Right-wing vs Left-wing Libertarianism

MoronWatch came into existence to take snarky aim, on Twitter, at right-wing stupidity, religious/superstitious fundamentalism, bigotry and state brutality – a mish-mash of interests which all come under the umbrella of “moron-watching”. Those who have followed my blog for a while will realise the wheels began to come off this objective a couple of years ago, as my eyes were opened to immense depths of stupidity on the left as well as the right. Having been active on the left for a while in the 80s, I’ve been shocked and saddened by the intellectual decline that has taken place on the left while I’ve not been paying attention.

I’ve had to acknowledge the hypocrisy of attacking science-denial among fundamentalists (evolution) and conservatives (climate change) while ignoring science denial on the left (GMOs, nuclear power vs fossil fuel, biological determinism). Even more deeply, I couldn’t continue to comment on right-wing attacks on freedom while ignoring that the left has become every bit as authoritarian – or often even more so.

The intellectual collapse of both right and left has been met with an anti-politics trend that is mostly even less intelligent than the mainstream. The idiotic idea that “it’s all broken” and needs smashing is brutish and dangerous, and is as prevalent on the Farage-supporting old-white-man right as among the infantile Russell Brand “revolutionaries”. Smashing everything appeals to the ignorant and the elitist, but risks making things far worse, and turning back the clock on centuries of progress.

A New Enlightenment

The problems we face today have been faced repeatedly before. The solution lies in crowd-sourcing, to use a modern word for an old idea: people power. Not the power to storm parliaments in masks (that inevitably appeals to an elitist few who think they have all the answers), but the power to apply intellect and provide answers. How can our 7 billion brains (as well as our man-made thinking machines) be best applied to finding solutions to problems?

The answer is centuries old, and was provided by the most powerful thought revolution that has shaken humanity: The Enlightenment, which laid down a set of simple principles:

Liberty and Free Expression: The fewer restrictions there are on expression, the greater the variety of ideas that can enter the shared meme pool. A free marketplace of ideas, allowed to flourish, will allow the best ideas to triumph over the rest. No elite can be allowed to restrict the flow of ideas based on its own idea of right and wrong. Expression must be protected on principle: all of it. No individual or group has the right to suppress ideas. The antidote to bad ideas can only come in the form of better ideas. Censorship is a fundamental obstacle to human progress.

But how will such a process select the “right” answers among all the wrong ones? The second principle is:

Reason: Non-scientists tend to see science as a list of disciplines, each with their own lists of facts. But at its core, science is a method for allowing good ideas to float up, while the bad ones sink and die. In place of censorship, there is reason. In place of dogma, there is objective examination of evidence. Ideas are measured, not based on their popularity at any given time, but on the strength of the reasoned argument that backs them. Right answers always begin as minority positions, but given the application of reason, and the maintenance of a free marketplace of ideas, they will become majority ones in time.

Liberty and reason cannot thrive in a society without a commitment to…

Equality: A free marketplace of ideas cannot work without equal access. While plenty of lip-service is paid to equality, in practise it comes under attack constantly. In the recent past, equality was mostly threatened by the unfair treatment of women, racial and other minorities. But following the great political and cultural battles of the 1960s, laws were enacted against discriminatory behaviour, and the culture rapidly changed in response. But increasingly, denial of equality comes from the left rather than the right.

Where Has the Left Gone Wrong?

Today’s left has largely abandoned the very Enlightenment values that led to the birth of left-wing ideas in the 19th century.

