Conservatives vs Liberals vs Libertarians

What I’m going to say here is far from original, but I believe it is worth reminding from time to time. Yes, there is a lot of over-simplification here, but bear with me! This is the difference between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians (or at least this libertarian who writes):

Gun control:

  • Liberal: Guns are dangerous! People should not have guns!
  • Conservative: From my cold dead hands!
  • Libertarians: I personally don’t like guns and I wouldn’t like to have one. But I believe that people who so desire should have the right to own guns.

Drugs:

  • Liberal: Marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and should be legalized!
  • Conservative: Marijuana is a gateway into heavier drugs and should be prohibited!
  • Libertarian: Although I personally never did drugs and have no desire to do so, nor have deep knowledge of how particular drugs are heavier than legalized substances or not, I believe that people who want to do drugs should not be prohibited from doing so.

Foreign Policy:

  • Liberal: We have to send more foreign aid. It is our moral responsibility! And who are we to judge which nations are democratic or not?
  • Conservative: The world is a dangerous place and it is our responsibility to police it!
  • Libertarian: Although I can see that the World is a dangerous place and I feel personally obligated to do something to help those in need, I don’t believe it is the role of the government to interfere in other nations.

Labor laws:

  • Liberal: We have to protect the poor!
  • Conservative: Capitalism is God’s way of deciding who is poor and who is smart!
  • Libertarian: I feel for the poor, and I believe we should do something to help. I believe that some governmental policies predictably hurt the poor and therefore should be changed. However, I believe that helping the poor should be mainly done by individuals and independent organizations, not by the government.

Crime in general:

  • Liberal: He is a victim of society!
  • Conservative: The chair!!!
  • Libertarian: External circumstances can explain and even attenuate certain crimes, but never justify it. On the other hand, if we are cruel towards criminals, we are becoming just like them. Also, throwing people in jail is very clearly an awful and simplistic way of dealing with crime and should think of other ways of punishment, always having reconciliation as an ideal.

Economics:

  • Liberal: We need more government oversight!
  • Conservative: The market will solve everything!
  • Libertarian:

Immigration:

  • Liberal: Open the border!
  • Conservative: Build a wall!
  • Libertarian: Completely opening the borders is abandoning any notion of nation-state. Nevertheless, we should be welcoming, though thoughtful, about immigration.

Education:

  • Liberal: Your kids are mine!
  • Conservative: We need to bring prayer back to public schools!
  • Libertarian: Education is fundamentally religious and reflects the values we aim to have. Maybe the state can have a very limited role in it, but the main responsibility belongs to the parents, who likely will instill their values on the children.

Politics in general:

  • Liberal: My party will solve everything!
  • Conservative: My party will solve everything!
  • Libertarian: There are no perfect solutions, especially not through politics. Do you want to change the World? Start by cleaning your room.

Free Immigration is not a Classical Liberal Right

My eye caught this article, which stands in a long tradition among libertarians.

It is the kind of fairy tale theory that gives liberal thought a bad name in general, and classical liberal thought in particular, as it is often confused with libertarianism in the US.

My problem with arguments like these is that they make logical sense, but are practically non-sensical at the same time. I am more than willing to admit that in the ideal libertarian world free immigration indeed is a right. Yet I do not think arguments like these help us to get that libertarian ideal one inch closer. On the contrary, I am afraid it only fosters disdain and outright disbelief, even among potential supporters.

The main problem of course is that there is no ideal libertarian world. Yet libertarians all too often do not seem to care about that. They rather continue to argue about what fairy tales makes the most logical sense, rather than using their sometimes brilliant minds to come up with ideas and theories to actually foster a more liberal world. Let alone a classical liberal or a libertarian world.

To make a case for free immigration on the basis of rights is to deny the property rights of current populations. Roughly, that argument goes like this: in this world most immigrants will make some claim to these existing property rights once they arrive in their host country. Higher taxation to pay for the immigration system is one thing, but also think of housing, claims to health and medical systems, social welfare programs, schools, roads, et cetera. The majority of the current population has put money into (these) public goods, certainly in Europe, and thus property rights were created. These  should be protected and can only consensually be changed.

Also, there are more intangible effects, think for example of the change in culture and social cohesion, certainly before the new arrivals are fully integrated. Hayek warned against precisely these destabilizing effects of large groups of immigrants entering a relatively homogenous territory, drawing on his own Viennese experience in the interwar years. He openly supported Margaret Thatcher to this end in a letter to The Times on February 11, 1978, which were followed by further explanations in the same newspaper in the weeks thereafter.

This is not to say we should all build (or rather attempt to build) walls, or close off borders completely. Some form of immigration is indeed called for, if only out of humanitarian perspective. That is something completely different than free immigration though.

Should the US intervene in Venezuela?

With the ongoing troubles in Venezuela some commentators ask for a humanitarian intervention, by the US. Intervention by other countries, for example Brasil, seem to be out of the question. And of course the US has long regarded Central and South America their backyard, going back to the Monroe doctrine. What would be a liberal perspective on this? Basically, there are three answers.

