Monday, 11 July 2011

Libertarian "Compassion"

Via Andrew Sullivan, Freddie deBoer talks about Libertarianism and power:

When libertarians argue endlessly about the tyranny of paying taxes and the poor, oppressed state of enormous, multinational corporations, while remaining consistently silent on the plight of the urban poor (on the material dimensions of their freedom), they reveal an ideological framework that is stunningly incapable of reflecting the world as it is rather than as ideal theory would prefer it. They have no vocabulary of power as experienced, so even if they were inclined to help those on the bottom, they would lack the understanding capable of doing such a thing. They have nothing to say on the issue.

I'll go one step further. The reason why libertarians do not speak to these issues is not because they have nothing to say - perhaps it's because what they have to say is HORRIFYING.

I remember getting into a discussion with a libertarian (a hard-core, Chicago School neoliberal economics nerd) about negative versus positive liberties. A popular belief among both libertarians and Glenn Beck Conservatives (ones who have absorbed the GOP party line on history, economics, etc.) is that there really are no such thing as positive liberties ("freedom TO..."), only negative liberties ("freedom FROM..."). The end point of this argument (I'll save you the morbid details of our debate) was boiled down in a statement my friend made, and I assure you he was being quite serious:

All positive liberties are actually negative liberties. A rich man and a poor man have the same exact equal right to sleep out under a bridge without a home.

This smacks of the old "gays can marry too - if they marry straight" argument that opponents of equal marriage use to "prove" that there's no discrimination after all. Likewise, the "under a bridge" solution seeks to prove that even in the most dire of straits, nobody has actually FORCED the poor to be poor.

Of course, this relies on such a limited and intentionally off-balance definition of "coercion" that the whole argument folds up once you examine it closely. Only the state can use "coercion" - really? Only direct threats of violence or force can be considered "coercion" - really?

The best possible outcome of some kind of dialogue along these lines would be an alliance forged between civil libertarians, like myself, and full-fledged economic/social libertarians. If we can at least establish common ground regarding the security state - if we can focus on strictly limiting police power, reducing the militarization of the police, and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and establishing drug courts - if we could accomplish that, hell, maybe we can start to agree on terms and have a discussion.

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