I had an interesting discussion a few months back with an acquaintance of mine who was an avowed libertarian, and found that while we had several points in common, there were also a number of areas, largely related to the role of corporations, that we disagreed with pretty profoundly. More recently, with the political silly season heating up, Ron Paul and his followers have been gaining some interesting ascendencies in the polls on the Republican side, despite a very obvious attempt by the media to sideline it as much as possible. I find that again, with Sen. Paul, there are certain aspects of his platform I find myself in very much accord with, while at the same time there are certain parts of it that make me wonder what century he’s from - the nineteenth or twelfth centuries both come to mind.
This has in turn started me thinking (and researching) about the various forms of Libertarianism (and why there’s such a wide disparity in thought between the various forms). The concept of libertarianism itself has been around for a while - it was in fact a big part of the French Enlightenment that ultimately led to the Declaration of Independence in the United States as well as the French Revolution. The core concept that all forms of libertarianism espouse is the idea that there are fundamental human rights - rights which belong to the individual rather than the state or other larger-scale corporate entities.
This classical libertarianism, one that was practiced by Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and several others (though far from all) of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a radical break from the concept that people had a right to self-determination … they were not in fact serfs (essentially property) of a ruling lord. In practice this meant the freedom of speech, of peaceable assembly, the right to own property, the freedom to practice the religion of your choice, the freedom to bear arms, to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, from being forced to billet soldiers in your house, and the right to due process under the law. This latter was particularly important, because it meant that you had the right to prove your innocence of charges made against you; you could not be arbitrarily charged with a crime without being judged not by the state but by your peers.
In the US, these rights became enshrined in the Bill of Rights (Amendments 1 to 10 to the US Constitution, as well as the the later 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments). Not surprisingly, there has been a near continuous process of hammering away at these rights as institutions have become more powerful in people’s lives.
Such Classical Libertarians became known as Liberals, something worth thinking about when people start bashing those damned Liberals. Most tended to be distrustful of government, but they were also distrustful of corporations, which ultimately derived their legitimacy from the government.
In the 1890s through the 1930s, the dominant form of Libertarianism came from the Libertarian Socialists, who for the most part extended this argument against the large rail conglomerates and banks of the time, arguing that these corporations were eliminating these fundamental rights, and the state was increasingly their agent. The core tenets of the libertarian socialists was that power - political and economic - needed to be effectively distributed and balanced in society in order to insure that such a society benefited the largest number of people.
While there was some overlap between the philosophy of the Libertarian Socialists and the Communists, the biggest difference was that the Marxists/Communists believe that the state should in fact be the means by which the distribution occurred, whereas most Libertarian Socialists believed that loose (and voluntary) collectives or unions and purely democratic elections were all that was needed, the fear being that a strong central regime would quickly become totalitarian.
Anarchic Libertarianism (or Anarchy) could be considered the extreme case of this worldview. This view sees both the government and TBTF corporations as being highly restrictive and instead believed that government should be minimal, direct, beholden to its total constituency, that economic charters granted to corporations should be of limited scope or duration, and that government should exist primarily to handle those functions that could only be done collectively (defense being the most commonly seen one).
In this day and age, Rep. Bernie Sanders, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, writer Naomi Klein and journalist Amy Goodman all fit largely in the Social Libertarian / Anarchist categories, and the Progressive movement overlaps Social Libertarianism to a very great degree.
Closely related to Libertarian Socialism is Civil Libertarianism. This is more mainstream, but tends to focus upon protecting those rights laid out in the constitutional amendments, most especially freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of due process. They recognize the need for a more proactive state, but generally work to insure that neither states nor corporations are able to stifle the rights laid out to individuals. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is perhaps the most representative of the Civil Libertarian banner, though more recently the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) has also been key in pushing to insure that these rights are protected online.
Civil Libertarian and Libertarian Socialism are typically seen as the libertarianism of the left - distrust of large institutions being a very common thread in both cases, but a concern for the equal protection under the law of the individual.
Fiscal Libertarianism still carries that concern about large institutions, but typically this is also mixed with a fundamental belief that one of those rights is Freedom of Property. There are also known as Capitalist Libertarians, and are probably what most people think about today when they use the term Libertarian. Many Eisenhower Republicans tended to be fiscal libertarians - they believed in the rights of the individual, but also felt that government intervention on corporations was considered to be intrusive and counterproductive.
