Public Domain Image - White House Photograph Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library.

The Limitations of the Left-Right Spectrum

I.

I came across an article whose thesis is that people with my worldview are gravely mistaken about everything they believe.

How many liberals and progressives have heard this? It’s ridiculously common. Hell, even David Koch of the Koch brothers has said, “I’m a conservative on economic matters and I’m a social liberal.”

And it’s wrong. W-R-O-N-G Wrong.

You can’t separate fiscal issues from social issues. They’re deeply intertwined. They affect each other. Economic issues often are social issues. And conservative fiscal policies do enormous social harm.

Despite the age of the article (it was published in May), I’m interested in this for a couple reasons. One is that if we take “economically conservative” to be in favor of free markets (not always clear), then “economically conservative and socially liberal” is a good working definition for moderate libertarianism or classical liberalism. Believing libertarianism is just “wrong” is something that needs to be addressed given the large amount of people who identify as such, including myself. I was hoping for a strong critique of libertarianism, but it seems that the author mischaracterizes some libertarian positions. What’s more, if the author’s argument is correct, there are no real political positions outside the Left-Right political spectrum and perhaps none outside the Left at all! This would severely limit political discourse and our creativity in forming policy solutions to society’s challenges.

I think there is a partial explanation for the author taking this difficult to defend position: the idea that these issues cannot be separated seems to stem from confusion in terminology. When David Koch, an avowed libertarian, says he is economically conservative but a “social liberal”, the author may mistakenly believe he is saying social liberalism as a philosophy is compatible with economic conservatism. Social Liberalism, according to Wikipedia:

Social liberalism is a political ideology that seeks to find a balance between individual liberty and social justice. Like classical liberalism, social liberalism endorses a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties, but differs in that it believes the legitimate role of the government includes addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, and education.

David Koch probably considers himself to be a classical liberal, which means he favors economic and political freedom along with civil liberties. The best way to translate that to today’s political spectrum is allying with the right on economic issues and with the left on political freedom and civil liberties, or, since the American Left is often identified with the ideology of “liberalism”, David Koch is “economically conservative and socially liberal”. We could also describe him as a social liberal on non-economic issues who feels conservative on economic issues. He’s not a believer in social liberalism, and so it could be that the author is annoyed that people say they are “socially liberal” when they aren’t fully “social liberals”.

But even trying to give the author the benefit of the doubt is difficult, as she claims economic issues and social issues are bound together. This would imply any other type of liberalism that deviates from this version is “wrong”, which also seems hard to defend.

Under this assumption, the author first seeks to tie a libertarian worldview inexorably to conservative positions and then demonstrate how conservative positions are bad. The extent to which conservative positions are bad will be discussed later, but let’s first focus on the author’s insistence on binding libertarianism to conservatism under a single umbrella.

II.

These two sweeping implications, that social and economic issues cannot be separated and that conservative positions universally have bad outcomes, make the thesis very difficult to defend. I can come up with plenty of counterexamples (see footnote), though the author notes her list is not exhaustive and thus we shouldn’t hold it against her that the article didn’t address these points.  Instead, I will show how the positions the author actually chose can also be separated, and quite easily, which makes me believe she is not very familiar with libertarian positions..

It’s worth noting that while she uses the word “wrong” initially and often uses moralistic language, her points are better described as proving conservative policies have bad outcomes; a more utilitarian critique rather than a moral war. Even if we take as ludicrous the author’s argument that social and economic arguments are bound permanently, the remainder of her points still constitute a alarmingly strong consequentialist argument against libertarianism. So let’s address those positions!

The author has 7 points of contention: 4 focused on economics, 3 on non-economic (social) issues. In order to support her thesis, the author looks to show that any free market economics/limited government intervention view is tied inexorably to conservative social policy and vice versa, and moreover, that all these policies have bad outcomes. Roughly speaking, the 4 economic sections set out to prove simply that conservative economic policy has bad outcomes, while the 3 social issues areas look to show that either these positions are incompatible with conservative economic ideas and/or they also have bad outcomes. I’m going to deal with the social issues first.

