Friday, May 18, 2007

Letting the perfect
be the enemy of the good.

In recent years the Bush legacy has caused a lot of conservatives to relabel themselves. Many today call themselves “libertarians”. As the label conservative or “right-wing” has been discredited some people have been looking for a haven.

Strictly speaking libertarianism is not another form of conservatism. It just simply isn’t. But neither is it left wing. It is neither. It is pro liberty. Yes, in economics it sides with some conservatives (not in the Bush administration) who at least claim to support free markets. And it supports civil liberties which sides with some on the Left who tend to like social freedom although erratically and inconsistently. And libertarianism is a non-interventionist view of global affairs. It does not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations and seeks peaceful relations with all though it is not pacifistic either.

In reality it is allies with both Left and Right and is an opponent to both Left and Right. I see no reason to assume that the Right is any more of an ally than the Left and many reasons to conclude the opposite -- especially in the United States and especially these days. Maybe the conservative movement will clean house eventually and chuck out the theocons and neocons but until they do they are the major threat to liberty in the United States.

One problem is that there are theocons who are not neocons and neocons who are not theocons. So some of them are opponents of the current conservative movement as well. And some of them are calling themselves libertarians. For instance merely opposing US interventionism in the Middle East does not necessarily make one a libertarian especially if one is supporting conservative positions in the realm of social tolerance or equality before the law. And being opposed to theocratically inspired laws does not necessarily make one a libertarian if one is simultaneously embracing empire building and the idea of the US as a world policeman.

One problem the libertarian movement is facing, or perhaps I should say is ignoring, is that there are people who are promoting what amount to conservative ideas but using libertarian rhetoric to mask their positions.

Genuine libertarians do have some issues in common with the Left and the Right. So each wants to make us into full allies on all issues. Libertarians become prime “recruiting” material to them. And I should make it clear that there are also some libertarians who I think bought into conservative arguments wrongly. I want to cover three issues where I see this happening.

Libertarians support free trade. Governments inhibit free trade. The protectionist Right, the so-called paleocons don’t support free trade. Some “libertarians” are close buddies with the paleocons and probably in sympathy with them. But how do you promote protectionism without alienating libertarians? Or how do you persuade libertarians into abandoning their free trade positions in practice?

One way is to give them a libertarian-sounding argument that would justify a protectionist position. So they offer the “let the perfect be the enemy of the good” argument. The obstacle to free trade is government law. Governments thus need to repeal or reform laws. The reality is that it is unlikely that any government is going to completely repeal trade barriers. Instead they will bring down barriers a bit at a time. They may open some trade while remaining protectionist in other areas. They may reduce tariffs slowly and not repeal them totally.

The Buchananites and other Know-Nothings on the Right don’t want free trade. So how do you get the libertarian to adopt this position? The argument used is that we don’t need treaties lowering tariffs we just need to repeal protectionism. Yet protectionism is highly unlikely to be repealed in one swoop. If you realize this is the political reality you can demand that which won’t happen in order to prevent the incremental steps that might happen.

In reality this means that any proposal that leads in the right direction is opposed. One is literally allowing the perfect to destroy the good without the perfect being possible. Demand the impossible to prevent the likely. Some do it because they just aren’t thinking through the issues. Others, I suspect, do it because they don’t want the possible to succeed.

Consider two other similar ways that a conservative agenda is pushed by using libertarian rhetoric to justify it. Currently government legislation puts gay couples at a legal disadvantage and, in spite of some claims, it is not possible to undo those disadvantages through private legal contracts.

But we have libertarians who are “cultural conservatives” pushing arguments which deny gay couples equality before the law. Their argument is that government shouldn’t be in the marriage business so instead of giving gays equal access to marriage we should repeal marriage laws. Fine, but once again that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. And the libertarians who say this never make an effort to actually repeal marriage laws. Many of them are legally married themselves.

A second position is that marriage entitles people to benefits which people are not entitled to claim. Thus gay marriage expands the state contrary to libertarian thinking. Again note that many of the people arguing this are themselves married.

There are lots of services which the state gives out which ought not be state services. For instance, most libertarians want separation of school and state. For the time being there is state education. Imagine if the state handed out “free” education but only to whites, all others were disqualified from an education though all were taxed to finance it. Would it be unlibertarian to argue that the state should not exclude one group from state education while taxing them for it? Now extend that to all sorts of state services we would privatize.

What if the government denied non-whites, not only access to government schools, but to state hospitals, government roads, the state mail monopoly, state universities, government maintained sewage systems, government sidewalks, state-owned airports, all government mass transit, etc. In other words they exclude one class of people from all government services while charging them as if they consumed those services. Would it be unlibertarian to demand that the state provide the services equally while we work to privatize the services?

Again I suspect that many of those who make this argument realize that marriage laws won’t be repealed anytime soon. Nor do they really want them repealed hence their refusal to make any effort at repeal. What they want is quite simple: they want gay citizens to be second class. They are getting what they want while giving a pretence of principle to what amounts to prejudice.

Similar to the first issue is my final issue: immigration. Paleoconservatives have a strong racist streak to them. They simply don’t want immigrants “who aren’t like us”. So how do they argue against immigration?

They suggest that immigration is fine provided there is no welfare. Of course welfare isn’t going to be abolished and they know it. And while they would abolish welfare if they could they know it isn’t happening and thus their argument is a permanent argument against immigration. Never mind that most immigrants, legal or illegal, don’t take welfare and in fact pay more in taxes than they consume in services.

In fact the odd thing is that illegal immigrants are even less likely to consume welfare than legal immigrants because they are not eligible for it. In some ways these people ought to support illegal immigration over legal immigration for just that reason.

It is far too easy to use the “perfect” libertarian solution as an excuse to prevent any meaningful reform. But then there are some who want just that.

Photo: Dismantling the Berlin Wall. Sometimes walls come down a brick at a time.