A Quandary for the Left and Right

Column by Greg Haley.

Exclusive to STR

I believe that anti-statists (libertarians, anarchists, or what have you) have a wide tent. We can get support from conservatives on the need for rolling back government regulations and the welfare state, and from liberals on civil liberties and warfare. A lot of time this agreement is in name only. We find conservatives happy to support the welfare state as long as federal funds are being dispersed to their state. And liberals have largely rolled over on their anti-war sentiments, which seem to have mostly been anti-Bush sentiments. With a Democratic president having inherited Bush’s war powers, Obama’s policies such as keeping Guantanamo Bay open or bombing Pakistan and Yemen have gained bipartisan support.

People, it seems, will rush to defend a personality they like since they can overlook any flaws in his or her character. These people are the voters who exercise the supposed civic virtue of voting, ensuring that whoever is the next president, this person will inherit all of the current president’s war and police state powers. Democracy!

But not everyone’s so cynical and so unscrupulous. The ones at the top may be, having gotten to the top of each party by navigating around ethical or economic problems which would rightly shackle their power. But not ordinary individuals, and not when you couch the issues in a way that divorces them from the left/right dichotomy.

I think the above video is a great example of how you can get people to think about their own political views when you slip in between the cracks of the left/right dichotomy. Many of the interviewees still say they support Obama, despite being confronted with the fact that they just said that they opposed his policies when they believed that those were policies of Mitt Romney.

It’s that kind of non-confrontational confrontation that I believe anti-statists should excel at. It means the ability to let someone you’re talking to feel like they are affirming their own beliefs while affirming freedom, like sliding into a warm bath. Like bathwater, the freedom principle creeps up on them. And before they know it, they’ve submerged in it, only to realize that their newfound belief in social power over state power was of their own doing.

This was my process to becoming an anarcho-capitalist. No one successfully changed my ideas by debate. It was a process of, over the course of a few years, learning a little about the libertarian, or free market, or Austrian perspective here and there, reflecting on the new information I had received, and reorganizing my previously held beliefs. I could cede a small point here and there that poked holes in my beliefs, like maybe that legalizing drugs has some merits, even if I didn’t adopt that position. Taxes are generally bad, but some are necessary. Welfare can be abused, public schools are wasteful, regulations are bureaucratic--all points I could concede, but ultimately, felt were defensible.

Some points I had to yield wholesale. The first time I read about unemployment being a result of the minimum wage, I realized that I had never given much thought to the issue, and that the author was right. Equal opportunity workplace regulations were another case in which I had to readily agree with the libertarian position.

And some ideas I thought were outright preposterous for the longest time, like the idea that we could have a sound money supply without a government monopoly on it, or that the war on terror is not really a defensive war.

Nevertheless, sometimes gradually, and sometimes through entire paradigm shifts in my thought, I became an anarchist. I was almost already there and didn’t even realize it. I had come to oppose almost all statism at home, and finally came around in my beliefs on war. Then, reading Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State was the gentle toppling of one last domino of statist thought which clinched it for me. It was the last piece of information in a constellation of data I reflected on that fundamentally altered my intellectual trajectory. It is only in retrospect that I can look back and see that I was intellectually ready at that moment to become an anarchist. Had I read that essay a year earlier, I probably wouldn’t have been so receptive to it.

Libertarianism slipped in through the cracks of my ideas and grew until they were now what grounded my political beliefs. I adopted libertarian beliefs, gradually, piece by piece, and didn’t realize it until I stepped back and took account of the tapestry they formed. Not everyone’s necessarily got the temperament or patience to consider our point of view, but we don’t need, or necessarily want, everyone to become libertarians. It’s merely sufficient that they refrain from voting and otherwise live their lives as they best see fit.

But for others, there are ways to suggest free market principles to people in a way that lets the interested person suggest the freedom idea to himself and consider the implications.

A pro-business, right wing Republican may oppose complex building and worker regulations, yet support the war on drugs. All he needs is to support free market principles so much that he starts applying them to drug policies. How many untold billions must be paid in tax dollars to have police, pro bono lawyers, courts, prisons, bailiffs, and probation officers in order to enforce the drug war? I’ve yet to personally try it, but maybe appealing to the part of a conservative that opposes the nanny state will bring him to oppose the paternal welfare state that tells people what substances they can put in their body.

That may be too big a step to take, but one can be made to show him that some intervention he previously supported is actually pernicious and destructive. Many people became turned on to the idea that economic laws make futile government legislation by reading introductory texts such as Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. I personally know a former liberal who became an anarchist who cited this book as one of his influences. In the book’s introduction, Walter Block says how many of his students became interested in economics after reading Economics in One Lesson, in which Hazlitt asks the reader to consider the unseen consequences of economic policies, a task he takes them through, step by step.

