Talking Points for One Particular Left-Leaning Liberal

First of all, I guess you could get kind of crazy debating terms like “leftist,” “socialist,” “liberal,” “classical liberal,” and so on. And because of the risk of getting kind of crazy, I have no inclination to debate these terms. Let’s just say I believe in trying to make the world better by supporting things like accessible healthcare, accessible education, public libraries, maintained infrastructure, a habitable planet, and things of that nature. I try not to get freaked out by all the names thrown at people like me, and I try not to waste too much time trying to find the label that best fits.

But anyone would agree that I am not right-wing, conservative, alt-right, or any of that. So I think you’d say I’m on “the left” or “left of center.” What’s more, there are a few things I don’t like about the way other people on the left frame their debates. I wouldn’t dream of telling other people how to describe their own ideas, but I do dream of telling people how I like to describe my ideas, so here you go.

Free stuff—I don’t like all the talk about free stuff, whether it is education, healthcare, fire services, police protection, freeways, libraries, or air. Nothing is free, and we should all be able to agree on that. What I want is an equitable form of cost sharing. We all share the cost so that no one is left out. Why do I want my neighbor’s kids to get a free education, even if I don’t think I benefit directly? Because I want to live in a society where people are educated and empowered to share in the promotion of a functioning society. And I want their education to be useful beyond making them good employees.

Wealth distribution—Let’s face it, wealth is distributed. If wealth is going to exist at all, it will be distributed in some sort of pattern. It is absolutely pointless to say you are opposed to a patterned distribution of wealth. So you’re saying you’re actually just opposed to wealth re-distribution, which you imagine is a very different animal. You just don’t want your hard-earned money taken away through taxes to make someone better off. You can’t imagine that anyone else has done anything to make you better off, because you do not want to imagine that. Unlike some people on the left, I’m not saying rich people shouldn’t exist. I’m only saying that if rich people exist, poor people should not.

Market solutions—Some people anthropomorphize capital markets and claim they can fix all our problems. Sometimes entrepreneurs come up with some pretty good ideas, and that’s fine and dandy, but the people had good ideas, not the markets. Also, no markets are free. All markets are the products of the specific agreements various humans have put in place. Those agreements are constantly in flux and are subject to negotiation. “Free” markets do not exist. You will never find a market running wild in nature. I guess this is as good a place as any to say that I see no reason to completely eliminate private health insurance companies. It is only necessary to ensure that no one needs private health insurance.

Rights—to say everyone has a right to free speech is only to say I think society functions better when the government does not restrict speech in most cases. While some people believe “rights” come from God or nature or someplace else, you don’t have to believe that to use the word. It may annoy philosophers and political scientists, but a right is something someone thinks people should have. A “legal right” or “guaranteed right” is just something that was popular enough with people to be written in to law. Of course, it’s your right to believe whatever you want.

You might be thinking I should have some sort of summary conclusion or something, but I can assure you that I do not, so that’s that.

Ron Paul, Murray Rothbard, and the loss of freedom

Libertarian and conservative critics of progressives seem to endlessly repeat the same refrain that progressives are opposed to freedom and liberty. This generally baffles progressives as they see themselves as the defenders of civil liberties such as free speech, marriage equality, and religious liberty. Listing examples of the liberties they defend does nothing to quell criticism from libertarians, however, as the concepts of liberty that libertarians hold is quite different from the concepts of liberty progressives hold.

For libertarians, all liberty stems from property.  In short, if you have little property, you are not entitled to liberty. Murray Rothbard, who wrote the introduction to Ron Paul’s book, puts this idea quite succinctly in The Ethics of Liberty, saying, “Human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of ‘public policy’ or the ‘public good.’” In other words, when progressives seek to ensure that all people enjoy the same rights, Rothbard and other libertarians claim this actually denies human rights as it causes some individuals to lose some of their property.

So, your right to free speech, for example, depends on your owning enough property to exercise your speech. Otherwise, it depends on the goodwill of some property owner to permit you to speak. As Rothbard puts it, “There is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.” And, of course, libertarians feel that all property should be privately held.

So, when Occupy Wall Street protesters are chanting “Whose streets? Our Streets!”, they are going directly against the beliefs of libertarians. Protesters have been evicted around the country on the basis that they are on “privately held” public spaces. You can try protesting conditions in Foxconn plants outside an Apple store to test how much freedom you have on privately held property. Progressives seek to establish publicly held property to ensure that everyone (or as many as possible) has an opportunity to exercise the right to free speech. The same applies to public airwaves and Internet bandwidth.

If you want to be able to speak publicly, you must be a property owner. To have a significant voice, you must own a great deal of property. When the Supreme Court ruled that unlimited political contributions were a matter of free speech, this is really the underlying theme to their proclamation. When George Carlin declared that the owners of this country were the only ones with any freedom, some regarded him as a crazy conspiracy theorist.

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously helped distinguish between two kinds of liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from interference from others. Positive liberty is the ability to act in the way one chooses. Progressives hold that liberty is meaningless to a person who has no means to act or make choices. Libertarians hold that all liberty is negative (freedom from coercion) and all rights are negative (no one is obligated to ensure that you have positive liberty).

When libertarians and progressives talk to one another, they should at least try to understand how the other is using basic terms such as rights and liberty. As for me, I completely understand why wealthy people would be libertarian. I find it much harder to understand why people who have little property (and that is most of us) would embrace these libertarian ideas.

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