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Libertarian democrats

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Wednesday, Jun 21, 2006


Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place. A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of established privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege. The essence of the liberal position, however, is the denial of all privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some which are not available on equal terms to others.


Those aren’t the words of some wild-eyed leftist; they come from the 1956 preface to The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich Hayek, whose sober, gray eyes you see above. The book is trenchant defense of laissez-faire in the face of planned economies, offering a brusque reminder that we should never have a naive trust in the good faith of people who happen to find themselves empowered by bureaucracies to start making decisions regarding how a society’s resources will be doled out. People who realize their power tend to make decisions in order to preserve or expand that power, regardless of how much of the public’s welfare was entrusted to them. Hayek espoused a theory of spontaneous order, in which power is dispersed through society by the mechanism of the market and no particular group of special interests can monopolize the levers of control and thereby abuse them. To me this sounds reminiscent of Foucault’s theory of surveillance being distributed throughout society in Discipline and Punish (according to Virginia Postrel’s profile of Hayek from the Boston Globe Foucault gave lectures on Hayek toward the end of his life). Foucault seemed to regard this as an inescapable net of coersion—as power multiplying itself at every point of contact and interceding in every aspect of the atomized individual’s life via “experts in normality”; Hayek regards it as the only thing that prevents state oppression and permits an individual to exist. Sadly enough, it’s both at once.


Hayek himself was quick to differentiate his use of the word liberal and the “debased” usage it has fallen into: to refer to people in favor of govenment intervention intended to produce a fairer distribution of society’s wealth. But the totalitarian tendencies of the current conservative regime in America has perhaps reminded the opposition of the liberalism’s roots. Hayek’s rousing rejection of conservatism above seems like it could serve as a rallying cry for a nascent movement among American liberals. The argument would be that the Republicans, using the cloak of religion and nationalism, have taken over government in order to protect the interests of the few at the expense of the many, uses state power to spy on its potential enemies, and presumes to curtail the freedoms of the citizenry based on its own moral whims. That Republicans are allowed to run the state in this manner with little complaint from the press or the people suggests we might already be far along the road to serfdom. So the unlikely fusion of Hayekian thought and democratic politics might have legs. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zúniga recently argued that the future of the Democratic party may lie with what he dubbed libertarian dems, citing gun-loving Montana governor Brian Schweitzer as an example. According to Kos, libertarian democrats reject the infringement of individual rights by government and corporations, and looks to balance these forces against each other while still appealing to the American fetish of unfettered individualism. Kos writes, “government isn’t always the solution to the nation’s problems. There are times when business-government partnerships can be extremely effective (such as job retraining efforts for displaced workers). There are times when government really should butt out (like a great deal of small-business regulation). Our first proposed solution to a problem facing our nation shouldn’t be more regulation, more government programs, more bureaucracy. The key here isn’t universal liberty from government intrusion, but policies that maximize individual freedom, and who can protect those individual freedoms best from those who would infringe.”


I’m no knee-jerk supporter of individualism—it often is selfish and blind and I don’t think the invisible hand necessarily turns that blindness into spontaneous orderly good. It can often lead to waste and suffering and ingrained callousness. Hayek complains of generations enfeebled and stymied by welfare states; it seems that rugged individualist societies adrift in social Darwinism can inculcate an inhumanity that tolerates waste of life and potential and excuses inequality as just deserts for the already disadvantaged. But there seems to be a more coherent philosophy of progressivism in the notion of libertarian democrats than there is in the old program of identity politics. The problems that generated identity politics haven’t gone away, but the political platform spawned by the language of identity politics often comes across as petulant and repugnant, intolerant rather than respectful of diversity. There may be a way to achieve that same platform in the more palatable language and the more straightforward logic of Hayekian libertarianism (stop using the State as a tool against those who work hard and play by the market’s rules). Turning Republican slogans inside out, it conceives of progressivism as returning power to individuals rather than depriving them of it, which seems to empower the act of voting itself—it becomes a duty to yourself rather than to something less tangible.

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