On Politics and Pigeonholes
Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others. — Groucho Marx
When I was young, politics was easier to understand. Liberals let you live as you please in return for taking your money while conservatives let you keep your money in return for telling you how to live your life. Now the only difference is whether they want your money or your life first.
Of course, that’s not true. Even in my youth the so-called left included both liberals and progressives, often at odds with one another, and what today would be called social conservatives and economic conservatives, ditto. In fact, the political spectrum in modern politics has never been capable of being reduced to a simplistic left versus right formula because it isn’t a spectrum, isn’t something capable of being adequately represented in linear terms.
In many disconcerting respects, the extreme right and the extreme left have much in common in terms of their understanding of the individual’s proper relationship to the state. True, there are vast differences between fascism and communism, but at least as they played out in the 20th century they share indifference if not outright hostility toward the notion of individual rights and liberties.
I raise these points, once again as one of the new kids on the block, because if your understanding of politics is implicitly or explicitly polar; that is, if you see politics in terms of left or right, liberal or conservative, you are almost certain to misunderstand libertarianism as some variation of “conservatives who want to smoke dope” or “liberals who don’t want to pay taxes” or some such.
As I have previously stated here at LoOG, I define my politics as pragmatic libertarianism, which does not mean I’m an anarchist who thinks children should be allowed to shoot up heroin or adults should be permitted to own tactical nuclear weapons. Mind you, I’m perfectly willing to mix it up ideologically when someone blithely assumes that the state per se requires no moral justification or invokes some facile fiction to attempt to justify the coercive power of the state, whether majoritarian or not.
In simple terms, my position is that as a general rule less government really is better both for the individual and for the majority, that the state may be the only institution capable of doing a handful of things upon which civilization is dependent, but that we’re usually better off not giving it any more power than it needs to perform those few functions. I like markets, but I’m not blind to the fact that markets sometimes don’t work and – gasp! – some sorts of collective action requiring some sorts of coercion are required. I simply believe that this latter is the case far less often than either liberals or conservatives are inclined to believe.
Regardless, I know I’m not going to get the average non-libertarian’s support for, say, abolishing over half the executive departments. But maybe I can convince him that the public good no longer requires tax dollars supporting the NEA or NEH or PBS (not because I want PBS to go away but because it really doesn’t need government support) or that maybe the FCC really doesn’t have any business regulating the internet or cable or satellite media. Maybe we can find common ground in the notion that the war on drugs has been a complete fiasco or that Afghanistan will be the same gawdforsaken hellhole whether U.S. troops withdraw from it tomorrow or ten years from now. I could go on endlessly. Contrary to a popular aphorism, opinions are not like assholes, as I have vastly more of the former than the latter.
Okay, maybe I can’t get him (or you) to agree on any or all of these things, but practical politics attends to particulars, not to sweeping ideological visions. I’m perfectly willing to try to find common ground to act at the margin notwithstanding that I do not, contrary to the best economic advice, think at the margin much of the time. Of course, sometimes the ideologue gets the better of the pragmatist and sometimes vice versa. But, you know, foolish consistency, hobgoblin, yadda, yadda.
For the record, however, it strikes me as a bit silly to say of someone who would, in fact, legalize all drugs (for adult use), would open the borders to anyone who wanted to come to the U.S., who supports both same sex marriage and homosexuals serving openly in the armed forces and who believes those same armed forces should be dramatically downsized and brought back home that such a person is any sort of conservative.
Similarly, it makes little sense to me to call someone a liberal who not only opposes single-payer health care but would privatize most public schools, who firmly believes not only that people do better spending their own money than having the state spend it for them but that, for the most part, the modern paternalistic welfare state is ethically unjustifiable. (The last being a position I hold on utilitarian, deontological and, if your tastes run to that sort of thing, virtue ethics grounds. More about which, no doubt, later.)
All that being said, reasonable people can reasonably disagree about any or all of these issues and about a myriad more, as well. Some of my best friends, as the cliché goes, are liberals or conservatives. Heck, one of the people I have been closest to for decades is an avowed socialist. His politics are abysmal but he’s a wonderful man. Another friend once said, without irony, that Mussolini was a much misunderstood man. What can I tell you? I have some odd friends.
In any case, here’s my offer: I’ll try not to be preemptively dismissive of your stupid opinions if you’ll try not to be preemptively dismissive of my stupid opinions. We probably won’t end up agreeing, but we’ll have more fun that way.