Libertarianism & Power

Freddie reads this post by Nick Gillespie on the arrest of a Reason reporter at a D.C. taxi public forum and writes:

In a poor, majority-black city with a long history of drugs, crime, and endemic lack of opportunity, Gillespie looks out and sees that the truly powerless are… libertarians. (That Mr. Epstein had the social and material resources to immediately gain the aid of a noted First Amendment lawyer seems not to have factored into Gillespie’s determination of Epstein’s power or lack thereof.)

I find this entirely in keeping with the central analytical failure of libertarianism as a worldview: a total and disqualifying inability to measure or account for power as it exists in the real world. 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 would compare this issue to the DC handgun ban. I’m agnostic on gun control, in many instances; I don’t know if I can support banning the legitimate use of something because of its misuse by others. But I also recognize that DC is a community that has been absolutely ravaged by gun violence for decades, and that desperate residents and city officials were attempting to solve an intractable and debilitating problem. But during the Supreme Court case that overturned that ban, I saw essentially no commentary from institutional libertarianism that acknowledged the ugly aesthetics of a bunch of white, privileged libertarians working to undermine efforts to reduce gun crime in an impoverished black city. It was as if those people and that problem simply didn’t exist.

I have several problems with this, but first let me acknowledge where I think Freddie is correct. I think many, many self-described libertarians are much more interested in pushing for low taxes and railing against government than they are with the actual ways that government can help sustain or exacerbate problems with poverty. When I look at the Tea Party, for instance, I don’t see a group of people that is particularly interested with the plight of the poor. (I’ve written about this before.) These people may indeed lack the language to even speak of things like poverty. Many are little more than conservatives playing the libertarian part by saying freedom a lot and claiming they read von Mises at the beach.

That being said, I don’t think this applies very well to the libertarians that make up at least a small nook in the libertarian movement (such as many of the folks at Reason, for instance, or Radley Balko, et alia) and I don’t think it speaks at all to the actual ideas behind libertarianism. Maybe I have an insular perception of what libertarianism is or ought to be; perhaps I infuse it with too much of my own sentiment – but when I look at the ideals of libertarianism, they are not the ideals of winners and losers at all. They aren’t really even about government exclusively, but rather about the nature of power – and yes, how that power is particularly concentrated in the state with its ability to kill, imprison, make war and so forth.

What I see in libertarianism is a deeply progressive streak often unfortunately colored by a long history of affiliation with the right. To me libertarianism is all about anti-authoritarianism, about tearing down barriers and class divisions and the many ways that the powerful elite and the state conspire to create artificial scarcity, to entrench rent-seekers and prop up monopolies, and to create more and more rules and laws by which to maintain an unjust hold on power. To me, protectionism is a profoundly conservative thing, and the more I gaze out on the political landscape, the more I see both progressives and conservatives as essentially conservative actors arguing for different visions of what to actually conserve (and in many ways progressives are truly conservative, while conservatives are more revanchist). Libertarianism of the non-right-wing-nationalist-Tea-Party variety I see as an ideology that is essentially liberal, essentially about change and yes, freedom, including the freedom to escape poverty.

I keep seeing in myself the urge to gravitate toward more conservative, even reactionary stances. My delving into organized labor, or my education traditionalism – these are both, I believe, expressions of my own conservatism. Libertarianism, if we are to practice it honestly, requires as much self-denial as possible, as much abandonment of special interest as possible.

But to speak more directly to Freddie’s comments, I think he’s off-base in saying that libertarians lack the language or the compassion necessary to attempt to solve the plight of the poor. When I write about the War on Drugs, for instance, most of the sources I turn to are libertarian sources. This is largely because they are the most consistent advocates of an end to the War on Drugs. Or the foreign wars. Or the security-surveillance state. Or the TSA. Or mass incarceration. Or many of the other multitudinous ways that the state (and its corporatist cronies) literally create chaos and violence in the lower classes and help to sustain poverty.

If you want to see gun violence go down in D.C. a gun ban isn’t going to do the trick. It just isn’t, no matter how much we wish it would. Criminals will find guns or other weapons to continue the violence. The trick to ending the violence there is to end the War on Drugs and start treating addicts as people with medical conditions. Take the market away from the dealers, destroy the black market altogether. This is how you stop this cycle of violence or at least seriously curtail it, and this is what many libertarians believe. It’s what many liberals believe also, for sure, and it’s why I truly believe that there is room at the same table for libertarians and liberals to talk about things like ending poverty and violence, creating a society that is more fair, and working toward prosperity and justice. I just think both sides mistrust the other, and write these horribly broad, sweeping generalizations about the other, and the language barrier gets higher and higher. And both sides are at fault, and maybe neither really cares.

P.S. I should add that I don’t think all progressives or that progressivism itself is fundamentally conservative or even necessarily so. Only that this is one way that progressive politics can manifest (just like libertarian politics can manifest as a particularly odd form of right-wingery).

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