Can Capitalists and Leftists Find Common Liberal Ground?

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Recently I wondered if a rag-tag and informal “Reason-Rights Coalition”—made up of assorted atheists, skeptics, religious secularists, Objectivists, libertarians, and civil libertarians—could jointly support a culture of reason (in an era of fake news and “alternative facts”), a pro-human orientation, freedom of speech, secular institutions, and related values.

I continue to think that this nascent coalition already exists, albeit informally, and advances various shared values. I hope that drawing attention to it will encourage people in it (or potentially in it) to promote each others’ relevant work and to open up new lines of discussion with each other. Put simply, we need each other in this dangerous era, and we can learn from each other.

Of course the philosophic and political differences among the different factions will make difficult or impossible anything other than narrowly focussed coalition work. But we don’t have to sanction ideas we disagree with to share someone’s helpful article on social media, speak at public forums together, go to events and rallies together, draw attention to relevant legislation and cultural events, join discussion groups, and so on.

They say politics creates strange bedfellows, and we live in particularly strange political times.

Still, is it too much to hope that these people with some very different beliefs can find common values and collaborate to advance them? I think such hope is warranted.

Consider my differences with Sam Harris. I think that Harris’s denial that the self ultimately exists (and hence his denial of a willing self), and his collectivist moral presumptions, do, logically, ultimately undermine his goals of promoting reason and human flourishing. But I don’t think those flaws “bleed through” his entire belief system. To my mind, there is no one better at demolishing the relativism of the left and the irrationalism of theocrats. And Harris is a consistent champion of the right to freedom of speech. So, for those reasons, I consider Harris part of the Reason-Rights Coalition (whether or not he sees himself as part of it), and I merrily promote his work when it furthers values that I share.

Some of the most heated debates between the factions at hand are over politics. In my experience, atheists and skeptics come in two main political stripes: capitalists and leftists. On the capitalist side (where I sit) are many libertarians, the Objectivists (Ayn Rand devotees), and some skeptics (Michael Shermer has some libertarian leanings although he’s moved leftward in recent years). Atheists predominantly are leftists—partly as a vestige of the association of Marxism with atheism. I recall going to an “atheist” event around Denver some years back, and the conversation focused almost exclusively on leftist politics.

There is a lot of animosity between many members of these two camps, to be sure. My guess is that most atheists react with some combination of dread and loathing at the mention of (atheist) Ayn Rand. Some of this is due to misunderstanding—the caricature of Rand often portrayed in the media bears little resemblance to the woman—and some is due to a rejection of Rand’s unabashed free-market capitalism. And the capitalists likewise oppose and often despise at least aspects of the regulatory-welfare state.

My goal here not to resolve those differences. Rather, my goal is to point out that the capitalists and the leftists under consideration, whatever their disagreements, still (usually) have some important beliefs and values in common.

Consider a few examples. Although free speech is under assault today primarily by a subset of the left (sometimes called the “regressive left” today), many leftists—the ones I see as part of a Reason-Rights Coalition—continue to steadfastly advocate freedom of speech. People of very different political views can agree that fake news is a genuine danger and that a president who perpetually lies and stretches facts is a problem. People for and against welfare (or this or that welfare program) can still agree on the underlying importance of human flourishing. We can all oppose racism. We can all speak out against human rights abuses, including the atrocities routinely committed by various Islamic regimes against homosexuals, women, and apostates.

I realize that some people just are not going to believe that members of the factions I describe have anything in common. For example, some advocates of the welfare state will refuse to believe that critics of it can be motivated by anything other than malevolence—and vice versa. All I can say about this is that we can either spend our time impugning people’s motives regardless of what the evidence shows, or we can spend our time fighting for our values and working with others wherever feasible toward that end. We can live in and for our own echo-chambers, or we can seriously seek to make the world a better place.

