Social Forces and Vulgar Libertarianism
Will Wilkinson makes an important observation about the affinity between libertarians and conservatives. At the heart of the fusionism between the two groups, he explains, is the notion of individual responsibility. Whereas libertarians and conservatives attribute success and failure to the personal strengths and flaws of individuals, liberals see a vast array of social forces, luck, and other things outside of the direct control of individuals as playing a more important role in the success or failure of individuals. Thus, for a liberal poverty is structural and for a libertarian or a conservative it is the result of human shortcomings.
I find all of this especially interesting because my own drift from right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal has a lot to do with issues around the conditions for robust agency and the role of broad socio-economic forces in establishing those conditions, or not. I’ve come to accept, for example, that diffuse cultural forces, such as racism or sexism or nationalism or intergenerational poverty, can deprive an individual of her rightful liberty without any single person doing anything to violate her basic rights. This takes me a long way toward standard liberalism. But I find that my gut nevertheless leans right on issues of personal responsibility.
I agree that many people are in dire straits and suffering for absolutely no fault of their own, and that policies ought to be in place to provide meaningful material assistance. Still, I find I want an ethos of effort and individual responsibility to prevail, and I continue to think people who chose their way into trouble need to be told exactly what Welch seems to be telling the OWS folk: we’re not going to feel too sorry for you if you made some bad decisions about taking out mortgages and/or student loans, even if everybody you knew was making them too.
I find the libertarian rejection of structural and broad social forces shaping success and failure peculiar. For one thing, the most valuable insights of libertarianism are bound quite closely to the idea that special interests work with government to distort the playing field and protect certain interests and people and corporations over others. The free market creates a more level playing field, ideally, that allows for fewer distortions of power and more equality of opportunity.
And yet many libertarians only take that critique so far, and at the end of the day we find ourselves still with a discussion about winners and losers. It doesn’t make sense to craft a broad social critique of the state and its interactions with society and then turn around and pretend those factors play no role in the success or failure of you and me. This is what Kevin Carson describes as “vulgar libertarianism.”
As Will notes, “A politics of nothing but individual rights in a world dominated by social forces is a recipe for domination by those sufficiently powerful or organized to shape those forces.”
Too true. And yet his other observation is equally true: a politics that blames everything on social forces outside of our control is a politics that denies self-reliance, individuality, and eventually plunges us into an apathetic, insincere politics of social despondency.
Fortunately, I don’t think that strain of thought exists in anywhere near so broad a constituency as the winners-vs-losers brand of rugged individualism does on the right. Most liberals, I believe, understand the importance of self-reliance, hard work, and making the crutches of the state as unnecessary as possible. Are there anti-growth, anti-market forces at work on the left? Of course there are. But these tend to have a very small influence over public policy.
Meanwhile, the goal of libertarian-leaning liberals everywhere should be making markets work for ordinary people. To do that you need to couple free markets with a strong, efficient safety net that rewards risk and hard work but doesn’t let people fall through the cracks. A market-based, bottom-up liberalism should still embrace the reality that market failure is both necessary and causes a great deal of pain. The role of the state is ameliorating that pain for ordinary workers – not bailing out or protecting the wealthy and well-connected.