C. On Libertarianism
A Radical Centrist Vision for the Future > Appendix > C. On Libertarianism
Radical Centrism vs. Libertarianism
Radical Centrism is superior to Libertarianism because:
It offers the best available way to combine the strengths of Democrats and Republicans, or others, into workable solutions to problems without compromise of principle. Libertarianism insists on a fixed ideology and has no way to even recognize strengths of Left or Right except insofar as one or the other agrees with Libertarian views, viz, my way or the highway. We agree whole heartedly with Libertarian emphasis on free speech and the value of markets but take a far more holistic view of politics and governance.
Corporate profit and government innovation can exist symbiotically. The Internet and the transcontinental railroad wouldn’t have come to fruition without significant government effort and resources. Each became a backbone for private industry. This, for Radical Centrists, is an ideal outcome, government working to expedite the success of business, and business contributing to the common good. We reject demonization of government as misguided even though we are not in the least reluctant to criticize individual politicians or specific political positions. Usually we are about as likely to criticize Democrats as Republicans although the exact proportions vary from year to year.
A great strength of Libertarians is that they often makes you think. They forever challenge everyone else’s orthodoxies. They act as agents provocateur to all other political parties, and to factions within parties. Debate a Libertarian and you will almost always need to rethink some of your positions, including some you regard as very important. However, the great weakness of Libertarianism is that few Libertarians challenge their own orthodoxies. There is little or no self-criticism.
Libertarianism has a fatal flaw: It is a reductionist philosophy. There is a tendency towards absolute reductionism, reducing all issues to one principle, especially the primacy of freedom, but also to the near-primacy of reason. However, this is not how the world works.
Is all of physics reducible to e = mc^2? No-one can possibly make that claim no matter how crucial Einstein is to physics. Rather, the political world is more like chemistry, in which compounds –by analogy political solutions to problems– are made up of various or even many substances found in the Periodic Table of Elements.
Even if a few issues can be dealt with in fairly simple terms, regardless, ONLY a few issues allow this. Any other expectation is unrealistic.
Any form of reductionism is false by definition, whether Henry George’s single tax or the Flat Tax as a panacea, or Keynesian stimulus programs as “the solution” to financial crisis, or anything else.
You’ve got to figure out how the system works. If there is any one principle to politics this is it. And all living systems change, they evolve (or devolve) and combine and recombine in many different ways. Libertarians do not begin to understand this basic axiom.
To put it simply, the world is a complex system, not a formal system. Libertarian thought is caught up in Newtonian/Aristotelian deterministic first principles as if politics is a deductive process. While use of first principles as a means to clarify ideas is incredibly useful and elegant, it is only tangentially related to the real world.
There also is the matter of pragmatism. Where is Libertarian pragmatism? On the premise that a pragmatic approach is essential for success in American politics, this is anything but a trivial question. Ideological politics seldom has any chance at all in the United States since Americans are pragmatists by second nature –with good reason. We are not interested in any political philosophy unless it works, unless it produces results.
This means far more than simple pragmatism for a few isolated issues, but systemically, as an essential way of doing (political) business day in and day out. Instead, in Libertarianism, one finds commitment to an ideology based on one or two or only a few ‘unarguable’ principles.
Why are Libertarians attracted to this way of thinking? We do not have an answer. In any case, we see the world differently.
Radical Centrism is also about applying the scientific method to politics as much as possible in the real world. For us, science is essential both in its own right and as providing us with a model of how to proceed to find best solutions to political problems.
What differentiates a Radical Centrist from traditional Left-Right ideologues in America is that Leftists and Rightists cherry-pick facts to support their arguments, without even trying to find an objective solution to problems. Our purpose, whatever limitations any of us may have, is to find the objectively best answers to questions wherever on the political spectrum they may originate.
At the same time, and in contrast to many Libertarians, we think it is vitally important for any political remedy to rest upon principles of moral clarity, no matter how innovative we sometimes are.
By definition, politics which is not founded on a sense of moral right and wrong, is amoral and can easily become immoral. We don’t need more ethics scandals to remind us of this obvious truth. Thus, values issues are not ‘wedge issues’ to us even when other concerns necessarily must come first in our priorities.
Political Independents will find Radical Centrism open-minded and useful, and, at the same time, very principled.
Radical Centrism is a political philosophy intended for Independent voters and independent-minded political people of any party.
