Monday, April 26, 2010

Ethics, Empiricism, and Emergent Order: My Path to Left Libertarianism

Disclaimer: The following post reflects the views I held at the time of writing.  Some of my views may have changed, though many are the same.

From my roots as a civil liberties loving Democrat, to my Noam Chomsky and Bertrand Russell inspired move to libertarian socialism, to my current independent left libertarian radicalism, my political views have always been left of center. Initially I thought I had a place firmly within the Democratic Party, but gradually I have moved radically beyond the parameters of their policy platform. My views run the gamut of political philosophy, typically being based upon liberal, progressive, classically liberal, libertarian, socialist, and anarchist works. Fundamentally, however, they always have been, and I posit always will be, characterized by the attitude Bertrand Russell ascribed to liberalism in his essay Philosophy and Politics. Wrote Russell, "The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may lead at any moment to their abandonment. This is the way in which opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way they are held in theology." With this openness to new data, my political views have undergone many evolutions.

The story of my political evolution begins, as so many do, with devotion to atheism and scientific naturalism. In fifth grade, while seeking quotes from my favorite historical figure, Thomas Paine, I stumbled across the website Positive Atheism, and their "Big List of Quotations." As I read through this list, containing both brilliant quotes from champions of science and liberalism and disturbing quotes from religious and socially conservative leaders, several opinions solidified. I became firmly convinced that free speech, feminism, reproductive choice, science (Particularly big bang cosmology and evolutionary biology), gay rights, and the separation of church and state were all immensely important and must be defended and advanced. Furthermore, I realized that these goals were under attack by religious fundamentalists and social conservatives, including the administration of George W. Bush. I still stand by these ideas. I remain a secular humanist to my core, diametrically opposed to the asinine assaults on reason which continue to emanate from the religious right and their army of bronze-age-dogma-worshiping bigots and philistines.

The next step in the evolution of my political ideology came from a somewhat less intellectual source: Liberal comedian Al Franken. His books Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them gave me some great laughs, and instilled in me some knowledge of the dishonesty and demagoguery that characterizes the American right. While I remain revolted at the right, I fear that in this period (Around sixth and seventh grade) I grew dogmatic and embraced many aspects of the Democratic Party platform on an emotional rather than rational basis.

But after consuming the pleasant partisan political junk food of Franken's hilarity, I moved onto some real philosophical red meat. My mind was blown by the articulate and principled works of the 19th century classical liberal utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. I will confess for the sake of intellectual honesty that I have yet to read the entirety of his concise treatise On Liberty, but the excerpts I did read have since defined my political ideology. Most influential was Mill's enunciation of the harm principle: "That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." From this principle I realized the moral vacuity of drug control, bans on prostitution, and other symptoms of America's meddlesome, paternalistic tendency towards moralistic overcriminalization. Later I would learn of police brutality, the economics of prohibition, and many civil liberties issues entangled in these matters, and my opinions would grow stronger still. But fundamentally it was the words of Mill that triggered this libertarian spark in my thinking.

After the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill solidified my devotion to personal liberty, my skepticism of the state was enhanced, ironically enough, by the insightful writings of three great socialists. Of course, these were socialists of a decisively libertarian persuasion, and I believe their work has much to offer for all reasonable people regardless of their place on the political spectrum. I refer, of course, to Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, and George Orwell. The influence of Russell and Orwell upon my ideas is fairly self explanatory. Russell's skepticism and empiricism remain pervasive in my ideals and color my every thought. Orwell taught me how to see through political demagoguery, and particularly how all ideologies, even those which are on the surface devoted to humanity's liberation, can become the instigators of the most brutal and insidious authoritarianism. And of course, the entirety of this socialist trinity loved free speech with an absolutist fervor, while despising and distrusting blind loyalty to any party.

But the influence of Professor Noam Chomsky extends farther than that of his two comrades, brilliant and eloquent as both are. For it was Chomsky who sparked my outrage at America's undemocratic two party system, morally bankrupt and ever bungling CIA, and murderous military-industrial empire. With clear logic, scrupulously documented facts, and moral clarity, Professor Chomsky demonstrated the hypocrisy of our foreign policy, which condemns terrorism and tyranny while terrorizing civilians and installing and maintaining tyrannical regimes. Until I read Failed States, I had never fully comprehended the horrors our government was hypocritically unleashing in the Middle East, or the human cost of our previous unethical and illegal misadventures in Latin America and around the globe. Realizing that presidential administrations from both the Democratic and Republican parties were complicit in what amounted to war crimes toppled my partisan loyalty to the Democrats, which had already been shaken by the admonitions of Russell and Orwell. Professor Chomsky's analysis of how few substantive policy differences exist between the parties, about how the media in America serve as lapdogs for the state corporate apparatus, and of the many other systemic flaws in our political system, awakened me to the need for radicalism. Beyond the folly of the Iraq War, I saw the folly of an entire empire. Beyond the cynical demagoguery of the Republicans, I saw a narrow political spectrum in which Democrats and Republicans alike accepted the same morally repugnant premises. And beyond the lies of O'Reilly and Limbaugh, I noted that even real journalists sacrificed moral and intellectual integrity so as to retain their coveted seat in Washington's royal court.

