How I understand left and right today

One of the things that I discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation some five or six years ago was the concept of left and right in politics. In the context of my dissertation, the discussion had to do with the fact that 19th century Brazil had primarily two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative. I was trying to find ways to make sense of these two parties. My advisor said that the Liberals were the left, and the Conservatives the right. I came to the opposite conclusion, but mainly because we were using different criteria to define what is left and what is right.

At least in my experience, people call left something that is closer or more sympathetic to socialism. Right is something that is opposite or aggressive towards socialism. This explains why most people believe that nazism and fascism are far-right movements: they are perceived as archenemies of socialists. Liberals (in the American sense) are also considered left-wing, although true liberals would not go so far as to embrace full socialism. Conservatives and Libertarians are in the right because they are more opposite to socialism. The left is also identified with revolution, for wanting to radically change things, while the right is perceived to be conservative (with a small c) or even reactionary.

Even when I was in high school, learning these things for the first time, I found them to be somewhat confusing. Really, what is the difference between Hitler and Stalin? How can it be that one is on the far-right and the other on the far-left if I perceive them to be so similar? In my 15 or 16 years old mind, a possible explanation was that left and right are not in a straight line, but in something that resembles a horseshoe, with the extremes very close to each other. I thought about that sitting in my high school History class before I read it anywhere, and it served me well for many years. All I had to do, I thought, was avoid the extremes, for they end up being equally totalitarian. For many years I thought of myself as a social democrat, in favor of a substantial welfare state and some level of economic intervention by the state, but only when market forces were unable to do their job right.

Since I truly started learning about classic liberal, conservatives and libertarians, my horseshoe theory started to make less sense. I think that the traditional way to think about left and right already makes less sense because we have to bend the line like this for it to work somehow. But also, I think that this model has a problem because we use socialism as a reference: we classify things and people as left or right depending on how they relate to people and things like Marx, Stalin, Lenin, and the USSR! Intuitively I think that there is something wrong with that. And that’s when I started to think that we should classify things as left and right according to how they relate to individuals.

Today I think of left and right according to how much freedom we are willing to give to individuals. In my mind, far-right means maximum freedom. Far-left means minimum. That’s it. Of course: Rousseau will say that people are not really free until they are free according to his definition of freedom. In a Rousseauian state you might believe that you are in chains, but you’re actually free and your process of reeducation is still ongoing. Granted, Christians think something in similar lines: you’re not truly free until you serve God. However, I think that this is mistaking freedom and flourishing. You can have whatever understanding of what human flourishing (or happiness) really means, but the point is that if you want people to be free, you can’t force it on them.

And so, that is it: when I think about left, I think about forcing on people your concept of human flourishing. When I think about right, I think about letting people free to figure this out by themselves. I don’t think it’s a perfect system. After all, am I not forcing upon people the concept that they have to find their flourishing ideal by themselves? But I avoid thinking about that. Of course, this model might make some conversations harder, because I’m thinking about Hitler and nazism as far-left movements, while a lot of people (maybe the majority) learned to think about them as far-right. But on a personal level, it has helped me to think about politics. On my part, I believe that a society where people are in general free to choose (Milton Friedman) is a better society. Generally.

 

Nightcap

  1. 1979 and the rise of “Global Jihad” James Barnett, American Interest
  2. Why is Sweden such an outlier? Benjamin Davies, Times Literary Supplement
  3. A sign of things to come? (Taiwan) Nick Aspinwall, the Diplomat
  4. Taking a piss on libertarianism’s grave Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber

Nightcap

  1. Are the liberal internationalists wrong? Peter Henne, Duck of Minerva
  2. Order and the wealth of nations Arnold Kling, Econlib
  3. How libertarians plan to profit from Covid-19 Quinn Slobodian, Guardian
  4. Teaching my daughter to read in self-isolation Ryu Spaeth, New Republic

An update from Texas

I am still working from home. The weather has been spectacular here over the past few days. I immediately head outside with the kids at 5 o’clock. We just run around and play. The younger one likes throwing the football around in the grass. The older one likes to play with the ants in the cracks of the sidewalk.