On liberty, the left is worse, if possible, than the right. Sexual freedom – once the preserve of the left – now comes under more frequent attack from the left than the right. Recent attempts to ban prostitution in Europe have come about via a bizarre alliance of feminists with the religious fundamentalists. Similarly, music videos (especially by black artists) have been deemed “too sexualised” (with vicious slut-shaming attacks on Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, among others), and there are regular calls for music videos to be censored. The banning of “offensive” speech is championed with equal enthusiasm by Daily Mail readers and Guardianistas. Student Unions have taken deeply censorious approaches towards what can or can’t be said on campus. The last Labour government introduced some of the most draconian censorship laws ever seen in the UK, to deal with the phantom problem of “extreme porn”. In practise, these laws have been used to attack the sexual activities of consenting adults. The Exhibit B art exhibition was closed down in London on the (almost certainly false) grounds that it was “racist”. Free expression – including bad, offensive, hateful expression – must be defended on principle.

On reason, the left appears to have lost its mind. Last week, the EU sacked a senior science adviser for telling the truth; a truth that upset an alliance of left-wing and environmentalist campaigners: that genetically modified foods are not harmful. Science that disagrees with left-wing dogma is attacked viciously.

And the left has largely abandoned its quest for equality. Instead, special rules are put forward for “oppressed” groups. Thus, non-whites are deemed to be incapable of racial bigotry, and women – as with children – are to be given special protections that men don’t need. The fact that male bodies are considered “safe” for public display, but not female ones, is one of many examples of where the left has quietly abandoned the quest for equality. Special treatment has replaced equality, and comes in the form of privileges in response to “oppressions” that are ill-defined. The left is increasingly stuck in the swamp of identity politics, determined to find oppression where none exists, and to rectify it by creating new remedies that deepen rather than solve inequality.

A Cross-Spectrum Libertarianism

Fascism could be defined as a nationalistic, ultra-conservative movement that rejects Enlightenment values. On that basis, today’s left and right have both become tainted with fascist ideology. Ironically, in UK politics, it is the Conservative Party that has tried to shake off its most backward instincts (inadvertently helping build UKIP), while the Labour Party has collapsed into a new conservatism.

Today, libertarianism is associated with right-wing attitudes – but it doesn’t have to be so. In response to the new rise of fascistic attitudes in Europe, the response must be for the left – as well as the right – to rekindle the Enlightenment. Thus, the left-right political spectrum has become relatively unimportant – what instead matters is a commitment to liberty and reason across the political spectrum. Cross-spectrum libertarianism would establish Enlightenment values as the foremost goal, to stop and roll back the spread of fascism, with differences between left and right to be treated as a secondary “problem”.

What is Left-Wing Libertarianism?

Right-wing libertarianism uses tricks of language that first need to be unravelled. The “state” is seen as a uniformly bad thing, but in fact libertarians tend to use the word loosely to mean three separate things:

The Security State: The state is the apparatus for maintaining control of society, and typically acts to maintain the status quo: the rule of the wealthy. The state includes the police, prison system, army and bureaucracy. To libertarians of left and right, the state must be seen as a necessary (or perhaps unnecessary) evil, and shrunk to the maximum extent possible. It’s fine for left and right libertarians to argue among themselves as to how quickly, and to what extent the state should be rolled back.

The Welfare State: In hindsight, the naming of the welfare state was unfortunate. It allows right-wing libertarians to blur it with the security state. Left-wing libertarians should separate these two things: one can accept that police powers should be reduced without needing to believe that universal healthcare or education are bad things. In fact, one can construct a libertarian argument for providing universal services, where the market has failed to deliver: using a pragmatic idea of liberty, rather than a dogmatic “liberty is the absence of a state” one, it’s clear that universal healthcare, efficient public transport systems and street lighting (for example) enhance rather than reduce individual liberty.

Government: Libertarians dishonestly confuse the state with government. All groups of people, left to themselves, will find that communities are better to live in with a set of shared values and services, and will naturally create their own governments to manage things. Government, so long as it is democratic and subservient to the will of the people, is not the same as the state. Government requires funding. The libertarian mantra that “tax is theft” is a near-religious mantra, not an intelligent policy position. Even the most libertarian village would eventually require every member to contribute to shared services. A pure libertarian society would last until the first cholera outbreak revealed the need for a collectively funded sewage system.

