Personal, Philosophy, Politics

Why I Went From Libertarian to Left Wing

In High School, I was a fascist.

I didn’t mean it that way, but I was, indeed, a fascist.

I thought that the federal government should use its power to coerce citizens to do things for the good of society. And I didn’t want these things to happen in the name of “equality” but rather of “fairness” and “justice”.

I told people I would found the “Common Sense Party of Canada” which would implement my “common sense” ideas. These ideas included drafting the homeless into an army of workers. (No, I am not making that up.)

What does this have to do with leaving libertarianism?

Well, I am obsessed with how things exist in time. So in order to explain to you why I stopped being a libertarian and became (shock! horror!) “left-wing”, I feel like I have to tell you why I became a libertarian in the first place.

Like many teenagers, I thought I knew everything. My parents indulged my ideas and not very many of my friends put up much of a fight when I said anything ridiculous.

I have exactly one memory of someone successfully getting me to change my mind in high school on a matter of public policy. It was the death penalty and it was my first step towards something very different. (I had actually just graduated high school so it doesn’t even count. It also took me a few months to change my mind.)

So when I went to university I was very confident that I was right about just about everything when it came to politics and society.

Like most people who attend university I found myself flooded with information and opinions I had never encountered before. So I did like many people who attend university and encounter all sorts of new things: I completely changed my mind about the government’s role in the world.

I became an anarchist.

Now, I should point out that I wasn’t an “anarchist” in the sense that most of us think of anarchists. Rather, I was what we might call a “right-wing” anarchist.

“Right-wing” anarchists are those who essentially deny human society and cooperation in favour of complete individualism. It’s libertarianism without the acceptance of state power to defend the country or enforce contracts or what have you.

After believing the government could coerce anybody for any reason they deemed “good” for society, I now believed that nobody had the right to coerce anybody, ever. I mean, ever.

Did I stop participating in the society I was benefiting from? Of course not!

Did I vote for the federal Liberal Party right when I was supposedly becoming an anarchist? You’re damn right I did.

And I continued to tell everyone I was right about how the government was oppressive.

But it didn’t last long. I was an anarchist for about 8 months. Give or take.

It’s a pretty reasonable transition from right-wing anarchism to libertarianism: at some point, you realize that right-wing anarchy isn’t possible and you accept that maybe, just maybe, some central authority is necessary for society.

I don’t remember anymore what did it for me. (It might have been Nozick.) But I do remember insisting for years afterward that the dream of right-wing anarchy was noble, just impossible. (A little like communism.)

So instead of gobbling up all the anarchist literature I could find – including some more traditional anarchist literature which I claimed was internally inconsistent – I gobbled up all the libertarian literature I could find.

Anarchy, The State and Utopia by Robert Nozick was my bible. I read it at least 3 times.

I can’t say I lived my politics in any way except voting. I began voting for the Libertarian Party when they were running, and for silly parties when the Libertarians weren’t, but that’s all I did to advance the cause of liberty. (Unless you count ranting at, and arguing with, my fellow students…)

And though I began to see problems with the libertarianism position, it’s a position I maintained for a number of years.

I even was going to write my Ph.D thesis about libertarianism.

The idea was that I would point out what I saw as the major defects of libertarianism – which I saw, at the time, as being primarily psychological – and I would try to create a more robust theory. Today I can say what I think I was trying to do was to give libertarianism a more adequate ‘theory of the person’ based in cognitive psychology, though I wouldn’t have phrased it that way at the time.

I didn’t end up entering into a Ph.D program. Instead, I wrote a book. It was reading for my MA comprehensive exams and reading for my book that killed libertarianism for me.

Oh, and working in the real world.

My MA program introduced me to existentialism and soon I couldn’t get enough.

So much of my change in political beliefs come from embracing existentialism rather than from becoming more of a modern liberal or, science forbid, a socialist. It was reading existentialist literature which brought out the faults in libertarianism and it was existentialism which convinced me to try to become “post-ideological”.

