Libertarian Commies Unite!
In which our editor, John Littler, declares his biases in a suitably vague way, and combines perceived opposites to show old labels can be nonsense.
I'm using American terms for the title so let me first explain what they mean - "commies" is, of course, just short for communists and in left/right parlance are the extreme left. Libertarians are generally thought of as being the extreme right. They believe that something close to zero government is good. Personal liberty is all. From the Libertarian viewpoint, anyone who is not one of them is a commie.
So, how on earth could you be a Libertarian Commie?! Quite obviously, if you accepted every point of both, you couldn't. Real life does include people who do accept the whole box of dice of whatever's going but ... unthinking belief because someone else said so, is not a sign of intelligence - which is a very good reason not to believe them, emulate them, or vote them into office. The eternal pragmatist who believes in nothing except staying in power is equally creepy.
The upper region of the tech world in the USA is supposedly bursting with Libertarians and you can easily see how that might be - talented and well-educated people who've done fantastically well for themselves who feel most of their efforts have been in spite of know-nothing or blood-sucking government. In reality, not many of them are on the extreme edge. What that means, we'll get to in a second.
The position can be summarised by a belief in small government, little or no income tax - the complete absence of statist initiatives, a love of the "free market", and such sidelines as support of the right for Americans to bear arms. All of this is built on the fine concept of personal liberty. No, these people do not like George W. Bush and one of their chief villains is Abraham Lincoln.
I can see lots of hands up and small placards saying "What about the poor?", "What about medical care, schools?" and "the free market sucks!".
An extreme Libertarian series of answers might be: What about 'em? What about 'em? and, No it doesn't. Well, to be fair, for the first one might be treated to a discourse on the "trickle down effect" which has it that the wealth of the rich "trickles down" to the less rich - so little is the trickle that economists haven't been able to find it. Another side of this is that the pursuit of self-interest will, in the end (ahem) benefit all. This is the Ayn Rand thing and certainly is wonderfully self-serving, or what some might call toxically anti-humanist.
The Free Market also has a few problems. You can't get away with saying "but there isn't a Free Market!" because the riposte will be "We know, and we will make it free - market forces will decide all." But there are problems - the Free Market model produces no Common Goods (parks, libraries, roads, schools), has no control of Externalities (topical this one - an example is pollution), and equilibria tend to be reached "in the long run". In other words, if you are poor because of some kind of economic shift taking away your job, you are likely to remain that way for some time. As John Maynard Keynes the economist said "In the long run we are all dead."
Also in the economic line is the Free-marketeer's love of Monetarist Economics. The basic credo here is that successful micro-manipulation of economic variables by governments is too hard and is quite likely not to be successful. Their answer is to ... throw their hands in the air and give up, and fiddle with the money supply and interest rates. This creed is very popular with the people who recently brought you the Sub-prime Crisis.
It is fair to say, though, that a free market works very well at doing some things. Around the world, though, we are increasingly beset by mega-corporations who's aim is to gouge us for what they can get. And cosy deals with governments make them very hard to shift as well as making barriers to entry (competition!) almost impossible to overcome. The sensible answer to all of this is the "right" amount of regulation combined with politicians who aren't able to be bought and paid for. How? By not giving them the power. More of this later but you can see a strand of Libertarianism here.
There's also the issue of schooling and quite important ramifications for democracy: an ignorant and ill-informed electorate will most likely make sub-optimal choices when they vote. There seem to be some quite good examples of this around right now.
In other words, an investment in (good!) schooling is an investment in society. What is "good"?! Clearly, there must be Humanist elements, practical elements, and logic and societal elements. By "Humanist" I don't mean a series of exhortations and rules about other cultures, I mean something in the spirit of the Enlightenment. But I'm not going to get bogged down here. There are libraries full of books on this subject and I'm not about to write another one. Let's just say that the first sentence of the previous paragraph should be self-evident. How to achieve it is something more difficult. As far the little or no government thesis goes, this implies user pays which automatically creates large societal sub-stratas - which is what the USA and UK (amongst others) have already, and which is ... sub-optimal in a number of ways.
Right now you might be thinking "So which part of this litany of foolishness is this man accepting?". The basic tenet of personal freedom is what, but with some large "but's" and "however's". This is where the commmie part comes in.
Unrestrained personal liberty describes a sociopath or psychopath quite well. You can practise being this in any number of video games and the old phrase "nasty, brutish, and short" describes the virtual lives therein quite well. There aren't too many educated kids or adults who would like to extend this game life into their neighbourhoods. A smoothly functioning society is one where its members respect each others right to exist and go about their business ... everyone! This is an area where the gutter press have been a pollutant, with an eternal need to be demonising one group or another and with a meanspirited nastiness that seems infectious. What to do? ... where freedom of the press is a given. Encourage media diversity for one thing - not the opposite. Increased education levels should help as well.
