Thursday, February 9, 2012

On Libertarians, Progressives & Whigs

The Problem

Mickey Edwards’ article in The Atlantic begins like this. 

Angry and frustrated, American voters went to the polls in November 2010 to “take back” their country. Just as they had done in 2008. And 2006. And repeatedly for decades, whether it was Republicans or Democrats from whom they were taking the country back. No matter who was put in charge, things didn’t get better. They won’t this time, either; spending levels may go down, taxes may go up, budgets will change, but American government will go on the way it has, not as a collective enterprise but as a battle between warring tribes.[1]
Mr. Edwards goes on to present an analysis of the American two-party system that is reminiscent of what Elmer Schattschneider wrote back in 1942. He said, “A political party is first of all an organized attempt to get power. Power is here defined as control of the government (emphasis added).”[2] Hence, an individual with political aspirations chooses one of the two parties, and makes a deal: in exchange for loyalty to the party, he or she will have the assistance of the party organization in winning elections. The cynic might add to the equation this: the party organization is most interested in supporting candidates who can reliably bring in vast amounts of campaign contributions. Because there is no mistaking the fact that a candidate and a party need money in order to buy ads, do the opposition research, and anonymously circulate stories that are detrimental to the other party’s candidate. Sometimes a candidate will act against another candidate in the same party. During the primary campaign of 2008, the story of John Edwards’ expensive haircuts was sent to the media by Barack Obama’s staff.[3] Politics, therefore, is a cut-throat game. A zero-sum game, in which there must be one winner and one loser.

Mr. Edwards continues: “we elect our leaders, and they then govern, in a system that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable, a system in which the campaign season never ends and the struggle for party advantage trumps all other considerations.” Our political system is “focused not on collective problem-solving but on a struggle for power between two private organizations.” He proceeds to explain how the two-party system has, over the years, become very effective in holding on to its power, by gerrymandering, instituting closed primaries, and deciding which issues will set the agenda at a particular point in time. 

A third party candidate cannot hope to find a party organization that has the resources and level of control over local politics that the Democratic and Republican parties enjoy. If a third party candidate manages to get elected, he or she is required to caucus with either the Democrats or Republicans. And sometimes – for example, in the case of the Independent senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman – a politician who shows loyalty to neither party becomes a petty tyrant, able to sell (figuratively speaking, of course) his or her vote to the highest bidder. 

The question of whether political parties are, in fact, more concerned about winning elections than they are any other consideration can be settled by looking at the empirical data. Many Americans still believe that the Democratic Party is the party of the poor and laboring classes and the Republican Party is the party of the businessperson. Democrats are, by reputation, relatively more willing to spend public money on social programs, whereas Republicans stand for frugality and limited government. Is there evidence that party leaders will sacrifice these principles in order to win elections, to stay in power, or pursue some agenda that is clearly not designed with the good of the American public in mind?  

Millions of Jobs Exported Per Year     source
Back in the 1990’s, Democratic President Bill Clinton decimated social welfare programs (here), repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, and supported NAFTA. Each of these measures harmed the poor and working classes. The deregulation of Wall Street firms has resulted in the loss of incalculable sums of public money and obliterated the retirement savings of countless American families. NAFTA was promoted with the promise that it would increase the number of American jobs, but even a cursory look at the employment picture since it was passed will show that there has been a net loss of American jobs (here). The only Americans who seem to have benefited from NAFTA have been the heads of large multinational corporations who now have a more convenient means of replacing American workers with less expensive Mexican workers. Now companies can easily boost their own profits by firing Americans, and make the shareholders happy.  Republican George W. Bush spurned the Republican ideals of thrift and limited government by increasing the size of government, abandoning any pretense of fiscal restraint, and embroiling the country in two costly, interminable, and unproductive wars. 

Many Americans are still emotionally attached to one or the other political party. In this sentimental haze, they are liable to accept, uncritically, the stories their party tells them. They will believe in fairy-tales about “job creators” even if the only jobs that are being created are in Mexico, China, and India. And now, after President Obama’s latest free trade deal (quietly passed when America’s attention was focused on some manufactured crisis involving debt ceilings), we may expect an increase in the exportation of American jobs to South Korea. The sentimental American who still believes in political fairy tales will trust the president when he says that he really wanted to raise taxes on millionaires, and would have done, if it wasn’t for those people on the other side of the aisle. But it is in the interest of both political parties to place more money in the hands of millionaires. The political party that places money in the hands of wealthy benefactors can expect, in exchange, gratitude, support, and campaign contributions. 

