David R. Henderson  

Anthony Gregory on Why the Left Hates Us

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Libertarian Anthony Gregory has written the best article I've read this year. I've been trying to decide what excerpts to paste in and I found myself wanting to paste the whole thing in. I'll restrain myself and use a few excerpts. But read the whole thing.

But libertarianism, however weak its influence today, is a much greater long-term threat to the left than is any form of conservatism, and the leftist intellectuals sense this even if they can't articulate why. Leftism, whether they know it or not, is a distorted permutation of the classical liberal tradition. The statist left did their deal with the devil - the nation-state, centralized authority of the most rapacious kind - supposedly with the goal of expediting the liberation of the common man and leveling the playing field. More than a century since the progressives and socialists twisted liberalism into an anti-liberty, pro-state ideology, they see that they have made a huge mess of the world, that, as they themselves complain, social inequality persists, corporatism flourishes, and wars rage on. As the chief political architects of the 20th century in the West, they have no one to blame but themselves, and so they target us - the true liberals, the ones who never let go of authentic liberal idealism, love of the individual dignity and rights of every man, woman and child, regardless of nationality or class, and hatred of state violence and coercive authoritarianism in all its forms.

Anthony also quotes leftist historian Thaddeus Russell who doesn't hate us and who, in fact, out of the blue, "friended" me on Facebook a few months ago. Here's Russell on antiwar.com:
I'm a man of the left. I was raised by socialists in Berkeley. I've always been on the left. I stumbled upon Antiwar.com about three years ago. . . . This is what the left should be doing. This is what the left should be saying. . . . Libertarians like Antiwar.com, like Ron Paul, have been the leading voices of the antiwar movement. They've been the most principled, the most consistent, no matter who's president. They've been saying again and again and again: "These wars are disasters. The empire must end." And the left shuns them because they either think they're shills for corporations or they're racists or they don't care about people. How could they not care about people if they're the leading voices against killing people in our name?

HT to Bob Murphy.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (36 to date)
Daniel writes:

Libertarians, who have never won a presidential election or come remotely close to winning a majority of seats in either house of the federal government (or in either house of ANY state government) are more of a threat to liberals than conservatives, who have done all of these things regularly?

This isn't good writing, David. It's crap. It's ridiculous on the face of it. Sure conservatives and liberals are more like each other than are libertarians. That's because they both want to be as close to the median voter as possible. From where most libertarians are today, they can't even see the median voter.

To paraphrase Al Franken, I see two possible routes for libertarians to come to power. In the first one, every mainstream voter in the country gets on the same airplane, and it crashes. The second route is similar to the first, except in this case, they all get on the same bus.

Daniel

Randy writes:

The primary form of the libertarian argument is "political organizations cause problems, by way of example, see a, b, and c".

Thus, the primary form of the anti-libertarian argument must be "political organizations do not cause problems a, b, and c", or "problems a, b, and c are of no concern to us".

As problems a, b, and c are facts, the anti-libertarian argument can be reduced easily to a pro-political organization argument. Thus I am grateful for anti-libertarians. Their arguments expose their true nature.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I found myself skimming through this article. It's effect is to preach to the choir and nobody else, at all.

My disappointment with libertarianism started with Bryan leading us through Rothbard. Libertarians are deeply interested in wild theoretical inanity such as should courts be privatized. People's eyes just glaze over. There are no votes here.

Libertarians want to explain how great (and strange) it will be when we get to Libertyville, when the consuming question is, which way should we move?

magilson writes:

Daniel,

You'd be right if elections were all that shaped America. Fortunately history has shown that simply interjecting a few ideas here and there over time can shape a nation as much as any one (or more) elections. I believe this has been a wildly successful methodology used by progressives in the 20th century. If one accepts this premise one can understand why progressives would be concerned about a similar tactic being used by a perceived "opponent".

