Thursday, April 07, 2016

Confession of a Libertarian Socialist

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
—John Woolman (October 19, 1720 – October 7, 1772)

William James observed that most of us human beings preserve and defend the same framework of beliefs and views we learned as children and that we change them only when, in his famous phrase, “experience boils over.” That is certainly true of me, at least in the area of political views and social attitudes. In those areas, my beliefs have not changed much at all, and like reasonable creatures, I have managed to find reasons for maintaining the prejudices I acquired from my parents and grandparents. I do not expect my reasons to persuade anyone whose inheritance of bias was different from my own, but it is an interesting exercise to spell those reasons out from time to time.

Up for rationalization today are two convictions, namely, 1) that government interference in the lives of private citizens should be kept to a minimum and 2) that government regulation of corporate entities is necessary. This constellation of issues is what the On the issues website calls a Hard-core Liberal position. The view that individuals should tolerate everyone’s freedom, since different people make different choices on moral matters, deserves to be called Liberal, since the word “liberal,” after all, comes from the Latin word meaning “free.” But what On the Issues website calls Hard-core Conservative, the view that markets should be free and unrestrained by governmental interference, has historically also been called Liberalism. When Ronald Reagan was President, Americans tended to call him a conservative, while European (and French Canadian) newspapers labeled him an ultra-liberal. While such labels are interesting, at least until they become confusing and cumbersome, what I find more interesting is the reasoning that leads to one of these positions. Allow me, therefore, to make a case for Hard-core Liberalism, or what I prefer to call Libertarian Socialism.

The defense of Hard-core Liberalism or Libertarian Socialism requires defense on two fronts. The first thing to defend is belief in government-managed economy. Second, since this political stance rejects the totalitarian authority that state communism holds over individuals and thus rejects attempts to legislate personal morality, it requires a defense of the policy of keeping governmental intrusion into the lives of individual citizens at a minimum.

The principal reason for having some regulation of corporate enterprises designed to make a profit is that corporations are not persons and do not have as part of their nature a tendency to consider a full range of consequences of their decisions. Corporations, of course, do not make decisions at all. The people who manage them make the decisions, but when people who manage for-profit corporations make decisions, the only consequences they are charged to take into consideration are those that have an impact on the profitability of the corporation. They are not charged with taking into account the effect that their decisions may have on employees, on members of the community in which they are situated, on animals, or on the environment. Given that decision-makers for corporations are not expected to take consequences other than profits into consideration, someone other than the decision-makers for corporations need to be appointed to consider the consequences that the corporation’s pursuit of profits has on employees, the community and the environment. In most nations, governmental agencies are assigned the task of monitoring the engines of the economy, and that system usually works out rather well, especially when the governmental agencies are not corrupted by the vested interests of the corporations they are charged to monitor.

In the United States, as in most other countries, corporations have resisted being monitored. They have tried to weaken or even to eliminate regulatory agencies that are designed to make sure that the drive for profits does not have an overly negative impact on the community and on the earth itself. In the United States, perhaps more than in most other industrialized nations, this effort to evade effective monitoring has been successful. The results for the environment and for the human beings who must share the world with corporations have been, predictably, largely negative. The drive for profits that has been the raison d’être of the corporations has been a significant factor in the degradation of habitats for both wildlife and human life. That drive has also been a factor in the creation of an economy in which a handful of families have accumulated far more wealth than they can possibly use, while far too many families (and individuals who no longer have families in any real sense of the word) struggle to find adequate nutrition, shelter, healthcare, safety and education.

There is a deep and abiding injustice in the American economy, and no one—even those who are apparently doing well in this system—is served well by injustice. Injustice is unsustainable, and when the imbalance of resources reaches a tipping point, the result is often violent revolution and its ensuring chaos. It is really in the interest of the wealthy to live in a society in which no one lives in grinding poverty of resources and amenities. So long as the wealthy do not take the responsibility of looking after their own interests, there is a place for governmental agencies to look after the welfare of both the very wealthy and the very poor, and of everyone in between those two extremes. The so-called Hard-core Liberals tend to realize that, while the so-called Hard-core Conservatives tend not to.