Americans who keep a close eye on politics have become disenchanted with the two-party system. Some Republicans are turning to a Libertarian political philosophy and some Democrats are turning to a Progressive philosophy. Ordinarily, a diversity of opinion is a good thing, but in these troubled times, what is needed more than anything else is unity.  The Founders were able to unite the colonists, at least long enough to win the War of Independence against Great Britain. What unified the colonists back then was a Whig philosophy, which will be discussed a little later on. 


According to the Cato Institute, libertarianism hinges on the concept of individual rights. “Because individuals are moral agents, they have a right to be secure in their life, liberty, and property. These rights are not granted by government or by society; they are inherent in the nature of human beings.”[4] However, the mistake is immediately apparent. “Individual rights” is an oxymoron (for further discussion on this key issue, go here). The rights of life, liberty, and property are, in fact, granted by society. How could it be otherwise? A right only exists for as long as it is respected. If attacked by an armed murderer or robber, one cannot defend against the attack simply by stating, “I have a right to my own life and possessions.” Laws to protect rights have no practical significance or visible presence unless they are widely understood, agreed upon, observed, and enforced. 

If rights are not the product of social interactions and social institutions, but instead a characteristic of persons, what would that mean? One may envision a solitary individual living in a state of nature, awake at all times, hand-made weapon in hand, within the confines of his or her own hermitage. Thomas Hobbes envisioned this state of affairs to be “nasty, brutish, and short.” This is, admittedly, a mere philosophical fine-point, and neither refutes the logic of Libertarianism nor lessens its appeal for its many devotees. 

In the same Cato Institute essay, the author presents the principle of limited government, which holds that government is a “dangerous institution.” This is not an incorrect view, but it is incomplete. The people should fear governmental abuses of power, but they should also fear abuses of power committed by corporate oligarchs existing outside of government, and they should fear direct democracy if there is no safety against tyranny by aggrieved, unreasoning, uninformed, self-interested, and stupefied citizens. Dangers to liberty come from many directions. Moreover, there is no inherent virtue in limited government, if it is too limited to prevent precipitous and ill-conceived alterations of the law. And mischiefs will arise if there is no specific and detailed answer to the question, “limited in what respects?” 

The most worrying feature of Libertarianism is its notion of “social parasites.” Thomas Jefferson is often quoted, as he said, “We have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.” This quotation is very misleading when it is viewed apart from the corpus of Jefferson’s writings.  He was undeniably concerned about the danger of the “leveling impulse” which seeks to take from the rich and give to the poor. But he was equally concerned with other threats to the republic. He wrote, “Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can think of no milder term to apply to ... the general prey of the rich on the poor.”[5] Liberals and conservatives are both able to cherry-pick quotes from Jefferson because he was both liberal and conservative in his thinking: that is, he was able to imagine that both liberal and conservative viewpoints provide a glimpse of the truth, even if they seem to contradict each other.
Some people are uncomfortable around Libertarians because of all this talk about parasites. Ayn Rand said that people who “live by the ability of others” are parasites. Consider the following quote: “And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways - by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary.” Elsewhere she writes, “To be a 'great man' means to have to take action, make decisions and bear the responsibility. This, the parasite cannot and will not do.” Murray Rothbard is a famous Libertarian who uses the same imagery, having written: “the public sector can only feed off the private sector; it necessarily lives parasitically upon the private economy.” In place of the great man, it is the private sector that is being valorized, and the public sector is left as a scapegoat.
This stark division between light and dark, strength and weakness, great men and parasites, is virtually identical to what one finds in Mein Kampf, with inhumane references to foreigners “sucking like leeches …” on the German economy, assorted references to the Jews as “wandering parasites,” and members of parliament as “bedbugs” (see here). It is the philosophy of the Ubermensch, Prometheus, John Galt, and legions of self-appointed self-made men (all too often they are trust-babies) who imagine that they tower above the common lot of humanity.The name Jefferson had for them was "pseudo-aristocrats."
Despite the worrying parallels that can be drawn between some elements of Libertarian thinking and the unmitigated evil of fascism, the only real connection between the two is a shared anger toward the importunities of people who (from their perspective) take more from society than they give. It is the anger felt by those who strongly wish to be given the opportunity to be self-sufficient; they are confident in their capacity for industry, creativity and self-sufficiency, but also convinced that the political regime is conspiring against their ambitions for success and prosperity. The white man who lacks a college education does not believe that he is particularly privileged when competing against African-Americans, Hispanics, or women for a job. He may hear about the liberals’ downward redistribution of wealth, but lives in a hardscrabble, forgotten community that does not appear to be a recipient of this government largesse. Red state residents are among the poorest of the poor in this country. Farmers who live beside dirt roads can be forgiven if they do not care to see public money spent on high-speed rail, smart highways, and electric cars.
The Libertarian is sensitive to the danger that people may ask too much of society. Are there people who accept unemployment benefits but who are not looking for work? Are there people who sue automobile manufacturers after their own careless behavior causes a collision?  Do employees sometimes demand pay raises even to the point that their employer is driven to bankruptcy? Undoubtedly there are; and these maddening stories of life in the Nanny State fortify Libertarians in their thinking. 

