Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Classical Liberalism vs. Libertarianism

Liberal is a word which has its roots in Latin, and roughly means "free." In many countries in the world, the term liberal is used to denote the parties which tend to be conservative in the sense of opposing interference with the market economy.

In the U.S., obviously the word has lost that connotation and generally means something akin to progressive. Hence, we see the use of the term "classical liberal " to denote someone in the U.S. who still believes in the ideas of freedom, equality, democracy and lack of coercion embodied in the work of John Stuart Mill and others.

I have usually in the past used the term libertarian to describe myself, but that term itself is beginning to lack precise meaning. I think maybe it is time for people like myself to start using the term liberal again, while dropping the pedantic modifier.

I say this because in my viewpoint there are different kinds of people who are freedom-oriented. Some are results-oriented, while others are process-oriented and some of us progress along that spectrum due to personal blindness and cognitive dissonance, but I am committed to at least trying to apply and follow the logic of my beliefs, even in those areas where I do not care for the results.

Thus, we can have two freedom-oriented people who might have the same or very similar ultimate vision of what society should be, but they can differ radically on any given issue.

For example, libertarians generally oppose government provided or subsidized health care. As a student of economics, I cannot be unaware of the vast inefficiencies which often result from government interference in the economy.

On the other hand, as a (classical) liberal, I am dedicated to the proposition that it is reasonable to delay full rights for minors until they reach the age of majority. Together with this lack of full rights, comes an obligation by the government to act in loco parentis when necessary. Hence we have child welfare workers who make sure that children have a reasonable minimum of education, sustenance, clothing, shelther and health care. Given that virtually no one disagrees with this proposition, Republican, Democratic, Progressive or Libertarian, it seems strange to see the demagoguery on the issue from the U.S. right.

I have been called that worst insult of all, "a squish" by libertarian friends for not opposing subsidized health care for children, all the while that they go about merrily touting education vouchers for children as the solution to all the problems of the public schools.

The difference here is process. Some of my libertarian friends take the position that any increase in government is illegitimate, or at least to be opposed, even if it means treating similarly situated people unfairly.

Another example: in the past, only widows were eligible to receive social security benefits from a deceased spouse. Now, even though I oppose compulsive Social Security payroll taxes, I certainly can see no reason for treating husbands differently than wives in this situation and I doubt anyone else would now either, but it was formerly the Congressionally-approved policy.

In the field of antitrust, I generally believe that government does much more harm than good and that it is actually government that often causes the alleged monopolistic situations.

Many conservatives and most libertarians believe this also and on this basis opposed the anti-trust prosecution against Microsoft, regardless of what the facts indicated with respect to the illegality of Microsoft's actions. Whatever happened to "don't do the crime, if you can't do the time?" Their viewpoint is that since the law was harmful, it shouldn't be enforced, an attitude that at least Libertarians are consistent about, unlike their conservative counterparts.

So, once again, in this case, results were more important to these libertarians than process. I feel the opposite.

In the field of economic policy, many libertarians tend to like targeted tax cuts, while abhoring subsidies. While there may be some slight basis for this preference, in reality, there is little difference. Both result in the government either picking winners or helping losers, in a manner in which governments generally lack sufficient market knowledge to make proper decisions.

Thus, I oppose both targeted tax cuts and subsidies, based upon their inefficieny, while libertarians tend to support targeted tax cuts because they believe it starves the government and makes it smaller. The clear unfairness to those not lucky enough to get the tax cut does not seem to trouble such libertarians.

I am a lawyer and I criticize the legal profession as much as anyone. But one thing that is drummed into most of us is the critical importance of process in determining the rightness of actions and outcomes.

Until recently, people with beliefs like mine have generally felt most at home in the Republican Party. However, lately the GOP has appeared to deride and disparge those of us who feel that process is important.

A constant theme is that we have too many lawyers. While we may have too many laws, that doesn't seem to bother them as much.

The Bill of Rights is decidely not results-oriented. The Founders knew that these amendments were going to hamper government action. That was the point. They knew what fewer and fewer people in the Republican Party know.

Process matters. So, I guess that makes me a liberal.

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