23 May 2019

Right of Trump?

A few columns ago Thomas L. Friedman expressed a hope that someone would run to Donald Trump's right in the 2020 presidential election. The person who does that, Friedman expects, will be a libertarian. His expectation presumes that a politician's position on the left-right axis is determined by his stance on limited government, the rightmost candidate wanting the least government. Look at libertarians any other way, especially when you consider their overall permissiveness, and it's hard to visualize them to Trump's right. The way Friedman looks at them is peculiarly American, and peculiarly a product of the New Deal and Cold War eras. It defines "right" or "conservative" as a tendency to limit government. In the 21st century, however, the American equation of conservatism with limited government may seem increasingly like a historic aberration, an exceptional reaction to the rise of socialism and Leninism.

Before the 20th century, conservatives were the party of state power exercised on behalf of king, church and army. They were committed to conserving a socio-cultural order, often by all means necessary. Trumpism in the U.S. may represent a revival of this style of conservatism, not by or on behalf of the chimerical 1%, but by a more democratic (or "populist") constituency at least momentarily more interested in conservation than in the 20th century battle cry of freedom. Elements of 20th century conservatism like an aversion to taxes and an idolization of entrepreneurship will persist, but its skepticism toward "big government" may wither as the new conservatives feel the need for protection from various hostile or impersonal forces more urgently.

Libertarianism's historic position is to the left of this sort of conservatism, dating back to an era when commitment to individual liberty, including freedom of enterprise, put one to the left of conservatism in defense of custom. To the extent that 21st century libertarians support free trade and personal liberty on many fronts, they must appear, in the longer view, to the left of Trump or his constituents, many of whom are more culturally conservative than the President. What, then, might be found to Trump's right? Vice-President Pence might give some clues, but in general we might expect someone more systematic and dogmatic than Trump ever will be, or someone less likely than Trump to see politics as a matter of constant back-and-forth, hot-and-cold, carrot-and-stick negotiation. The future leader to Trump's right may not see his priorities as subject to negotiation at all. 

17 May 2019

Anti-Vaxxers: populism in pure form?

Reporting on an anti-vaxx demonstration in Albany this week, a local reporter noted an unusual convergence of left and right in the opposition to public-health measures proposed in the face of a downstate measles outbreak. He wrote that suspicious attitudes toward vaccinations should not surprise us, because of the near-universal vilification of "Big Pharma," even among some conservatives, or at least some Trump supporters. The latter group, and their idol, often complain about how the pharmaceutical industry overcharges or otherwise rips off American consumers, and they, as a group, not counting their idol, are probably more likely than ideological conservatives to agree with the left that greed is a harmful force in national life.  At the same time, anti-vaxxers on the left have suspicions of their own about the state, to the extent that it can be co-opted by the rich and powerful who then, so the assumption goes, exploit the state's compulsory power for their own profit. This convergence of left and right, fringe dwellers though both may be, may make the anti-vaxx movement a textbook example of populism as a force that transcends ideology and partisanship. I don't intend to identify anti-vaxxism as populist to denigrate populism or imply that populists are ignorant, even if such a conclusion could easily be drawn. What actually seems to make the movement paradigmatically populist is the profound mistrust of institutions that motivates it. The ultimate objects of mistrust may vary by individual, but anti-vaxxers in general combine mistrust of corporations, presumed unscrupulous in pursuit of profit, and mistrust of the state as an inherent and persistent threat to individual liberty. Both are institutions with presumed institutional motivations at odds with the true public good. Populists, I suspect, hope for a democracy uncompromised by self-interested institutions, and tend to suspect any institution of self-interest. Ironically, of course, they too often focus their hopes on charismatic "outsiders" whose presumed affinity with "the people" should immunize them from self-interested or institutional motives. Populists seem to be less mistrustful of individuals than of institutions, and if you think about it, we didn't have this same degree of mistrust back when vaccines were identified with heroic individual scientists like Jonas Salk. Of course, that's most likely because today's vaccines are more collective products, or else the research culture discourages anyone from claiming the spotlight as the heroic inventor. Perhaps it would make vaccines easier to take, so to speak, if such heroic figures could be identified and promoted, but forms of skepticism separate from populist impulses probably make that impossible. One can only hope that this form of populist paranoia remains a minority phenomenon, but we should also deny paranoid minorities any veto over public health. Having your shots doesn't make you a slave, nor will it send you to hell. Left and right should be able to agree on that as well.