What is existentialism? Well, it’s not really a coherent theory as many existentialist ideas emerged from theology and literature before finding their way into philosophy. And many philosophers who were identified as being part of the initial wave of existentialism did not like the name and denied they were part of the movement.

But basically, it is this: existence is prior to essence. What that essentially means (sorry) is that the world had to exist before human beings dreamed up ideas about the nature of the world.

What that means for philosophy is that human animals exist first and foremost. Normative political ideas – such as those that underlie every single political philosophy and ideology – were invented by these animals and may only exist in thought, not in reality. Whereas we humans are still in the world, regardless of the normative ideals we dream up.

The various existentialists I read revealed to me a huge problem with all political ideologies, not just libertarianism: ideologies are, at bottom, about imposing absolute metaphysical ideals which only exist in thought on the real world which may not allow those ideals. Metaphysical ideals are just ideas and, in their absolute form, they only exist in thought, not in reality. To the extent that these ideals are realizable in the real world, they are realized by imperfect humans creating imperfect rules, laws and institutions.

But what really cemented my problems with ideologies in general and libertarianism, in particular, wasn’t an existentialist tract, rather it was Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kolakowski. (Though I had already read a few works by Eric Voegelin which pointed out how ideologies were actually religions. Having finally decided to be a committed agnostic, the religious nature of ideologies became a put-off.) Though Kolakowski’s book is about socialism, his research applied to liberalism and conservatism as well. (In fact, it’s one of my numerous unfulfilled goals to have written sequels to his book, Main Currents of Liberalism and Main Currents of Conservatism.)

Kolakowski’s main point (and Voegelin’s) is that ideologies are religions; they are historical contingencies, not thought-out positions, they are internally incoherent. Like religions, they are defended by faith and feelings, not rational argument.

The other thing that happened was I lived in the real world.

I had spent the last five years in the supposed ultra left-wing academic world but it was this world that allowed me to maintain absurd theoretical positions – which I claimed were principles – despite the evidence.

I could maintain that it was not just possible but desirable to have a large, functioning society where everyone consented to virtually every aspect of their lives.

I could maintain that, just because no libertarian or libertarian-esque society had ever existed, and certainly not in the industrial and post-industrial eras, that didn’t mean libertarianism was ill-suited to people or impossible for a large society.

I could maintain that accidents were a net good and it was better if we didn’t try to do anything to help the victims of those accidents.

I could maintain that it really should be a legal option to sell yourself into slavery, because the important things in life are theoretical rights, not the quality of life. If it’s a “free” choice, who am I to object?

But then I worked in offices, with (a lot of) people with high school education.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like going from an MA program to working temp jobs to really undermine your faith in humanity.

People don’t care about “Freedom” in the abstract. People don’t care about the abstract, period.

People care about surviving, about paying their bills and hopefully making enough money to do the things they want to do and buy the things they want to buy. Go to a random office or job site and try to convince a majority of the people to care about abstract ideas. I don’t think it’s going to work.

People do care about fairness, but that fairness is contextual and, importantly, is focused on how they, their family and friends are treated, more than some abstract principle. Many studies have shown that human beings believe they are better than, and should be treated better than, the hypothetical average person.

Then there’s status quo bias: a majority of people would prefer to live in the world they know, rather than a world they don’t.

In short, I came to the realization that libertarianism wasn’t possible, not just because of its particular political positions but because the goal of maximal Freedom isn’t actually possible. But I also came to realize it wasn’t desirable for most people which should make it undesirable for us all, right?

I began styling myself as a “libertarian social democrat with a conservative streak”.

Libertarian because I still valued (and still value) civil liberties.

Social democrat because I now saw the need for laws constricting and influencing human behaviour, laws which must be created and altered by the entire society.

And conservative because of certain traditional conservative feelings I had about money. For example, I used to fully support Sunday as a day for no retail because I thought we all needed a break from purchasing. (Once upon a time conservatives hated the free market, folks.)

I reveled in the contradiction as I now firmly believed “purist” ideological positions were unsound and basically ridiculous. Nobody is a pure liberal, conservative or socialist. Or virtually nobody.