That anyone believes politics is the birth of ideology instead of the other way around is the saddest thing I've read in a while.

magilson writes:

That's an excellent point. Libertarians do seemingly enjoy intellectualizing government when the general populace and our two major parties tend to prefer sticking to quick emotional satisfaction and lighter-than-air thought processes.

But can you really blame libertarians for simply not playing along? And besides, if you believe libertarians can only diagnose the disease without prescribing a cure you've not been spending enough time reading. Libertarians generally aren't the type to be shouty on TV. That's why Ron Paul, Judge Napolitano, and want-to-be-so-badly-libertarians like Glen Beck get so much attention. There like the 1950's housewife sitcom character who breaks social norms and speaks her mind. People get a look of shock on their faces and then quickly dismiss them anyway.

magilson writes:

Um, why when I start my post by addressing a previous poster's screen name does it substitute my addressing them for my own screen name? Interesting "feature"...

[Fixed per your email. I suggest possible user error. If anyone else has experienced a non-user error substitution like this, please feel free to email me at webmaster@econlib.org and we'll look into it. Also, please remember to check your Preview windows.--Econlib Ed.]

David E writes:

Can you name one prominent liberal blogger or commentator who hates libertarians more than conservatives? I can't.

magilson writes:

David E, I reread the article and did not see anywhere explicitly suggesting or even inferring that progressive pundits "hate" libertarians more than conservatives. In fact, I understood the whole premise of the article was that progressives suddenly had a much bigger problem with libertarians than they used to, that they shouldn't because we have more in common than they think, but that they should fear a potential loss of their political power because libertarianism is far more principled.

Could you cite specifically where you developed this concern within the article?

Lord writes:

One thing you learn is when anyone has to say why they are hated, it is because they have no argument to make or case to state. You are sounding more like Glenn Beck every day.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Lord,
So you're saying that I haven't been making arguments or stating my case? Have you actually been reading my posts?

kevin writes:

"As the chief political architects of the 20th century in the West, they have no one to blame but themselves, and so they target us - the true liberals, the ones who never let go of authentic liberal idealism, love of the individual dignity and rights of every man, woman and child, regardless of nationality or class, and hatred of state violence and coercive authoritarianism in all its forms".--Really?

Georgian writes:

"More than a century since the progressives and socialists twisted liberalism into an anti-liberty, pro-state ideology, they see that they have made a huge mess of the world, that, as they themselves complain, social inequality persists, corporatism flourishes, and wars rage on"

The standard left response to this would be the following:

"Not enough, money was spent on "proper" institutions, people, ideas and programs. So of course when you go half way or less problems will still persist since they were never "properly" addressed."

M.R. Orlowski writes:

"Can you name one prominent liberal blogger or commentator who hates libertarians more than conservatives? I can't."

Who cares? That was never the point, most prominent "liberal" bloggers love to play the partisan political game. Now, a better question posed to a "liberal"(or "conservative") would be to ask them what defines their political philosophy and how it differentiates itself from the philosophy held by their counterparts.

Tom West writes:

Daniel:

Fortunately history has shown that simply interjecting a few ideas here and there over time can shape a nation as much as any one (or more) elections.

I think this is a critical point. I'm probably to the left of most people here, but I think Libertarianism injects (and needs to continue to inject) the critical idea that freedom is important. Without that constant set of voices, I think that "enough" freedom is taken for granted by both Liberals and Conservatives, who are then in danger of trading it away for the gains they're more interested in. The voices of Libertarianism ensure that trade-offs of freedom for something else have a noticeable, audible cost.

The anti-war point is interesting. If modern Liberalism has a single tenet, I would say its something like "if we see harm, we have an obligation to do something about it".

As one can imagine, that makes interventions to reduce harm extremely problematic. If you view the war as protecting imperial interests, then it's easy to oppose. But if you view it as preventing large scale harm, the trade-offs are not nearly as easy (for Liberals such as myself) to judge (although they grow easier as it becomes clear that *this* war failed to prevent harm.)