Most people who call themselves liberal in the US have a favourable attitude towards humanitarian intervention. Or used to have this over the past decades (until it went wrong -at least in their view- in Iraq and Afghanistan). Their motives differ, but they would probably argue that there is a moral duty to intervene on behalf of the suffering majority. This moral duty, however defined in detail, is seen to exist when grave abuse of human rights take place in failed state situations, people’s lives are under threat, when a danger of genocide exists. The intervention may take place unauthorized (without United Nations Security Council mandate), or authorized. Dangers of intervention are recognized by liberals, as for example the potential for abuse by the intervening state is ever present. Liberals are less concerned about the duty of the governments of intervening countries towards their own citizens.

Classical liberals start by pointing out there is never a moral duty to intervene, because, as Adam Smith wrote, for humans there is only the duty to mind the happiness of their relatives, friends, country. This is not to say there is never a right to intervention in the classical liberal view. For sure, this right should be exercised in very rare circumstances, as international relations is more about preserving order than about achieving justice for all, and more about the importance of sovereignty for individual liberty than about obligations or rights following from a shared humanity. Yet prudent leaders do have some room for manoeuvre in international politics, according to classical liberals. However, intervention can only take place if they are able to explain to their voters and countrymen how the intervention would promote natural liberty. Foreign intervention is often counterproductive, and only an option when international disorder is seriously under threat. However, most often, the benefits of nonintervention outweigh the costs of attempting a universal protection of even a limited set of rights. Interventions start with the best intentions, but will often have unforeseen, negative consequences, which only in rare cases will be justified.

Libertarians normally have the most straightforward position: the anarcho-capitalists will not allow their private armies to conduct foreign adventures, while most minarchists (Rand excepted) are of the same opinion in case of (partly) publicly funded armies. So for them it is easy, no troops to Caracas.

How about the classical liberal and social liberal (as I continue to call them) position towards Venezuela? First of all: there is no question the situation is bad for large groups of Venezuelans. Maduro is a rotten and corrupt leader, standing on the shoulders of his socialist fairy tale teller predecessor – who was by the way democratically elected by those same Venezuelans, in very large numbers. Closing borders is the common instrument of autocratic leaders without any societal support. Inflation is high, the oil sector is in peril, basic medical services are beyond the reach of millions. There is a contending president, Guaidó, yet he appears to lack the support of the army and other crucial actors. The Catholic church refuses to take a position, for example.

Yet the costs of an intervention are high and the outcome uncertain. The military part might not be so easy, and will cost lives and lead to tremendous economic damage, both in Venezuela and the US. Guaidó, who now seems the reasonable alternative, is basically a young and unproven guy, without any track record. No certainty exists that he will lead the country in the good direction, even if he wants too. To reconstruct the country will almost certainly demand billions of dollars, which will not be easily recouped once the oil sector is on its feet again (remember that argument from the start of the intervention in Iraq?). It will take years before US troops on the ground can return home.

Needless to say this analysis is incomplete and lacks sufficient detail for any policy decision. Still, all in all, I would advise against intervention. Despite the bad situation, the proposed cure seems worse, not least from the perspective of the intervening country.

Nightcap

  1. How Mao took over the CCP Francis Sempa, Asian Review of Books
  2. Pentagon walks back Trump idea of using Iraq base to counter Iran Jack Detsch, Al-Monitor
  3. Hayek against the planners Anne Rathbone Bradley, Modern Age
  4. The internal contradictions of liberalism and illiberalism Scott Sumner, EconLog

John Rawls had good reason to be a reticent socialist and political liberal

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John Rawls: Reticent Socialist by William A. Edmundson has provoked a renewed attempt, written up in Jacobin and Catalyst, to link the totemic American liberal political philosopher with an explicitly socialist program to fix the problems of 21st century capitalism, and especially the domination of the political process by the super-rich. I found the book a powerful and enlightening read. But I think it ultimately shows that Rawls was right not to weigh his philosophy down with an explicit political program, and that socialists have yet to respond effectively to James Buchanan’s exploration of the challenges of non-market decision-making – challenges that bite more when states take on more explicit economic tasks. The large-scale public ownership of industry at the core of Edmundson’s democratic socialism is plausibly compatible with a stable, liberal political community in some circumstances but it is unclear how such a regime is supposed to reduce the scope of social domination compared with a private-property market economy in similar circumstances once we look at public institutions with the same skeptical attention normally reserved for private enterprise. A draft review is below.

Continue reading

Nightcap

  1. The many lives of liberalism David Bell, New York Review of Books
  2. Is the political leader teachable? Avi Mintz, Law & Liberty
  3. Why ex-churchgoers flocked to Trump Timothy Carney, American Conservative
  4. A history fit for the Taliban Hugh Beattie, History Today

Nightcap

  1. “Make America Free Again” isn’t Trump’s agenda Jacob Levy, Cato Unbound
  2. What’s wrong with liberalism? Daniel Wootten, History Today
  3. China’s long history of trouble with Islam Ian Johnson, ChinaFile
  4. “A hot dinner and a bloody supper” Felix Schürmann, Age of Revolutions