Friday, October 08, 2010

Llosa's "Confessions of a Liberal"

After I posted the article about Mario Vargas Llosa being a libertarian one reader very passionately disputed that. The dispute posted did not actually offer any evidence that Llosa was not a libertarian but merely accused me of imposing American labels on other parts of the world. Having actually lived in both hemispheres, five countries and four continents, I am rather aware of how words are used. For instance, in much of the world if you say you are liberal the term implies you are libertarian in your outlook. The same is not true in the United States.

In the US many genuine liberals use modifiers to distinguish themselves from the illiberal socialists who have dishonestly taken the label "liberal" to apply it to themselves. These genuine liberals may used modifiers such as I just did, "genuine," or others like "classical," or "old." When Ludwig von Mises wrote his defense of libertarian thinking in 1922 he called it Liberalism, When it was republished in the 1980s a subtitle was added, "In the Classical Tradition," to distinguish it from the pretend liberals on the radical Left. The famed libertarian Milton Friedman often referred to himself as a liberal. The libertarianish ACT Party, in New Zealand, has as its subtitle, "The Liberal Party."

I found that in places in Europe the use of the word libertarian had similar problems. When I was in Paris for the bicentennial, in 1989, I took some time out to meet with Pastor Joseph Duce at his church. Duce was an outspoken advocate for gay equality and did a lot of counseling on sexual matters. It was widely believed that some very senior government officials had sought him out on such matters, which may be the motive for his murder at the hands of mysterious "police" agents. Duce heard I was at a libertarian conference and told me libertarians didn't want him on the radio because he was a minister. I was baffled. The more we talked the more I pieced together. He used the word to describe far Left anarchists. When I said the term had another meaning in the US and explained it to him he was fascinated and called his church staff in to listen to the discourse. He was quite taken by the ideas. Not long after that visit uniformed police, with badges and ID showed up at his home and "escorted" him to the police station. He disappeared. Years later his body was discovered in a wooded area.

So, it is very true that the same word is used in different ways, in different places, at different times. So what did Llosa mean by the term "liberal?" Llosa, lucky for us has not be reticent to describe his beliefs. In one interview he said that he got interested in "liberalism" and then said that the branch of liberalism to which he referred was "libertarianism." He capped that off with the comment: "That's what I am."

When the far Left attacked him as " neo-liberal" he ridiculed the label. He said he was not a neo anything, just a liberal, and he meant in the same free market sense as Milton Friedman, who he admired greatly. That Llosa means libertarian in the same sense as it is used in the United States is absolutely clear. He gave a talk, Confessions of a Liberal, where he outlined his views.

He supports depoliticized, or free, markets. He wants separation of church and state, private property to be respected, supports legalized abortion, and wants gay marriage. His "liberalism" would be called libertarianism in the United States. His support for an economy free of political manipulation distinguishes himself quite clearly from his the socialist/progressive Left. He has, in fact, changed from being a socialist to being a critic of socialism. But he is NO conservative either. He doesn't assert a belief in a god, doesn't hate gay people, and certainly is not fearful of Hispanic immigrants. He does not hold to the conservative social agenda. Llosa's politics dispute socialism and conservatism. He wants freedom in both the economic sphere and the social sphere. That is the essence of libertarianism.

In 1988 Llosa penned the foreword to one of the the most important libertarian works in human history, at least in my estimation: The Other Path, by fellow Peruvian Hernado de Soto. In the foreword Llosa makes clear his commitment to depoliticized markets and praises the black markets of Latin America as reasonable response to the mercantalist policies of the governments. Llosa made the same points that I have made in this blog—that elites use political regulation to redistribute wealth and rights away from the poor to themselves. He wrote:

"The path taken by the black-marketeers—the poor—is not the reinforcement and magnification of the state but a radical pruning and reduction of it. They do not want planned, regimented collectivization by monolithic governments; rather, they want the individual, private initiative and enterprise to be responsible for leading the battle against underdevelopment and poverty.

