Friday, March 07, 2008

Perhaps there are libertarians on the left

Roaming the blogs, I came across a link to a surprising and encouraging document. It's an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing against state restrictions on what sort of health insurance consumers can buy and from where and, more generally, against paternalistic restrictions on freedom of choice. It reads like something that might have been written by a libertarian economist. It ends with:

"Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don't take away cars because we don't like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don't operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else."

The author is George McGovern.


Anonymous said...

It's not that uncommon to find people on the left willing to oppose state intervention in a transaction, but they while they oppose this triangular intervention, they generally support binary intervention such as taxation.

Is it better? There's a catch, you can achieve almost exactly the same policies through taxation. For example the minimum wage (triangular intervention) can be replaced with a special tax on "profits derived from cheap labor".
(binary intervention)

While theoretically equivalent, a tax is probably better than a regulation, as it allows some flexibility, should the gain of the transaction increase over the tax burden.

Mark said...

I'd be more encouraged if it were written by a liberal who has been influential within the last 10 years. I take it as an article of faith that liberals from 20, 40, 100 years ago would survey the present liberal political landscape and find it to be far less libertarian than their taste would prefer.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he has learned something since his committee released a report with no scientific basis that has had a devastating impact on the nation's health.

Anonymous said...

I've never thought of libertarianism as any more right-wing than left-wing.

For the most part, "conservatives" in the U.S. favor government intervention in your private life, but not in your business affairs, while "liberals" favor government intervention in your business affairs, but not in your private life. Libertarians favor neither.

How does this apply to health insurance? Health care is an intimate aspect of people's personal lives, so most liberals want government to stay out of it, while (certain elements of) the right wing want government to outlaw things like abortion, sex change operations, medical marijuana, etc. Health insurance, on the other hand, is an enormous for-profit corporate sector, so most liberals want government to regulate it, if not drive it completely out of business, while most conservatives want it left alone to earn its profits.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this just shows how far to the left the Democrats have moved in the last 30 years.

No prominent Democrat today could have written that article. Certainly not Clinton or Obama.

The absurd fantasy that libertarian is neither left or right could only make sense when disconnected from all objective reality.

Check out the "Liberty Plot" from the Repubilican Liberty Caucus

It turns out that the Democrats are slightly more authoritarian on social issues and much more authoritarian on economic issues.

Hey that's not fair! Why didn't I quote the Liberty plot from the Democrat Liberty Caucus?


Gil said...

McGovern has been on this trajectory for a while.

In 1992 he wrote another Wall St. Journal Op-Ed complaining about regulations that caused his Inn to fail.

And then, in 1997, he wrote a NY Times op-ed arguing against paternalism and for individual choice.

So, it seems that he's a liberal who knows what the word means.

Anonymous said...

"The young man who is not a socialist has no heart. The old man who is a socialist has no brain." This theory has kicked in in George McGovern's case.

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

Of course there are libertarians on the left! If you look at the Political Compass site, you'll see that Libertarian/Statist is orthogonal to Left/Right.

(signed) A happy inhabitant of the bottom left corner.

Anonymous said...


The chart is conceptual, I'm talking about the reality portrayed in the plot of actual politicians. Belief in economic freedom correlates with a belief in social freedom.

If you had to represent the chart in a single axis, it would almost certainly be the diagonal line from the lower left running to the upper right.

Libertarians don't like to be lumped in with conservatives, so we sometimes fantasize that the left-right distribution is horizontal.

Unfortunately, that just isn't the reality. The same people who want to regulate speech and force us to wear motorcycle helmets also want to spend half of your income.

That's why libertarians are considered right-wing.


Jonathan said...

Mercy Vetsel: "Belief in economic freedom correlates with a belief in social freedom."

Can't say I've noticed. In fact, right-wing politicians can't be relied on to support either economic or social freedom, in practice.

I never expected to say anything complimentary about a socialist government, but the current one here in Spain has made some nice social reforms.

Anonymous said...

The fact that the right is more libertarian than the left does not necessarily imply that libertarians are right-wing in any meaningful sense.

Anonymous said...

I did go and check out the Republican Liberty Caucus's report. I note that it says that Republicans are both at the top and at the bottom on the personal liberty axis. I also note that the site explicitly says that American politics has shifted back from up/down (Republicans favoring all forms of freedom, Democrats opposing them) to left/right (in the author's words, "On the one hand, you have Democrats with proposals for even higher taxes and spending but with some sensitivity to personal liberties; and, on the other hand, you have Republicans with an increasingly nativist and police-state orientation and only headed to fiscal disaster in second gear").

Beyond that, the "personal freedom" axis appears to include some positions that are libertarian only by some definitions. In particular, there was a proposal to make it a crime to transport a minor across a state line to obtain an abortion without parental consent; a Yes vote on this was classed as libertarian. And there was a proposal to remove restrictions on the funding of the UN population fund by the US; a No vote on this was classed as libertarian. I'll grant that abolishing US funding for the UN would be a libertarian position, but that's not what was at issue; this measure, like the other one, appears to grow out of opposition to abortion—and opposition to abortion is, to say the least, not something that libertarians in general agree upon. Obviously if you build endorsement of a right-wing position into your definition of "personal freedom," right-wingers are going to score higher on personal freedom—but that doesn't prove anything except that your argument is circular.

And even with this tendentious definition, Dr. Thiele finds that "Republicans lost whatever advantage they had previously had in the personal liberties dimension." Given that, Vetsel's conclusions do not appear well supported.

John Kindley said...

The whole left-right dichotomy seems to me to be pretty confusing. For example, the libertarians I most identify with are those classed as the Old Right, especially Albert Jay Nock. As I understand it, Nock had some good things to say about Christianity and good old-fashioned morality and was culturally conservative (as do and am I), though he did have some unconventional views about marriage. On the other hand, Nock and his protege Chodorov were Georgists, which is generally considered today to be a "left libertarian" position, concerned as it is with unjustly caused economic inequality. On the other other hand, Karl Hess found the essence of the left in opposition to concentrations of power, whether that power be political or economic, and therefore located himself on the farthest left of the left-right spectrum. In Hess' sense, I'd put myself on the left as well. But how can I do that, and still identify myself with the "Old Right"?

Anton Sherwood said...

To the extent that they have any coherent meaning beyond the small scale (in time or space), I reckon 'left' stands for equality (in varying senses!) and 'right' for stability.

The Republican Party was founded as the pork-barrel party. FDR was elected on a small-government platform.

Anonymous said...

William Stoddard said:

And even with this tendentious definition, Dr. Thiele finds that "Republicans lost whatever advantage they had previously had in the personal liberties dimension." Given that, Vetsel's conclusions do not appear well supported.

That's only considering the personal liberties dimension. The Republicans shift back and forth between parity and greater freedom on the personal liberties dimension, but the ALWAYS clobber the Democrats on the economic freedom dimension.

I agree that abortion is hard to score for libertarians since we probably disagree at what point a fetus becomes a person entitled to it's own liberty, but when it comes to the 2nd amendment, freedom of political speech (McCain-Feingold was mainly opposed by Republicans) Republicans have the clear advantage while Dems have the advantage on the war on drugs and freedom of entertainment speech (porn!).

But again, there is no contest when it comes to economic freedom and right now the size of the government is the biggest threat to our freedom.