Chomsky's writings may have saved me from the sick stagnation of the political mainstream, but I was still hampered with delusions. I was a social democrat who believed that the optimal solution to our problems was a truly democratic government that provided services to the people and limited corporate power through regulation. I also thought that, while Barack Obama was going to be a politician within the center right authoritarian spectrum party, he would substantially roll back the damage Bush did. It is now my opinion that I was wrong on both counts. On the first point, I now see that particularly in America, but also elsewhere, the state has an intractable tendency to become a tool of inequity and privation. Orwell and Chomsky taught me this, but it didn't really sink in until now, particularly as both remained to some extent state socialists. It didn't really sink in until I read detailed policy analysis from the Cato Institute and other sources on corporate welfare. It didn't sink in until Timothy Carney on the right and the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) on the left started reporting on Obama's corporatism. And it didn't truly sink in entirely until I re-exposed myself to the philosophy of individualist anarchism. I was first introduced to individualist anarchism when I read Wendy McElroy's brilliant book XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. In this truly stellar defense of sexual liberation and free expression, Wendy McElroy eviscerated the ideas of anti-pornography feminism, expounding on her philosophy of individualist feminism, which has at its roots such 19th Century individualist anarchists as Moses Harman, who was frequently jailed for his publication of "obscene" articles advocating birth control and condemning marital rape. But this time I encountered a farther left brand of individualist anarchism, an ideology promoted by the likes of Professor Roderick Long, a philosopher at Auburn University. The "free market anti-capitalism" of Roderick Long and his comrades such as Kevin Carson, Brad Spangler, and Sheldon Richman combined the consistent anti-statism I had loved from Wendy McElroy and Murray Rothbard with the compassion for victims of non-governmental hierarchies that I so admired from the likes of Noam Chomsky. This should not be too surprising, for as Roderick Long explained in his lecture "Rothbard's Left and Right: 40 Years Later," leftism and libertarianism were not originally considered opposed, but in fact "what we now call free market libertarianism was originally a left wing position. The great liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat sat on the left side of the French national assembly, with the anarcho-socialist Proudhon. Many of the causes we now think of as paradigmatically left-wing — feminism, antiracism, antimilitarism, the defense of laborers and consumers against big business — were traditionally embraced and promoted specifically by free-market radicals." Roderick Long has also written a variety of very persuasive papers, such as Corporations versus the Market, explaining how the state creates oligopolies, and thus an oligoponistic labor market unfriendly both to workers and consumers. Corporate power is largely a product of state intervention, and it has a tendency to then incur ever more favors from the government, resulting in our current corporatist plutocracy. At the same time, the writings of many great economists taught me how undirected emergent order, a phenomena I had long defended in the natural sciences against the teleology of creationists, can lead to great things in human action. For these reasons, I abandoned social democracy in favor of free market anti-capitalism. So what caused the other change, what led to my disillusionment with Obama? Well, in accepting the despotic assumptions of the Bush Administration when it comes to civil liberties, in arguing for indefinite detention, in claiming the authority to order the assassination of US citizens, in using the state secrets privilege to cover for the Bush Administration's crimes, Obama has shifted the debate in a dangerously authoritarian direction. Liberals who would have once condemned such policies as "Constitution shredding" now defend them as pragmatic, while the right hysterically screams that Obama will kill us all by allowing some terror suspects their Miranda Rights, and clamors to avert this non-threat by annihilating the Bill of Rights with their "Enemy Belligerent Act." Only principled "civil liberties absolutists" like Glenn Greenwald are left, as a small minority in our political discourse, to argue for Thomas Paine's ideal that "in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other." As long as Obama stands explicitly against the Bill of Rights, I cannot consider myself his supporter.

These are not the only changes that have happened recently in my political consciousness. The writings of several commentators, most notably Radley Balko, have alerted me to the true nature of the modern American criminal justice system. It is an unjust system, in which police and prosecutors are above the law, law enforcement agents become ever more militarized to prosecute a failed "war on drugs," and innocent people are jailed, even executed. Similarly, I have gone from an advocate for mainstream LGBT rights causes such as gay marriage, to a radical seeking to abolish all forms of prescribed gender roles, and the gender dichotomy that excludes transsexuals, intersex individuals, and so many others.

While all my opinions, as Russell wrote, "are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may lead at any moment to their abandonment," I hold my current views with passion and a willingness to act. And so, for now, I proudly proclaim the following:

I stand in solidarity with the queers, the immigrants, the workers, the prisoners, and every civilian casualty in foreign wars and the domestic drug war.
I stand against bigotry of every stripe, violent aggression in all its manifestations (Including the state itself), dogmatism and all the ignorance it begets, corporatist cronyism, and state secrecy and dishonesty.
I stand for justice, reason, and liberty, wherever these values may lead.


  1. Hi Nathan, it's Margaret Fedder. I thought I'd comment here in bullet-ish fashion as I read:

    -Smashing quote from Bertrand Russell. So, so interesting.
    -I have to chuckle that you came to many of your beliefs in fifth grade! What led you to do this research back then?
    -Wow. Excellent, eloquent paragraph on Chomsky. Just wonderfully, clearly written.
    -You lose me a bit in par. 7 on McElroy, Carney, Obama, corporatism. Still interesting.
    -I love this bit of pathos at the end, this statement of belifs/call to action. It is honest and lovely.

    Thanks for this! It is clear, compelling, and informative, as always. Excellent, excellent work as always.

  2. I don't see how the power of the state under capitalism (ie as a tool of capitalists) invalidates "statist" socialism, which already holds that the state is a tool of whichever class happens to be in power. The state is the arbiter of both good and evil - the proletariat would not accept its power over them if they didn't derive some kind of benefit. For example, as the source of law and stability - Franz Oppenheimer:

    Why would an oligopolist labour market be bad for the proletariat under socialism? It is bad under capitalism because of the power capitalists hold within the social relations of production - under socialism, the proletariat would hold that power. You think a factory worker's council would vote for unsafe working conditions? For themselves?

    1. At the time I wrote this essay I was using democratic socialism as a synonym for Swedish style social democracy, not for socialism in the sense of workers controlling the means of production.

      I now favor workers controlling the means of production through decentralized democratic workers councils.