“America is at that awkward stage. It’s too late to work within the system, but too early to start shooting people.” — Claire Wolf
“Progressivism stands or falls based on how it approaches populism.” – Conor Williams
We at Happycrow’s Eyeball Factory think Ms. Wolf is wrong (though it took a bit), Mr. Williams is right, and think we have a way to actually improve on that.
The fundamental split in American politics is between Progressives and Libertarians. Lots of people have tried to come up with a workable synthesis. Here at Happycrow’s Eyeball Factory, we’re no different.
- Feeling good about ourselves? Check!
- Think we can do something nobody else has figured out yet? Check!
- Ill-informed enough to think that nobody’s thought of our solution before? Check!
- STUPID enough to post this during a Presidential Election Cycle? CHECK!
Now, notice that I’m using Progressivism in its REAL definition(fn1). Not its bullshit “anything you happen to call progress, we throw under progressivism and people opposing that are dorks.” Also, I’m using Libertarianism in its REAL definition(fn2), so if you’re an anarcho-capitalist, I’m deeply sympathetic, but this isn’t for you necessarily(fn3). Also, I like footnotes, and if you comment, I expect you to have read them. Because you’re a grown-up.(fn4)
What do these two movements have in common?
Both groups believe in communities and in voluntary cooperation; at their best, they’re both inherently Populist.
Now, they’re not always at their best. Some libertarians do indeed seem to use their position as a “dog-whistle” to cover up for racism(fn5). Some progressives do indeed use their position as a “dog-whistle” to cover up their goal of instituting socialism or totalitarian social controls by force(fn6).
These are very rare exceptions. When you scratch the surface and move past the style of their rhetoric, very often what one finds is that both sides want very similar things. They go about achieving them in very different ways. But guess what, guys? Libertarians have been loudly and angrily beating the “abuse of police powers” drum for forty years before Ferguson ever became a thing. And lots of Progressives think you shouldn’t get your house seized by the Feds just because your kid brought home a joint with him from college! Huzzah, we’re buddies!
Or could be. First we have to clean up the dirty laundry. Believe in the Good of Man. Don’t paint your opponents as your enemies. If you can’t do this, you’re not a Populist, and therefore you’re neither progressive nor libertarian. You’re just another elitist, who’s sad-sack about not being in power.
Persuade political opponents to be allies instead, always focusing on finding common ground.
But we have to acknowledge differences. So. Back to that dirty laundry.
Progressivism as a political philosophy just happened to come into full flower in the early 20th century, when control of information first became sufficiently advanced to allow technocracy to be a practical idea. Because of that, many Progressives have a strong tendency to pursue reforms via top-down, technocratic solutions. This “technocratic impulse” is not a new issue for Progressives – it’s been around for a long time, and tends to be its Achilles’ Heel. Technocratic solutions (and by definition all government solutions) provide external benefits, but they also provide external costs, and not everybody agrees that the benefits outweigh the costs. Then the technocrat turns out to be running their organization mostly for their own benefit, and the actual populists get screwed. Any progressives reading this actually think Hillary Clinton gives a rat’s ass about the average working person?
Libertarianism has the opposite problem. By completely eschewing top-down imposed solutions, Libertarians avoid the trap of “elitist means supposedly employed for populist ends.” But that’s cold comfort for an ideology that has produced very good results on the margins and at the grassroots level (even if some of the hyperbole tends to rapidly outpace facts), but which cannot seem to muster any actual political power. Very often, libertarians are suckered into “well, I’ll play along with Mister Conservative for now, because I’m sure he means well.” And then they get screwed. Because Mister Conservative does mean well. He means to do well for his business by tilting the playing field against anybody who can’t afford the legal staff required to survive all that regulatory law. Libertarians tend to vote Republican defensively because the structure of American voting dooms third parties except as spoilers(fn7), and at best they tend to swing a few palace revolts before Socially Conservative Progressives(fn8) in the party crush them.
Libertarians often argue that they’re voting tactically, but Progressives either declare “there’s no difference between you guys,” or simply assume that Libertarianism = Super-Republicanism. Far from. Most libertarians would love to see the Republican Party die. They just don’t see another alternative.
So where are we now?
- Each group is getting screwed by the people who supposedly claim to represent what they want.
- Each group is populist in its goals and beliefs.
- Each group gets screwed by the political class.
- The groups differ primarily regarding the tools they choose to use.
The status quo for each group is screwed, blued, and tattoo’d. We need a change, guys.
Top down solutions are here to stay. Technocratic governance, barring a huge sea-change, is here to stay.
But the first equality is between those who pass the laws, and those who must obey them. And, oh, by the way, you’re presumed to be fully aware of all regulatory law, even the weird obscure references you have to be a trained lawyer with access to a hideously expensive legal library just to know a given statute exists.
Progressives and Libertarians alike can agree that that’s neither freedom nor equality.
So we have to tone it down a bit. But we can’t tone it down too far, or else it simply turns into an excuse not to do anything, or an excuse to continue getting screwed by the political class, which has the connections and the money to saturate the world with “Fifty Reasons Why Everybody Should Think We’re Assholes for Defying The Political Elites (you won’t believe Number 18!).”