Allow me to reprint some excerpts from his speech "Confessions of a Liberal." You will note that Llosa directly addresses the differing use of the terms that I discuss at the beginning.

"Here in the United States, and in the Anglo-Saxon world in general, the term "liberal" has leftist connotations and is sometimes associated with being a socialist and a radical. On the other hand, in Latin America and Spain, where the word was coined in the 19th Century to describe the rebels who fought against the Napoleonic occupation, they call me a liberal--or, worse yet, a neo-liberal--to exorcize or discredit me, because the political perversion of our semantics has transformed the original meaning of the term—a lover of liberty, a person who rises up against oppression--to signify conservative or reactionary, that is, something which, when it comes from the mouth of a progressive, means to be an accomplice to all the exploitation and injustices befalling the world's poor."

"With regard to religion, gay marriage, abortion and such, liberals like me, who are agnostics as well as supporters of the separation between church and state and defenders of the decriminalization of abortion and gay marriage, are sometimes harshly criticized by other liberals who have opposite views on these issues."

"Thus, the liberal I aspire to be considers freedom a core value. Thanks to this freedom, humanity has been able to journey from the primitive cave to the stars and the information revolution, to progress from forms of collectivist and despotic association to representative democracy. The foundations of liberty are private property and the rule of law; this system guarantees the fewest possible forms of injustice, produces the greatest material and cultural progress, most effectively stems violence and provides the greatest respect for human rights. According to this concept of liberalism, freedom is a single, unified concept. Political and economic liberties are as inseparable as the two sides of a medal. Because freedom has not been understood as such in Latin America, the region has had many failed attempts at democratic rule. Either because the democracies that began emerging after the dictatorships respected political freedom but rejected economic liberty, which inevitably produced more poverty, inefficiency and corruption, or because they installed authoritarian governments convinced that only a firm hand and a repressive regime could guarantee the functioning of the free market. This is a dangerous fallacy. It has never been so. This explains why all the so-called "free market" Latin American dictatorships have failed. No free economy functions without an independent, efficient justice system and no reforms are successful if they are implemented without control and the criticism that only democracy permits. Those who believed that General Pinochet was the exception to the rule because his regime enjoyed economic success have now discovered, with the revelations of murder and torture, secret accounts and millions of dollars abroad, that the Chilean dictator, like all of his Latin American counterparts, was a murderer and a thief.

Political democracy and the free market are foundations of a liberal position. But, thus formulated, these two expressions have an abstract, algebraic quality that dehumanizes and removes them from the experience of the common people. Liberalism is much, much more than that. Basically, it is tolerance and respect for others, and especially for those who think differently from ourselves, who practice other customs and worship another god or who are non-believers. By agreeing to live with those who are different, human beings took the most extraordinary step on the road to civilization. It was an attitude or willingness that preceded democracy and made it possible, contributing more than any scientific discovery or philosophical system to counter violence and calm the instinct to control and kill in human relations. It is also what awakened that natural lack of trust in power, in all powers, which is something of a second nature to us liberals."

"Defending the individual is the natural consequence of believing in freedom as an individual and social value par excellence because within a society, freedom is measured by the level of autonomy citizens enjoy to organize their lives and work toward their goals without unjust interference, that is, to strive for "negative freedom," as Isaiah Berlin called it in his celebrated essay. Collectivism was inevitable during the dawn of history, when the individual was simply part of the tribe and depended on the entire society for survival, but began to decline as material and intellectual progress enabled man to dominate nature, overcome the fear of thunder, the beast, the unknown and the other--he who had a different color skin, another language and other customs. But collectivism has survived throughout history in those doctrines and ideologies that place the supreme value of an individual on his belonging to a specific group (a race, social class, religion or nation). All of these collectivist doctrines--Nazism, fascism, religious fanaticism and communism--are the natural enemies of freedom and the bitter adversaries of liberals. In every age, that atavistic defect, collectivism, has reared its ugly head to threaten civilization and throw us back to the age of barbarism. Yesterday it was called fascism and communism; today it is known as nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

