Liberalism, Centrism, and Libertarianism
Since I have been called a “fake liberal” recently, I thought I’d delve into the subject once again.
I am a liberal mainly because the rather short arc of liberalism traces pretty well alongside the equally short arc of human progress, out from the bonds of poverty and class dependency and toward something better, toward something more human. The liberal project, to me, is a project to tear down the false humanity of oppression and prejudice and try to replace it with a deeper humanity.
I see liberalism as the effort to free as many people from domination as possible – Ned Resnikoff would call this small-“r” republicanism, perhaps – and not just from the domination of powerful states, but from the domination of poverty, violence, culture, prejudice, hunger, ignorance, exploitation and so on and so forth.
That’s why I can nod along with libertarians when they’re talking about free markets or ending the war on drugs and the danger of war, but can’t really nod along once we’re talking about universal healthcare or public education. I get the basic libertarian critique. I just find it lacking, or maybe too idealistic. A lot of good can come from libertarian ideas, especially in regards to the guys breaking legs. I’ve internalized the libertarian critique in many ways on this matter. It’s the crutches where it all starts to fall apart.
The liberal answer to poverty, lack of access to healthcare, public education strike me as more practical, more likely to result – alongside some of the very libertarian ideas about the drug wars and so forth – in freedom from domination, in the tearing down of barriers to exit poverty. Crafting a smart welfare state is hard work, of course, but necessary work.
Maybe it’s a certain cynicism on my part, but I think I know how it all plays out: Medicaid gets hit before Medicare. We cut spending on teachers before we cut spending on bombs. We slash funding to national parks before we let the nonviolent offenders out of our overstuffed prisons. I think liberals and libertarians can often agree on these things and still come to different conclusions.
This is also why I think that libertarianism – at least its more liberal wing – is better situated in the liberal tent. There are plenty of conservatives who call themselves libertarians, but I know plenty of libertarians who are more at home thinking of themselves as some sort of classical liberal rather than a branch of the right.
As I’ve said before, though, I’m not a centrist simply because I hold divergent views. I wrote, not long ago:
[T]he label I hate more than anything is ‘centrist’. This is the laziest of all possible terms. Am I a centrist because I believe in free markets and the welfare state? Does that put me at the center of two extremes? Which extremes are those, and how do they define the ‘center’? The worst policies are almost inevitably the centrist ones, brokered in the halls of power between the old vanguard of the status quo.
I don’t want centrism. I want radically more free markets including an end to all US trade barriers and tariffs, an end to all corporate welfare, a drastic drawdown of the defense budget and of our presence overseas, the complete decriminalization of all drugs, an end to the PATRIOT Act and all domestic surveillance programs (see, up to this point I sound like Ron Paul…) universal healthcare, a carbon tax to help combat global warming, more aggressive stimulus spending, the breaking up of big banks, etc. etc. etc.
I know plenty of people with similar views and I wouldn’t call any of them centrists. Centrists want to preserve the status quo. They want small wars and small changes to entitlements. They want to keep fighting the war on drugs, and more and more laws to stay tough on crime. They want to keep sending out favors to their well-guarded districts.
That’s not entirely fair. A lot of centrists probably believe a number of the things I believe. But centrism in American politics, in the halls of power at least, is usually the worst of all possible worlds. Centrism is where shit sandwiches are born, and good ideas – like Ron Wyden’s healthcare bill – come to die.
I’m not sure if this all makes me a neoliberal, a liberaltarian, or a fake liberal, or a terrible statist. As I’ve said before, I think liberalism is a big tent.
Next up: Beyond Culture.