So I maintained I was a “centrist” and proud of it. I was proud of it because I had come to see value in compromise rather than “principles”. The more I lived in the world the more compromise seemed noble and sticking to one’s guns utterly stupid.

But I slowly drifted left. One day a few years ago my girlfriend pointed out that I was “very left-wing” and I had to admit she was right. I had been telling myself I was still a moderate centrist for years but my beliefs no longer fit that description.

The civil libertarian in me was still there but far less absolutist. Yes, individual rights can be infringed upon. They are all the time. The issue is who is infringing, how and how often, not whether or not they should ever be infringed upon.

And the conservative in me had basically given up. (If I think something is bad but I can’t prove that it is bad, who am I to tell other people not to do it? That is one of the key essences of conservative beliefs and I have zero desire to tell others how to live their lives. Call it a vestige of my libertarian beliefs.)

And so now I am “left-wing”. I am not a socialist, though. I’m more one of those “modern liberals”. (What Americans call “liberals”.) Though, again, not wholly committed to the ideological project of liberalism, especially any version of liberalism which believes in an end-goal for society.

I wrote this because the increasing popularity of libertarianism – in part paid for by American billionaires – is frustrating the hell out of me. So now that I’ve told you why I went from loving freedom to believing in many “left-wing” ideas, I feel like I have to explain exactly what I think libertarianism gets wrong.

What’s Wrong With Libertarianism?

So, what is wrong with libertarianism?

Libertarianism is the ideology for men who want to pretend they don’t need other people. It’s an easy ideology for privileged men – like me – but it’s also appealing for men who want to be privileged.

At bottom, the goal of libertarianism is to extend and fortify privilege for the rich (most of whom are men and most of whom, in North America, are white). That goal is hidden behind the metaphysical goal of “Freedom” just like the true goals of other ideologies are hidden behind their metaphysics. (Conservatives want society to revert to what life was like when they were kids but use all sorts of coded language to cover for it. Old liberals just wanted to make more money, as libertarians do. New liberals and socialists want to tell other people what to do, i.e. they want power.)

Every rich libertarian wants fewer laws so he can get richer. Every poor libertarian thinks that, if only he had fewer social constraints, he would be rich.

Metaphysical Goal-Directed “Freedom” Is Not Actually a Good Which Can Be Achieved

The end goal for most libertarians is to create a truly “free” society. But ,of course, they concede it can’t actually be truly free as that’s anarchism and anarchism doesn’t work. (To paraphrase Camus, absolute freedom is the freedom to kill.) Instead, they believe in a very limited amount of government to protect society from outside threats and, depending upon your variant, enforce certain basic rules.

But the goal of “Freedom” is completely metaphysical. There is no achievable absolute which is “Freedom”. Freedom, such that human beings can achieve it, is relative. Moreover, having freedom is not just about having freedom from the power of the state. There are all sorts of other ways in which we can have more or less freedom, such as with regard to ties to our families. (Some of us grow up in families where the norms are much more relaxed than in other families. I grew up in a pretty permissible household by world standards. Other people feel the pull of family ties a lot more than I do.)

Metaphysical “Freedom” for all is impossible because it just a thought, not a reality. I can be freer, but I cannot ever be “totally” or “wholly” free”. And the things that keep me from doing literally anything I want aren’t just government laws and regulations. There are norms and relationships that get in the way, too.

And you can’t get away from these by creating a constitution and government with only a couple of laws. You can’t legislate away your family ties. And you can’t legislate away a culture’s norms. Pretending norms and relationships don’t exist, as many libertarians like to, does not remove their existence.

No Theory of the Person

Libertarianism, like every other ideology, doesn’t really have a good theory of the person.

This is because libertarianism predates psychology historically. The ideas of libertarianism are based on extremely optimistic liberal ideas about people from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some variants – like Nozick’s – are based on hilariously naive ideas about people from the mid 20th century. (This is how Nozick can maintain that getting monetary compensation for an injury is somehow “just.” Who cares if you lost your arm? You got paid! You certainly won’t experience any trauma from that now that you have money. Everything is fine. Just fine.)

