essays

Nov 25, 2016

Libertarians, Class, and the Left

A Cato Daily Podcast Interview

“The worst thing about Trump is likely to be how moderate he turns out to be.  And that American statism, imperialism, will continue to march right along.”

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Caleb Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Friday, November 25, 2016.  I am Caleb Brown.  For supporters of liberty who have found little worth embracing in this election season, here’s some advice: Engage with the Left, and do so with an eye toward the classes that the state, by its very nature, create.  That, from Anthony Comegna, assistant editor for intellectual history at the Cato Institute’s Libertarianism.org project.

If you had to offer some big lessons for people who are sympathetic or libertarians themselves about what this election actually means for them, what would it be?


Anthony Comegna: Well, here’s my big fear with Donald Trump.  I don’t expect that he’ll be the wild-eyed, far Right radical that so many people fear.  I think that was sufficient rhetoric to get him through a vicious primary campaign, probably even to sail him in to victory in a highly unusual election year, but I don’t it will be what he acts upon in office.  I think there are too many countervailing factors that limit the ability of a president to act independently of the rest of our system for that to seriously happen.  I think there are too many different people and competing interests at play for Trump to get through and act upon the worst elements of his policy proposals.  And, you know in 2008, when President-elect Obama was about to enter office, so many of us libertarians, people who have their origins on the Right, let’s say, were worried that well, the socialist revolution is here.  That’s it, this country is over.  We are tumbling down the hill into irrevocable socialism.  And we’re done.  The banks are going to get bailed out, the dollar is going to collapse.  You know, we’re going to have runaway inflation.  I was a poor college student but I still took half the money I had in the bank and I went and bought gold and silver coins just to be prepared.  It wasn’t very much but, you know, I was thinking about that.  And it turns out, in my mind at least, the worst thing about the Obama administration is how moderate he turned out to be.  We didn’t get any radical reform one way or another.  The wars kept on going even though he said that he would scale them back and end them.  Of course Guantanamo Bay is still open, the war on terror rages on, the war on civil liberties rages on, the drug war goes on.  All these sorts of things that a truly radical president on the Left could really have cleared up in a big way, he didn’t touch in any serious sense.  And the worst thing about Obama continues to be that American government, imperialism, statism, they lurch right along and keep on going with little or any cessation in the speed.  And of course it’s not usually Americans who bear that burden.  It’s people around the rest of the world that we know nothing about, never come into contact with except when our bombs blow them apart or, you know, when the dollar rises or falls in value they are affected by it and we have no idea.  So I think the worst thing about Trump is likely to be how moderate he turns out to be.  And that American statism, imperialism, will continue to march right along, probably without any change.

 

Caleb Brown: So, Bill Weld was the vice presidential candidate for Gary Johnson and, you know, early on you talked about - we recorded a podcast on this and talked about what his sort of bigger idea was about what the Republican Party could have been in the future and what the Libertarian Party could have been in the future.  It didn’t work out like he planned, but what was he articulating and why was it mistaken?

 