Having made a case for government serving as the conscience of essentially amoral for-profit corporations, let me now try to make a case for government not serving as a conscience of essentially moral individual human beings. When I say that human beings are essentially moral, what I mean is that human beings are strongly inclined to form opinions about what kinds of deliberate actions are acceptable and what kinds are not. About many kinds of conduct—taking or damaging property that belongs to others, embezzlement, extortion, various forms of physical violence, taking the life of a human being who clearly wishes to stay alive— there is a broad consensus, and those proscribed behaviors become the basis of criminal law. There are many other kinds of behavior, however, that some people disapprove, while others do not, and about which no amount of argument is likely to change the minds of those who have an opinion. It is folly for laws to be passed making behavior in that category criminal, as was made abundantly clear soon after Congress passed the 18th amendment to the Constitution in 1919, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the United States and its territories and the importation of intoxicating liquors into and their exportation from the country. That amendment was finally repealed by the 21st amendment in 1933, after the experiment in prohibition led to the thriving of organized crime, which supplied the goods that many people desired and found inoffensive. Attempts to prohibit or severely limit access to firearms, abortion and recreational drugs have had, or would have, similar results. Trying to legislate the prohibition of disapproved substances, services and items is rarely successful, as is legislation against sexual behavior that only some people strongly condemn.

During the administration of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in Canada (in office 1968—1979 and 1980—1984), a phrase that one often heard was that government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation; during those years the Canadian government largely got out of the business of regulating the sexual conduct of individuals and of saying who could and who could not marry whom. It also greatly simplified divorce laws. Any couple who lived together for a year and wished to declare themselves as a married couple were considered married in the eyes of the law. Any couple that separated for a year and declared their marriage over was considered to have met all the requirements for a no-fault divorce, and whatever assets they had accumulated as a couple during the time of marriage was divided evenly between them, as was responsibility for supporting any children born into the marriage. Trudeau was leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and his attitudes in such matters were liberal and indeed libertarian. I lived in Canada during Trudeau’s years in office and came to appreciate the non-invasive nature of his policies.

In Canada, unlike the United States, marriage and divorce fall within the purview of the federal government, whereas the United States Constitution explicitly states that matters not made federal matters by the Constitution fall within the jurisdiction of the individual states; marriage and divorce are not made a federal matter, so they are left to the individual states to legislate. The jurisdiction, however, is immaterial to my position. The liberal position is that no government at any level should be in the position of imposing on all its citizens a particular decree in matters of marriage and divorce, consensual sexuality, abortion or recreational use of intoxicating substances. Those are all matters of individual taste, and taste cannot be successfully legislated any more than it can be settled by an appeal to reason or evidence. De gustibus non est disputandum.

As Jane Mayer has chronicled in her book Dark Money, a number of extremely wealthy families in the United States—families with the surnames Koch, Bradley, Olin, Mellon, Scaife—have for many decades sought popular support for their resistance to taxation and to environmental and safety regulations and to laws stipulating minimum wages for workers by suggesting, without evidence, that governmental regulation of the economy is necessarily linked to the limitations of individual freedoms. Any government that limits where an oil company can drill or what safety conditions a company must provide for its workers, they have argued, is also necessarily dedicated to enslaving its citizens and dictating every possible detail of their personal lives. In the view of these billionaires, there are exactly two kinds of society: laissez-fair capitalist economies in which individuals have maximal personal freedom, and regulated communist societies in which individuals labor under the burden of oppressive authoritarian governments. The very idea of a libertarian socialism, they have insisted, is a contradiction in terms. And despite the fact that a good many nations in Europe, Asia and the Americas have managed to cultivate successful libertarian socialist societies, a good many Americans remain convinced that such societies are logically impossible.

Some eighty years of billionaire-supported propaganda has been very effective in limiting the imaginations and perceptions of the American public. There are, however, signs that perceptions are beginning to change and that the Libertian Socialist or Hard-core Liberal view is being distinguished from the policies of authoritarian state communism and is being perceived by many as a viable form of government for the United States.