Left-Libertarianism and a Broader Political Spectrum

George Will’s piece, “A Recoil Against Liberalism”, from the November 4 Washington Post seems to me mostly an attempt to add insult to injury to progressives, now that conservatives are in political ascendancy (at least for the moment) based on our recent election. But when Will gets beyond his own “your mother wears army boots” rant and quotes maybe a more thoughtful conservative, now we’re talking some real ideas worth wrestling with. Will quotes George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux who is reacting to Obama’s quote that progressives failed to successfully communicate their ideas in the recent election…

“These ideas,” Boudreaux says, “are almost exclusively about how other people should live their lives. These are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else’s contracts, social relations, diets, habits, and even moral sentiments.” Liberalism’s ideas are “about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas . . . with a relatively paltry set of ‘Big Ideas’ that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced by government, not by the natural give, take and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people.”

Will goes on to conclude…

This was the serious concern that percolated beneath the normal froth and nonsense of the elections: Is political power – are government commands and controls – superseding and suffocating the creativity of a market society’s spontaneous order? On Tuesday, a rational and alarmed American majority said “yes.”

So good question, is your standard progressive agenda (including government regulation of business), as put forward by the Obama administration, cramping the U.S.’s entrepreneurial style?

Well from my emerging more “left-libertarian” take on things, yes and no!


To set a context here (and please indulge me a few paragraphs to do so!)… people generally think of the political spectrum as being a two-dimensional line with “progressive”, “liberal” or “left” in one direction and “conservative” or “right” in the opposite. Every person or political transaction falls somewhere on that linear spectrum (including, if you go far enough out in either direction, tacking on the adjective “radical” or “extreme”).

I thought along that linear spectrum too until I started exploring ideas about educational alternatives and really started becoming familiar with a libertarian educational position which seemed fundamentally different than either the typical progressive or conservative one. That position essentially says that a person can direct their own learning and should not have the State directing what, where, when, how and by who they must be taught.

That is not a position that is in any way consistent with the conservative educational thinkers like Horace Mann (though otherwise a political progressive), Benjamin Rush, (and more recently) William Bennett and Rod Paige, or even progressive educators like John Dewey, all of whom saw a compelling interest by the state in controlling a youth’s education (even though they had very different ideas about the content of that education).

There seem to be just the smallest minority of educational thinkers from the past or the present that espouse this educational liberty position. Rarefied examples include Homer Lane and his disciple A.S. Neill (founder of the Summerhill School in Suffolk, England), Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer (founder of The Modern School) and more recently “unschooler” John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Daniel Greenberg (co-founder of the Sudbury Valley School).

So if I acknowledge in education that there is this third fundamental philosophical position (imagine the three points of an equilateral triangle), isn’t this pure liberty-preeminent position also a third political end point in a now three-dimensional grid. Of course the libertarians we typically think about (Cato institute, Ron & Rand Paul, etc.) are generally placed (or place themselves) on the right side of the political spectrum, often to the right of other conservatives. And the liberty-preeminent position on the left could be argued to be anarchism. Other than private property and the role of the government in protecting it, the (left) anarchists and the (right) libertarians have a lot in common since they both decry “the man”.

Back to George Will’s Question

Yes finally… back to Will’s question. Is the standard progressive agenda (including government regulation of business), as put forward by the Obama administration, cramping the U.S.’s entrepreneurial style?

And then my answer… yes and no. Let me start with the no.

Focusing on Obama and the Democrats’ effort on health care reform (though lacking a “public option” and other elements many progressives lobbied for), I see it as an effort to give every American access to a certain reasonable standard of health care. Currently, because of our patchwork health insurance system, often tied to your current job and/or your preexisting medical conditions, it can be seriously problematic for people to change jobs, or take on any work or entrepreneurial effort when it could involve losing one’s access to affordable health care. If people cannot freely take a full range of new work or other business opportunities, how does this facilitate a dynamic free enterprise system that is designed to encourage entrepreneurs?

I am the perfect example of the efficacy of guaranteed health insurance. When I married my partner Sally 27 years ago, I became covered under her health insurance (she worked for the University of California and we continue to have health insurance even in her retirement). During those 27 years I have worked any number of different jobs, some as an employee, others as an independent contractor, some for large corporations, others for small start-ups. Those years included plenty of breaks between jobs when I was unemployed. During all that time I never had to think once about leaving a job or not taking the most promising new one because of the issue of maintaining my health insurance. As a result I have had much more flexibility to pick the best opportunities that facilitated my work and family life.

This was not the case for many other people I know who have stayed in a job they were really ready to move on from, because of the need to maintain their health insurance for them and their family.

