Saturday, February 27, 2010

Why We Need an Alliance Between Libertarians and the Left

Currently, there exists a fair amount of animosity between libertarians and the left. It's understandable. Many libertarians go around denying climate science, bashing altruism, smearing the poor as lazy or incompetent, and declaring big business "a persecuted minority." On the other hand, many on the left went into histrionics after the Supreme Court affirmed First Amendment principles in Citizens United v FEC, look to government as the first solution to social and economic ills, and are willing to abandon their anti-war views and support of civil liberties in order to pass their statist domestic agenda. That being said, on the issues I deem most important in our society today, libertarians and the left are (Or should be) in agreement. And we need to unite around these common goals, because, as I will demonstrate in the remainder of this post, the Democrats and Republicans are largely united against our interests here.

The American political machine is fundamentally broken. Libertarians and independent liberals spend lots of time raging against it, for a menagerie of reasons. Thus, I will use this post to diagnose systemic flaws both groups addressed here should find rather terrifying, as well as my favored solutions.

First, let us examine the two party system. For more than a century, we have oscillated between the Democrats and the Republicans, and despite their hatred of one another, the similarities are more striking to me than the differences. Under both parties our troops were sent on superfluous and imperialistic missions. Under both parties the CIA has deposed democratically elected governments, propped up tyranny, and generated blowback which later endangered our national security. Under both parties torture and war crimes have never had any chance of being prosecuted provided they were committed by the US government. Under both parties corporate welfare distorted the market and defiled the public interest. Under both parties "tough on crime" politicians compete to see who can do the most to overcriminalize, take away more of our Fourth Amendment rights, militarize our police force, and incarcerate more of our citizens. Peel away the differences in rhetoric, and underneath you have two parties opposed to peace, equality, and freedom in shockingly similar ways.

Naturally, there have been attempts to bypass this flawed two party system. In 1971, the Libertarian Party was formed to advocate smaller government. As an outgrowth of Ralph Nader's independent campaigns for the presidency, a national Green Party coalesced in 2001 to advocate for environmentalism, grassroots democracy, social justice, tolerance, peace, and non-violence. A plethora of other parties outside of the bipartisan power duopoly exist in the American system. Yet until we reform certain policies, we WILL be subject to rule by "Demopublicans." Neither libertarians nor the independent left are truly represented by either major party. And even if they were, such a narrow political spectrum would be anathema to the values of both groups. Libertarians should understand that a maximization of competition and free discourse are both desirable. The independent left, in its desire both for free exchange of ideas and a functional and participatory democracy, should revile the two party system as well.

But the two party system is currently entrenched by a wide range of political machinations which we must work to dismantle. So as to prevent votes for third parties becoming mere "spoilers," a system such as instant runoff voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, must be implemented. Discriminatory ballot access and campaign finance laws must be reformed, simplified, or abolished. Debates should be wrested from the control of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is run by the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties. A more detailed discussion of such problems and proposed solutions to these problems occurred at the Cato Institute in October 2009, and in the spirit of this note it featured both a libertarian economist and a leader in Ralph Nader's campaign.

Moving beyond the two party system itself, we must examine the corrupt shenanigans which occur in Congress. One common and corrupt practice involves tacking irrelevant and often immensely deleterious amendments onto bills. Examples include a draconian copyright provision the RIAA and Harry Reid snuck into an education bill, a policy decreasing transparency regarding Bush era torture which was added to a defense appropriations bill by Joe Lieberman, and the attempts to use the health reform bill to reinstate federally funded abstinence only sex education. More odious still is the fact that Congress members often don't bother to read their own bills. After being informed of frighteningly anti-Constitutional policies included in the PATRIOT Act, quite a few politicians admitted to voting for the bill without having read it. Now, I know that many politicians (*cough* Michelle Bachmann *cough*) may have difficulty reading bills written above a first grade level, but it's their job. In response to these systemic flaws in our legislature, the libertarian advocacy group Downsize DC has proposed the Read the Bills Act and the One Subject at a Time Act.

Another systemic flaw concerns the creation of classes of citizens which are above accountability for their actions. The mountain of evidence for this proposition of an American "culture of impunity" can, and does, fill many blogs and books. So as to prevent this post from being side tracked, I shall present three clear instances of the phenomenon.