Traditional libertarians believe we are all fundamentally good people who just want to make good (selfish) decisions which just happen to benefit us all. (See below.)

Nozick’s version is based on the more absurd idea of the person as a “rational utility maximizer,” an idea so stupid that I’m not going to bother to address it. (Rest assured, it’s really stupid.)

There are likely newer versions of libertarianism which claim more sophisticated ideas of humans but I’m unaware of them. At bottom, libertarianism doesn’t allow for the psychological truth of human beings: we are social animals with bounded rationality who regularly – you might even say ‘frequently’ or ‘normally’ – make poor decisions.

The Will Doesn’t Really Exist

Much traditional libertarian thought is based upon the idea of human willpower, with the individual will as some kind of moral good.

But humans don’t really have a “will” in the traditional sense. Many of our decisions are unconscious or semiconscious and based on heuristics we’re not even aware of.

Why elevate bad decision making to the ultimate end goal of society?

Libertarianism is Ahistorical

Find me a truly libertarian society that has existed in the world. I’ll wait.

There’s this idea that just because something never existed before doesn’t mean it can never exist. That is absolutely true for, say, technology. Smart Phones didn’t exist for 99.9999% of human history. Now they do. No Smart Phones in previous eras of human history did not preclude someone from inventing the Smart Phone.

But this is a bad way of looking at the possibilities of human society because it fails to see the constraints. Just because you can imagine it doesn’t mean it will work. (*Cough* Communism *Cough*.)

Libertarian societies have not existed because they are based on ideas that are fanciful. These ideas are even more fanciful for post-industrial societies which are full of millions of people. The fact that libertarian societies have not existed ever should tell us something about whether or not they can exist in the future, in large post-industrial societies with extremely complex economies.

Sure, it’s possible that automation could somehow allow for an ideological utopia of some sort, at least temporarily. But it’s not plausible, certainly not right now. And requiring a technological leap just to try out your pet version of utopia seems like a really silly pipe dream to me. (Full disclosure: I am “anti-utopian.” I believe utopias, in general, are stupid, regardless of their goals. Actually they’re not just stupid, they’re dangerous. But that is another story.)

The Invisible Hand Doesn’t Exist

The “Invisible Hand” is the idea that cumulative free choices by individuals will add up to a net positive for society (see below). It is a metaphor developed by Adam Smith, a Christian, to describe what he was seeing in the British Isles when he wrote The Wealth of Nations.

It is a figure of speech and nothing more. There is no actual force in the universe that is causing all “free” human choices to lead to a net good all the time.

If you honestly believe that this is a thing, please explain to me what it is and how it works in the comments.

(This is one of the fundamental problems with pure free market economics – it’s based on superstition from the 18th century, not actual data. God does not force all “free” human choices to result in a net good for society. God does not exist.)

“Free” Choices are Hardly Free

Some of our choices are considered and mostly free of interference from other people. I don’t know what the percentage is, but it isn’t very high.

Most if not all of our choices are conditioned by our previous choices, and they are also conditioned by the behaviour of other people both in the moment of choice and prior to the choice. There are literal mountains of psychological studies about choice and how human beings are not actually completely free rational utility maximizers.

Some of our actions do not even fit the idea of “choice” as they are unconscious or semiconscious and they are instinctual.

In fact, a newish theory of rationality argues that all of our choices are instinctual, even the ones that appear to us as wholly or semi-rational. In this view, which I support, rationality is actually just about rationalization after the fact and convincing other people our beliefs are right.

There’s no moral goodness in “free” choices. That’s a human invention. Just because I “consented” to something does not mean I should have to suffer all the unforeseen consequences of whatever comes from that paper I signed.

Now, all that being said, do I personally want to make as many decisions for myself as I can? Absolutely I do. (With the caveat that many if not most of these decisions are not anywhere near as free as they seem to me and the further caveat that I am a pretty damn responsible person, if I do say so myself.)