III.

The sections that cover the social issues in this post are sections 3, 4, and 5.

Disenfranchisement

Section 3, Disenfranchisement contains the author’s strongest point in the entire article, but first the irrelevant points: on obstacles to vote, libertarians are extremely aware of restrictions that the government puts on people, whether it keeps them from voting, from whistle-blowing on unconstitutional surveillance, or from starting a new business. Libertarians are against restrictions in most things, including this one. Not a good critique.

Next the critique of corporations giving lots of money to campaigns is inaccurate. Direct corporate donations to campaigns are capped at $0.  Seriously.  This claim waters down the issue. The real issue is Super PACs; organizations that can accept unlimited donations from anyone (including companies, but that tends to upset their customers). But Super PACs cannot donate to political campaigns, and their donors are on public record. They can use this money for other independent expenditures, like paying for ads in favor of candidates or making YouTube videos, or blasting emails, but how exactly is this evil?  You can have a legitimate complaint that you don’t want people richer than you to be able to buy ads and have a larger voice in the national political dialogue, but you will run into all sorts of problems, which is why the Supreme Court decided Citizens United the way it did.

For example, media organizations are richer than you and they do have a louder voice in the discussion.  Should the FEC be restricting media outlets from talking about candidates? Should they only allow them to talk about them neutrally and ban all newspaper endorsements in elections? This sounds like a blatant violation of free speech. What about the Republican and Democratic national party committees? They are also richer and have a louder voice. They certainly don’t represent me as a libertarian, so should the FEC only allow the Republicans and Democrats to spend as much money as the Libertarian and Green Party? That certainly doesn’t represent most of the country.

But on the more general question: the classic libertarian response to political connections of the rich is that this is exactly why the state shouldn’t have so much power to begin with. But it’s hard to conceive of a system, libertarian or progressive, in which there is a perfectly calibrated utopia where either money is tightly controlled (the progressive solution) or power is tightly controlled (the libertarian solution) and things remain stable. The uncontrolled channel (political power in the progressive solution, wealth in the libertarian solution) would overwhelm the rules and allows the politically well-connected and the wealthy to assist each other in a positive feedback loop. I don’t have a good solution for this. The hardcore libertarian position is to abolish the state entirely, but I don’t like that. Nevertheless, this is the fundamental and eternal problem with centralized political power and I think progressives should be more humble in their belief that campaign finance reform would really fix everything.

Racist Policing and Drug Policy

Section 4 is entitled Racist Policing, and Section 5 concerns drug policy and prison policy. These were the sections that made perhaps the least sense to me since it’s unclear what the author believes distinguishes “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” from “just conservative”. Did the author not bother to read socially liberal and economically conservative people like Radley Balko or Reason magazine, or listen to the most “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” Republican presidential candidate, Rand Paul, talk about the Drug War and its disproportionate effects on minorities and its spillover effects into civil liberties of every American? Libertarians (as part of their social liberalism) have been decrying the Drug War and the Police state for decades.

The point of racist policing being driven by low taxes is also absurd. This would imply locations such as New York City, Baltimore, and Los Angeles are conservative, low tax, municipalities. And as for Ferguson, Radley Balko’s excellent piece on the subject demonstrates that the horrific justice system of the area is a result of a plethora of municipal governments that don’t need large police forces or perhaps to exist at all. Libertarians have complained as loud as anyone that police should not have incentives to raise money from their constituents as it empowers them to prey on the powerless, and have advocated for body cameras, something the author believes they would oppose which could have been clarified through a simple Google search.

And most importantly, these sections are the defining characteristics of what distinguishes a libertarian from a conservative, and the failure of these sections is the harshest strike against this article.

IV.

These sections cover the economic issues mentioned and were numbered 1, 2, 6, and 7.

