Saturday, December 31, 2011

Politically Libertarian, Economically Socialist, Culturally Conservative

An independent voter, who prefers "None of the Above" as a descriptive label, could do a lot worse than to try to weave together the best of the libertarian, socialist and conservative principles winding their way through human thought and history.

There are implacable cynics and ideologues who claim this is impossible, that the three are mutually repulsive philosophies. This would be true, if anyone attempted to apply all three simultaneously to every aspect of life, politics, and culture. But looking for the best hope of human happiness, rather than the Correct Party Line, it seems each of these philosophies has their place and their proper use.

Most people are by nature libertarian, at least concerning their own individual choices and preferences in life. We all want to be left alone by society when it comes to how we will live our life. Conservative columnist Rod Dreher, author of the celebrated and denounced book, Crunchy Cons, provided a good example in accusing the federal government of communist tendencies for messing with raw oysters in New Orleans. (The article appears to be irretrievable).

There are of course points of tension between any principles that are, respectively, individual, communal, and judgemental. When it comes to gay rights, should a libertarian impulse to live and let live yield to conservative denunciation? The answer to that question could put a citizen on either side of the Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas.

How about Roe v. Wade? A consistent libertarian would want government to stay out of a private, intimate, personal decision. A rigid conservative would ask whether murder of a five year old is also a valid private decision. From a socialist point of view, it might be deemed either good for the community to reduce the surplus population, or a duty to the state to produce more children.

The truth is, almost everyone is inconsistent in such matters. That is why the media pundits are always having to distinguish between "social liberals" who are "fiscal conservatives" and "social conservatives" who are "economically liberal." Getting into what ornery, unique individuals REALLY think would be much more complex.

Nothing enrages a narrow-minded ideologue more than the thought that libertarian and socialist thoughts could lurk in the same mind. But any semblance of justice requires both. A handy rule of thumb might be, the larger and more powerful the enterprise, the more government regulation is required to "promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

There are limits even to that. A small local butcher shop is not entitled to sell rancid meat kept in sloppy, unsanitary conditions, inflicting salmonella and other infectious illnesses on its customers, merely because "I'm a small business, leave me alone." However, it is possible to keep the necessary inspections and licensing streamlined and inexpensive.

It is companies with supply lines extending around the world, who pay millions of dollars a year to lobbyists and high-powered law firms, who bear watching. There is almost no way that an individual citizen, consumer, or employee can exercise effective control, supervision, or "free choice" over such behemoths. We The People need OUR government to do that on our behalf, forcefully if necessary.

But, any measure of regulation, licensing, control, or direct intervention, should leave room for the hapless local craftsman carving children's toys in a small rural community by the side of a well-traveled road. Such a craftsman should not have to pay thousands of dollars for lab testing and certification, merely because chain stores have been importing toys from China decorated with lead-based paints. Those chain stores, having demonstrated their gross irresponsibility, DO need to be tightly regulated, and pay for the costs. If this raises the price of the net product, perhaps they should re-think whether extending the supply chain to China is really such a great cost saving.

The dividing line between the three spheres comes down to the old principle, your right to swing your fist stops where the next man's nose begins. Cultural conservatism, in this sense, can really be a libertarian expression. The State should, perhaps, not regulate your choice to read sexually explicit novels, but, I have a right not to have your prurient interests graphically shoved in front of my eyes. Ditto, you may not impose your tastes on innocent children in order to gratify your desires. What about THEIR liberty?

What color I paint my house, and what God or gods I believe in, affect nobody but myself. What portion of the revenue from any given commercial enterprise goes to those who labor on the floor, what portion goes to stockholders, and what portion goes to executive management, is a matter of vast concern to all of the above, and to the health of the entire economy.

Businesses may complain about the Environmental Protection Agency, in glowing libertarian language, but what they really seek is a subsidy of the cost of doing business by those who are down wind or down stream. If the full cost of particulate pollution, from the homeowners who have to repaint more often, to the medical costs (and funeral expenses, lost wages, etc.) of those who breath the particles, were fully monetized and charged to the account of the polluter, why every business would be rushing to install extensive controls, or reorganize the process of production. It would take regulation and inspection to implement even such a "free market" approach to pollution control.

So, contrary to the infatuation of the busybody nanny state conservative, individuals should be free to make individual choices about any matter than does not infringe the rights of their neighbors. (This will also offend that species of socialist who assumes that EVERY aspect of human life is a manifestation of class struggle, requiring a Party Line on each detail imaginable).

Contrary to the sordid greed of "Kerr-McGee libertarianism," decisions about economy and production which effect the lives and welfare of all require some degree of collective regulation and even policy and priority decisions through the political process. Corporations only exist by license of the state, and are properly subject to regulation for the common good. If you don't want social accountability, then you must give up the privilege of limited liability, facing the prospect that those you harm can sue you for ALL you are worth, and then some.

Contrary to the facile and flagrant exhibitionism of the "anything goes" crowd, I don't have to applaud, appreciate, celebrate, participate in, or even watch and listen to, your own exercise of your own personal choices. That is where cultural conservatism has some value. Some level of sex education is healthy, but it does not, and should not, extend to detailed advice on techniques and preferences. Leave that to each individual's own libertarian choices.

Obviously, there are points of tension on which reasonable people may differ. That is why we have public debate and political process. But in general, the power of the state should be regarded with skepticism, applied to individual citizens. It should be judiciously deployed, with regard to large institutional decisions that DO have a coercive effect on individuals, whether made by private or public sector bureaucrats. Culturally, we really don't have to "let it all hang out." That should be a sound basis for achieving a workable consensus that all but the most venal can live with.


Anonymous said...

I think you're using too wide of and non-initial understanding of those three concepts which paints them as more mutually exclusive than is so. Socialism is essentially a form of political economy, libertarianism is essentially a human rights philosophy, and conservatism is essentially a social mindset. They're interaction need not be terribly complex.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

My dear sir or lady, I entirely agree. I find no conflict at all. I wrote this piece because I have repeatedly been told, in vociferous terms, that I CANNOT be, all at the same time, politically libertarian, economically socialist, and culturally conservative. There are those ideologues who would have us believe that these are mutually exclusive constructs. Please feel free to add more as to how they are not, and can be mutually consistent.