Tom West writes:

I have to say, I think Anthony Gregory is way off the mark unless my reading of the left half of the blogosphere is way off the mark. I suspect that he *wished* it was hated by the left in the ways he enumerated.

However, Libertarians are subject to a fair amount of vitriol from the left, and I'll hazard two main reasons:

The belief that Libertarians value freedom over correcting injustice (defining injustice as reducing total harm). Since our morality is built around justice, this makes Libertarians immoral.

The idea that you *cannot* have a power vacuum is intrinsically obvious to every thinking human being, Libertarians who want to strip the state of its power *must* understand that if the people's representative (the state) doesn't have power, then something else will - the corporations. Thus the *only* explanation for wanting to strip the state of power is they want the corporations to rule. This makes Libertarians evil.

Obviously this is a vast simplification of the left's animus (where it exists), but it does seem a theme when we're talking actually hatred of Libertarianism as opposed to simply severe disagreement.

David E writes:

Several commentators have correctly pointed out that the cited article doesn't state that liberal's hate libertarians. The article does state that libertarians are a greater long term threat to liberals than conservatives are. My point, perhaps not well stated, was that there is no indication that liberal commentators believe this greater threat based on the greater hostility they show toward conservatives.

Ben writes:

When Gregory frames his piece as an exhaustive defense of all liberal criticism of libertarianism, or says things like:

Leftist criticisms of libertarianism have surged lately, a phenomenon warranting explanation.
or:
Yet nearly every week our beloved philosophy of non-aggression is subject to some progressive’s relatively widely read hatchet job.

it seems really unsubstantiated, since he only links to one critical piece. Is Gregory responding to Metcalf, or to The Left? If the latter, who on the The Left is Gregory responding to?

It's too easy to dismiss your opponents' arguments by choosing weak ones, not linking to them, paraphrasing them, and declaring that they are the entirety of the opposing view. It's a method or arguing that leads believers to applaud and critical thinkers to question/ignore.

Negishi writes:

I agree with what the author said: "The statist left did their deal with the devil - the nation-state, centralized authority of the most rapacious kind - supposedly with the goal of expediting the liberation of the common man and leveling the playing field."

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That's it, that's all that was promised in the DoI.

The liberal left have cornered the market as the go-to party for entitlements and government handouts. The left (and the right) have become too comfortable with spending our tax money frivolously, on things that are not considered Public Goods. Bailouts, cash for clunkers, more entitlements,... this is getting burdensome and ridiculous.

Here we are now, with a government that freely exercises their right to a healthy spoonful of Moral Hazard with our hard earned money... and because the state and federal can't spend wisely, they want to either raise the debt limit or increase taxes... or both...

I think it's time we looked at a party like the Libertarians who actively stand on the principles of our founding fathers. If this were the case, we'd probably pay A LOT LESS in taxes and probably have a better economic future... (and taxes would be a flat head-tax!!!).

just a thought...

AS writes:

Vague collective statements about "them" and "us" are a sign of lazy thinking, not good writing.

ThomasL writes:
During the Bush years, many libertarians, myself included, said we would happily tolerate, for the time being anyway, the Democrats’ welfare state if it actually meant the end of the neocon war machine and police state.

Did anyone actually believe this? If so, I'd say they got what they deserved with Obama -- you could see it coming a 1000 miles off. Unfortunately I got what they deserved too.

BZ writes:

While I agree with the person who said it was a bit of preaching to the choir, I loved it precisely because it expressed much of the incredulity and frustration libertarians have felt over the decades since the progressive realignment of the parties that pushed us onto the streets.

@Daniel : I wonder why environmentalists, or socialists, or other philosophies with "pure" forms don't get comments like these. Like the others, we are willing to accept our marginal victories (elimination of the draft, deregulation of airlines) while continuing to work towards maximizing liberty. Maybe we attract that sort of comment because libertarians, unlike the others, have a cogent enough notion of "libertopia" that we actually bother to allude to it from time to time.

