates political justice and social justice here and elsewhere in his post. If one insists on using the term “justice” in reference to positive economic freedoms, it is important to distinguish social justice (more a matter of personal morality and unenforceable in a libertarian legal system) from political justice (liberty/rights, which are enforceable in a libertarian legal system).
Kleen also seems to conflate pointing out that people often choose to work in a sweatshop because they see it as better than the alternatives with endorsing sweatshops as ideal work environments. I can’t speak for everyone who doesn’t see sweatshops as unjust and an indictment of capitalism, but I think that most do not think of sweatshops as ideal or unequivocally good. We just do not think that capitalism, as amazing as it is, can magically allow a poor, agricultural society to just skip over the terrible working conditions of the Industrial Revolution in its transition to an industrial or post-industrial economy.
Sweatshops are simply often better than the alternatives available and opposing them via statist means will only be counterproductive, harming the very poor such policies are meant to help. This does not mean we “favor” sweatshops in the abstract or propose them as an ideal business model. It does not mean we do not sympathize with the plight of the poor working in such conditions. Having to point this out makes me feel like I do when libertarians oppose the state performing some function and statists of all parties assume that means we don’t want that function performed at all — e.g., we oppose social-welfare policies so that must mean we hate the poor and want them out on the streets, starving to death, dying of disease. Hardly.
Kleen’s post contains a few other nits in need of picking:
It’s interesting that neither Catalán nor I attack, in our respective longer efforts, the worst calumny of DeLong’s, his insinuation that the Austrian distrust of fiat money comes down to anti-Semitism: “[I]n its scarier moments this train of thought slides over to: ‘good German engineers (and workers); bad Jewish financiers.’”
Since Mises was a Jew, and was treated badly for anti-Semitic reasons at times — why does DeLong think Mises left Austria? — and that Mises never, ever supported anti-Semitism (nor did Hayek, for that matter), this is especially vile. It’s just another example of those leaning left (which means: technocrats who mislabel themselves as “liberals” and “progressives”) playing the racism/anti-semitism card when they lack a good hand.
DeLong should be ashamed of himself. But, then, one of the perks of being in the managerial class of the technocratic state means never having to say you are sorry.
The prolific Anthony Gregory has a great article up today at LewRockwell.com, “Why Capitalism Is Worth Defending.” His view is that capitalism is “the greatest engine of material prosperity in human history, the fount of civilization, peace, and modernity.” As part of his argument he rejects the calls of some fellow travelers to drop the word capitalism because of its origins (it was coined by its enemies) and because it is used by some corporate capitalist types to refer to their preferred system. As Gregory writes:
even insofar as the word has negative connotations in popular culture, we might still want to adopt it. The anti-Federalists were initially opposed to the label affixed to them by the Hamiltonian statists. But now I would uphold that descriptor with pride. This is an area where we can take a cue from the gay rights activists who were smeared as “queer,” only to proudly appropriate the term for their own uses. … regardless of how we define it, in terms of feeding the masses and sustaining society, I will take flawed capitalism over flawed socialism any day. I will take state capitalism, crony capitalism, or corporate capitalism over state socialism, democratic socialism, or national socialism.
Another interesting insight Gregory makes is the parallel between capitalism itself and the use of the word: “Maybe it takes longer to explain ourselves when we adopt the battle cry of capitalism – it also takes longer to be a capitalist than only a consumer.”
When Michelle Bachmann confessed to taking the writings of Ludwig von Mises with her on vacation, I assumed she used the august Austrian economist as a soporific — not because Mises isn’t worth reading, or not exciting to read (I can’t tell you how my heart pounded when I first unleashed myself onto The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science), but because Bachmann has never said anything to suggest a scholarly or subtle mind, the kind of mind best suited for pleasure in reading Mises.