So it is quite possible for left-wing libertarians to defend the National Health Service, the welfare state, universal education, mass transit, etc. while defending Enlightenment values of liberty, reason, equality.

From a libertarian position, the left can show the flaws in right-wing libertarianism: for example, many libertarians are climate change deniers; not because the evidence is in doubt, but because they oppose coordinated government action on principle. Denying scientific fact that is inconvenient to your beliefs is a rejection of reason. The right must learn that markets are not the panacea to every problem, and that community action is sometimes necessary. But the left must also accept that market solutions are the best in many cases.

We need to stop worrying, for now, about our left/right identities and instead unite to reawaken the Enlightenment. This isn’t a luxury: it is the only antidote to fascism.

27 thoughts on “Right-wing vs Left-wing Libertarianism”

  1. Great summary of the current state of society. How to re-establish Enlightenment values
    in this society, full of anti-enlightenment ideas like religious fanaticism, is beyond me.

    1. Strange as this may seem, given the current state of that country, a good starting point might be the US Constitution and looking at the works of its founding fathers.

      1. Agree – they knew what they were talking about, at least by the standards of the day. We just need to avoid the mistake of American conservatives and assume their values were supposed to be written in granite, forever

  2. I pretty much agree with the thrust of this, but hope these thoughts will add to (rather than detract from!) what you say.

    Your points on the state are well made, and (to my mind) one of the faults of right wing libertarianism is that it focuses too much on ownership, and too little on the size of the organisation. A large private company (which, at least in a democracy, is less accountable than the State) can be just as effective at denying liberty as the state (eg the work of the Koch brothers in promoting climate change denial for their own benefit). Equally, recent fines on banks for “market rigging” remind us that large organisations hate “free markets” (in the sense that an economist would use that term), because they maximise competition. A large company will always seek to reduce the number of competitors it has (by taking them over or putting them out of business by aggressive pricing). You can (and I have!) blame the root of the 2008 crash on Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson (I’ll explain this separately if you want).

    For convenience of terminology, it might be convenient to divide the State into the Security State (army, police, etc), and the Enabling State (health, welfare, education). The aim of libertarians should, I think, then be to promote the Enabling State without promoting the Security State. The Enabling State does, however, need to be accountable for its actions, and accept that mistakes will be made (this is a current festering sore with me).

    Part of the political problem you identify in the UK goes back to the fact that, on economic issues, the parties are virtually indistinguishable (the 3 main parties have all broadly accepted the Thatcherite economic analysis), and they seem to have decided that the best way to attract votes is not to adopt any form of principled position, but to seek to appeal to people’s lowest common denominator (or the Daily Mail, as it’s otherwise known!). This is, broadly, the opposite of the libertarian view (increase the Security State at the expense of the Enabling State).

    Humans are by nature tribal and communal beasts (the earliest hominids lived in groups), so will tend to congregate together and pool expertise. This is the original foundation of the modern state. However, state borders fixed (in many cases) centuries ago are often too inelastic to accommodate people’s aspirations (the Sykes Picot line of 1917 dividing Iraq and Syria, and the related issue of Kurdistan is a case in point, and discussion of Israel/Palestine is outside the scope of this note!).

    Is it correct to say that GM foods are not harmful? I thought the issue was not proven either way. Part of the current problem is the lack of an authoritative independent panel to adjudicate.

    Do you seek to put ANY restrictions on freedom of speech (genuine question)? I am conscious here that not everyone is as strong minded (in terms of shrugging off abuse etc) as you may be, and that “freedom of speech” is open to abuse. For example, would you seek to restrict or ban:

    “Race hate” speech?
    Incitement to violence?
    Homophobic or sexist slurs?
    Paedophile images?