A great liberal thinker, Ludwig von Mises, was always opposed to the existence of liberal parties because he felt that these political groups, by attempting to monopolize liberalism, ended up denaturalizing it, pigeonholing it, forcing it into the narrow molds of party power struggles. Instead, he believed that the liberal philosophy should be a general culture shared with all the political currents and movements co-existing in an open society supportive of democracy, a school of thought to nourish social Christians, radicals, social democrats, conservatives and democratic socialists alike."

"Of course, I certainly do not like everything that occurs in the United States. For example, I lament the fact that many states still apply the aberration that is the death penalty, as well as several other things, such as the fact that repression takes priority over persuasion in the war on drugs, despite the lessons of Prohibition. But after completing these additions and subtractions, I believe that the United States has the most open, functional democracy in the world and the one with the greatest capacity for self-criticism, which enables it to renew and update itself more quickly in response to the challenges and needs of changing historical circumstances. It is a democracy which I admire for what Professor Samuel Huntington fears: that formidable mixture of races, cultures, traditions and customs, which have succeeded in co-existing without killing each other, thanks to that equality before the law and the flexibility of the system that makes room for diversity at its core, within the common denominator of respect for the law and for others."

"In my opinion, the presence in the United States of almost 40 million people of Latin American heritage does not threaten the social cohesion or integrity of the country. To the contrary, it bolsters the nation by contributing a cultural and vital current of great energy in which the family is sacred. With its desire for progress, capacity for work and aspirations for success, this Latin American influence will greatly benefit the open society. Without denouncing its origins, this community is integrating with loyalty and affection into its new country and forging strong ties between the two Americas. This is something to which I can attest almost firsthand. When my parents were no longer young, they became two of those millions of Latin Americans who immigrated to the United States in search of opportunities their countries did not offer. They lived in Los Angeles for almost 25 years, earning a living with their hands, something they never had to do in Peru. My mother was employed for many years as a factory worker in a garment factory full of Mexicans and Central Americans, with whom she made many excellent friends. When my father died, I thought my mother would return to Peru, as he had requested. But she decided to stay here, living alone and even requesting and obtaining U.S. citizenship, something my father never wanted to do. Later, when the pains of old age forced her to return to her native land, she always recalled the United States, her second country, with pride and gratitude. For her there was never anything incompatible about considering herself both Peruvian and American; there was no hint of conflicting loyalties.

Perhaps this memory is something more than a filial evocation. Perhaps we can see a glimpse of the future in this example. We dream, as novelists tend to do: a world stripped of fanatics, terrorists and dictators, a world of different cultures, races, creeds and traditions, co-existing in peace thanks to the culture of freedom, in which borders have become bridges that men and women can cross in pursuit of their goals with no other obstacle than their supreme free will.

Then it will not be necessary to talk about freedom because it will be the air that we breathe and because we will all truly be free. Ludwig von Mises' ideal of a universal culture infused with respect for the law and human rights will have become a reality."

I have mentioned three clear, explicitly political essays that Llosa wrote. They are the afterword that appeared in The Liberal Tide, the foreword that appeared in de Soto's The Other Path, and Confessions of a Liberal. All three essays, are defenses of a libertarian point of view. What I especially appreciate is that Llosa spoke truth to power. His essay, Confessions of a Liberal, was presented to the conservative American Enterprise Institute. That is the speech were he said he was an agnostic, supported separation of church and state, supported Hispanic immigration to America, was in favor of legalized abortion and gay marriage and opposed the war on drugs. Yet the talk was also a defense of the free market. This is classic, and classy, libertarianism. Llosa tells conservative opponents of liberty the same thing he tells Progressive opponents of liberty.

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