By Kyle Schmidlin and Eldon Katz
Everyone has friends or family members who define themselves as “socially liberal; but fiscally conservative.” The conservative libertarian views their ideology as a mature, pragmatic, and disciplined compromise, the best way to get as many people what they want and maximize everybody’s liberty and opportunity.
But this vision of liberty is perverted and one-sided in favor of the powerful. It grants people the freedom to exploit, but not freedom from exploitation, effectively treating the liberty of the powerful as absolute but anyone else’s liberty as flexible. As Bertrand Russell put it, “The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.”
To the conservative libertarian, oppression only comes from the government, in the form of taxes, laws, and regulations. Certainly governments can and do oppress people, but so can any person or organization with power over people. Many of our taxes, laws, and regulations only exist because they were fought for by ordinary citizens seeking to protect themselves and one another from the oppressive behaviors of more powerful people and private entities.
Progressive taxation prevents concentrations of private economic power and can fund programs that free people from suffering. Regulations on business protect public health and safety from powerful, uncaring entities and prevent exploitation. Government’s default position is to maintain the status quo, but occasionally a chorus of citizens forces government to prohibit child labor, raise the minimum wage, or tell companies they can’t pollute.
So-called libertarians characterize these regulations as oppression – as denying the individual the right to lord over a private tyranny however he wishes (and it is almost always a he). If he threatens your job and therefore your livelihood because you can’t work when you’re 35 weeks pregnant, it’s his right. If he wants to bring in goons to bloody your face and throw you out of the airplane seat you paid for, that’s his right too. But government recognition of the public will is oppression to the right-wing libertarian.
As long as capitalism defines our economic lives, inequality inevitably gives the wealthy real, tangible power over the daily lives of the poor. The average person’s day-to-day existence is effectively dictated by someone else, and noncompliance can have devastating consequences. All right-wing policies exacerbate this dynamic. This is not liberty; it is the complete opposite. In fact, true economic liberty cannot happen without socialism.
What’s nice about government – at least a functional one, which we don’t have – is that human beings agree to sacrifice a certain amount so that their combined resources can build something greater than the sum of its parts, such as a mass transit system, a health insurance pool that covers everyone, or a service that puts out fires for free. Such things give people true freedom – freedom from pain and want and neglect.
Naturally the wealthy have no need for such things, so they want to opt out. They’ve created propaganda networks and purchased an entire political party to assist with that agenda. When people say, “I hate government,” they may think they’re expressing a position of high integrity. But what they really mean is, “I hate organized human society.”
Whether or not you are convinced by this article that the right deserves no claim over the mantle of economic liberty, what about other liberties? Ask yourself who is consistently on the side of liberty when it comes to a woman’s liberty to do what she wants with her own body, LGBTQ people’s liberty to be who they are and love who they want, a black person’s liberty to walk down the street without harassment from law enforcement, an immigrant’s liberty to simply exist, anyone’s liberty to smoke pot, the liberty of residents of coastal cities to not have their homes under water in a generation’s time, or everyone’s liberty to not live in fear that war-mongering lunatics are going to get us all nuked. We could keep going.
Conservatives have never been on the side of liberty, they just got really clever with language in recent decades. It’s long overdue that the left takes this word back. It’s truly pathetic that the left has allowed the right to claim ownership of liberty. Conservatism is the antithesis of liberty. Socialism is liberty. Let’s take it back!
A version of this article also appeared on Medium, and is due to be published in an upcoming Left Up To Us newsletter. Check out Left Up To Us online.