Landlords, medical personnel, social workers, and police officers are among those who regularly interact with people who do not appear to value the importance of being self-sufficient or accepting personal responsibility. There is a kind of horror that arises when one encounters people who appear to be unwilling to bestir themselves to action, even if it is to save their own lives. It is a horror that sometimes turns to anger, particularly by those who carry a heavy burden of personal responsibility in their daily lives, and still feel the sacrifices – futile or not – that they have made along the way.
Contemporary Libertarians deserve credit for being outspoken opponents of governmental abuse of power. The Democratic Party has, since the Vietnam War, held the reputation of being advocates of peace; yet, in the current political campaign, the most vocal critic of militarism and imperialism has been a Libertarian Republican named Ron Paul. Additionally, democrats have been less zealous than they ought to be in defending privacy against unlawful surveillance of Americans, defending human dignity against torture and unlawful detention –as observed at Guantanamo Bay – and defending the principle that government has no place punishing citizens for victimless crimes such as the private use of marijuana in one’s home. In these respects, the Libertarians are more liberal, in the classical sense, than the Democratic Party orthodoxy has become. And most refreshingly, they are learning to see the world in a way that is not defined by the stories that either Democrats or Republicans tell.  


If the Libertarians are guilty of a one-sided and romantic embrace of the ideal of individualism, Progressives are guilty of an equally one-sided and romantic embrace of the ideal of communitarianism. Progressives are motivated by the possibility that government can improve the lives of the poor. However, like the Libertarian, the Progressive sees a world of light and dark. Instead of the great man versus the parasite, it is the struggling poor versus the heartless, wealthy Fat Cat. Rather than seeing the world through a lens of self-reliant individualism and personal responsibility, the Progressives discern the presence of sociological phenomena that, like the Greek gods of old, have the power to elevate some people into a life of ease and force others into a life of misery and crime.
The Progressive Party began in the opening years of the 20th century, when the pendulum of political power had swung in favor of the interests of mammoth corporate trusts and monopolies, and far from the interests of common ordinary citizens. The progressive tradition draws a sharp contrast between public interest and public spiritedness on one hand, and private interests, self-dealing and corruption on the other. This framing of the issues is taken directly from the republican tradition of Locke and his contemporaries. As stated in their 1912 party platform, 

Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people.
From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them … to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.[6]
The Progressives were committed to enforcing safety regulations to prevent workers from being injured or killed at the workplace; to end child labor; to institute a minimum wage; and limit the workday to 8 hours during a time when there were almost no restrictions on the number of hours a company could require employees to work. Progressives stood up against impurities in food that killed or sickened countless Americans. Instead of the Libertarian ideal of limited government, Progressives favor a more expansive role for government. 

The Progressives were influenced in their thinking by Marx, but it would be wrong to paint them all as Marxists, communists, or fellow-travelers. What they did take away from Marx was his vision of a world divided between virtuous proletarians and capitalist Fat Cats. One difficulty arising from this Marxist legacy is the fact that many Americans do not see themselves as oppressed and miserable proletarians. Many came to this country to escape that reality and create another. They are too proud and remain optimistic that, through hard work, they can realize the American dream. There is some truth in the claim that government "hand-outs," aimed at helping the poor, inadvertently attaches the stigma of shame to government intervention on behalf of its most at need constituents (see here).

Also, Americans understand that the wealthy classes are not all enemies of the working class but are in many cases been powerful champions of republican and egalitarian government. And many Americans live in two worlds: they may be upwardly-mobile managers or business owners during the week, but visit economically struggling friends and relatives on the weekends. They understand that America still promotes prosperity for some, but launches others into a state of unemployed, uninsured, foreclosed-upon poverty. 