Let me finish this aside with a story about the New York Post not long after Rupert Murdoch had taken it over. The story goes that the ad sales manager was trying to sell ads to one of NYC's more upmarket department stores. The reply was something like 'I don't think so. Your readers are our shoplifters.'
So, anyway, back to the main thread, which at this point involves necessary (and fairly obvious) curbs to personal freedom as well as what part of "commie" might be good.
Do what you want as long as you don't adversely affect the rights of others seems fair. As far as government is concerned (and let's talk a little about government in a minute), criminalising every petty dislike of small special interest groups should not be possible under a new and improved Bill of Rights. There is a large body of non-criminal law called Torts which can handle most problems. Well, actually, right now it couldn't as the law is not available to ordinary people any more - overhaul needed there as well. Putting it bluntly, it should be illegal for governments like the UK's "New Labour" to create thousands of technical crimes - new constitutions needed! I think I hear muted cheers from the Libertarians.
And they die down as I start on the Commie part. I've already talked about schooling and how it's an important pillar of a civilised society and a properly working democracy. To me, a moral imperative is that free universal healthcare should be available to the extent that societies can afford it - and I don't mean with the often ridiculous salaries that are currently on offer as a result of clever work by the doctor's unions, or the sheer economic deadweight of bureaucracy that has almost crippled the system in the UK.
What about public ownership generally? It seems to me that where essential public services are concerned - power utilities, water, public transport - that the opposing ideas of providing essential services cheaply and making a profit, are not happy bedfellows. The experiences different countries have had with privatisation underline it somewhat. What a clever idea that was - sell off public assets that have been paid for by taxation so that the main benificiaries are investment banks! The UK is the poster child of this nonsense with examples like Heathrow airport, recently named the world's worst, whose operation (plus others) was sold off to a Spanish company! And we won't talk about the trains there - suffice to say that most Brits want rail to be renationalised.
One problem has been that our public accounting hasn't been helpful in presenting rational analysis. Let's take train vs car. If you take people out of cars and into trains there are plusses and minuses - all the obvious ones but what about public health savings due to less pollution as well as less road carnage? Or to put it another way, road users, particularly big trucks, aren't paying their way in some countries. And then there's the planet thing.
Oh, let me take another aside here ... from the aside I'm already taking. Some forty or more years ago there was a non-tobacco company sponsored study into smoking-related cancer that focussed on the environment of the smoker. It generally found that yes, there was a link between smoking and cancer although the flow-through rates were not that large. These rates, however, took a quantum leap when the smoker's environment was polluted - top of the list was spray painters. Yes, well, leaving aside the picture of someone smoking in a flamable, polluted atmosphere, the key word is "polluted". In the intervening years pollution in both cities and countryside has grown considerably, contracted, and then grown again. And yet we have countless governments now demonising the smoker even though the main trigger for the thing they are ostensibly interested in ... is caused by their inaction! It's part of tabloid government - there's a problem? Who can we blame?! Pass a law! Put 'em in prison (if they won't pay the fine).
The smoking thing actually poses a nice Libertarian question. Is it OK to go to hell in your own way? I say yes ... if you don't force other people to go with you. And yes, I'm with Alternet in their war on the War on Drugs, but because it is stupid, and hasn't worked rather than because I think they're a good thing and everyone should take them.
So, the Commie part of my Libertarian commie is merely a situational socialist, but commie sounds better and is, I think more economical and has more impact... which sounds like a summimg up but I'm not done quite yet.
The original idea of having representatives came about simply because we all can't fit in the same room. Our democratically elected representives are supposed to be there to speak our opinions and get the jobs done we would like, if it's possible. Some people also want leadership. I don't. And in a properly educated society, neither should anyone. A government's job is to provide optimal outcomes, given the wishes of the people. Transparency in government doings should ensure that people have the requisite knowledge. We are a long, long way from that state, which is hardly utopian. It is achievable and workable.
A decade or so back I was interested in the idea of totally participatory democracy enabled by the internet - a zero politician model, except for an honorary president and some support staff. The details weren't worked out and there was a lot of detail needed - security, methods of review (to inject extra wisdom and prevent ultra short-termism), methods of ensuring that people's efforts were seen to be worthwhile, anti-loony groups protection, etc. etc. And there would need to be a constitution as well. The software would need to be Open Source and the community would have to be well educated, and with relatively few totally "disconnected" people.
This sort of excercise sheds no light at all on Libertarians or anybody else but thinking about the model does highlight the idea that society and government aren't givens - that we can (with a lot of difficulty, it's true) make change.
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