Anthony Comegna: So Bill Weld’s strategy, and the LP strategy in general seemed to be to Whigify the Republican Party, let’s say.  And by that I mean they wanted to recreate what happened to the Whig Party in the 1850s when the party, the second party system that Van Buren constructed fell apart under the influence of the slavery issue, what to do with slavery in the territories, and it was especially the Kansas-Nebraska Act that was sort of the last nail in the coffin.  The national Whig Party didn’t know what to do about slavery.  They really couldn’t address the issue in one way or another that made both sections of their party, North and South, happy.  And so they kicked the can down the road.  They said well, we’ll let popular sovereignty decide it.  The people in the states can vote on whether they want slavery and that will determine things.  Well that didn’t help anybody outside of those states and it didn’t help half the population in those states once they voted.  It was never really resolved until the Civil War, of course, but it did collapse the Whig Party.  They simply couldn’t deal with it.  The Democratic Party was able to hold together national coalitions because as a political force they said you know what, we’re going to stand on the side of the slaveholders.  And government as it’s always been, the Union as it is, as it always has been, and the Democrats were really, contrary to our popular thought about the time, the Democrats were the nationalists.  They were the ones who want, including the Southern planters.  They wanted a consolidated nation state that would protect the interests of slaveholders.  And for the most part, Northerners were okay with this because, once again, things just kept going along fine.  And for most Americans, having daily comforts continue, that was enough, right?  So serious disruptions in the status quo - a real revolution against, for example, slavery, could mean terrible things for average everyday Americans.  Like, for example, the Civil War meant terrible things for average, everyday Americans.  Now here’s the problem though with the Johnson Weld Whigify the GOP strategy.  The Republican Party today is not actually like the Whig Party of the 1850s.  It’s closer to the Democratic Party.  What the Libertarian Party really should have done if they wanted to break the party system, they really should have gone after the Democrats.  That was the soft target, not Trump.  Trump was making himself enough of a target to be left alone completely.  The libertarians should have really gone for the Democrats, because the Democrats had absolutely no cultural cause behind them whatsoever.  It was simply politics as usual.  That was really their pitch.  You don’t want to go with this crazy, loose cannon Donald Trump.  You’ve got to vote for us.  Vote, essentially, for the status quo.  And that’s not a terribly powerful message in an election year like this.  Now, the Democratic Party really was probably the ripe target for breaking it apart, not the Republican Party.  The Republican Party, especially through the course of the primaries, really in some sense did come together behind Donald Trump, not the party leaders, but the party faithful came fully behind Donald Trump and you know, was enough to lift him to power despite all predictions.  But the LP really should have been targeting the Democrats because they had no sort of moral force binding them together, no common cause other than keep things as they are.  And when so many people are so unhappy with the government as its been running, well, they’re not going to be receptive to that message.  They really could have won a lot more votes from the Democrats, I think, had they not been so terrified of the Trump paper tiger.  You know, some of it remains to be seen, of course, whether it’s a paper tiger.  I mean well, welcome to the Whig presidency.  We have another one now.  Trump didn’t have - there’s no content to his policies, as I heard the flurry of daily podcasts yesterday and today and over and over again the refrain is well we don’t know what Trump is going to do about this.  We don’t know exactly what his foreign policy is, we have no idea what he’s going to replace Obamacare with.  There’s no content there.  So he’s going to fill it up with people who staff his administration.  They are going to fill him with ideas.  Trump is going to fill his own platform up with things that basically support his own interests, let’s say his class interests, and you know I think that the LP really could have made inroads with liberal-thinking Americans by not just targeting Donald Trump over and over and over again, but by saying both of these parties have abandoned real Americans.  The Democrats have no vision for what America should be, where it should be going.  They only have the past.  They have this old set of New Deal ideas about how politics works, about how the economy works, and we saw that repudiated over and over again in this campaign, but alas the, I think, Bill Welds in the Libertarian Party, as few as there might be, they had their history wrong and they thought well, we should continue targeting the nationalists, these people aren’t really going to stick around for very long, continue to target the racism, the bigotry, the you know, xenophobia on the Right and we’ll get lots of Right-thinking Republicans, people with more pleasant ideas to join us.  And it turns out I don’t think there are many Republicans over there with very good ideas.  They are just as ugly as Trump.  And that might sound harsh, but I really think it’s time libertarians stop bothering so much with the Right.  They simple don’t want us.  This election was a huge repudiation of libertarianism’s involvement over many decades now with Republican Party politics, and with the culture of Republicanism, which is so contrary to the principles of liberty it makes you wonder why anybody ever started flirting with the Right in the first place.

 

Caleb Brown: So when you talk about libertarians engaging with the Left, and I say that almost always with for lack of a better term.  When we refer to the Left, we generally know who we’re talking about.  We’re talking about…

 

Anthony Comegna: We need a whole saltshaker here.

 

Caleb Brown: So you’re talking about attacking their sort of blasé attitude about civil liberties, their blasé attitude about criminal justice issues, their ability to have done something with immigration, having done nothing, essentially, for the years that the White House and Congress was controlled by Democrats and of course war-making.

