The following was written by SFL blog team member Cory Massimino.
There is a huge divide between today’s older liberals and self-described liberal representatives in government. Liberal politicians are partisan lapdogs for the Democratic Party; opposing expansive military spending, civil rights violations, big budget deficits, and corporate giveaways when Bush was president, but supporting these things when President Obama is in office. Some liberals who aren’t politicians share this biased view of politics too, but many are honest supporters of the modern liberal philosophy, regardless of who is in power.
The latter kind of liberals are who this article is directed at. There is no point in wasting time conversing with apologists who are more interesting in finding ways to defend “their guy” than discovering the truth. Those who are dedicated to their ideals, instead of certain people, are the ones who deserve acknowledgement.
While some find the parallels between libertarianism and conservatism the most prominent, I find the parallels between libertarianism and liberalism just as prominent, if not more. Libertarians and conservatives do not agree on many issues beyond fiscal conservatism and gun rights. Not to mention the so-called “fiscal conservatism” of the modern Conservative movement is much less radical than the economic ideas of libertarians. On the other hand, liberals and libertarians share opposition to expansive military spending, aggressive wars, the surveillance state, the police state, the drug war, concern for institutional oppression and racism, strong support for immigration, the protection of civil liberties, and social tolerance.
There are also areas where there is common ground, but substantial disagreement. Both liberals and libertarians share a concern for the poor, but differ on means. Both share support for quality and effective schooling, but disagree on the solution to these problems. They share concern for equality, although the two sides use this term differently. Finally, they both demonstrate a common distrust of concentrated power; liberals often in the form of large corporations and libertarians in the form of the state.
Where Liberals and Libertarians agree
Over the last 13 years, liberals and libertarians have both argued against the wars, the continual violations of our civil liberties with the Patriot Act and the NDAA, and, more recently, the drone attacks. While Obama’s election caused a dip in the number of liberals standing up for peace and personal freedom, dedicated liberals, such as Glenn Greenwald, continued to rail against these unjust government actions. Similarly, Edward Snowden, who is strongly suspected of being a libertarian, is making an effort to expose further rights violations by the government.
Liberals and libertarians both recognize the evil of drug prohibition. They recognize that the drug war is the most egregious example of institutional oppression and racism the US government engages in, and needs to be recognized as not only an affront to human autonomy but a moral failing on the part of politicians who claim they are helping minorities. Only social conservatives remain adamant about continuing the drug war and public opinion is mounting against them and will soon overcome the institutional structures keeping the drug war going.
The topic of immigration is a bit more muddled, with some libertarians still holding pro-immigration restrictions beliefs because of the way open borders are seemingly incompatible with the welfare state. However there is still a major tendency among libertarians and liberals to support pro-immigration measures such as decreased border control, less deportations, complete amnesty, or even open borders. Liberals and libertarians are starting to recognize immigration is good for the economy because it increases productive capabilities, and that immigration controls are immoral because they violates peoples’ right to freedom of movement.
Social tolerance and the complete rejection of bigotry, especially state enforced bigotry, is another area where liberalism and libertarianism intertwine. Most of the right has caught up in this area, but they are still lagging behind in regards to gay marriage and the rights of the gay community in general. The social conservatives have a fetish for using the state to enforce their religious belief, and this principle of coercion in the name of religion overrides any belief in individual freedom they might have. One of the most important parts of libertarianism, which liberalism shares, is the idea that people ought to be free to be whoever they wish to be.
What Liberals could learn from Libertarians
Many libertarians incorporate the idea that the poor will be better off with less government into their justification for such a system, and there are some who support that system solely because they think it will benefit the worst off. Either way, the idea that libertarian policies will help the least fortunate is a key point in the defense of freed markets. Similarly, liberals defend their policy ideas on grounds that they will benefit the poor. In this case, liberals and libertarians seek the same ends, but have different believes in how to get there. They each share the intent to help the poor, but think their policies, and not the others’, will achieve that end most effectively.
To truly aid the least fortunate, liberals ought to abandon their statist policies and embrace their classical roots. Economists from Smith to Mises to Hayek to Friedman, have explained how freed markets actually serve to help the poor the most. Government intervention only serves to distort the market, concentrate power and wealth, and create barriers that make it harder for the poor to climb the economic ladder.
Liberals and libertarians also recognize the imperative that people have access to quality schooling so children can gain the skills they need to be productive and capable members of society in adulthood. Despite the agreed upon need for good schools, the solutions couldn’t be further apart. Looking at recent history shows the failure of liberal ideas of how to create a successful school system. Perpetual spending and centralization in the school system has been a colossal failure. Libertarians argue we need competition among schools to increase quality and decrease cost. Abolishing the Department of Education and leaving the problem up to the states is a step in the right direction. Encouraging school choice or creating a voucher system are also ways in which schools could again become a successful enterprise which serves our kids instead of politicians and unions. School choice is already starting to gain bipartisan support.
On equality, I noted that liberals use this word different than libertarians. When liberals argue for equality, they want equality of outcome, of material possessions. When libertarians argue for equality, they want equality of authority. Even if the state could enforce material equality, this is no reason to support such a system. Recognizing that people have equal rights and that no person is above another, leads us to support equal authority of persons. Liberals need to acknowledge that the state is the antithesis to equality of authority and results in coercive hierarchies where people are used as means to others’ ends. A freed market is where people would truly be able to live with dignity and freedom.
Lastly, liberals and libertarians both have distrust for concentrated power. However, liberalism diagnoses the problem incorrectly by supporting a strong government to limit the power of large corporations. Corporatism has plagued America for years and the coercive power of the state is the root of the power of giant corporations. Corporations utilize donations and favors in return for subsidies, barriers to entry, and other unfair laws from the state. It doesn’t make sense to oppose one and not the other, or suggest one be used to control the other. The government creates and enforces this oligarchical system and only when the state is restricted will corporate power be curbed.
Despite the disagreements on economic matters, liberals and libertarians ought to work together to achieve some of their shared desired ends. Working with people and groups you don’t fully agree with is an important part of politics, and we are already starting to see Democrats embrace the libertarian strain of their supporters as well as their history of libertarian flavored politicians going back all the way to Jefferson.
Fighting the warfare state, the police state, drug prohibition, immigration restrictions, and bigoted government policies are all critical issues that need as much support as they can get. A coalition between the people who voted for Barack Obama and those who voted for Ron Paul can increase the chances that these policy changes occur. It’s time both sides put down their purist glasses and cooperate towards something greater.