Free Trade

All of these economic sections are incorrect to some extent, but Section 7, entitled Free Trade, is completely wrong, sorry. Free trade is the single most important humanitarian policy the United States has championed in the past half-century. The global poverty rate has been halved in the past 20 years due to the most extensive free market the world has ever seen. Objections that people in other countries have poor working conditions ignores that these people were already desperately poor prior to market liberalizations, and have received significant pay increases. Thwarting these policies would significantly hurt these global poor. And rejections of free trade policy means embracing protectionist policies that lead to high rice prices in Japan, the US government using taxpayer money to pay off Brazil in order to keep giving corporate welfare to cotton producers, and at their most extreme it champions the economic policies of the Soviet Union and North Korea. Yes, some jobs have disappeared in the US, but they have been replaced by new jobs as markets evolve and technology changes. The world is measurably better for having more free trade than not. See my previous post on the subject.

Deregulation

Asserting that deregulation is always bad is not a defensible position. That would require defending the airline industry pre-1978, or the Taxi industry pre-Uber. Moreover, regulations often harm small businesses the most, meaning this is also a social issue, one that this progressive is on the wrong side of. When occupations that have little to no safety concerns are licensed by the government, costs of entry increase, keeping the poor out of business. Check out this Cato paper discussing the impacts of regulation on the poor and marginalized.

And for deregulation causing the economic crisis, I think that’s still pretty up for debate. No mention of government guarantees, implied or explicit, to rescue banks from making bad decisions. “Deregulation” hardly took place in the financial sector. Had it existed, failing firms would have been removed from the market (along with their predatory loan strategies).  Instead the government rescued failing firms, simply trading regulation for government intervention of another (more harmful) type. But to say we know definitively what caused the financial crisis requires a great deal of hubris.

Poverty

Sections 1 and 2 deal with poverty. Section 2 is just further explanation of why poverty is bad, so I don’t have much to add there.

I think there is a lot more common ground here than people think since most libertarians (and conservatives) believe free market policies are actually the most beneficial for all involved, especially the poor. The question isn’t whether to solve poverty, but how to solve poverty.  The section on poverty assumes that the only way to fight poverty is through progressive economic policies. However, when there were specifics mentioned, the debate just isn’t settled. Libertarians (and to some extent conservatives) want to reform tax policy, including closing loopholes for the rich and structuring benefits so that the poor have better incentives to earn more. And the claim on the minimum wage shows the author simply hasn’t looked at the data (like I have). At best, the literature is mixed on the minimum wage having benefits for the poor. I don’t want to get too caught up in just this section, but it’s not clear that progressive policies are the obvious solution this purports them to be.

And I’d also argue that among libertarians specifically, being fiscally responsible does not necessarily mean cutting aid to the poor first. There’s a lot of room for cutting before getting to things we see as “welfare”. Military and Social Security both represent large spending areas which could face cuts without directly impacting poverty programs.

V.

The author’s thesis, that social and economic issues are inextricable, was pretty dubious. The implication that there is exactly one dimension of the political spectrum is totally laughable, but the importance of nuanced opinions on political issues cannot be understated. Best policies should be determined by looking at individual proposals and figuring out which has the best outcomes on a case by case basis. Grouping of policies together by political parties is done for political expediency, not because the policies necessarily make sense.  By believing every issue is simply part of a single right-left choice, we significantly limit our critical thinking capabilities and our ability to create good policy for the future.  Disagreeing with other groups is fine, but trying to dismiss everything they believe in a single go is a bit ridiculous, especially if you cannot remove your own preconceptions of what the group you are criticizing actually believes.

 

 

Footnote:

The libertarian position on gay marriage is one example that proves pretty conclusively that there exists a political viewpoint separate from both conservatism and progressivism. Moreover, the entire immigration issue is one that does not align very well to the left-right spectrum either; pro-diversity leftists and business interests desire freer immigration, while social conservatives and labor would like more curtailed immigration.  How would the author reconcile the existence of disagreement on immigration with her views?