John Voorheis writes:

I couldn't imagine a more perfect Ideological Turing Test fail. Thank You.

Lord writes:

Not usually if I don't have to. They aren't up to the quality of the rest of Econlog.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Lord,
Thanks. I figured your statement was made in ignorance; now I know.

CBBB writes:

Yeah I don't think the left - as I know it, really hates libertarians. I think this is a caricature of the left. Also I don't think libertarians have any long-term viability, maybe on SOME issues (probably ones in which "the left" would agree with the libertarian side). Part of the problem is for all their obtuse pontificating it's really hard to see how much of what they advocate actually benefits anyone - it seems as if they're mostly after ideological purity and consistency rather then advocating policies that actually make the world a better place. Why would the mainstream voter want to support something just because it's ideologically consistent?


The other thing is I think there ends up being a confusion between "the left" and "Democrats". I don't consider them to be the same but many people mistakenly do.

Anthony Gregory writes:

Thanks, David, for the plug! Sorry to the rest of you who didn't like it. I think some of you think the article attempted to make points I didn't seek to make, but that's OK.

I will address one point suggesting I'm attacking a straw man. There certainly has been a surge in anti-libertarian commentary on the left. It seems to be most of what Mark Ames of the Nation writes about these days:
http://exiledonline.com/?s=Mark%20Ames

There's this:
http://www.alternet.org/newsandviews/article/621478/the_difference_between_civil_libertarians_and_selfish_jerks,_explained/

And this:
http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/05/extreme-ron-paul-president-2012

And this:
http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/01/libertarian-politicians-arent/

Much of it started with the New Yorker. Here's one of their numerous pieces on libertarians:
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_mayer

There's also been a general hysteria over "rightwing extremists." Rachel Maddow recently spent ten minutes on her show decrying the Tenth Amendment Center as though it's some sort of racist rightwing group. I know all those guys and they're nothing of the sort.

Cryptomys writes:

I don't know that liberals feel "threatened" by libertarians. A lot of us would prefer that the Republicans would go the way of the Whigs and that the Libertarian Party, or something like it, would emerge as a major political party in the United States.

Conservatives criticize libertarians for their stand on drug legalization, immigration, and social issues like abortion and gay rights. Liberals disagree with libertarians primarily because of their stand on economic issues.

I don't know that it's correct to say that liberals "hate" libertarians, but we do resent libertarians because, if libertarians were really neutral, they would align themselves with the Democrats and liberals about as often as they align themselves with Republicans and conservatives. That's rarely the way things work out in practice.

Anthony Gregory writes:

I'd like to ask that anyone critiquing my points read the article first. There is a lot to critique, potentially, but it seems some critics aren't looking at it.

Cryptomys, I say that left-liberals are threatened by libertarianism, the philosophy, in the very long run. Why else criticize it at all, given how tiny a minority we are? It is a valid point that libertarians sometimes ally with Republicans. That's not my tendency. I spend the whole Bush administration writing hundreds of articles condemning his wars and everything else he did, and talking up the hope of a left-libertarian alliance. I rooted for Kerry in '04 and Obama in'08.

If left-liberals were honest about _their_ principles, however, I think they would ally with Republicans almost as often as they do with Democrats, since Democrats are in practice not much more antiwar or civil libertarian than Republicans, and Republicans are not nearly as laissez-faire as is claimed by both sides. My article touches on this a bit. But I recall during the Bush years many liberals saying the president was the worst of all time. I thought that even from a liberal or leftist perspective, this was a silly statement. Truman dropped nuclear weapons on hundreds of thousands of innocents and started the Cold War. LBJ's Vietnam atrocities were worse than Bush's in Iraq. If you're gonna condemn Bush as a war criminal, as huge swaths of the left did in '04, '05, and '06, they should be consistent and condemn Obama on the same grounds, calling for his impeachment. If libertarians are slightly more Republican than their values should lead them to be -- and some of them are -- most on the left are WAY more Democratic than their values should dictate.