06 May 2019

Fear of freedom?

A strange stalemate prevails in Venezuela, where another coup attempt failed last week, yet its instigator remains a free man and continues to agitate against the country's president. The opposition admits to underestimating military loyalty to the president -- whom the opposition claims is illegitimate due to alleged election improprieties -- and it's probably also fair to say that they underestimated popular support for the ruling party, despite the grim state of the Venezuelan economy. Why might so many people stick to an apparently incompetent leadership with alleged authoritarian tendencies? The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate who became an unsuccessful center-right politician with libertarian tendencies, might blame it on what he calls a "fear of freedom that is a legacy of the primitive world." Vargas Llosa was a leftist who turned right after a disillusionment with Fidel Castro and came to see communism as a threat to civil liberty.  Reviewing a recent collection of his essays, Patrick Iber takes issue with Vargas Llosa's apparent blind faith in the Market and calls for a more sensitive explanation of so-called "left populism" in Latin America. Presumably free of the bigoted elements of "right populism" in Europe and the U.S., "left populism" seems to be defined by a disdain for traditional politics and a dissatisfaction with a formal democracy that often seems to serve only to consolidate inequality. It may as well be synonymous with the sort of "radical democracy" according to which democracy only exists when the people can redistribute wealth and property. Iber's own position is that liberals and libertarians are wrong to believe that formal democracy -- regular contested elections, rotation in office, etc. -- is all citizens are entitled to ask for.

"Confined merely to the field of politics, 'democracy' can lead to undemocratic outcomes in the economy and society that ultimately result in oligarchy," Iber warns, "Likewise the achievement of human freedom is a complex goal -- one that will never be attained through markets alone." In other words, what Vargas Llosa sees as "fear of freedom" is actually an aspiration toward freedom, albeit a kind of freedom libertarianism (if not liberalism) doesn't recognize as such. Iber may mean something like the "realm of freedom" that Karl Marx hoped would replace a "realm of necessity," while libertarians see no contradiction between "freedom" and "necessity." To them, "necessity" is an unquestioned and unquestionable given within which freedom is possible, i.e. the freedom to do what you have to do without interference, while the left traditionally has aspired to securing for everyone the freedom to do what you want. From a libertarian perspective, to seek the overthrow of the realm of necessity, for them the one and only reality, can easily seem like "fear of freedom," especially if the overthrow requires the creation of an overwhelming power with its own new necessities. It must seem like cowardice to some, a refusal to deal with the world as it is when it can't be otherwise. But from the opposite perspective, it is nothing other than a moral demand, a demand for guarantees for life contrary to traditional or bourgeois morality's definitions of when life or other goods are not deserved, according at least in part to rules of necessity. If left populism or radical democracy is a form of moralism, it can provide a kind of spiritual satisfaction that can compensate for material shortcomings. Isn't it possible that however wretched the state of Venezuela's economy, no matter how badly it's been managed by the leftist government, people will remain loyal to the moral idea behind the whole project, happy to be right rather than prosperous -- especially when the government tells them that hostile foreign powers are really to blame (by withholding trade) for the poor state of the country. Theirs wouldn't necessarily be a rational viewpoint, but the other side's opinion isn't necessarily rational either, and some might rather run the country back to the ground than turn it back over to the people they turned against long ago. To persist so stubbornly on principle and in spite of material needs might be the opposite of "fear of freedom," the sort of acte gratuit that defines freedom in a more existential, if not a more pragmatic sense. But if you think you're free, who can question you? Anyone, of course, but you get the idea. As long as people in South America or anywhere else still feel free to demand from the world things libertarians or conservatives consider impossible, the debate over which is the real party of freedom will continue.