I was looking forward to going to Oslo this fall, but I just received news that the event has been postponed. I’ve still got the inaugural family camping trip to Ouachita to plan, so that’s exciting.

The political landscape here is much different than it is on the west coast or in Austin. Authority is decentralized. There are more black and Mexican people here, and fewer other minorities (including Central Americans). I have more black friends now than I ever did in California. It’s odd. In some ways, the non-South is now more racist than the old South. I can’t put my finger on it but I swear it’s true. You can carry on a friendly conversation with anybody here, something that’s missing out west and up north.

My guess is that this has something to do with the fact that segregation was blatantly racist in the South during the Cold War, and Washington felt it had to do something about it in order to win friends (despots) abroad. The racism in the north and the west was less blatant, and as a result nothing has ever been done about it.

I mean, I didn’t grow up with any black people. Or Mexicans. There are tons of them in California, but they don’t live in white residential areas. Down south, at least in the parts of Texas I’ve lived in, this is not the case. There are still “sides” of town, but at least we all share the same town. There’s still racism here, but the racism is more honest than, say, the zoning found up north and out west. This familiarity between blacks, Mexicans, and whites is something you as an individual have to work hard on to achieve in the non-South.

The federal government forcibly dismantled Jim Crow. It did so only after it conveniently ignored the 14th Amendment for decades, but at least it finally did so. There’s a place for Washington down here in Texas. Decentralized tyrannies are still tyrannies. I just started watching Waco, the Netflix series. It’s good. Washington is responsible for the deaths of several innocent women and children. It’ll never pay the price. Those people were just too strange for the broad public to really give a shit.

It’s a never-ending balancing act: finding a comfortable equilibrium between federal, state, and local governance. The feds are better at protecting the descendants of slaves than the state and local governments. But the state and local governments are better at protecting non-conformists and religious extremists than the federal government.

Libertarianism hasn’t been able to shake its racist stigma yet. Sure, leftists call us racists all the time, but a kernal of truth is still a kernal of truth. I have witnessed several people I once respected sweep libertarianism’s ugly, recent past under the rug and then turn to grab their paycheck. Libertarian Inc. has its place in our society, but it won’t be effective so long as the racist label sticks with us. And the racist label won’t come off until we grapple with the brutal truth of what we’ve become comfortable with and what we will tolerate.

Nightcap

  1. What are the best arguments for libertarianism? Brian Micklethwait, Samizdata
  2. Federalism and the coronavirus Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  3. Are we entering a new era of nullification? Mark Perry, American Conservative
  4. The American libertarian movement is not immune Frank Bergon, Los Angeles Review of Books

Nightcap

  1. Coronavirus rattles US national security priesthood Nahal Toosi, Politico
  2. Has libertarianism dodged a bullet? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. States don’t really mind their citizens dying (provided they don’t all do it at once) Malcolm Bull, LRB
  4. Jerusalem, riots, and Israel (from the comments) Irfan Khawaja

Ron Paul’s Revolution: Looking back

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States. It was a historic moment. The United States of America had elected its first black President. I remember listening to the president’s inaugural speech on the radio. (I was driving from the Lake Tahoe area to Santa Cruz, officially moving to the Monterey Bay along with my girlfriend at the time, who had been accepted into UC Santa Cruz while we were in Ghana.) I got chills that ran down my spine. My nipples got hard. The hair on my arm stood up, revealing goosebumps.

I had enough respect for the republic’s history to know that I was listening to one of its greatest triumphs. A member of an ethnic minority, and a group that had been viciously oppressed at that, had been elected to the republic’s highest-ranking democratic office. American society was evolving in a way that made me proud. It was cool, but my elation was tampered due to a different evolution that was going on in my own way of thinking. My thoughts about how societies worked had been radically altered thanks to the presidential candidacy of a little-known Republican Congressman from Texas: Ron Paul.