Cryptomys writes:

A distinction was drawn in another recent article on this blog between libertarianism in the world of ideas and libertarianism in the world of practical politics.

To the extent the liberals feel threatened by libertarianism at all, I would submit that they feel threatened about it in the world of ideas. In the realm of practical politics, libertarianism is not very threatening at all, even in the long run.

Anthony Gregory writes:

Cryptomys, you write, "In the realm of practical politics, libertarianism is not very threatening at all, even in the long run."

Well, sure. The realm of "practical politics" is the realm ruled by various forms of statists. Yet it seems left-liberals often criticize aspects of the actual political reality we face, blaming it on libertarianism, when this doesn't seem to make sense, given the lack of libertarian influence over actual politics.

Shane writes:

"Karl Hess was right: "Whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up an apologist for mass murder.""

How about those voters buying into big government in relatively peaceful countries like Sweden? I don't see anything inevitable about social democracies going to war.

Shane writes:

I have wondered if Obama's popularity has more to do with his style than his policies. I'm writing from Ireland where Obama recently visited, to rapturous applause. There were thousands of people chanting his name on the streets of Dublin. I can think of no Irish politician who would attract that kind of rock star support!

So why were people so crazy about him? I think a good deal of it is to do with Obama's general coolness: he seem more charming and stylish to many people than Bush did. I wrote about the joyous reception Obama received in Ireland here, should anyone be interested:
http://shaneleavy.blogspot.com/2011/05/no-anti-war-movement-against-obama.html

Maybe libertarians should look for their own rock star representative, someone charming and cool who makes people feel good about themselves. It's creepy politics, but I guess it's more likely to work than appeals to reason.

The left just sees little real difference between such phenomena as the Tea Party, Ron Paul, "libertarians," anti-government attitudes and all the right-wingey stuff. To the degree that anti-state attitudes coincide with being anti-police state and anti-war, well it's just an interesting yet happenstance occasion that still can't compensate for the decimation of the domestic welfare and regulatory state the left has fought long and hard for.

The Left is attacking libertarianism because it believes it's part and parcel of the Tea Party movement, a vicious development as far as they're concerned, but one which must be accorded grudging respect because it possess a "coherent" philosophy:

http://redemmas.org/books/131/

There's little indication that the Left would "see the light" if it were to realize that Republicans and Tea Partiers are hypocrites (and thus don't really believe in limited government), because by most accounts a principled, anti-government philosophy in action is what they believe they are witnessing now in the form of the Tea Party.

Another recommended link, illustrating why the left has become morbidly fascinated with libertarianism:

http://www.sfexaminer.com/politics/libertarians-can-no-longer-dodge-political-wars

And as long as the central political fights in America were about morality and foreign policy, liberals recognized 'I'm really more of a libertarian' as a declaration of noncombatant status...

...But the battles of today are all about the size and shape of government...

...Now, saying you are 'more of libertarian' means you are anti-Obamacare and anti-Washington. Rather than winning grudging tolerance from liberals, the word may evoke epithets like 'teabagger' or even 'racist.'


Of course for the radical Anti-War.Com types the issues of the day - foreign policy, police state - haven't changed. Unfortunately for them, for everyone else it has.

Paul writes:

Maybe leftists, or at least the loudest among them, fear that libertarianism's hostility to the warmongers could divide leftists. After all, leftwing prejudice is that capitalism and imperialism are brothers in arms.

So what happens when a leftist encounters a libertarian demanding an end to the subsidization of some capitalists, i.e. the weaponsmakers and traders? What's that, you say, libertarian? Slash the military budget...to zero?!