I think there’s a huge wedge that can be driven into many liberals who favor the poor over the rich and who oppose aggressive wars and corporate bailouts. And, fortunately for us libertarians, it’s one that most people haven’t given much thought to, so we have the opportunity of being the first to present clear ideas about sound money and the Federal Reserve.

Shouldn’t opposing these institutions be no brainers for liberals? The reality isn’t quite that simple, but I think there’s a way to appeal to a liberal’s conscience by pointing out that, for instance, by inflating the money supply and creating easy credit, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department, in collusion with banks, give money to the wealthy, powerful, and most well connected. This has the effect of increasing the purchasing power of the first recipients of this money, which bids up the prices of the goods and services they buy.

After all, more dollars are chasing the same amount of goods; no real wealth (in goods or services) has been created. The recipients of this money then get almost the same benefit, as they use this newly found purchasing power to buy things, which drives up prices, and on to the next people to receive it. Meanwhile, the least well connected, least wealthy, and those living on savings and Social Security are seeing prices go up while their wages stay the same. In effect, their wages and savings are being stolen from them by the increase in prices. That’s redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich that Occupiers are protesting about.

Where do liberals think money comes from to pay for wars? The government can’t pay for the war in Afghanistan, bombing in Pakistan and Yemen, a massive base in Iraq, and a huge military by merely taxing and borrowing. It’s the all too tempting power to create money by fiat that pays for these wars.

The same goes for the banking and auto bailouts. This should be especially egregious to free market conservatives and anti-corporate liberals since the housing crisis was caused by injections of easy credit into banks, which then sought out individuals and firms to give loans to at artificially low interest rates, which proved to be unsustainable and led many people to default on their loans. Obviously this wasn’t the only causal factor of the housing downturn, Fannie May and Freddie Mac being other prime culprits. But it was crucial in precipitating this decline. With this newfound money, banks sought out those clients who otherwise would have been too risky of an investment. The government then added insult to injury by bailing out these banks with money it didn’t have. This money is just a bunch of numbers in computers, created by decree.

This, in my view, represents a quandary for many liberals and conservatives. For how can you oppose war, yet support the means that pays for it? Oppose corporate bailouts, yet believe in the legitimacy of the Federal Reserve? Believe in propping up the poor, yet defend fractional reserve banking?

Once the principle is yielded that, yes, fractional reserve banking and federal control of the printing press and interest rates are the central supports for these evils, the quandary for liberals is that applying these same economic laws to other spheres of government undermine price controls such as the minimum wage, union legislation, and rent control. For conservatives, that the unintended consequences of the drug war are that it generates more drug dealers and violent gangs; that warfare is a drain on resources, is the justification for militarization of the police domestically and vastly increased military budgets, that the war on terror is not a defensive war and that it is cultivating new enemies.

This principle poses problems for both conservatives and liberals alike when applied to institutions like Social Security and Medicare.

Government control of money is a central conduit for much of its activities, yet most people haven’t given it a second thought. But if you can illuminate the principles behind this institution, you’ve already gotten someone to yield ground to anti-state sentiments that they didn’t know they had. Those same principles can be applied to other government regimentation and economic phenomena, more and more, until an individual realizes they’re a libertarian, whatever flavor or name, be it free market, anti-state, or anarchist.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (3 votes)
Greg Haley's picture
Columns on STR: 4


Jim Davies's picture

Well written, Angelo, that's a good one. I'm not sure whether one can validly extrapolate and say that everyone becomes AnCap only by several small steps over a lot of time, but it seems very many of us do and it was so in my case too.
It can get disheartening to point friends to the Freedom Academy and hear one after another decline. This neither surprises nor bothers me, however, because like you I see that there come points in everyone's life when he is "ready" for the next bite of insight, and to thrust it on him too soon would produce indigestion. We only need one "Yes" a year.
Might you agree that your "wide tent" analogy is another way of saying that most people are really libertarian if only they knew it? - and, yes, got consistent.

Paul's picture

"This was my process to becoming an anarcho-capitalist. No one successfully changed my ideas by debate."

This essentially mirrors my own opinion of the process. Debate is of less value than most people think. There may be some exception to this e.g. for college kids, but I think you make a good point about how people change.

Wholesale change may happen quickly when the old paradigm falls, however. Nothing like being out of work and wondering how you're going to feed your kids, to cause a questioning of fundamental assumptions.

Samarami's picture


    Debate is of less value than most people think. There may be some exception to this e.g. for college kids, but I think you make a good point about how people change.

I remember (many, many years ago) debate class where the assignment would be to defend an argument or premise. Whether the student believed (or believed in) the premise was not as important as was practice for the student in thinking through and on his or her feet controversies and contentions. About that time I discovered I might "win" the debate through loquacious skill, but then come to see and support my opponent's premise as a valuable result.

Truth is truth whether or not I believe it (and defend it).

And the enormity of the truth is incredible.