Indeed, one of the biggest differences between libertarianism of the left and right is that the left is considered non-proprietarian, while the right is considered proprietarian. Put another way, the proprietarian outlook states that property ownership is an essential part of civil rights, while the non-proprietarian outlook believes that the buildup of too much proprietary capital is one of the mechanisms by which organizations are able to gain dominance over individuals. In practice, both libertarianism of the left and right have readily admitted that personal property ownership is a fundamental right, but the difference is the degree to which this right is ascendant over other human rights.
The difference between fiscal libertarianism and other right wing philosophies is that many fiscal libertarians tend to be politically moderate. You actually see this in what I would call technical libertarians, who tend to place a premium on ownership, but are also extraordinarily cognizant of free speech and association issues. Techno-libertarians tend to straddle the line between anarchism and proprietary libertarianism. Many also tend to subscribe to Austrian economic theory and the works of Mises and Hayek. Ron Paul fits neatly into the Fiscal Libertarian model.
And then there’s Objectivism. Ayn Rand was a Russian-American writer, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, who argued the virtues of selfishness. In the mishmash of political theory that she created in the context of these novels, the state was ultimately evil and repressive, and it was only the pursuit of personal liberty, especially economic liberty, that mattered. The combination of objectivism and the emerging economic theories of Milton Friedman and other monetarists (who was also influenced by Hayek) laid the foundation for the economic theories most readily espoused by Reagan era Republicans that ultimately led to the deregulation of the banking and Fire sector, the suppression of unions, and ironically the massive expansion of the military.
It also led to an interesting phenomenon in which the deregulated industries became so large and powerful that they ended up subsuming the government as parasitic entities (this was, ironically enough, much the same thing that ended up leading to the development of libertarian socialism in the first place). In effect, once freedoms and rights become too expansive in terms of scope and too limited in terms of population, then what tends to evolve is the rise of authoritarianism, either directly (through the collusion of the military/intelligence apparatus of a state and its political overclass) or indirectly (through the rise of oligarchic hegemonies which in turn control the government).
One of the central questions of economics is whether economies, which involve the interchange of value within the participants of that society, drive the form of society or whether the political structure of a society in turn establishes its economy. It may be one of those questions that has no clear answer, because there is a mutually reinforcing feedback loop between a society and its economy.
My belief is that the United States (and much of the world, for that matter) has for the last seventy years has gone through a broad centralization trend - where local power and wealth has become concentrated, and civil liberties across the board have eroded for a great number of people and expanded dramatically for a very few. On the other hand, twenty years ago, a fundamental set of new technologies - the network, the computer, the Internet, the cellular revolution, etc. - have arisen that have a very strong decentralizing effect (as well as a broadly deflationary one).
This is having the effect of collapsing the economic system that emerged to take advantage of centralization and the power of big - mass production, mass distribution, mass media. The United States was the largest beneficiary of this, especially initially after World War II, because it had the resources and scale to rebuild Europe and Japan, and was able to control the principle source of energy, oil. It ended up providing the reserve currency for all oil transactions, which all countries needed to do, and as such, power became more and more concentrated within both the state and the oligarchies that projected the power of that state (put bluntly, it became an empire).
This is, in turn, causing a realignment in the political structures that have existed since the 1930s (and that already realigned once in the 1970s). An increasingly common plaint today is that the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming increasingly indistinguishable, and to a great extent that is true. The centrist wing of the Democratic party is statist, seeing the state as the vehicle by which social justice issues are achieved. It is also, because of the heavy influence of money necessary to get elected, is largely captured by the large oligarchic base that uses government as an instrument to entrench its hold. The Republican mainstream has been largely captured as well - the Objectivist model and Ayn Rand are pretty much required reading for the overclass on the Right, while Big Religion (which is itself very much a business) largely controls the rank and file through selective control of hot button issues (abortion, threats against the religious establishment, jingoistic militarism typically against “Al Qaeda” (as the infidels are known today)).
On the other hand, this is also having the effect of creating an alternative movement along Libertarian lines, along the precepts that big business and big government have become indistinguishable, that the only real solution is to work towards the decentralization of power, and that what is increasingly needed are checks and balances for both government and business. As the inherent contradictions that come about from too much centralization reach a critical point, this is going to manifest itself as the move towards what will likely be a different form of Libertarianism — what I’m increasingly referring to as Technological Libertarianism.
Technological Libertarianism is, as the name suggests, focused upon the notion that the technological infrastructure actually makes feasible many of the more outre notions that have been proposed in other forms of libertarianism but that could not be implemented either because of physical or societal limitations. There are a few key characteristics that are emerging in the economy that outline how this will affect this new form of libertarianism.
- The ownership of intellectual property becomes much harder to control/determine and protect. As most intellectual property involves the modification of existing ideas rather than the creation from whole cloth of new concepts, this makes sense, but it flies in the face of a more formal capitalistic model.