I came across Ron Paul via YouTube videos that had been shared on MySpace. I was a product of the California public school system. The public school system has two tiers: a good one for rich people and an awful one for the rest of us. I came from a single parent household. My mother had a college degree and was part of the California public school system, but we were still in the “poor” category. In California’s public schools, a binary way of thinking about civics is introduced and hammered home from the age of 5 to the age of 18. Democrats are liberals who prefer higher taxes, listen to scientists, and believe in change, while Republicans are conservatives who prefer lower taxes, listen to Protestant ministers, and believe in maintaining the status quo. This is not a caricature. I believe this is how most Americans viewed civics up until the moment Ron Paul arrived on the national scene via his back-and-forth with Rudy Guilliani.

In short, I was uneducated but enthusiastic about reading and especially history. I had no career at that point in time (I was an informal carpenter’s apprentice from March through November, and a sandwich maker during the rainy holiday season). I became obsessed with Ron Paul videos online. I watched them over and over. I had never heard arguments like his before. I had no idea that you could be a Republican and be against wars on terrorism and drugs. I had no idea Democrats could be so “pragmatic” when it came to these wars. I watched Ron Paul over and over again. Instead of trying to soundbyte his message, he spoke of responsibility and hard money and corporations taking advantage of regulations to enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else. Never had I heard such ideas before!

I was slow to follow up on his reading suggestions, though. I went almost immediately to the websites of Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute but what I found there was too radical for me. It was too straightforward. They were speaking of things that I considered, due to my public schooling and religious background, to be taboo. There was a hint of racism in some of the articles I saw at these sights. Perhaps because of the cruddy schooling I got in California, I was at the time of Ron Paul’s revolution a left-wing conspiracist of sorts. I marched against the invasion of Iraq in San Francisco. I marched in 2003 and 2004, when opposition was its zenith. I shared Immortal Technique’s music videos on MySpace (you know the ones). I proudly spouted socialist views online and at parties. Republicans were conservatives, and therefore racists and religious bigots. The whole of the American Right was thus unfit for my company.

Yet, slowly and surely, I kept visiting these two sites. The site I visited most often, though, was Campaign for Liberty, run by Anthony Gregory. It served as Ron Paul’s official campaign website and continued to drum up support and solidarity months after Obama had already been sworn into office. The authors on this site kept imploring me to check out this ‘n’ that from the Mises Institute or lewrockwell.com or Jacob Hornberger’s Future of Freedom Foundation. It was a long, slow process. Some of the things said on these sites never sat well with me. Yet, there were also articles on Native American reservations, anti-war movements in the American past, how property rights could save the environment, and how to bring down big corporations.

I gave in. Once the intellectual floodgates were opened, I found FEE, the Independent Institute, Cato, Reason, Cafe Hayek, EconLog, and Liberty. I read libertarian thought every day. I checked Campaign for Liberty when I woke up. During this time I decided to enroll in college. I enrolled at Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz. Cabrillo is located on the beach. It attracts PhDs. My professors there had doctorates from schools like Columbia, Cal and UCLA, UC San Diego, Washington University in Saint Louis, and a plethora of other good second-tier public universities. Ron Paul inspired me to learn, to think for myself.

Next: A libertarian’s education

The Vexing Libertarian Issue of Transition

I have appointed myself an old sage to the world. When your knees are creaky and every snotty eighteen-year-old treats you patronizingly, the least you can do to compensate is award yourself wisdom. Anyway, long story short, it’s a good excuse to spend much time on Facebook. I feel I am rendering a public service. I am continuing my teaching career there. It’s unpaid but the conditions are much better and all the students actually want to be in class.

Of course, it’s also true that Facebook is addictive. It’s not a bad addiction. For this old guy, it’s almost incredible to have frequent conversations with an MD in Pakistan, my niece in India, an old girlfriend in Panama, a young friend’s wife in Japan, and of course, many different kinds of French people. I even have a Facebook friend who lives in the mountains of Algeria; we have lively talks in French. Recently, a young woman who described herself as a Myanmar village girl reached out. (I know what you are thinking but if she is really one of those internet sex trolls, I salute the originality of her marketing strategy.) At all times a day and night, I have at least one Facebook friend who is not asleep. It’s pleasant in these days of confinement.

