Saturday, March 17, 2012

Socialist Libertarianism: The Party For Me?

Yesterday I received a letter in the mail that made my stomach turn. It was some kind of request to confirm my membership in the Republican party. I felt like screaming “WHAT?!?!? No, no, no! I’ve never been part of your lousy party! This is all some kind of horrible, horrible mistake!”

I would also have been horrified if I’d received such a letter from the Democratic party—but probably not to the point where I felt I needed to take a bath to wash away the slime of association.

I know I shouldn’t be so hard on Republicans. They make some valid points and I agree with their stance on some issues. But their ideology just seems so muddled to me.

Anyway, I was thinking a while back to post something about my framework for analysis of political issues. I guess it will kind of explain why I am neither a Republican nor Democrat (nor anything else).

As I see it, there are two great American political traditions, both of which are important, but which constantly come into conflict: the libertarian tradition and the socialist tradition.

Libertarianism is basically the idea that this is a free country. Everyone is free to do whatever they want as long as it does not interfere with other people being able to do whatever they want. And the sole purpose of the government is to prevent people from infringing on each other’s rights.

Now, unfortunately, in order for government to exist, it must infringe on some rights—most notably, property rights. The imposition of taxes is an infringement on people’s right to keep their stuff and do with it as they please. But this is an absolutely necessary infringement that cannot be gotten around. So, the libertarian tradition must come to terms with the fact that the government sometimes has to infringe on people’s rights in order to prevent the infringement of other, more important rights.

The second great American political tradition (socialism) is basically the idea that the government can also infringe on people’s rights in order to serve the common good. Taxes are imposed to provide valuable services which may be as widely supported as public libraries, post offices, schools, or as controversial as subsidized healthcare and welfare checks.

Or looking at issues of free speech, for example, the libertarian tradition would say that a person's right to say whatever they want should only be abridged in order to prevent harm to others (as in the case of slanderous libel, yelling "fire!" in a movie theater, or giving false credentials). But the socialist tradition would allow for infringement of free speech in order to serve the common good (as in the case of corporations not being allowed to run political ads lest the wealthy be given a free hand in trying to sway an election).

As I see it, these two great American political traditions are always coming into conflict, and always will, because the libertarian tradition is not sufficiently compassionate and the socialist tradition is not sufficiently protective of liberty—we need both, held in tension—but that means there are a lot of “grey areas” where we have to make difficult decisions about when and how much to abridge people’s rights.

So anyway, that’s basically my framework for thinking about politics … and why I don’t like the way that Republicans and Democrats (in my view) tend to overemphasize one tradition or the other as if everything were really quite black-and-white. Although in truth, there are some issues that I think are black-and-white (e.g. I think the right to free speech obviously should trump the supposed common good of attempting to prevent the wealthy from swaying elections--more on that here).

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