This statement has been contributed to by Ernie Prabhakar, Mike Gonzales, and Billy Rojas, and represents a combination of their ideas and observations.
Radical Centrism and Libertarianism – A Dialogue
An e-mail discussion that began on November 1, 2011, turned out to be very important in development of a Radical Centrist response to Libertarian philosophy.
In our “conversations at firstname.lastname@example.org we sometimes deal with libertarian ideas with a good deal of seriousness. In part this is because there are libertarians or semi-libertarians who are part of the group. These exchanges are always thoughtful and civil. Or almost always; we, too, have feelings and now and then become unhappy with what someone says. Regardless, the results almost always are valuable for allowing each participant to learn from others and to test ideas.
The early November discussions featured two ‘libertarians’ David Block, a computer expert from Texas, a regular at RC.org, to use our shorthand designation, and a newcomer to the group, Kevin Kervick, a writer for the Manchester Independent Examiner newspaper, and the author of a recent book, Discovering Possibility. Kevin posted chapter 7 of his volume at the RC site and it became a subject of discussion. To characterize either of these men purely as “libertarians” is not quite accurate, even if, thus far, that is where most of their political sympathies are found. David, for instance, takes some un-libertarian positions such as approval of trust-busting and opposition to open borders.
Kevin is trying to develop a new philosophy that starts with Libertarian premises but that goes from there to uses of social psychology in politics, which is foreign to most political views including Libertarianism, and justifying his overall stands on the basis of the need we have in the here-and-now to dramatically reform not only our politics but also the way society functions as a system. As he put it, there is an “inevitable build-up that occurs over time in human systems.” With many years of hard won experience in human services, “perhaps the most repressive and intransigent” of any of the “helping” professions, Kevin concluded with the comment that “something serious needs to happen to get back to efficiency and neighborliness.” One translation of this might be to say that what he wants is to see something new arise in communities in which things that actually need to get done, do get done, and in which people once more get to know each other as friends and share their lives as fellow citizens.
The context for the discussion was reaction to an article by T. M. Scanlon, “How Not to Argue for Limited Government and Lower Taxes,” about the logic of the Libertarian position on these and related issues. The conversation began with some honest-to-God serious philosophical reflections. This happens at RC.org often enough; that is, one of the hallmarks of our group is interest on the part of many of us in actual fresh thinking about our views and positions from time to time.
David set the tone. This was after some of us had criticized Libertarians for their rationalist premises –and rationalist demands for political conversations generally. But, David asked, is this a reasonable approach? For sure, he said, such criticisms of “libertarians,” and he has more than one foot in that camp, don’t apply to him, not as he sees it. This puts him, doubtless along with others, in the odd position of being criticized for what he does not do. His exact words:
“Complete and total rationality might be a myth.”
” If rationality is a myth, then is irrationality the truth?? Not sure I want to go there. Not sure that you would want to go there, either. If you do want to, WHY?? ”
Where does this leave anybody? None of us are perfectly rational but is the antidote the opposite? How does that make any sense? Which is where Libertarians and Anarchists part company. The ‘rationalism’ of Anarchists is pretty close to nihilistic irrationality. Great for making a lot of noise but it solves nothing.
What, then, is the alternative? Limited rationality, imperfect rationality, just doing our best to try and be rational, and succeeding more often than not when we make an honest effort. As David concluded:
“I would like to think that we are more rational than irrational.”
But… ” Your mileage may vary.” With that we were off to the races. Here is where Kevin’s essay from his book became the focus of attention.
Kevin’s view in his book is, in common with other Libertarians, that maximizing freedom is not only the highest good, but comes close to being an Absolute Good. Perhaps this overstates his case, but this generalization does put the issue into focus.
Kevin’s analysis centered on the advantages of workplace freedom, as much as people may reasonably hope for. And his point is hard to argue against. If you have a flexible work schedule, if you can work from home, if you have real choice in your work assignments, etc, you will be happier than if you did not have these freedoms.
The psychological principle, ” that free people are happy people is not without real world evidence,” Kevin continued. ” If one looks around the world it is readily apparent that countries high on authoritarianism tend to be low on happiness and countries high on free choice tend to be high on happiness. ” And, by implication, so it is in the world of work, and generally. Therefore, some kind of freedom quotient is our best yardstick and may as well be our only yardstick even if, yes, about some particulars this view may need to be qualified.