The Progressives are limited by their single-minded attention to social policy, and by their failure to articulate new ideas regarding economic policy (see here). It is likely that their reticence to deal openly with economic policy stems from the fear that their Marxist roots will show.

The Marxist assumption that capitalism is inherently exploitive and destructive does not hold up under scrutiny. Modern day economists find virtues in the free market while also recognizing that a market is only free for as long as trusts and monopolies do not stand in the way of competition and corrupt price-fixing and rent-seeking practices are prohibited. Well before Marx began to advance his economic and political views, the Founders had grappled with similar ideas, being versed in the writings of economists including Adam Smith, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and Cesare Beccaria, and solidly grounded in a Whig political philosophy.  

The Whigs

Henry Middleton was the second president of the Continental Congress in 1774. Addressing this body, he said, “In every human society, says the celebrated Marquis Beccaria, there is an effort continually tending to confer on one part the height of power and happiness, and to reduce the other to the extreme of weakness and misery. The intent of good laws is to oppose this effort, and to diffuse their influence universally and equally.” It is likely that he was expressing views which were then, at least among the assembled members of the Congress, an uncontroversial and widely-held view. 

Whigs believed that human beings are, by nature, very susceptible to the temptation to pursue personal, short-term advantage even if it may lead to a public, long-term disaster. This psychological insight (well-supported by modern investigations in the field of behavioral economics, and sometimes referred to as short-termism) is woven into their political philosophy, and is particularly salient in the writings of Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison. Madison, for example, warned of the grave potential for corruption in government, and defined “corruption” as the practice of “substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty.” Corrupt leaders are bent on “ ... accommodating [legislation] to the avidity of a part of the nation instead of the benefit of the whole: in a word, enlisting an army of interested partizans, whose tongues, whose pens, whose intrigues, and whose active combinations ... support a real domination [by] the few, under an apparent liberty of the many. Such a government ... is an imposter (emphasis added).”[7]

One feature that sets the Whig philosophy apart from both the Progressive and Libertarian views is the rejection of a Manichean division of the world into light and dark. They did not see politics as the struggle between great men and parasites, or between the virtuous poor and the wealthy, avaricious Fat Cats. Instead, the Whigs knew that every segment of society has the potential to abuse power in order to advance its own interests, even at the expense of the public interest. John Adams said, “If the poor are to domineer over the rich, or the rich over the poor, we will never enjoy the happiness of good government; and without an intermediate power, sufficiently elevated and independent to control each of the contending parties in its excesses, one or the other will forever tyrannize.”[8] The Founders, all classical scholars, took heed of Plutarch’s warning that, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all Republics.”
The Whigs sought to design a mixed form of government to ensure that no one group, united by shared interests, gains advantage over other groups. They were particularly concerned by the competing claims and vastly different priorities of the rich and the poor. Their solution was modeled after the British example: they had instituted a House of Commons to represent the lower classes, a House of Lords to represent the upper classes, and an executive branch to moderate their disputes. The United States Constitution likewise stipulates a bicameral legislature and an executive branch.
If this design has failed to achieve its intended purpose, it may be because the users of the Constitution have failed to consult the warnings and instructions that the Founders provided. The form of government outlined in the Constitution will only be successful, the Founders believed, for as long as voters and politicians are able to put aside their private interests and consider the public interest. Otherwise, the entire nation will pay a heavy price. The Founders believed that private interest groups both create and result from a “spirit of faction.” “By a faction,” Madison wrote, “I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”[9]
George Washington also warned that political parties generally comprise, “a small but artful and enterprizing minority of the Community” who will contend against one another, and through “the alternate triumphs of different parties … make the public Administration the Mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the Organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modefied by mutual interests.”[10]

The overriding goal for the reform-minded American, then, is to replace the competitive spirit of faction with a renewed spirit of cooperation. As it is in the interest of neither Republicans nor Democrats to achieve this goal, the American people should not look somewhere between the two for a magical “center.” The American people must accomplish a spirit of cooperation without the expectation of assistance by either party.

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[2] Party Government. Greenwood Press.
[5] letter to Edward Carrington, 1787
[7] National Gazette, 1792
[8] letter to George Walton, 1789
[9] The Federalist
[10] Farewell Address, 1796

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I came to this conclusion in 2010 and have been seeking what a majority of Americans AGREE on ever since. The result is I'm running for US Senator in Vermont as a VoteKISS candidate (Vote to Keep It Short and Simple). Please visit my website ( to view the 3 short and simple bills I wrote and represent.