We need a yardstick. And here at Happycrow’s Eyeball Factory, we’ve got one. It’s a very simple one. It starts with the Libertarians, in accepting a certain amount of government will be used in an activist fashion. It lives or dies based on whether Progressives can restrict their Eye-of-Sauron technocratic impulses and realize that not all solutions will actually be “government” solutions — some of them will come about through technical innovation or purely voluntary discussion/persuasion/cooperative action. That’s okay. Progressives like voluntary community action. So do Libertarians. They call it the Free Market (as opposed to the rigged game we have now): “laissez-faire” doesn’t mean “rape the workers,” it means “let people do things!”
So without further ado, here’s our Litmus Test:
“Do we want to do the thing? Is the thing working?
If not, what dependencies need to be taken care of first, before we try to do the thing?
Once we’re doing this thing, can we tweak the thing to make it better and impose fewer costs?”
As Piaget noted, you have have to learn how to do some things, before you can learn to do other things. You can’t crawl before you can roll over. You can’t run until you can stand. You can run before you can walk, but you tend to go “oops” a lot in hilarious and dangerous ways, and scare Mommy to death with your injuries.
Example One: Prohibition. Let’s look at a slam dunk: The War on Drugs.
We don’t like people dying from drug abuse. We also think that the War on Drugs sucks, because it’s based on Prohibition. And Prohibition doesn’t work(fn9). And yet, drugs themselves, in a vacuum, aren’t popular. No, seriously. If you get high by sniffing glue, the world looks at you like the idiot that you are. Meanwhile, we have an all-new sort of slavery going on strictly because of Prohibition – the prison-industrial complex, a bipartisan elitist institution which both Progressives and Libertarians rightly abhor.
Perhaps a better step-by-step strategy might be:
- Repeal prohibition and decriminalize substance abuse in order to get rid of its obscene profit margins.(fn10)
- Take enforcement money and route it to rehabilitation.
- Stop locking people in metal boxes with violent social predators for years on end because they abused drugs and somebody calls that Wrongfun. (As opposed to getting blind drunk and puking all over your yard or frat house, which is apparently Rightfun.)
Does this mean that some people will still suffer from the choice to abuse drugs? Yes. But at least it won’t be a narcotics-to-prison-industrial-complex industry. The external costs of our current processes will be radically lowered. Let people suffer the consequences of their actions, and help them.
Example Two: Religious-liberty Exemptions. Speaking of consequences, same thing applies on the gay-marriage front. I live in Texas. TX is behind the ball, and I hate that, having spoken up in favor of this back when Democrats were still outing each other as an intramural weapon in their primaries. But there’s also a liberty component involved in this issue:
Religious liberty issues are real. Even if you’re an atheist(fn11). Solution? If people want the right to refuse business, let them have it. But require them to post it in order to spare potential customers the humiliation and lost time/effort being refused business. That’s why the Democratic amendment to Oklahoma’s religious liberty bill was so brilliant. It killed the bill, because claiming the right to refuse service based on a category will lose them a lot of business.
There’s nothing wrong with paying a price to be true to one’s convictions.
Notice: no external costs!
Example Three: Political, Economic, and Social Equality
This is the toughie. So let’s start with “do we like the thing?” I would have to say yes, even as a libertarian type. While I certainly do not agree in a strict equality of outcomes(fn12), I’m certainly in favor of “a certain range of equality of outcome.”
- There is a level of inequality at which point we cease to become a Civil Society(fn13), and instead revert to being a Prime-Divider Society(fn14), made up on those who rule and those who hate them. We don’t want that.
- There is also a level of inequality at which point one may be theoretically free to do whatever we want, but can’t do anything much at all, because doing things costs money, and we don’t have money. Been there, done that, it’s no fun at all to physically drill holes in your belt to keep your stomach from waking you up at night from hunger. We don’t want that.
- There is a level of inequality at which point people are judged based on their identity rather than their actions, excusing assholes and crushing the wonderful because they belong to Category X. However those categories are defined(fn15). We don’t want that.
We Want The Thing!
What would work?
We need a better foundation. First, we need to break this up into bite-sized chunks. Let’s do economic equality.
What would economic equality look like?
- People would not be trapped into an underclass because they were born poor.
- People would have economic substance, not just the appearance or trappings of substance.
- People would be able to save, and not be forced into fundamentally-risky investments, in order to do so.
- People would have the chance to rise and fall based on the combination of their abilities and their choices.
- People would not be trapped between two choices that stunt one’s life, but rather should have the ability to have one’s cake and eat it too (or, a kid and a career, without necessarily having to pay a stranger to raise your child for you).
That’s not a perfect list. But if we can achieve these… we’d be so far along that what we have now would look horrible by comparison. And… well, it already looks bad.
So wait a minute. You’re saying you cannot have economic equality if you have absolute poverty. Yes, yes I am. I’m saying if you want economic equality, forget about the sodding millionaires, and focus on alleviating poverty. Better yet, get the sodding millionaires on board.