Ernie, our leader, wasn’t buying.
The key criticism –we usually use the word in an analytic sense– in Ernie’s review of libertarian philosophy was his observation that as much as the libertarian outlook is useful in any number of ways, especially in today’s over-organized society, it is ” woefully one-sided, both historically and ideologically. In Radical Centrism, we try very hard to see all sides of the story –including those damaging to our viewpoint — and integrate them into something better.” And this, indeed, is a major difference. Radical Centrist philosophy requires conscientious study of opposing viewpoints, both in terms of Democrats vs Republicans but also in terms of some other viewpoint vs Radical Centrism. And the purpose in doing this is to learn useful ideas from other viewpoints, not simply to argue against them.
Expanding on the theme of freedom, Ernie made the point that, on this subject, Radical Centrists often come down on the same side as libertarians. However, for us, freedom is important but not all-important –because it cannot be and at the same time be true to other important parts of life. After all, how valid is it to define freedom as ability to do as one wants? Sometimes we should do something, and we know it, even when we don’t necessarily want to.
Examples are abundant: Doing what is best for one’s family even when you might really want to go to a ball game or visit with your buddies. Doing what helps your church rather than not doing anything because you would prefer to take it easy and relax. Getting involved in local government even though doing so will take time from other things you might prefer doing.
Ernie asked: aren’t there “some shoulds that overrule wants? ” What is the libertarian answer?
There is no question that “freedom is an important factor. But not the only one. In Radical Centrism, we’re trying to find all the factors so we can optimize them simultaneously, not pick one to obsess over to the exclusion of others.”
About another set of issues there is basic agreement. As Kevin said, ” A fulfilled life is an intentional life. The happy person is aware of his interdependence with his community and the opportunities it presents, adds positive energy to it, but does not let himself become entrapped by tyrannical darkness. Darkness usually comes in the form of narcissism, dependency, or attempts to control. Happy people make deliberate choices in order to experience the full breadth of humanity without getting engulfed by tyranny. A freedom mindset enables one to do so.”
Essentially this point of view commends itself. Of course there are Radical Centrist exceptions to take. Libertarians have a marked tendency to overuse words like “tyranny,” for example. Is it really tyrannical to need to observe vehicle parking ordinances, or to need to fill out paperwork to satisfy OSHA regulations? To call this tyranny goes much too far. So would any comparison to being taxed at rates you regard as too high. Kevin’s libertarian point was that: ” If people believe they have some influence over how regulations that affect them are constructed, they tend to trust the structures. If they see the regulatory authority as separate from them, they resist the control…..this is where we are today. Most people today do not believe the government is an extension of their authority.” Ernie took exception to this argument: ” That’s an overly sweeping generalization. Having spent [ considerable time ] in truly corrupt countries, the kinds of things we complain about here in the U.S. are truly a joke. Most people in the U.S., I believe, are deeply frustrated by a few key areas that they see as completely irresponsible, but are blindly grateful for a whole host of structures that function largely as intended.” People get angry, in fact, when perfectly (or perfectly enough) running systems are threatened, the way that seniors, despite current sympathies with the Republican Party, are very upset with GOP rhetoric about abolishing Social Security, or cutting benefits they paid for over many years.
Kevin also made much, in his book, about the ideals upon which the early republic was founded. Indeed, this is a common Libertarian motif. Here is his take on 1776 and the following several years: “…the Founders were most concerned about vigilance against the inevitable tyranny that comes with unchecked power. Edmund Burke was perhaps the most specific when he wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And, “There is no safety for honest men except believing all possible evil of evil men.”
” Thus, the Founders envisioned a society that was decentralized and barely beyond anarchy, giving the maximum opportunity for individual expression. They understood that human beings seek structure, and structure is part of free choice, but because of the controlling instincts of man and the corruption that power often provokes, they needed Constitutional protection against the threat of others imposing structure upon them.”
Here, Radical Centrists take considerable exception.
Ernie, in referring to something I had said previously, noted that ” glossing over the Articles of Confederation seriously weakens your argument. There’s an important lesson that the Founders learned when they tried “a society that was decentralized and barely beyond anarchy”, and I haven’t seen any libertarians willing to internalize that lesson.”
” That’s my real problem with Libertarian thought: if it were truly a comprehensive theory, it should also be able to identify areas where we have (or had) too much freedom, and require more government. But they very idea appears unthinkable to most libertarians.” In other words, Libertarianism is unrealistic and is ideology driven.