The same confinement, perhaps, slows me down and makes me more likely to tally up everything. As a result, a new impression has pierced my consciousness. Expressing contempt for democracy seems to be in vogue among people who identify as libertarians (with a small “l,” big “L” Libertarians have nearly vanished from my world. It could just be me.) This contempt reminds me that I have been asking the same question of libertarianism for now about fifty years, all with not much success.

I refer to the question of transition. I mean, what is it supposed to look like moving from wherever we are, in terms of governance, to a society with a drastically diminished government interference in individual lives? I have been receiving evasive answers, answers that don’t make even superficial sense, and swift escapes effected by changing the subject.

Let me say right away that I am not looking for a crushing reading assignment (a common punitive, passive-aggressive maneuver among intellectuals). Mine is a simple question. One should be able to sketch a rudimentary answer to it. Then, it would be up to me to follow through. Then, no excuse!

To my mind, there are only two extreme transition scenarios. One is the Somali scenario. The state falls apart under its own incapacity to limit internal aggression. It disappears or nearly so. When the point is reached where government authority extends only three blocks from the presidential palace to the north and east, and one block from the south and west, you pretty much have a stateless society. Goal reached!

The second scenario is a gradual change from the current “democratic” arrangements. I mean by this fair and reasonably honest elections followed by a peaceful transfer of power. I mean freedom of expression. And, disturbingly, this also includes courts of law. This is disturbing because courts without enforcement of their decisions are not really courts. This fact implies the threat of coercion, of course.

Now, I can imagine a situation like right now with the Corona Virus epidemic when governments (plural) demonstrate on a large scale their inability to do the obvious. The citizens often react to this sort of demonstration by asking for better and more government. However, it does not have to be that way. The combination of wide communication through the internet and – like now – of enforced leisure – may switch the dial. It’s conceivable that large numbers will get the idea that government that is at once heavy-handed, expensive, and incapable is not a good answer to much of anything. With that scenario one can imagine a collective demand for less government.

Strangely, this sort of scenario may be on display in France now, as I write. Well, this is not so strange after all. A deeply statist society where govt absorbs 55% of GDP and up may be exactly the best place to figure out that more government is not the answer. From this thought to the idea that less government may be the answer there is but one step. My intuition though is that it’s a big step. That’s because few people understand markets. No one but a handful of college professors seems to have read the moral philosopher Adam Smith. (Tell me that I am wrong.)

So, I would like for those who are more advanced than I am on this issue of transition (a low bar) to engage me. I am not interested in the same old ethical demonstrations though. Yes, the state is an instrument of coercion and therefore, evil. I already know this. In the meantime, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States does a fair job of protecting my freedom of speech, my freedom, of thought, my freedom of religion. I am not eager to leave this behind for the complete unknown. Are you? Why? How?

Nightcap

  1. The role of the libertarian in non-libertarian societies Fabio Rojas, Bleeding Heart Libertarians
  2. Did I have the coronavirus? Ross Douthat, New York Times
  3. Hospital bed access across Canada Frances Woolley, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative
  4. The future of public employee unions Daniel DiSalvo, National Affairs

I stopped French kissing. (Coronavirus alert!)

About 40 US deaths so far. The French have double that with 1/5 the population. My skeptical fiber is on full. Still I am washing my hands. When I run out of rubbing alcohol, I will use cheap brandy – of which I have plenty, of course. Oh, I almost forgot: I have decided to stop French kissing completely if the occasion arises! Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures! Count on me. I am wondering what the libertarian response should be to this public crises (plural).

My best to all.