What happens when the libertarian reminds the leftists at a party one evening of the perennial tendency of leftist regimes to be not only despotic but militaristic? The antimilitaristic rhetoric of leftists looses credibility; it's shown to be just posturing and hot air.

The leftist loses yet more credibility when it's noted that leftists' tend to support military veterans' benefits. Libertarians, on the other hand, are more likely to demand that veterans' benefits be terminated. Veterans were once the willing tools of gangsters; surely they don't deserve to be rewarded for their free choice to aid and to abet organized criminals.

I think we can push a little farther these themes, not only the leftists' fear of division and abandonment but also fear of exposure of leftist hypocrisy.

Consider ACC. From where did it come? Some of it came from the tailpipes of gasguzzlers driven on subsidized highways, no? So the libertarian at a party one evening says to the goo-goos and other leftists there, "let's kill the subsidies. This strikes at the root, not merely a branch, of what you regard as a problem, namely, CO2 emissions." How can the leftwing environmentalist answer that without sounding foolish? Of course, leftists in America are well known for supporting organized labor, and organized labor for decades has been a workforce for the construction of subsidized highways, not to mention for vehicles. It's also no secret that leftists do not call for an end to subsidies for highways. But why not? Don't they want to stop ACC? This issue has enourmous potential for friction between the leftwing environmentalist and the bleeding hearted leftist who wants make-work schemes, e.g. roadbuilding.

Also undermined here is the leftwing caricature according to which libertarians are fascists who support rigged commerce, subsidies for big business, etc. The facts, however, suggest that leftists, not liberals, are guilty of fascism, which is nanny statist, militaristic, and involves a close partnership of government and business.

It's by the way that abolishing subsidies for highways undermines the business models of two politically influential industries. Isn't this what leftists are supposed to want?

Another example: Atheism is widespread among libertarians. This makes some libertarians enemies of the flagwaving Christian fundie. But isn't it leftism that's supposed be the tolerant home for atheists? If a youngster with weak faith or no faith recognizes that atheism can have libertarianism as a dancing partner, he or she might be tempted to explore other ideas held and espoused by libertarians.

The thoughtful leftist agitator may be benighted about economics, morality, ontology, etc., but she can recognize a mortal danger to leftist unity when she sees it. So fearful of division is she that to spit venom at the big, bad libertarian is quite nearly a reflex.

Oh, and any liberal who's ever interacted with the poor and needy is familiar with the contempt that the poor and needy often have for arrogant, bleeding hearted do-gooders, who are usually white, wealthy, and from the suburbs. That contempt, if developed with a rational critique of leftwing support for big business and militarism, could give the leftist agitator a nightmare of a PR problem at election time. After all, how did the do-gooder from the nice neighborhood become so wealthy? And if leftists really care about the poorest, most innocent people, then why do they invest so much energy in demanding that someone else bear the burdens of their alleged caring? The leftist retort here is that caring is what community is all about; to this the liberal, the libertarian, need merely observe that community, to a leftist, is red in tooth and claw. Community for a libertarian, however, is not red in tooth and claw but voluntary.

I could go on here, but I think I've made my point sufficiently. The leftist desperately needs to bury liberalism, i.e. libertarianism, for it's a caustic acid for leftwing unity. It just so happens, also, that bloodthirsty people regularly despise those who are not so. Thus do we find leftists spiting and mocking liberals.

steve writes:

interesting article

Unfortunately, I don't agree that leftists see any long term threat from libertarians. Many maybe even most don't even seem to view libertarianism as a coherent set of principles.

Rather, I think those parts where our philosiphies are supposed to overlap aren't being pursued by Obama. (In some cases quite the contrary.) So, more friction between leftists and libertarians.

Meanwhile the republicans are currently pursuing some of the shared goals libertarians have with them.

After the next republican is voted in and (surprise, surpise) it turns out that reducing the size of government isn't the highest priority after all. Leftists and libertarians will get along better.

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