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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Getting Taken Seriously by Progressives

Civility and charity go far.


Last week’s column explored what I believe to be one of the major barriers preventing Progressives from understanding libertarians and potentially seeing us as allies. This week, I want to mention a few small things that libertarians can do if we want Progressives to take us more seriously.

I should pause here to note how many comments on last week’s column wondered why I would even think that a Progressive-libertarian alliance was a good thing.  My response was that classical liberals were the progressives of the nineteenth century and that “progressive” is a word and an alliance we should try to reclaim.  Bad economics combined with what Hayek called “constructivist rationalism,” or “scientism,” led many Progressives of that era to abandon their commitment to the market in the belief they could better help the poor and promote progress by managing the economy — many became full-fledged state socialists.  As we know, they were wrong, but the instinct to reject markets as serving progressive ends remains among many self-described Progressives.  We should challenge that instinct and try to bring their commitment to cosmopolitanism and progress over to the libertarian cause.

And that leads to the first of the things that libertarians need to do if we want to accomplish that goal: Stop treating Progressives as either evil or stupid.  Several of the comments on last week’s column contained caricatures and name-calling. I couldn’t blame Progressives if they wanted nothing to do with libertarians, even if we agree on important issues (such as ending the corporate state, protecting civil liberties, and stopping the Bush-Obama warfare state).  So let’s work on the assumption that Progressives are, in Hayek’s words, guilty of nothing more than “intellectual error” about the way the world works (and the economy in particular).  Seize this opportunity to teach, without condescension, rather than calling names.

Yes, I know this is hard when you head over to the Daily Kos and see libertarians called racist, homophobic, cold-hearted pawns of the corporations.  So be it.  We need to take the high road.

Don’t Blame the Victim

Second, libertarians have a tendency to do something that drives Progressives nuts, as it should: They blame the victim. Too often I hear self-described libertarians blame poverty on the culture or morality of the poor.  Similar generalizations about racial and ethnic groups have been known to escape the lips of libertarians.  Progressives bristle at this and respond that the causes of poverty, family breakdown, and other social pathologies are “structural,” that is, caused by bad institutions not personal failures.  (Again, it is worth noting as I did last week that Progressives forget all about this when analyzing the failure of political action.)

Progressives are right that these social pathologies are largely structural, but they are wrong about which structures cause them. Why don’t libertarians start by agreeing with the premise, then engaging our Progressive friends in a conversation about how government intervention is responsible for most of what they are rightly concerned about?  That’s more interesting and productive than trying to defend ourselves from charges of bigotry.

Finally, libertarians need to be attentive to the difference between being “pro-market” and “pro-business.”  It’s easy when talking with Progressives to engage in reflexive defenses of the private sector, but it’s important to keep in mind that what we ultimately care about is competition, not individual competitors, since it is competition that best serves the needs of everyone — the worst off among us most of all.  We don’t need to go as far as Kevin Carson or Roderick Long and argue for a more left-oriented understanding of the market, though their work is a powerful corrective to the problem I’m identifying.  But we need to be willing to call out private firms that use the State and to acknowledge when private firms behave badly on their own.  Reflexive defenses of the private sector are both bad strategy and intellectually mistaken.

If a Progressive-libertarian alliance is going to flourish, both sides will have to get past the prejudices and mistakes that divide them.  I hope I’ve made a start in that direction.  The corporate-warfare State needs all the enemies it can get, and we are more powerful when we are united.


  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.