    By way of recent example, Jessica Ennis-Hill received some very nasty messages following her request for Sheffield United to remove her name from their stand if they re-employed convicted rapist Ched Evans (it’s her name, so to my mind this is her prerogative). Allegedly these included threats of rape (I’ve not seen this, though: “I hope Evans rapes you” is nasty but not a rape threat). Would you seek to restrict these? I’d suggest you might need a pre-determined “growing up period” during which restrictive laws were gradually eased, rather than a “big bang”.

    1. On GMOs – this is merely a technology. Sure, you could use it to create exploding Weetabix, but it isn’t inherently dangerous, and holds massive potential. The anti-GMO, pro-organic trend is a conservative, “wasn’t it all better in the old days” kind of thing. Answer: no, it wasn’t all better in the old days. Dismissing an entire technological revolution is Luddism, and based on fear, not fact

      I would like to draw the lines of free speech as broadly as possible. I don’t believe “hate speech” should be banned, regardless of which group it’s aimed at – that’s already morphed into “offensive speech”, which is a catch-all. Censoring hate speech is probably counter-productive as it limits possibilities for debate, parody, etc. (as I’ve blogged before, I was once banned from Facebook for 12 hours for using the word “wog” in a parody of racists).

      However, some expression does need to be controlled: incitement – yes, but only genuine, direct incitement, not “I think Germans should be slapped” etc. and harassment of individuals (although I wish some people would just use the block button rather than scream and call the police – I would guess around 0% of threats on Twitter are genuine). Child abuse imagery – yes, because victims deserve anonymity in order to rebuild their lives.

      1. I would guess I’ve eaten GM food in the US, and, based on that experience, I’d have to suggest it’s a triumph of quantity over quality, but that may just be US food! I think your reply doesn’t quite address the point I was asking, though. It’s difficult to be sure the technology (which as I understand it involves cross breeding various strains of plant and animal to secure desired results – accelerating evolution, if you like!) doesn’t have undesirable side effects (and I wouldn’t trust the producers to have the last word on this, because they are not disinterested). For example, what would happen if some unscrupulous individual blended “commercial” mushrooms with “magic” ones? (On second thoughts …!). I would suggest locally produced (on a small scale) well cooked fresh food tends to taste better than mass produced food, and should be available (at a premium price).

        I think I get where you stand on the limits to free speech. “I think the Germans should be slapped” should not be banned (however stupid it may be), but (say) a post on a far right website saying “meet at Brick Lane at 8pm tonight to kick a few Pakis” [this is probably ethnically inaccurate but i don’t suppose the far right would bother with this nicety] is sufficiently specific for something to be done about it. As a minimum you’d want a properly constituted police force there to protect the local population. In both this case and that of child abuse the speech is directly associated with a criminal activity*.

        *I appreciate here that we are in danger of getting into a discussion on the limits of the “Security State”, and my reference to paedophiles refers to non consensual sexual activity between an adult and a minor, not consensual sex between (say) a 15 year old and a 16 year old.

        1. Note my “libertarianism” extends to expression, not action! There’s a huge difference between talking about something bad and doing it

    2. Another reason why “hate speech” should be allowed: Censorship is a tool of the powerful. So even if – supposedly – this is to defend minorities, it will always become a tool for use against them, eventually. Louis Farrakhan, for example, was barred from the UK on this basis. Here’s another example – black woman teacher sacked for losing her cool on Twitter and using a “racial term” – crackers. http://gawker.com/school-board-removes-teacher-for-making-an-angry-tweet-1657466095

  3. Interesting post

    “I couldn’t continue to comment on right-wing attacks on freedom while ignoring that the left has become every bit as authoritarian – or often even more so.”

    Has become? You say you were active on the left in the 80s…the Soviet Union was brought into being in the 10s. You might say this isn’t ‘true leftism’ or whatever but that’s a bit ‘no true scotsman’ – point is there has been a significant authoritarian element within ‘the left’ for a long time, it’s not a new phenomenon like you suggest. Hell, Marx was hardly a liberal, and the road to communism involves a dictatorship of the proletariat.