But that does not mean that society should be arranged in a way that maximizes are abilities to make “free” decisions regardless of the consequences to others.

“Free” Choices Aren’t Always a Net Positive For Everyone

Human history is contingent, i.e. human history is a series of accidents.

You can’t tell me that every one of these series of accidents has been a net positive for all of humanity.

Sure, on the macro level, there numerous things that appear as net positives. Capitalism, for example, has been a huge net positive for the species as a whole. At least, provided we don’t make the planet uninhabitable in the next century.

But in that huge net positive there have been millions of negative effects for individuals.

When we have as few rules as possible – and as few people as possible to enforce those rules – there are more of these negative effects for individuals over time, what economists call “externalities.” As we can see with wealth disparity, a small group of already privileged people usually benefit much more from luck than most people do.

Arbitrary Power

Libertarianism is supposed to protect us from arbitrary power.

But, were a libertarian system possible, it would only protect us from the arbitrary power of the state. This power should not be particularly threatening if the libertarian constitution and rules were truly effective.

But all this actually does is allow the rich more arbitrary power than the government.

To an extent, this is a good thing! It’s better to have multiple loci of power in society than just one concentration of it. Free enterprise is necessary to keep government power in check.

(I should point out: I wholly support private businesses despite being “left-wing.” For one thing, there is the somewhat abstract political point I just mentioned. But I also don’t ever want to buy my groceries from a state-run store or go to a state-run bar. And no, regulating the economy is not a slippery slope to socialism.)

But constricting the power of the state to such a degree that it cannot ever restrict the power of individuals means that the rich exercise arbitrary power over other people who are less rich.

To the person whose life is ruined by the exercise of arbitrary power, what do they care about whether it’s the state or a corporation that is the cause of their misery?

Here is Noah Smith on how libertarians ignore non-state power structures.

What Do I Mean By Left-Wing?

Well, I do not mean that I am a socialist. I don’t believe in socialism. Well, I don’t believe in any ideology but I really don’t believe in the socialist project of nationalizing the economy. (I hope I’ve made that clear.)

What I mean is that I’m for the welfare state and the exercise of limited state power to try to fix the problems of the free market.

When I say I’m for the welfare state, I’m actually for an updated version of the welfare state, specifically one that provides housing and living wages without qualification, instead of traditional means-tested “welfare.” Our society is unfathomably rich but people starve to death and die of exposure. The role of government should be to prevent people from dying or experiencing preventable suffering.

Universal Basic Income and free housing for the poor are both ideas I support. Poverty isn’t a moral failure, it’s a fact of a capitalist economy (and really most large economies). And it is incredibly hard in a free market for poor people to no longer be poor.

And I believe in progressive income taxation because people who earn more should always pay more in taxes than people who earn less. (I should note, though, that I am generally opposed to tax credits and I think a complicated tax code beyond progressive tax brackets is more trouble than its worth.) And I believe that tax avoidance and evasion by the superrich is the second most important problem faced by the world today. (First three guesses as to the biggest problem don’t count.)

And I believe that when a new industry or new technology “disrupts” society it is the job of government to ensure real, living people are not harmed by this disruption.

And here’s a weird one: I believe in publicly funded schools for cops, prosecutors and judges. I.e. I believe that those who exercise government power need to be better trained in how they exercise it. Right now, in both Canada and the United States, most cops and prosecutors don’t know about cognitive biases, and most judges don’t understand science or probability. And yet they make decisions about citizens’ lives every single day.

At this point in my life, when I am entering middle age and trying to figure out who to best spend the rest of my life, the most important thing to me, politically, is to limit the exercise of arbitrary power by the powerful over the less powerful or powerless. The ideologies of “The Left” are far more concerned with this than those of (the contemporary version of) “The Right.”

I do not seek an end-goal of society, like most ideologues do. Rather, I want to live in a society in which I and others are as free as possible to make our life choices while those more powerful than us are limited from influencing and affecting those choices and our lives. That’s why I’m left-wing.

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