Privileged Social Positions


    What many libertarians and conservatives fail, or do not care, to understand is the privileged social positions that they were born into. When they tout the virtues of “individual freedom,” “individual liberty,” “freedom of entrepreneurship,” and the like, they seem to assume that these virtues apply relatively equally for all Americans. And here they are wrong.

    If you were born on the wrong side of town where the crime rate is one of the highest in the country, where your network of contacts consists mainly of drug dealers, gangsters, drug users, or pimps, and where opportunities for advancement seem so remote as to be a pipedream, can it logically be said that you have an equal chance of using your “individual liberty” and “individual freedom” to become a wealthy business person compared to an individual born into an affluent suburban community or city?

    This seems to be exactly what libertarians and conservatives assume about the ability of different individuals “to make something of themselves.” Thus, sociological perspectives are not taken into account when individuals from these two groups proselytize about opportunities of a “free market” and “individual freedom.”

    Their classical liberalism, then, seems like little more than a self-interested ideology that only concerns itself with individuals already in affluent social positions, ignoring past and present systemic inequities. And here is the fundamental divide between liberals and these two groups.

    Liberals take into account these past and present systemic inequities and look for a space in our society for social justice and communal welfare. Not everyone, after all, wants to be a businessperson and not everyone has the means to be a businessperson.

    Libertarians in particular have a number of points that I agree on, even if the starting points for our arguments are not the same. However, libertarians and conservatives alike go too far in announcing an end to government-run welfare programs. Can these programs be improved? Absolutely. But to say that these programs are not perfect is not to say that they should be privatized, as if privatization were the solution to every societal woe.

    The ideological call for constant privatization of government-run programs simply replaces reality with predetermined ideas of how society should be. That is, these individuals overlook facts to support their ideas.

    Government, in and of itself, is not an evil. What makes it act in an “evil” manner are the individuals who constitute it. But the same can be said for private businesses. The only difference is that citizens can vote bad politicians out of office. Can private executives be so easily voted out of office? History appears to suggest not.  

    • FreeDem

      Would you say that this perspective on social positions is too pronounced in the other extreme on the liberal side?

      It’s easy to set up a straw man characterization of your opponents and knock it down to feel good, but I’m sure somewhere on another conservative blog there is a person building up a straw man of liberals as blaming every example of inequality on some outside social force.

      G. A. Cohen’s “Why Not Socialism?” is an excellent look at different causes of inequality. It’s a short book, more like a long essay, and well worth your reading.

      But I wanted to respond specifically to your assumption that libertarians just assume that “individual freedom,” “individual liberty,” and “freedom of entrepreneurship” all apply to everyone equally.

      Your list of situations is heavily biased towards situation that you see as something the government can fix by stepping it. But what about the promising entrepreneur in the inner city who wants to found a barber shop but can’t because of the high hurdles of regulations he has to go through? What about the person who wants to become a florist but can’t because there’s a certification board run by other florists in the area who can prevent her from starting a business? Did you know that some states even have laws preventing someone from starting a moving business if another mover in the area objects and says that there’s no demand for another mover?

      There are plenty of absurd rules and regulations that make the lives of individual entrepreneurs more difficult. Here’s a good example of how Virginia’s alcohol laws put our bars and restaurants at a disadvantage against DC and Maryland:

      The first rise of liberalism, in its classical origins, was to challenge protectionist and mercantilist policies that helped the wealthier elites at the expense of the masses. Somewhere after the Civil War with the rise of industrialization the liberal cause lost interest in further attacks on special privileges embedded in government. Some liberals were afraid that we needed the hierarchy and control of a big government to maintain social order in the face of rising industrial masses. Others decided that just defending the status quo was good enough and they could settle down in the comfortable life of being apologists for the elite. Neither offered the real solution to the problems facing America. And that’s true today too.

      The problem with libertarian rhetoric today is that they’ve spent almost 50 years in an alliance with conservatives because communism and the Soviet Union scared the shit out of them. There’s no threat of a socialist takeover in America right now but I think there’s a bit of momentum behind the old fusionist alliance that is still carrying it forward. In the long term, I think the threat from an enriched elite driving politics in their favor along with an older generation of cultural conservatives raging against everyone from gays to Mexicans in their twilight years will push more libertarians towards liberals.  

    • Progressive86

      First, let me thank you for your comment.

      Second, let me say straightaway that I agree with your statement “There are plenty of absurd rules and regulations that make the lives of individual entrepreneurs more difficult.” I’m an owner of a business myself and I have had firsthand experience with some of the red-tape that can stifle entrepreneurs.

      Also, I agree with much else of what you stated. If you came away from my post with a feeling that I was unjustly attacking one group or another, then it might well be an unfortunate result of attempting to articulate complex ideas in under 500 words. I do have a sincere respect for classical liberalism, even if I do not always agree with everything that modern-day classical liberals espouse.

      In regards to your conclusion, you might well be right that libertarians and liberals may end up collaborating as social elites and cultural conservatives push other groups out of the “dominant social space,” if this does in fact occur. However, I remain skeptical about this point for one major reason. Even though libertarians and liberals share a number of similar policy ends, the logical means that each uses to reach these ends are in many ways total opposites. Liberals base their policy positions, often times than not, on moral criteria (e.g. social justice, intergenerational justice, environmental justice, etc) while libertarians base their policy positions on the principle of individual freedom and liberty, positions which have to do more with natural rights and not morality. So, my skepticism is based upon differences in ideological foundations, which may or may not investigated deep enough to create a schism between liberals and libertarians were this alliance ever to occur in a much more systemic fashion.

      I would also like to note that my libertarian friends and I have always believed that libertarians and liberals have more in common than libertarians and conservatives. Take a few of the dominant issues in the U.S., for instance: immigration, drug policy, gay marriage, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While not all liberals and libertarians share the same beliefs on these issues, overall, I will argue that they are much closer to one another than libertarians and conservatives.  

    • Elaine in Roanoke

      Conservatism in its modern expression today contains an innate contradiction. The same conservatives who say they espouse individual freedom and initiative and try to ally themselves with libertarians want the very government they rail against to prevent individual actions that have no effect on others, i.e., same-sex marriage, etc. Also, conservatives – like Bob McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli – don’t want the federal government to “interfere” except when it serves their own interests, as with the recent FEMA decision that Virginia is quite capable of dealing with tornado damage on its own.

      Libertarianism loses me when it rejects regulation of individual acts that impinge on the rights of others. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we purchase in supermarkets, the medicines given to us when we are sick…all these things must be protected from “entrepreneurs” who want to make their profits without regard to the rest of us.