First, the Bush torture program. Such a program is clearly illegal, both under section 2340A of the federal criminal code and under the International Convention Against Torture, which was pushed through by noted far left civil libertarian President Ronald Reagan. Yet not only do Bush, Cheney, Yoo, and other administrative architects of systematic torture of prisoners have almost no chance of being prosecuted, the Obama Administration has actively worked to protect them from mere scrutiny. For instance, in the case Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen, Obama's Department of Justice advocated the position that the state secrets privilege meant torture victims did not even deserve their day in court ( In a related story, both the Bush and Obama administrations threatened a British court that we would cut off intelligence sharing with Britain if they released evidence pertaining to the torture of British citizen Binyam Mohammed ( The court did so anyway, and intelligence sharing has not ceased, although the Obama Administration expressed regrets and stated that this would harm our future intelligence sharing programs.

Another instance of America's culture of impunity is clearly evident in a concept known as "absolute prosecutorial immunity." This is the notion that if prosecutors deliberately falsify evidence, in clear violation of both ethics and law, they are immune from any lawsuits by the innocent victims of their dishonesty. There exists legal precedent to support prosecutorial immunity, which the Supreme Court justified in such cases as Imbler v. Pacthman using the argument that such protections were necessary so that prosecutors were not deterred from doing their job. The only legal precedent which currently exists to open prosecutors to any semblance of legal accountability for misconduct is Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, which states that prosecutors working in an investigative capacity are subject to mere qualified immunity. Last year, the case Pottawattamie v. McGhee, in which two prosecutors (who had colluded with police in order to manufacture evidence which sent innocent men to prison for 25 years) argued that they could not be sued, came before the Supreme Court. Such a case essentially threatened to overturn the small chance for prosecutorial accountability offered by Buckley v. Fitzsimmons. Among those filing amicus briefs in favor of the prosecutors were a who's who of status quo authoritarians, including the U.S. Solicitor General and the attorney generals of 25 states. Filing briefs on behalf of reason, responsibility, and justice were such organizations as the libertarian Cato Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union, typically deemed a left wing organization. We cannot know how the Supreme Court would have decided the case, as a settlement was reached before the ruling was issued. For more information, I suggest you read Radley Balko's article on this issue. Liberals and libertarians alike (Along with all decent people with any sense of justice) should care about accountability in this case, particularly as the United States already has one of the highest prison populations and has plenty of incentives for prosecutors to convict, with very few for them to avoid convicting the innocent.

The last example I will give you regarding this country's pervasive paucity of accountability concerns police. Regardless of their merits as a group, when they do violate laws, they are typically not subject to anything resembling the punishment faced by us mere civilians. One recent case involves an off duty cop engaging in a hit and run while drunk, yet not facing any prosecution. A litany of similar and often worse stories may be found on Radley Balko's blog under "police professionalism." What makes this lack of accountability even more morally bankrupt is that it coincides with a massive expansion of police powers and incentives to use and abuse them, largely as part of the war on drugs. Under asset forfeiture laws, the police may confiscate your property simply by contending that it was obtained through illicit activity. They can do so even if the property owner has not been charged with any crime. Scarier still, SWAT teams frequently engage in raids armed with heavy artillery and get the wrong house, killing or frightening innocent people and pets as a result. While they are given federal funding to do this, there exists no system of oversight to create incentive to only use such force when it's needed. The Cato Institute has a map of botched paramilitary SWAT raids, color coded in accordance to the specific harm caused.

So far the systemic problems discussed have been matters where it's fairly expected that libertarians and leftists will agree. Civil liberties, imperialism, and the unsatisfactory nature of the two party system are the sort of problems you'll find discussed regularly in both Z Magazine and Reason Magazine.

Where libertarians and the left tend to disagree is economics. Libertarian economic policy is based on the idea of free markets, and seeks to maximize individual control over one's own property and contracts, consequently limiting or eliminating government intervention in voluntary transactions. Left wing economics, on the other hand, is based on the common good, and seeks to help the poor and the workers while limiting the power of corporations over the common people. Thanks to the statist branch of the left and the corporatist branch of the right, many have become convinced that these goals are diametrically opposed. But this is simply a myth, fostered by a left which seeks to smear free markets and a right which seeks to use libertarian rhetoric to protect the wealthy. While there are some cases, such as welfare, health care, and worker protection laws, where libertarianism and leftism arguably are opposed, the litany of largely ignored cases where big government distorts markets and defiles property rights to favor big business means that libertarians can often find common ground with the left even with regards to economics. Moreover, many left libertarians, including Sheldon Richman and philosopher Roderick Long, argue quite persuasively that in a truly free market, the absence of state enforced corporate privilege would grant working people far greater bargaining power and thus deter abusive corporate policies. For purposes here, I will not go as far as them, and will instead focus on cases where the state unambiguously distorts markets to the benefit of big business and the detriment of the public interest.