    ‘The left’ has never had ‘liberty, in the enlightenment sense’ as a core, defining value that stretches right across the ‘big tent’ of leftism (even though many strands of thought within leftism, such as yours, have ended up adopting and embracing it). Rather, economic justice is the core principle various strands of leftism can trace themselves back to. Insofar as the left as a whole can trace its thinking back to enlightenment values, the pre-eminent value would be equality, not liberty.

    None of this has any impact on whether your views are right or wrong. But it seems to me the left didn’t so much leave you, but rather you were not aware of large swathes of already-established thought within the big tent of ‘leftism’. Over time these aspects have come to your attention, and they repulse you enough for you to disassociate yourself with the tent. Although I grant that certain specific manifestations, like censorious identity politics, are newer developments.

    1. You’re right – the post was already too long so I skipped stuff 🙂

      There was always an authoritarian left – the communists idolised the USSR (and then shuffled away whistling when it collapsed). But by and large, until the end of the cold war, the various strands of the Western left were pro-democracy, pro-free expression. The right committed far more crimes against liberty, from McCarthyism onwards.

      The “pure” 19th century left embodied many Enlightenment values. It was only when the left began to gain power (1917 onwards) that it started to go bad. But still, the great social gains of the 60s – abortion, gay rights, contraception, women’s rights, civil rights, sexual revolution etc. – were the work of the left. In hindsight, that was the peak of liberalism. From the 70s, social conservatives began to invade and warp the left, and once trade unionism collapsed, the left became the plaything of elitists.

      Libertarianism itself was coined by an anarchist communist: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_D%C3%A9jacque

  4. A friend of mine used the term “Competitive Outrage” to describe the acts of many on the left (and right) about things they disagree with.

  5. The problem with GMOs IMO is not that they are necessarily bad for people to eat but that growing them can have consequences that can be bad for the environment in general. Companies like Monsanto engineer crops to withstand herbicides so that tons of the stuff can be poured over these crops wiping out any competing species and thus denying many species of animal life access to food and the ecosystem then breaks down.

    1. In addition, these GMOs are often designed to be sterile – you can’t save some of this year’s crop to plant next year, you have to go back to the supplier for more seeds. Rather than reducing poverty, GMOs create a dependancy which will be exploited with ever increasing prices.

      1. True, if by “often” you mean “never.” The concept of terminator seeds was proposed years ago, but they haven’t actually been produced commercially, and they probably never will be, because, funnily enough, farmers don’t want them and won’t buy them.

        1. The idea that farmers would choose to buy a technology that would hurt their livelihoods is a weird part of the GMO “debate”. Lock-in is the eternal capitalist dream, but it’s pretty hard to do in practice. Microsoft managed it for a while, succeeded in wrecking their own business in the long run

      2. My first comment here, although I’ve been following your common sense for years!

        With regard to GMO & the sacking of EU science adviser (and the total abolition of her post, which makes it even worse), the involvement of Jean Claude Juncker. whom I view as totally corrupt with no detectable moral principles, means that it’s almost certainly part of some behind-the-scenes wheeler dealing and the safety or otherwise of GMO is quite irrelevant.

        That said, I have detected a whiff of realism appearing in the anti-GMO brigade. A recent article in AlterNet made no mention of GMO’s being intrinsically harmful (“Frankenfoods” & suchlike nonsense) but concentrated on the problem of glyphosphate (“Roundup”) residues in resistant crops. Having grown up on a farm, I know that, realistically, if plants are resistant to glyphosphate, farmers will ignore the instructions and ladle it on!

        This, and also the problem of monopoly production of GMO seeds by multinationals (Monsanto, Bayer, etc.) are, I think, legitimate causes for concern – although the latter is more to do with the general unaccountability of big multinational companies and their ability to pervert the political process (although in the case of GMO’s they seem to have been caught napping…).

