So Who Am I, Anyway?
One of the concerns expressed in the intense negotiations over our merger (I jest) was whether the addition of we three would tip the balance of this blog too far toward libertarianism. Given that I come from a self-identified libertarian blog and tend to write about regulatory issues from a pro-free market perspective, and given that my first post seemed to come from that perspective, I think it’s worth commenting briefly on where I really come from politically.
I tend to call myself a libertarian, but with real reservations. There is, so far as I can tell, no “orthodox” libertarianism that I can either adhere to or deviate from. It’s a pretty heterodox set of people who self-identify with that label, so I suppose I’m as legitimately libertarian as any others. But I’m pretty uncomfortable being identified with the popular conception of libertarianism. I’m particularly uncomfortable with people assuming I adhere to a selfish, individualistic, me-first-and-screw-everyone-else political philosophy, as I see libertarianism as allowing a space free from government where people can develop self-ordered social networks, or spontaneously ordered organizations. But I’m not so much “anti” government, as I am skeptical about it’s claims to be able to solve social organization problems. Methodologically I come from a public choice economics perspective, which provides very persuasive theoretical reasons for doubting government’s capacities. Over time, I’ll certainly express those arguments here, for those who aren’t currently familiar with them.
A more precise statement of my political stance is that I am a supporter of polycentrism, an approach pioneered by recent economic Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom (one of my mentors). Etymologically, polycentric means “many centers” of political organization. In a nutshell, it’s an approach that argues for political organization at the lowest level that incorporates all relevant stakeholders. That is, it’s opposed to top-down political rule-making, and favors localized self-governance whenever feasible (and those who analyze politics from this approach argue that it’s feasible a heck of a lot more often than most people think). These multiple centers of political organization will frequently overlap each other (I may be in a watershed management region, as well as in a regional transit authority, but the two may only partially overlap, so they should be handled by separate governing bodies), and some lower-level ones may be nested within higher level ones, as the states are regional authorities nested within the federal government. That leads to another, perhaps more familiar, way to phrase it: a sort of radical federalism (not only more decentralized than our current federal system, but even more so than our federalism ever was).
In my own ideal political system, the extent of government power would be largely consonant with how easy it would be to escape it, which large equates to what level it’s at. It’s relatively hard to escape the federal government, due to other countries’ stringent immigration laws, so I would allow it less authority over our daily lives, while tasking it with those responsibilities that inevitably affect us all (particularly, national defense). It’s much easier to escape my state, so I would allow states more authority to regulate us. That doesn’t mean I think states should regulate us very much–I’m libertarian enough to not want to live in a highly regulatory state (yet here I am in Michigan, sigh), but that I think it’s reasonable to allow them more regulatory authority than the federal government since I can opt out of my state and seek another one more to my liking (as a matter of fact, I refuse to live in the deep south, and turned down interview offers there when I was hunting for an academic job). At the local level, I would allow a much greater level of regulation. In fact I would allow just about any type of regulation, with the stipulation of a certain set of basic political rights. I’d be outraged if the federal government regulated the height of my grass, and would engage in hearty mocking if the state government did so, but I think it’s entirely legitimate for my city to do so, even though I think it’s a bit silly. The idea behind this is that local governments engage in competition for citizens via their public finance decisions (their mix of taxing and spending) in a process called Tiebout sorting/ And at what we might call the sub-local level, private non-governmental organizations, I would allow organizations where your constitutional rights mostly don’t apply, except for the right to exit, which I see as perhaps the basic and most inviolable right. That is, while I don’t approve of them, would never join one, and have nothing but disdain for those who would join one, I don’t have a political problem with the existence of exclusionary organizations (e.g., racist and sexist ones).
Specifically, at the sub-local level I would allow both communes and authoritarian arrangements. If a property developer builds a neighborhood, sets up codes, covenants and restrictions that require everyone to live communally, or that allow only “Aryans” and require everyone to march to the community flagpole at dawn to sing the Horst Wessel lied with a stiff-armed salute, I would allow them to do so. If they can attract enough property owners to prosper under such conditions I might shudder that there are enough such people out there, but I would allow it. Personally I would probably never live in a community with CC&Rs of any kind, and prefer the kind of genteel anarchy of the unincorporated and mostly unregulated Glenwood, Oregon, where would-be artists put up their hippie sculptures in their front yard and just down the street is, no kidding, a pipe organ manufacturer. To each their own.
But all I can hope for in real life is to try to play some marginal role in limiting the slide toward ever-greater centralization of political authority. Realistically I know that my vision is not going to come to pass, and I don’t have some vision of the day we have the great decentralization uprising, when the hippie communalists join with the national socialists to demand that each be allowed their own space in which to exclude the other.
But considering what are two plausible, but opposing, political futures, the one preferred by those with lefty social democratic leanings and the one preferred by those with righty moralistic authoritarian leanings, although I don’t want to live in either, if I was in fact given a choice between those two exclusively, I would without hesitation choose the lefty social democratic one. I’d rail against it and push for change, without a doubt, but I could live in it reasonably well (not least because they would in fact probably allow me to rail against it). The right-wing vision, moralistic, authoritarian, nationalistic, scares the hell out of me. They very likely wouldn’t allow me to rail against it, at least not without imposing surveillance on me, at the very least. It’s not that left-leaning governments can’t also be authoritarian, but really we’re talking about the difference between contemporary Labour Party England and Franco’s Spain. Not a pretty choice, but not a hard one, either.
So when our liberal friends here are grinding their teeth at my libertarian free-market ideologizing, just remember, come the revolution, I’ll be on your side.