Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Libertarian lefties?

The right-left political divide has been extended to other axes. Some place right and left views into moral and economic categories and plot them orthogonally. Others compare economic views versus degree of state oversight. Some have several axes for several positions. What has surprised me is how frequently I see traditionally left wing groups plotted as relatively libertarian and traditionally right wing groups plotted as quite statist on two-dimensional political scales (see here for an example). Surprising because conservatives (right wing) tend to argue more for limited government than liberals; and socialism seems intimately wedded to the state.

It appears that the problem relates to who is authoring and interpreting the questions as applied to various positions. Left leaning authors give greater credence to left views of liberty, and vice versa, presumably?

The reason for this seems to be that groups give themselves libertarian credence for positions that they intrinsically favour. If you think something is acceptable behaviour you view legal opposition to this behaviour as statist; but if you think something is unacceptable behaviour then you view legal opposition to such to be reasonable.

Of course this does not address the focus of libertarianism which seeks small government in general and allows for behaviours you disapprove of so long as they do not directly affect you.

Consider drug use. The libertarian position is quite liberal in allowing people to use intoxicating drugs and opposes legal prohibition. Some on the (far) left think such drug use is morally acceptable behaviour (as do some on the right no doubt). But to argue against illicit drug laws when you favour drug use is hardly libertarian. But to argue against illicit drug laws even though you think drug use is morally wrong is very libertarian.

So the questions addressing statism and libertarianism depend significantly on what you otherwise think is moral or appropriate behaviour. How much are you prepared to allow people you disagree with do without government involvement or intervention?

I think a good question to ask in teasing out the libertarian-statist axis is: How much money do you allow the citizens to keep? Do you permit people to use their own money foolishly? Even though you can think of many ways you would spend their money for their and others' benefit if it were up to you.


I am not commenting here on the wisdom of having or not having illicit drug laws, nor the centrality of drug laws to the libertarian position; I use the example illustratively.

4 comments:

  1. Here is why I am really weird. I am a strong federalist. Therefore I am quite libertarian on the federal level of government, but more statist on the state level (I know you are in New Zealand, but I'm in America. I don't know much about New Zealand's political structure).

    Of course, even then I'm not particular statist. I'm just not strictly libertarian at all.

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  2. I guess it depends on what you see as the level of government?

    Biblically I think it is at the level of the nation state; not empire, or Babel, or UN. So should the US be like Europe? or like Spain? Are the individual states nations with a close alliance for the sake of trade and defence? or provinces with local mayors reporting to their superiors?

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  3. They are less than individual nations, but much much more than mere provinces. That is why they are called 'states', and we we are called "The United States". They are supposed to be 50 independent states united together as brothers. It is similar to how most Congregational denominations run: there are decisions made at the denominational level, but individual churches have their own autonomy. After all, there is a reason why it has been called "The Union".

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  4. JCF, I was not asking about the US. I am aware it is considered a country. :)

    I guess it depends on what you see as the level of government?

    This was theoretical.

    I am saying that your position of increased libertarianism at the federal level could be understandable if you thought that the states should be considered the nation state, with federation of states a convenient association for trade and defence. Thus a supreme court would only see disputes between states (not individuals) with the result that the losing state could abide by the ruling or leave the union.

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