Perhaps the most obvious example consists of corporate subsidies. According to a report by Stephen Silvinski of the Cato Institute, the federal government spent $92 billion on corporate subsidies in the 2006 fiscal year. Silvinski suggests the formation of a corporate welfare reform commission. Such a commission would analyze the federal budget to find corporate subsidies which do not serve a compelling state interest, and would place their reform recommendations before a congressional vote. Considering the vast swath of agencies which engage in corporate welfare, such a commission would certainly have their work cut out for them.

One of the most bloated and undeniably detrimental manifestations of corporate welfare comes in the form of the extravagant subsidies and perverse incentives which come out of the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA spends piles of taxpayer money subsidizing domestic agribusiness, and while this spending is defended as a way to help small farmers, in reality the bulk of it goes to large corporate farms, as explained here. Worse still, the USDA utilizes protective tariffs and production quotas so as to reduce competition for sugar producers, in addition to offering them direct subsidies, a topic on which this Cato Institute report expounds. These distortions of sugar markets dramatically raise American sugar prices, which often leads companies which use sugar to relocate, resulting in American job losses. Additionally, by making it easier for sugar companies to profit in America, the USDA has encouraged the already disturbing destruction of Florida's Everglades. Combined with our government's extravagant corn subsidies, these artificially inflated sugar prices have led to the perverse proliferation of high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. The horrible health impact of high fructose corn syrup is well supported by scientific evidence, yet the USDA continues to create incentives for it to increase in prevalence.

Another disgusting corporate welfare program is the Export-Import Bank. Unlike the USDA, which serves some purposes of arguable legitimacy such as regulating produce for safety and operating the National Forests, the Export-Import Bank is entirely an agent of rank corporatism. While their supposed purpose is to secure American jobs, many of the companies the Export-Import Bank subsidizes rapidly dispose of their American jobs. Indeed, the Export-Import Bank has financed many a foreign corporate operation, thus arguably creating incentives to get rid of American jobs rather than preserve them. Bernie Sanders, the only self identified socialist in the Senate, wrote an excellent article in The Nation exposing the wasteful corporate welfare that plagues the Export-Import Bank.

I could spend the remainder of my life elaborating on federal level corporate welfare programs and the various ways they sew perverse incentives, but in doing so I would be neglecting the unjust and economically nonsensical programs which occur on the state and local level.

One egregious example of state level corporatist corruption is eminent domain abuse. The Constitution provides for eminent domain, or the confiscation of private land for public use, provided just compensation is given to the previous owners. Historically eminent domain has been used to build publicly owned and accessible projects such as roads and schools. However, recently it has been used to confiscate individual land and transfer it to corporations on the grounds that they will improve the local economy and this constitutes a "public use." This happened to Susette Kelo's house in the city of New London. Her land was confiscated so as to pave the way for a new development by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Kelo's legal challenge to this state sponsored corporatist theft made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that the confiscation of Susette Kelo's land was constitutional. When I first read of this decision, my reaction was a simple "WTF?" And what of the alleged "public" good that would come from pushing Susette Kelo out of her house? Pfizer closed its New London facility in November 2009. This closing both underscores the tragedy and absurdity of using eminent domain to benefit private corporations and provides a certain poetic justice, in which wealthy thieves fail to profit from their kleptocratic cronyism. How's that "public use" looking now?

Another, less well known form of local level corporatism consists of the proliferation of superfluous licensing laws. Licensing laws can be arguably justified when the profession in question can pose a great risk to others when handled incompetently. This is the impetus for licensing laws surrounding medicine, trucking, and school bus driving. It can also be arguably valid when the professionals in question are providing a trusted public service and using taxpayer money, as in teaching. But for the bulk of professions, the impact of licensing is to decrease consumer choice, decrease competition, raise the cost of services, enrich the oligopoly of license holders, and inhibit the poor from starting businesses by increasing start up costs through bureaucratic fees. This is why it is absurd when the state of Texas requires eye brow threaders to obtain Western style cosmetology licenses irrelevant to their particular service ( Or when Louisiana requires licenses for florists ( Worse still, the laws sometimes blatantly defy the First Amendment, such as the Texas law which does not restrict who can provide interior design services, but does regulate who may term themselves "interior designers" ( Free speech problems also emerge with Virginia's licensing laws for yoga teaching (

I have barely skimmed the surface of how the state has acted to counteract the interests of both leftists and libertarians. Suffice to say that we need a political movement which provides an alternative to the corporatist, authoritarian, warmongering, corrupt, unaccountable bipartisan duopoly which currently plagues our government.

This is why libertarians, liberals, and leftists should join forces for radical yet rational change. That and the fact that, as all their names start with L, there are awesome opportunities for alliteration.

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