Creeping Libertarianism

Is it just me, or is there a growing support for broadly Libertarian ideals? I don’t mean that people are self-identifying as Libertarians (why would you? Libertarians are horrible and mean), but that Libertarian-compatible views are creeping their way into the mainstream.

Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet looks to be a rusted-on Lefty, having managed Democratic Party fund raising and happily taking pot-shots and crazy Libertarians on Twitter. There’s a lot of interesting, and essentially apolitical, ideas in his book. But his advice to concentrate on local news and local issues, because they are both more relevant and something we can act on, has a fundamentally Libertarian flavour to it. It is in essence “think local, act local”, with the implication being that if we each concentrate on improving our local areas we will in aggregate, improve things everywhere.

Clay’s preference for source data, rather than trusting aggregates, also has a Libertarian feel to it.

Then there is the Occupy movement and the wider group of “anti-Capitalists” (who I would argue are actually anti-Corporatists). One of the fundamental shifts I see here is a growing mistrust of the government, and the recognition that Big Business and Big Government are rather closely related. There seems to be a move away from the idea that government can come in and save us from the evil corporations. And while the die-hard socialist and anarchist elements still exist, there seems to be a growing support for sustainable, distributed business. And although they rarely mention it, that idea is fundamentally compatible with free markets.

I don’t think the Occupy movement has a particularly clear or coherent political philosophy, and that’s part of its charm. But from an outside perspective it seems that a lot of the broad goals and concerns are compatible with Libertarianism. In particular, the distrust of concentrations of power and the recognition that, regardless of its source, these power concentrations tend to collude against the rest of society.

This may sound a bit confusing – I mean, don’t Libertarians love big business? While within the broad range of Libertarianism there are certainly some elements that fit that bill, I think on the whole it’s a misconception. Libertarians distrust all concentrations of power, and they do tend to distrust government power a bit more than corporate power. That’s because government is a very specific and unique form of monopoly: it makes and enforces laws, with force where necessary. From a Libertarian perspective, corporations should also be treated with suspicion, but the belief is that competition from other firms in a free market is more of a check than democracy is on government. I certainly don’t think that free market competition is a perfect foil for corporate power, or perhaps even a good one. But it is certainly better than the current Corporatist arrangement, where government uses its lawmaking power to protect and entrench corporate power, and continuing the vicious cycle, corporate power is used to get compliant politicians re-elected.

The Internet’s sprawling, decentralised, unregulated chaos has produced both amazing and terrible things, but on the whole I think most people would say that it has been a very beneficial addition to society. And by and large, people seem to be extremely worried by the idea of government coming in and messing things up. I’m not trying to say that the Internet proves the validity of Libertarianism: there are fundamental differences, in, say, the cost of moving between communities in a physical vs online society. But I do think that some of the Wild West freedom of the Internet is affecting how people think about the physical world.

Libertarians and the Left have lot in common in terms of progressive societal goals; the main point of contention is how to achieve them. The Left thinks government intervention will get us there; Libertarians worry that when you give government more power, they eventually use it against us. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle: I think neither completely free markets nor government are perfect solutions, but, in general, that markets are less corruptible than governments.

There are certainly plenty of people on the Left who acknowledge the problems with government and who think the answer is either better oversight or choosing better politicians. But if I’m right, and on the whole the Left are slowly losing their faith in government, where does that leave us?

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