” The Founders, ” said Kevin, ” believed we needed just enough restraint on liberty to sustain a central government but not too much restraint, so that tyranny would prevail. They were students of history who knew man’s unchecked desire for power usually destroyed individual freedom…” Then Kevin observed that the older he has gotten the more he values freedom.
“Funny, the older I get the more I value constraints,” replied Ernie.
” I treasure the fact that I have marriage covenant that binds me until “death to us part”, and children who are a fixed point of need independent of my feelings. I like it when my church raises the standards for membership and leadership.” The principle can even extend to computer applications which impose one or another discipline such as following a diet regimen or providing reminders about when to exercise.
“Are these voluntary? Sure, but so it is citizenship. Changing countries these days is no more difficult than changing jobs, and in fact in some ways quite easier. Libertarians seem to think that the State is some magical beast with superpowers over individual lives that require extraordinary measures to keep in check that don’t apply to other communities or relationships. I see them as a continuum.”
” Also, the older I get the more I realize the non-dichotomy between freedom and constraints. Perhaps surprisingly, stronger constraints can actually increase freedom along a different axis. Regulation of food vendors means I have greater freedom (lower transaction costs) when choosing a restaurant.”
“The real question…..is whose freedom are we protecting, and from what? The Founding Fathers were mostly concerned with protecting the property-owning class from government, but who protected their workers (and slaves) from them? ”
” This isn’t a simple-minded cry about hypocrisy….. My hypothesis is that the most “Libertarian” of the Founding Fathers were precisely those who kept slaves and lived as mini-monarchs on their plantation, where they provided for most of their own needs through the work of laborers who were anything but free. The more commercial of the Founding Fathers were actually more for central government, as it improved the efficiency of business. That’s might also be why I seem to see a lot of economists arguing for libertarian economics, but very few entrepreneurs and CEOs.” Radical Centrists gladly grant one premise of Libertarianism: The fundamental human right is the freedom to decide for myself what is good. But Radical Centrists insist upon another principle, as Ernie put it: The fundamental human responsibility is the duty to decide for myself what is good
That is, freedom is not doing whatever I want, but the ability to decide for myself what is Good. But it carries the responsibility to discern what is Good.
This is the great divide between Libertarians and Radical Centrists. The qualification to make is that, as individuals, many Libertarians have moral codes they regard as essential, whether derived from religion or from cultural standards and conscience. However, and the “however” is non-trivial, there isn’t much by way of Libertarian morality except whatever can be deduced from the ideal of maximizing freedom. And Libertarians mean, in Rousseau’s sense, only negative freedom, the demand to be left alone and not imposed on. Positive freedom consists of rights that a community bestows on people the way that children are free to receive an education paid for by others, or the benefits conferred on veterans which give them the freedom to be treated in VA hospitals or to attend college. About which Libertarians are essentially silent.
There was also correspondence from myself to Kevin, in reply to his book chapter. This should give the reader an idea of where we are coming from. My approach was to write a short essay concerning Kevin’s interpretation of early American history. Because this era of history looms large in any kind of political theory citizens want to feel that they are being true to the ideals of the Founders. As Americans we base our sense of lawful and unlawful, of political right vs wrong, and much of our identity on the US Constitution.
The Libertarian interpretation of these years has serious shortcomings. But not about the religious foundation of the nation. At least concerning Kevin Kervick, we are essentially on the same page. And also equally at odds with the Religious Right’s view of the Founding Fathers as devout evangelical Christians and the secular Left’s view of the same people as equivalent to modern-day free thinkers and Atheists, in any case, only minimally concerned with religious faith.
The era from roughly 1760 to 1795, extending another two decades or more in some places, was a time of Deist leadership in America. This was decidedly true for Thomas Jefferson and to only slightly lesser extent for figures like Ben Franklin and James Madison. Even Washington, for some years, had Deist sympathies.
Yes, there were exceptions like Patrick Henry, a staunch religious conservative, Thomas Paine, a Leftist Free Thinker, but the “theme”of the period was one of America’s version of the Age of Enlightenment, believing very much in a customized interpretation of the ideal of philosopher kings, in our case, philosopher elected officials.