Do you see where I’m going with this? If we can take health insurance (or the potential economic ruin for lack of it) off the table as a constant issue in people’s lives, that seems like a good thing that we can find a consensus for in our society. The health care reform passed by Obama and the Democratic majority (with significant GOP input if not votes), though flawed and incomplete, was at least, finally, after decades of trying, the beginning of that enhanced safety net that I see as facilitating our economic system, not commandeering it.

So does Obama-care stifle the entrepreneurial spirit? I would definitely have to say “no”!

On the other hand, when it comes to education, I think the Obama administration’s push for a national standardized curriculum, along with support for all the previous high-stakes standardized testing promoted by No Child Left Behind, is stifling the creative, democratic and entrepreneurial spirit of our country. In fact all the current state, and emerging national curriculum standards go well beyond access to mandating the outcome of the educational process for our youth.

Unlike some (right) libertarians, I am a strong believer in a public education system, financed by taxpayers, giving every youth in our country access to an enriched educational environment, including adult teachers and mentors and public facilities (schools and libraries, etc.) But in line with those libertarians, I am for guaranteed access, not outcomes.

My thinking is all about facilitating our society’s transition from hierarchical to egalitarian institutions, from directive to facilitative leadership. So my emerging left-libertarian political framework does see an important role for a democratic government (with the appropriated political consensus) helping facilitate a democratic, entrepreneurial society built on principles of liberty and free choice. I do have serious concerns about “big government”, as well as any large powerful organization (beyond a human scale), including “big business” and “big labor” and any other “big”.

But taking the power away from “big government”, including its ability to regulate “big business”, does not seem to be a step forward in a liberty-based agenda. At least all of us can vote out our government representatives in the next election. Most of us have no such power to vote out our big business leadership. We the people have to keep re-forging a consensus towards a more egalitarian society, based on principles of liberty. We do that re-forging in the political arena, where we are all citizens with the power of our votes and voices. We do not have that same power in the business arena, which has a “one dollar one vote” mode of governance.

So as a left-libertarian, I champion a right-sized representative government that is the sufficient lever for focusing the egalitarian consensus of our citizenry. A government that facilitates freedom and liberty, and access rather than outcomes.

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8 replies on “Left-Libertarianism and a Broader Political Spectrum”

  1. Nice piece, Cooper. I do have to quibble with this statement, though: “So does Obama-care stifle the entrepreneurial spirit? I would definitely have to say “no”!”

    I would have to say “Yes!” and that is one of my problems with it. You see when a government takes over an industry, and that is where this is heading–once the plan, as presently constructed, succeeds in driving all the private insurance companies out of business by establishing rate freezes that are the below the operating costs of the insurance companies (it is health care cost increases that are driving insurance rate increases, not excessive profit-taking)–the decisions that were once business decisions will become political decisions. For example, when the government took over Chrysler, bondholders, who as secured creditors by law are supposed to be the first to get paid, got stiffed, because Obama preferred to reward one of his primary constituencies, big labor. Similarly, when the government runs the health care industry, calculations about what research will be favored will similarly cater to political favorites of the government. You may have a would-be entrepreneur who has discovered a ground-breaking treatment for breast cancer, but could, in effect, be told, “I’m sorry, we did breast cancer three years ago–this year we are concerned about African Americans, (because we didn’t poll as well with them the last cycle) have you got anything for sickle-cell?” Plus, a granting structure would create a huge bureaucracy (more cost) that would be slower than the current process of an entrepreneur finding investors as he or she is able to demonstrate viability, and moving forward with production as the limitations of credit, the economy and the market dictate. A product that is a bust, in the market system, will just disappear. The government will never be able to react that quickly and less than ideal products may get pushed into service, simply because of the money already invested, and the need to show the public a good balance sheet, another political calculation influencing health care decision-making. The more the government influences the health care sector, the more everything will cost. And let’s be clear. It is the cost of health care that is *already* too high–health insurance costs are following those costs curves, not driving them.

    Also, you like the educational system b/c is isn’t too out of whack with your values. That could change and then you’d have the experience of having to choose to pay for a private school more in line with your ideological perspective or home schooling. Remember, when you put government in control of something, you can’t assume that government will always more or less be congruent with your political views. So far, so good, maybe, but I’d be leery about giving them too much power. You never know when or how far the pendulum might swing.

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Hey Drew… I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I don’t get a lot on this version of my b(more on the Daily KOS version).

    I hear your concern that this looks like a de facto takeover of a private industry by the government, which torques the normal business process. If this private industry can be taken over, then others will too and pretty soon there is nothing left to be entrepreneurial about. Have I gotten that right?

    As to torquing the normal business process, you site the Obama administration takeover of Chrysler and choosing to reward the Chrysler unions (Obama supporters) rather than the bond holders. But tell me this, if Obama had not taken over Chrysler, wouldn’t the company have failed completely, and then the bond holders would be out of their investments anyway?