 

Anthony Comegna: Uh-huh.

 

Caleb Brown: I mean that sounds good to me, but consider who you’re talking to.

 

Anthony Comegna: Uh-huh.  Well look, there’s tons of room for libertarians to make the case to the Left.  That what you should actually want, if you favor a freer, more open, more prosperous, more tolerant, nicer society that includes everybody, one based on universalism, and equality, equity before the law, you should seek libertarian policies.  You should look to libertarian ideas.  We have them in abundance.  We have this very, very long, hundreds, thousands of years long tradition of liberalism, libertarianism, and we have a very good basis on which to bring many people into the fold from areas that we really just have ignored for so long.  It’s almost a cliché now that libertarians are just failed Republicans.  And you know what, by now that’s true.  That is - it’s painfully true.  You can look all through the libertarian movement and one after another it’s people who have been involved in Republican Party politics or who will tolerate racism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia of one kind of another.  They are so wedded to traditionalist conceptions of how culture should be and how my world should look that it’s dangerous to liberty.  It’s very dangerous to individual liberty.  Especially if they have the power of a nation state behind them to enforce this culture through policy.

 

Caleb Brown: So then do you think that the things that we’ve been talking about, how you argue libertarians should be courting people on the Left, we’re only really talking about half of that?  The other half of that, of course, is what the government does with respect to spending, taxing, and regulating.  Things that people on the left generally aren’t as concerned about.

 

Anthony Comegna: Uh-huh.  Well, yeah.  I think that the big task ahead of us, if we do want to do more discussion with the Left which, you know I do, certainly, the big task for us is to construct a feeling of class identity, I think.  Now libertarians shy away from that kind of rhetoric immediately because it smacks of Marxism and far Left revolutionaries, or something like that.  They think you should have a Che Guevara shirt on if you are going to talk about class, but look, we have a very long, well-respected tradition of class analysis in libertarian history.  The classes, according to the classical liberal theory of history, social classes form by access to power.  So the more those of us who have power choose to exercise it over one another, the more we split the population into warring factions with antagonistic interests.  So, you know, this isn’t just including large level, national politics.  You know, when Donald Trump gets into office, he is going to bring with him this whole gaggle of Republicans and conservatives.  Well that’s the new political class.  And they use their power, privilege, position, to dominate the rest of us.  They extract our wealth, they regulate our behavior, the send us into war, we die for the state, and we serve their interests, their power, the whole time.  Constituted authorities continue on going.  Again, the great beast of imperialism and statism lumbers on.  Why?  Because there’s still this constituted political class elevated by law, elevated by their monopoly of force, above the rest of us, and they are empowered to continue exploiting those without constituted authority and power.  Well that’s a serious part of social analysis that libertarians have offered over centuries, that we should not be scared to propound.  We should talk about that.  We should construct a class identity more broadly than failed Republicans.  We can’t just view ourselves that way and be fine with that.  Look where it’s gotten us.  It’s done very little for a culture of liberty in America and certainly almost nothing for better policy positions.  So I think what we should do is talk to the left about how we’re all being exploited by the state all the time.  This is an institution that permanently sets up a special class order of, you know, priests, basically, with law degrees, who then dictate to the rest of us how our lives have to be ordered.  And I think people on the Left might hear an argument like that and say my God, you’re right, that is actually how it works.  The state is an occupying, military force and we’re all subjects to it.  Well that’s not the kind of society I really want to live in.  You know, I think a lot of people, once they have that fact pointed out to them and explained in a way that says hey, we’re all in this together, we’re not going to permanently keep ourselves in warring factions, well, we will find a lot more friends and allies where we didn’t find them before.

 

Caleb Brown: Anthony Comegna is assistant editor for intellectual history at the Cato Institute’s Libertarianism.org project.  Subscribe to this podcast at iTunesGoogle Play, and with Cato’s iOS app.  And follow us on Twitter, @CatoPodcast.