Amy Klobuchar is the libertarian candidate we don’t deserve

Here’s Slate on the person I would vote for, if I voted. Instead, the Democrats are gifting the Republicans a Jewish socialist with a Brooklyn accent to run against Donald Trump…

Nightcap

  1. Confessions of a confused ex-libertarian Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Big Coal: Can Warren succeed where Trump failed? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. Warren’s health care albatross Ross Douthat, New York Times
  4. What, if anything, is neoliberalism? John Quiggan, Crooked Timber

The North Syria Debacle as Seen by One Trump Voter

As I write (10/22/19) the pause or cease-fire in Northern Syria is more or less holding. No one has a clear idea of what will follow it. We will know today or tomorrow, in all likelihood.

On October 12th 2019, Pres. Trump suddenly removed a handful of American forces in northern Syria that had served as a tripwire against invasion. The handful also had the capacity to call in air strikes, a reasonable form of dissuasion.

Within hours began an invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria by the second largest army in Europe, and the third in the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing was its main express purpose. Pres Erdogan of Turkey vowed to empty a strip of territory along its northern border to settle in what he described as Syrian (Arab) refugees. This means expelling under threat of force towns, villages, and houses that had been occupied by Kurds from living memory and longer. This means installing on that strip of territories unrelated people with no history there, no housing, no services, and no way to make a living. Erdogan’s plan is to secure his southern border by installing there a permanent giant refugee camp.

Mr Trump declared that he had taken this drastic measure in fulfillment of his (three-year old) campaign promise to remove troops from the region. To my knowledge, he did not explain why it was necessary to remove this tiny number of American military personnel at that very moment, or in such haste.

Myself, most Democrats, and a large number of Republican office holders object strongly to the decision. Most important for me is the simplistic idea that

Continue reading

Thinking globally, as a dad, and as a libertarian

There’s no reason to keep writing. I have an nine month-old (nine-month old?) boy and a twenty-nine month-old girl. My vote doesn’t matter. I’ve lost my zest for ideas and events. Nobody cares what a libertarian has to say anymore, anyway. We’re back in the wilderness, wandering aimlessly and pettily bickering with each other about the stupidest things. We had our moment, we truly did, and it got flushed down the toilet along with the big, racist turds we dropped in the porcelain bucket.

Something in the world of ideas has turned stale. Or, I’ve gone stale. I don’t think I have, though. I’ve been reading plenty of books and plenty of internet, and much of it is enjoyable and provides me with a better sense of the world I inhabit. Has the world of ideas always been this stale? Has “the world of ideas” been a Big Lie to begin with, a cover-up invented by political strategists to influence youth and vie for power?

Libertarianism itself is no longer what I thought it was. Consider Syria. What’s a libertarian to do? A libertarian from the US would probably say that his country’s military leaving Syria is a good thing. A libertarian from Syria would probably say that the US leaving Syria is a bad thing. Actually, this is pretty cool now that I’ve thought about it. What is the libertarian position on Syria? Abandon it and regroup somewhere else? Would this “somewhere else” then become a fortress of libertarianism? Would it become a launching pad for military action, for violent acts of aggression against an equally violent polity?

Libertarianism seems to work great in an American institutional context, but what happens when libertarianism moves abroad? Now, I’m not about to go all sideways (to borrow a phrase from an old black cook that I know here in Texas). I’m still a libertarian, but only because it’s the least bad option out there. The world could use more liberty. This liberty can be gained through non-violent indigenous means most of the time. As a citizen of the world’s big, bad hegemon, this is the position I have a duty to take. If I was born in, say, Kurdistan, though, or Angola, violence might be the best least bad option to take en route to more liberty.

Edwin’s 2014 post continues to impress. Is this because I am getting older? Is this because I have other shit to do besides ensure (online…) that liberty remains as pure as possible?

Nightcap

  1. Stay focused on what matters (not politics) Arnold Kling, askblog
  2. The politics of hate and artistic expression in Japan Jeff Kingston, Diplomat
  3. The US and Turkey are back together again Amberin Zaman, Al-Monitor
  4. Is Europe on the Chinese menu? Andrew Michta, American Interest