Talking Past Each Other

A couple of interesting articles I read this week touch on an important truth: libertarians and the left have quite a bit in common. Neither side much cares to admit it, but it’s still true. The Moorfield Storey blog points out that modern classical liberalism began as an opposition movement to conservatism:

Classical liberalism was a revolutionary movement challenging the status quo of the day. It was not as consistent in application of its principles as libertarians would prefer, but it was a dramatic step forward in the history of liberty. Classical liberals opposed the alliance between church and state; they wanted to end the property system of the day, where might alone transferred property into hands of privileged, landed elites who grew wealthy out of monopoly privileges bestowed by the Crown.

Later, when modern socialism was born in the mid-19th century, classical liberalism occupied the middle ground between conservatives and socialists. Over time, as capitalism became more and more established, conservatives began to see that as the tradition they wanted to conserve, and gradually moved in that direction.

As socialist and communist governments took power across the world in the 20th century, classical liberals started to ally with conservatives more than the left. The Old Order, while unpleasant, was less lethal than Stalin or Mao’s wrath. But socialism is dead now, and the left has much more common ground with classical liberals than in the bad old days. Still, the two sides still rarely talk. This is a problem for both sides.

Many on the left are innocent of economic knowledge, and could stand to learn some. Libertarians, on the other hand, are often economics-obsessesed. That’s not good, either. Regularly engaging the left can help. Economists who are only economists are boring creatures with little to offer intellectually. That’s why they need to study other disciplines, and other philosophies. Not convert to them, but engage them. Learn from them. Incorporate the good, reject the bad.

If classical liberals want to talk to progressives, they need to realize that, while efficiency and utility are important concepts, classical liberals also need to emphasize their rebellious heritage and how they, too, stand up for the little guy.

Point out how markets help the poor. Nowadays, even people in poverty usually have cell phones, flat-screen tvs, air conditioning, and cars. This is not to be dismissed as “Duh, what’s your point?” The point is that this level of prosperity is unheard of in human history, and it only happened when societies dropped their traditional hostility to commerce and markets. It’s what Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Fact.

There is still so much progress yet to be made — most of the world’s wealth hasn’t been created yet. Liberalization has been, and will continue to be, the world’s greatest anti-poverty program. Yes, markets are efficient, too, and that’s great. But their unparalleled poverty reduction power (and we have tried many unsuccessful parallels) is what is important, and why the left should be more open to them.

Classical liberals have things they need to learn from the left. The abolition of slavery and monarchy were massive achievements. But there is still progress to be made on gay rights, racial equality, women’s rights, and other issues. Remember, one of classical liberalism’s basic tenets is that everyone has equal rights. Things are a lot better than they used to be, but we’re not there yet. And just because those issues aren’t terribly relevant to nerdy middle-aged white males doesn’t mean those issues are unimportant. They matter. Those are libertarian issues every bit as much as they are progressive issues.

Another topic the left and classical liberals need to broach is public choice theory. This is a fancy way of saying that if a corporation can use government to hobble its competitors, then it probably will. Lessons abound for how to effectively use government. Mark Pennington writes:

Having listened to me speak for an hour on the power of incumbent firms to ‘capture’ regulatory agencies an attending student who was an activist in the Socialist Workers Party asked me, ‘when did you become a Marxist?’ Needless to say, for someone who considers himself a radical ‘anti-Marxist’ I was taken aback by this approach! What the question exemplifies though is an attitude that is widespread in academic circles – the assumption that an interest in power imbalances that favour business interests must equate with one having leftist or socialist sympathies. The idea that there might be a classical liberal/free market understanding of ‘power relations’ as exemplified by public choice theory is a possibility that simply hasn’t occurred to this particular species of left-winger.

That’s precisely why classical liberals and progressives need to communicate more. Talk to each other, not at each other. They are different philosophies, but each can learn much from the other. And they could make a lot of progress on their common issues.

Similar arguments can be made for why classical liberals should work with the right, too. Again, they’re very different philosophies. But why have enemies when you can have friends?

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One response to “Talking Past Each Other

  1. You left out perhaps the greatest reason liberal-egalitarians and libertarians need to cooperate.

    The two libertarian economists I most admire – Bryan Caplan and Jeff Miron – have each identified what they consider the most damaging government policies. Caplan says immigration restrictions. Miron says the drug war. Both traditionally leftie causes.

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