You cannot really compare Deism to any modern-day religion, there is no actual equivalent. But it wasn’t, or isn’t, the same as either contemporary Evangelical Protestantism or an 18th century version of Atheist Humanism. Maybe the best thing to say is that, in Deism, philosophy takes the place of theology, and “God” is more like the God of Plato than anything else. However, Deist culture was Protestant-intellectual and it was Protestant in terms of morality.
About this, while many Radical Centrists are Evangelicals, and we have a Jewish member, and others of their own persuasions, and each of us all along have followed our own faiths without compromise of anything, the record of history is what it is. To seek to mythologize the era of the Revolution is not something we are prepared to do. Kevin Kervick agrees, even moreso.
But when we get to the years after Independence, that is where there are issues. Following are my comments to Kevin, somewhat edited here, but essentially as they were first written–
Your analysis of the early years of the American republic has some problems. As a suggestion, and admitting they were friends though it all, you may want to think of Jefferson and Madison as opponents. When Madison succeeded Jefferson in the White House there was a distinct break in policy. This break traces to the era of ratification of the Constitution, about which, while Jefferson was a supporter, it was not without serious misgivings.
As he saw it, the Constitution should be jettisoned after a generation or so, when it had done its job and we would all be ready for an early version of minarchy. Madison was anything but impressed with that idea, nor were most of the other Founders –and for good reason. The period when the Articles of Confederation were in effect was a mess. Minimal government, which is what the Articles gave the new nation, proved ineffective, inefficient, and something that put the nation at risk from our enemies.And that was our best test of what we now call libertarian ideas.
Essentially the issue is this, we are at war. Not now and then, but permanently. When there are no battles what exists is a state of truce; but there is no such thing as actual Peace –there never is. Nor can there be, because of human nature.
We are a war-dependent species. Which is not my theory, but that of Steven Le Blanc in a 2003 book, Constant Battles. The subtitle says it all: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage. And the evidence is overwhelming, human beings are continually at war, somewhere, and soon enough, right here, wherever “here” happens to be. We are psychologically predisposed to fight, and fight we will, it is in our genes as an optimal conflict resolution method.
Madison learned just how dangerous minarchist thinking can be. We almost lost the War of 1812, it was anything but the retrospective walk-in-the-park that popular history pretends it was. We lost the great majority of actual battles and, at sea, with a miniature fleet, we were outgunned by the British constantly, with almost no recourse. We did win some major sea battles, but to say the least, this was not always the case.
The point is not that you are somehow “wrong” about the social psychology of politics –a view outlined in your essay. Actually, your view is smart, perceptive, and I intend to work with it in the future. No problem to see all kinds of advantages in it. It is Very worthwhile. So, as I become able to do some fresh thinking and carry out some new research along those lines, I expect to do some shameless borrowing from your approach. BUT with a set of assumptions that are different than yours, especially the position it now seems necessary to adopt, that any political philosophy must presume that we live in a dangerous world. All the time.
Because of our power and the moats that surround our nation, people often take the view that isolationism –whatever it is called– is an option and that we actually have the luxury of devising political systems that are predicated on the leave-me-alone-and-I’ll-leave-you-alone hypothesis. But this is an impossibility. Our situation is no different than that of any other nation, which is to say that to understand things for what they are, think of Israel. That nation simply has our problems at macro-scale, and so obviously that no-one can miss them.
The only time we really had to face this reality for what it is, at least so far, was WWII. And to lesser extent the continuation of the war when we faced off against the Soviets until 1989. Now it is Islam, and our troubles, when you analyze them, are directly related to the “enemies problem,” that is, to threats against us whether we want them or not.
In conclusion, written after the exchanges above:
Whatever proposals for dealing with political problems we make, our perspective is that we need to take into full consideration the views of those who oppose us– so that we can learn truths we otherwise might have never even found out about, but also so that, in time, we may prevail in any contest. Simultaneously, we try to be realistic. We also seek alliances with people who can benefit from becoming part of our movement as we try to contribute to their successes in what they do and what they freely choose for themselves.
This is what Radical Centrism is all about. We discuss issues in fresh new ways. We value diversity of opinion but have no interest in giving undue attention to partisan political positions, Right or Left or Other. We think that our way of approaching issues is superior to anything else currently available. And we would like to think that in not too many years a majority of Independent voters will think this way also.
We cannot trust the Republicans or the Democrats to tell us the truth about anything. We have to find out the truth for ourselves.