  6. Libertarianism is increasingly seen these days by the left as right wing and male.
    Note how anti porn feminists talk of ‘libertarian men’.

    But liberty is essential to democracy, without it we would have more repression of minorities

    1. “Note how anti porn feminists talk of ‘libertarian men’.”

      Thus setting up a binary of libertarian men v Stalinist ‘womyn’? 😉

  7. A brilliant pice and how I’ve been feeling for a while now.
    I’ve typically been centralistic, but in the past few years I’ve been driven to the right by social media. My Facebook page is littered with Guardian articles , petitons and the like posted by well meaning friends telling me what’s right, what’s wrong and how I should be living my life. Others mock with vitriolic bile peoples choice of voting. Its turned into belittling folk with other opinions.
    I’m a reasonable guy, but i cannot stand being told what to think , it pushes me the other way looking for alternative view.

    This article has given me light and hope, I’m not a horrible righty.

  8. I am a skeptic. I question everything. My goal is not to disagree but to find out the truth. Reason helps us to “discover” the truth. The trick, of course, was keeping an open mind, being able to accept the fact neither side has a monopoly on truth.

  9. With regard to manufactured outrage, I rarely sign petitions & such like, but I did sign one in support of Matt Taylor, the space scientist in charge of the Rosetta mission, protesting against the attack on him for wearing a bad-taste shirt on the day the Philae lander landed (and bounced twice!) on the comet.

    I mean, FFS, the guy and his co-workers had just achieved something which no human had ever done before and all the politically correct police could think of was criticising his flamin’ shirt! Even Julie Bindel in the Guardian (I repeat Julie Bindel!) came very close to saying it was a bit out of order.

    And the manufactured outrage against that exhibition on slavery in London (led by a guy who hadn’t seen it and refused to do so), even after the actors said they found it the very opposite of racist and they were proud to take part in it, just makes me angry. I think it was a knee jerk response to the fact that the designer was a white South African man – hits all the politically correct buttons!

  10. I hate to say this, but you don’t come across as a leftist. More as a middle of the road person with common sense. As Frank Zappa used to say: Common sense does not have an ideology.

    Great article btw. Highlights the fascist tendencies of both the right and the left. Kudos to you.

  11. I agree with this post, and I’d like to add a perspective as a member of the Green Party

    The views of members these days don’t correspond to the strident statements on issues such a nuclear power and GMOs in the online policy document. There is likely to be a softening of the public stance on thses issues soon.

    However, its not all good news; just as the party is dumping much of its anti science baggage, the censorious offence junkies are moving in. The Young Greens are proposing a “Safe Space” policy at the Spring conference that reads as positively Stalinist. It basically says that “marginalised” people are always right and that if there is a dispute about who is most marginalised it will be resolved by someone with “training in oppression and intersection” I.e. a 19 year old sociology student.

    I still think the Greens are the most progressive and libertarian force in UK politics, but if we are anything to go by enlightenment is a journey rather than a destination.

  12. I’m largely in agreement with your posts about the left’s stance on equality and liberty – the facepalm worthy No More Page 3 campaign struck me in particular as another example of liberty on which the left has lost it. In fact, I had even seen an article on Elite Daily, published by one of the page 3 girls herself on why owning her sexuality doesn’t make her a bad feminist.

    Similarly, I also think that the constructs of “Privilege” and “cis/trans” gender are utter bollocks, and the people who use these terms come off as if they’ve been reading too many Jessica Valenti articles. But mention this to any “feminist” friends of mine, and I get looks of horror that they would reserve for misogynistic conservatives. Not only that, I recall when I was a student from 2000 to 2005, there were no restrictions on freedom of speech, either.

    I’m not certain how much sense the above makes, but as someone else who is left leaning, I just wish others on the left would use some common sense. (If you need an indication of my own views of my political standpoint, I think of myself as left leaning, and both my parents have been Labour voters all their life – my dad since 1965, mum since 1970)

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