Left-Leaning Libertarians

A supposed "tolerant progressive" wrote online that Libertarians are "invariably men with immature, selfish attitudes." When asked why she also invoked Ayn Rand on a regular basis when criticizing the "greedy libertarians" she posted that Rand "looked and acted like a man." At least the irony wasn't missed by those posting comments on Facebook. Reading this thread, which started on the site of a major online magazine, the generalities from all sides were disturbing.

Can we be any more insulting to people with different views than the approved urban-elitist progressivism? (See, I can generalize, too!)

Seriously, my wife is more "Libertarian" than I am, but I consider myself more "libertarian." The range from left-to-right within libertarianism is probably broader than the ranges within either major political party in the United States. What unifies libertarians is a distrust of the majority to protect the rights of the minority without negative rights being codified in the Constitution. We simply do not trust groups — and plenty of research and history support this skepticism.

I am a left-of-center ("moderate" or "pragmatic") almost classical liberal. I object to the social engineering of the Republican Party, which is heavy-handed when they have complete faith in a cause. I object to the social engineering of the Democratic Party, too, which wants to protect me from bad choices.

Let me state the apparently not-so-obvious: there are left-leaning and extreme-left "libertarians" and if you go far enough out along the political scales you reach the other side. (This is why I prefer scales of statist-individualist, since authoritarians are authoritarians, no matter what they might claim.)

Left-leaning, pragmatic libertarians are found among policy architects of Democratic administrations. They are men and women who believe in choice, but also know that the "default choice" should be the best choice for society. (An example used in texts: organ donor status should be a choice, but opt-out versus opt-in leads to more organ donors and more benefits for society.) There's nothing wrong with this "parental libertarianism" (sometimes called "paternal" but that label is problematic).

The left-leaning libertarian believes that it is absurd to claim "ownership" of natural resources that no company created. You can own the technology to extract, process, refine, and deliver oil, gas, gold, diamonds, or even salt. You cannot claim to have created the actual item of value — you can only offer a "value-add" via extraction. Compare this to the farmer, who plants a seed, nurtures it, harvests the crop, and so on. For this reason, many left-leaning libertarians support mineral leases, extraction taxes, and so on, allowing the people of a state share in the benefits of luck while also rewarding technological innovation.

It's quite fair to charge mining and extraction fees, but those fees cannot make it unprofitable to extract and distribute those resources. And because the presence of resources is a matter of luck, not individual action, there's also some reason to allow some regulation on how resources are managed. The key question for the libertarian is how to balance rewarding risk in the marketplace with sharing this "luck of location."

But, most businesses are not extraction of the most extreme sort. Most businesses should be left alone as much as possible, allowed to rise and fall on their own merits.

My personal "model" for the left/center of libertarianism is Deidre McCloskey. As her website notes, she's a "Christian libertarian" who believes in social safety nets, but would rather err on the side of freedom and individualism whenever a policy choice is made. Just because you don't want government to operate as the leading charity in our nation doesn't mean you don't believe in the concept of charity. Anytime government "helps" someone, it gets to set rules and conditions on that help. Those rules have unintended consequences.

I encourage readers of this blog to read McCloskey.
Deirdre McCloskey
Deirdre McCloskey taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2000 to 2015 in economics, history, English, and communication. A well-known economist and historian and rhetorician, she has written 17 books and around 400 scholarly pieces on topics ranging from technical economics and statistical theory to transgender advocacy and the ethics of the bourgeois virtues. She is known as a "conservative" economist, Chicago-School style (she taught in the Economics Department there from 1968 to 1980, and in History), but protests that "I'm a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not 'conservative'! I'm a Christian libertarian."
For a little more on left-leaning libertarianism, you can read Wikipedia as an okay starting point. It's not the best resource, though. Instead, consider reading the early works of Austrian economists.

Critics point out that even left-leaning libertarians have allowed their messages to be co-opted to defend racism, sexism, and other bigotries. The progressive movement, however, was often led by outright racists (Woodrow Wilson) and people intolerant of the disabled (George Bernard Shaw). The Republican party has been stuck with its bigots since the 1970s, so there's no "good" political movement with clean hands.

It is incumbent upon libertarians to reject the bigots using our ideals to defend their hatreds. If we're going to suggest freedom with risks is better than less personal freedom with more security, then we need to explain why freedom is so important. We have to explain how a "free market" isn't the mess we have in the United States. We have to explain variation within Austrian and conservative economic theories, refuting the idea there is one unified "libertarian" economic model. We need to remind people that libertarians, like progressive or conservatives, are a varied group.

Defending individual freedom does mean defending the right to fail. Life cannot be risk free, neither can business. The libertarian not only accepts risks are part of a dynamic economy, but embraces that risk as the price of advancement.

I'm on a crusade, probably quixotic, to stop the insults lobbed at libertarianism from the progressive camp. As long as the loudest progressives refuse to appreciate the tolerance of libertarianism, they will be estranged from potential allies on a great many issues. That's a shame.


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