But externals count. If you deny people economic opportunity, and squish the middle class in the process, you create more poverty, rather than alleviating it. Well… we can work on alleviating poverty. We can tutor kids. We can feed the hungry. We can help the mentally ill. Most of that will have to happen on a grass-roots basis, and quite a lot of it won’t involve spending a government dime. May take some sleeve-rolling, though.
What? You thought you’d take on something as monumental as “getting rid of poverty” by sitting at your keyboard with a latte?
What won’t work?
Doing everything in DC and imposing one-size-fits-all solutions (though some solutions can come from DC – you might be shocked at how much absolute poverty is caused simply because the Federal Reserve forces the country to have “targeted” inflation rather than “secular” deflation.) Putting the cart before the horse and promising to have that kid sprinting, when everybody in the room knows she’s having trouble standing up.
If somebody promises That Good Thing without first addressing Concrete Ways to Achieve That Thing’s Foundations, then they’re probably an Elitist, not a Populist, and certainly neither Progressive nor Libertarian. And they’re probably playing you for a cheap vote and they giggle behind their Wall of Handlers.
We’re not enemies, or shouldn’t be. Let’s bridge the divide.
Let’s make things work, and be flexible about how we do it.
(fn1) On its surface, it’s fair to say “progressivism is for political progress.” The problem with that is that it’s facile and doesn’t describe how these people define “progress.” Progressivism isn’t just some bullshit synonym for “liberal.” Progressives advocate using the power of the state in order to create a society with greater equality between the haves and the have-nots. Equality of outcomes achieved through technocratic means.
(fn2) A libertarian wants to maximize individual rights, and rely upon voluntary cooperation between people, only using the state and its fundamentally coercive measures when no better option is available. Libertarians are deeply concerned about political equality and want to be able to chart their own course, rather than have it dictated to them.
(fn3) I am a full believer in voluntaryism. But we’ve inherited a world that fully believes that failure to coerce is a sign of moral degradation, and whose instincts are entirely to coerce. Unless we wish to coerce a voluntaryist revolution (heh), it’s unlikely that we get there on earth. No surprise that so many AnCaps are hot for the High Frontier.
(fn4) One of the great joys of the tech revolution in the 80s was the ability to hop on a modem, argue with adults behind the anonymity of a login name, and win. (Notice: winning here means “convincing the other person that your position makes sense,” not today’s method of “beating people about the head and shoulders until they shut up because Wrongspeech and Wrongfun is Wrong.” So by grown-up here, I’m not necessarily speaking chronologically. Also, people who know me are still wondering.
(fn5) Contrary to left-wing political rhetoric, this is not usual. Most libertarians, anarchists, and voluntaryists are on record as despising racism as the most stupid and hateful of all collectivist ideologies. Even Ayn Rand, progressive punching-bag that she is (who I think sucks, for full disclosure), is brutal in her condemnation of racism, racists, and leftover Klan clowns trying to use libertarianism as air cover (yes, this happens).
(fn6) Contrary to right-wing political rhetoric, this is not usual. Most progressives are actually sort of appalled at the whiny foot-stompy “social justice warrior” crowd’s tendency to try to actually destroy the lives and careers of those who don’t agree that “the personal is political,” (yes, this happens) and very, VERY few progressives want to make it a crime to open a donut shop or engage in other general capitalist behavior.
(fn8) Yes, you read that correctly. “Establishment” Republicans are, to a man and woman, Progressives. They loooove technocracy. So long as it’s being used for “progress” defined as socially-conservative and crony-capitalist ends.
(fn10) Profit margins are so large that they form the primary source of funding for post-Cold-War international terrorism. Right now, that’s the best argument against Prohibition. The (hopelessly-corrupt) DEA knows this. The cops know this. That’s why LEAP and other law-enforcement organizations want to change it.
(fn12) I don’t make as much money as my boss. I don’t work as hard as my boss, either. I don’t want to work as hard as my boss. Therefore, him working harder and earning more is not depriving me of anything.
(fn13) Characterized by social egalitarianism with little divide between social elites and the rest of the population (in which any group of citizens can get together to form a group dedicated to solving one sort of problem or another. Political activism requires civil society c.f. Civil Rights Movement”)
(fn14) Characterized by a wide social gulf between elites and the rest of society, in which the elites make the rules and the rabble obeys them (or else). Think nobles-vs-peasants, or plantation-owners vs slaves. Political activism is impossible in a prime-divider society (unless one counts violent revolution, which usually ends badly, with widespread misery, a high body count, and a new elite taking the place of the old one without instituting meaningful reforms. c.f. “history of Haiti.” )
(fn15) Yes, some (Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Libertarians, Cops, LGBT People, Cis-People, Jocks, Nerds, Black People, White People, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Men, Women, People Who Listen to Barry Manilow, Flying Purple People Eaters, fill in whatever the hell you want by now you SURELY get the idea) are assholes. But you don’t broad-brush an entire group of people because some of them are assholes. If you do this, you have become one of the assholes.