- On the other hand, the reputation economy becomes far stronger in this model, where the creator/engineer in general has far more control and prestige than the salesman/marketer/agent, and consequently controls more of the rewards from his or her work.
- Corporations become far smaller and ad-hoc, coming into existence to fill a need, then disbanding or reforming as the need is met. In this respect, the clearest example is the studio model, where creative works are funded, designed, built, deployed and maintained by different entities moving into and out of the “studio” over time. (This will prove a problem down the road, but so do all economic models over time).
- No one currency dominates, even in its country of origin. Rather, what determines a currency’s use is its fungability, the degree to which it provides a particular need at a particular time.
- Medical professionals increasingly drop out of both the public and private insurance systems and self-insure through their own internal networks.
- Pure democratic systems become possible not just in the selection of leaders but in the decision-making process itself (indeed, one side effect of this is the concommitment loss of power of legislatures). Referendums and plebiscites become far more commonplace.
- Corporations and governments are forced into becoming more transparent, not because it better serves its citizenry, but because self-transparency ultimately proves less costly than dealing with public-relations nightmare after nightmare.
- A company’s economic reach can be severely curtailed by informed corporate activists working the web, by economic boycotts (that in a flash-mob world are already having an effect, cf., the recent fees cancellation attempts by corporations trying to find any way of increasing revenues while facing shrinking profits).
- Commercial real estate use will continue to decline as the need for retail space and office space continues to drop, which also causes drops in corresponding infrastructure requirements to support these.
- Education is becoming decentralized, even as physical universities and colleges struggle against rising costs and falling state support. (This is a topic I’ll come back to in a future post).
- Declining tax revenues and future debts cause a major decline in the ability of the US to project military presence, reduces the ability to purchase new weapons systems and in turn will likely involve a reduced role in the world. The Pax Americana will end, likely for the worse, but the same decentralization mechanisms are happening elsewhere.
- Scientific research will also likely slow, at least at first. Big science will likely suffer for a while (a couple of decades anyway), but as the overall cost of supporting the government declines, this may open up an area for more participatory science at the individual level.
- On social hot-button issues such as abortion, local social mores will end up replacing national ones. This means that some areas will become highly restrictive with regard to social issues, others will become more open. This also applies to environmental issues. A big part of the reason for this is the ultimate lack of enforceability, something that’s already become an issue as congested courts and corrupted regulatory agencies deal with an unworkable backlog of problems from both plaintiffs and defendants.
- In general, there will be a devolution of power to the regions, states and municipalities. In some regions (notably the Northeast, upper Midwest and Northwest parts of the country) you will see growing enforcement of the concept that corporations are not people and are not entitled to the same levels of protection (though in the Southeast and MidAtlantic states, that may not be the case).
- When banks or businesses fail, they will be closed down rather than be propped up. Investing becomes much more caveat emptor, and poor investments that fail will mean the loss of your investment, not a reimbursement of your moneys.
- Single company long term employment becomes rare. Standards of living will drop, as will wages, but these will eventually form an equilibrium. Family size will continue to drop. More and more of that employment will come either from or through the online world, leading to what will likely be a new class of migratory workers for those involved in physical work, while virtual work will become increasingly based upon a per-piece approach, but with greater potential for splitting the profits from production.
- Social services also shift more locally. This will lead ironically to larger, more centralized cities (which economically and environmentally is not a bad thing) in those places that can sustain them, and will lead towards the significant diminishment politically of low density areas that currently have a much higher political representation in the US especially). This does not mean the end of taxes - but it does mean that the proportions of taxes being paid locally will rise dramatically compared to federal taxes, which in turn means that urban areas in particular end up being able to apply such taxes to more local needs.
This represents a change from where we’ve been, and a particularly traumatic one for both the Federal government and large national or multinational corporations. It is politically a viewpoint that’s held by a lot of people in the technical corridors because such people are systems thinkers - they see what’s happening now, see where things are unsustainable, and can readily extrapolate from that to where things are going.
It’s also likely to be a philosophy that will allow for a great deal of experimentation. Centrists by and large see their world as being absolute and non-malleable. Technolibertarians on the other hand recognize one of the principle benefits of decentralization - one size need not in fact fit all. Certain regions are going to go hypercapitalistic, even at the loss of most civil rights. Others will retreat to a neo-feudalism, and others will try to find that goldilocks spot where people have the maximal amount of freedom they can while still maintaining a fair and equitable society for all - where equitable does not mean equal, but does mean that your degree of return from the system is directly proportional to the amount of effort you’re willing to put into it.