    And as to taking over the health insurance industry, I think it has to be treated as some sort of special case, not comparable to most industries that produce something that we can choose or not to buy (like cars). Health is seen by many as a fundamental right (though you may not see it as such). And if you have a majority in a democratic country that wants universal health care (though that majority crumbled during the contentious health care reform debate), doesn’t that political majority (reflected by a majority in Congress) have a right to direct the private health insurance companies to make it so? What fundamental right do those health insurance companies have to stand in the way of a majority of the people wanting everyone to be able to get coverage?

    From my understanding, the majority of the health insurance companies saw that it was in their best economic interest to go along with health care reform this time, unlike in 1994 when they opposed it for the most part. By getting on board they were able to have enough influence to get the public option dropped, which we progressives thought was so important. That was the classic compromising, “sausage making” of democratic process. It was in the industry’s interest, because the reform mandates would give them a lot of new customers, to go along.

    What is wrong with this whole process? A political majority decides our society should have universal health care and the industry sees it in their interest to go along with providing that wish.

  3. […] « Left-Libertarianism and a Broader Political Spectrum […]

  4. Peter Zale says:

    It is interesting to note that Mr. Alexander cites the unfairness to bondholders as part of the big government after-effect of the Obama admin. takeover of Crysler. What Mr. Alexander doesn’t get (or simply never learned) is that the very existence of bondholders and their “rank” in the order of cleanup if a company fails has to do with government in the first place. There would be no difference between a bond and an equity holder if there was not a government tax break giving companies an incentive to create bonds in the first place. Government declared that companies should get a break for taking out loans so, surprise, they do. Funny how that is missing from Mr. Alexander’s calculation.

  5. Cooper Zale says:

    Peter… thanks for sharing with us that information about corporate policy and regulation vis a vis the government. I think most of us, including me, do not understand all rules and reasons behind Corporate process and governance. Corporations are not freestanding beings or consciousnesses like humans, but are entities derived by human consensus under certain covenants that reflect our collective wisdom, for better or worse, about and effective entity to facilitate economic enterprise and individuals investment in that enterprise.

    For me, trying to flesh out this left-libertarian position, I want to put forward the principle of human liberty in all areas, and facilitating governance to promote and secure it. But unlike a classic (what I would call “right”) libertarian, I do not acknowledge we humans having a fundamental right to own property (and further to do what we want with it).

    Thanks for your comment. I definitely have more research to do to understand this area of our economic institutions.

  6. […] principles, particularly peace, but the others as well, with caveats and concerns. (See my piece “Left-Libertarianism and a Broader Political Spectrum” imagining more of a triangular than a linear political spectrum.) People on the left are generally […]

  7. Beaux says:

    I have for years thought of the political spectrum as a triangle, but slightly different from the one presented here.

    Instead of naming the points, I have named the legs.

    The left leg is Social Liberty (Liberalism), the right leg represents Economic Liberty (Conservatism). The base and the apex are Total Personal Liberty (Anarchy) and Total Governmet Control (Despotism) repectively.

    In this manner, neither side (left or right) has a specific negative connotation, as both see themselves as fighting for freedom.

    The dangers of any political system lay mainly in it’s tendancy for overregulation, growth of government until it becomes opressive. The higher on the diagram a system, whether left or right, the more restrictive of ALL freedoms it becomes. Conversly, if it were possible for a government to fail in it’s mission of establishing a basic order of society the potential for anarchy looms. (The latter is pretty much an academic point as governments rarely surrender power once they assume authority over any aspect of life).

    This idea of visually displaying the restriction of freedom answers the question of how two so fundementally differing philosophies can (at their furthest extent) become so similar in the application of tyranny. The fact is that an uncontrolled government always results in less and less freedom.

    Libritarians, for example, would potentially span the spectrum from left to right, very low on the diagram, supporting only the minimal level of government they believe to be needed to maintain a societal structure. Their individual L/R location based essentially on their own level of interest, be it social liberty or economic.

    I’m not really very good at explaining things in print, I always want to say everything first, but I think I’ve gotten the basics out here, and you will understand where I am going. I hope this is helpful to you in some way.

    Thank You for your time.
    John R. “Beaux” Guss
    Kansas City, MO

  8. Cooper Zale says:

    Beaux… I think I get your high-level “diagram” with perhaps its three “axes” – Social liberty, economic liberty and then a third that measures that spectrum between informal egalitarian governance (anarchism) and total hierarchical top-down control (authoritarianism).

    One might posit that in theory a system could have max social, economic & “governance” liberty. So what would that look like? I guess there is always a problem with economic liberty that it becomes “one dollar = one vote” rather than “one person = one vote”, particularly when the scale of economic activity can get so grand these days, way beyond owning your own farm in Colonial days.

    Anyway… respond if you want to continue this dialogue! You have sparked some interesting ideas I want to wrestle with… Thank you!

    Cooper Zale

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