I happily admit that I have an ulterior motive here. I’m serious about wanting to spur on the coalition I describe; secondarily, I want to generate more opportunities to persuade rational leftists to become free-market capitalists (or at least friendlier to capitalism). At the same time, I welcome the efforts of leftists to try to convert me to a belief in the merits of the regulatory-welfare state. Of course, there is already much common ground here; for example, today most people on the left acknowledge the huge benefits of international free trade (or substantially free trade)—whereas certain leftists and the Trump wing of the Republican Party usually oppose free trade. I already have more in common with many Democrats even on economic issues than I do with many supporters of Trump.

As an example of a (hopefully) useful dialogue between a capitalist and a leftist who otherwise agree on some crucial issues, I offer an exchange between me and a fellow from the United Kingdom, John Clinch. Our exchange began as a set of comments beneath my article “The Emerging Reason-Rights Coalition;” I thought its length and contents merited more focused attention.

Clinch: Make Room for Social Liberals

This idea for a Reason-Rights Coalition is like a breath of fresh air in this fetid and illiberal world.

This is plainly a response to developments particularly pronounced in the U.S. right now: The contemporary figures referred to here are American. I write from the UK (home of the more ancient figures referred to) to express hope that this nascent movement is overtly internationalist since this is right in principle and good in practice. We must find common cause across borders.

I know Sam has said that we should embrace points of difference and, over policy, that must be so. My quibble lies in the political tone. Whilst all liberals can unite on the undoubted benefits of free trade, a rallying cry of “smaller government” as an ideological starting point is going to repel many. Liberalism—the extension of freedom—may well be achieved by a shrinking state. But it might also be achieved by judicious intervention in the economy to help spread wealth—and hence greater freedom to act—around. Leave some room for social liberals like me, please!

Armstrong: Look for Common Ground

There are a number of important points in your comments; I’ll try to address them briefly.

First, I very much hope that the themes I discuss become more prominent internationally. My list is American-oriented partly because I’m more familiar with American figures (we also have strong classical liberal traditions). But I’d definitely include people such as England’s Matt Ridley and Sweden’s Johan Norberg on my list; I’m sure there are many more informally part of the coalition I describe.

Ironically, racial nationalism has become an international movement, so the movement to defeat it and to defend reason and rights also must be international. I do not wish to understate our political differences; at the same time, I do not wish to miss opportunities to collaborate with people toward shared goals.

Frankly, from where I sit it seems like classical liberals have had a harder time getting a seat at the table.

I too dislike the phrase “limited government”—my aim is rights-respecting government. My position is that the forced transfer of wealth violates rights. But I recognize that is a very difficult discussion and that my view is not the typical one today.

I’m happy to have discussions about such things, but at the same time I think “we” need to recognize that cultural forces are at work that would undermine the very foundations of liberal governance broadly understood. The debate over the welfare state hardly matters if we succumb to tyrannies that erode freedom of speech and broadly republican government.

In short, I will be happy to be your political opponent at the relevant times, but I also hope we can work strategically toward shared values and aims. In the process, I hope that we can open new channels of communication among people generally oriented to reason and human flourishing.

Clinch: Unite against NeoFascism

Thank you, Ari, for that considered response.

It probably won’t be helpful to explore our (largely supposed) differences but I will say that any new organisation calling itself “Freedom Outlook” with a pronounced focus on market freedoms and an ideological aversion to taxation will be written off by many centrist liberals, imagining it to be just another Right-wing pressure group.

This would be a strategic error, IMHO. Many liberals hold the view that the rise of nativism and unreason is a delayed reaction to the financial crash—laissez-faire economics enjoyed its apogee in the years up to 2008, followed by socialism for the rich. Who are still rich. The system failed—ergo, throw out the system.

All freedom lovers now face the common enemy of neo-fascism. We can unite around plenty: in opposition to its contempt for facts and reason and science, its anti-intellectualism and demagoguery. We can also (presumably) unite against its hatred of free trade and free movement of peoples. But we will never cohere as a group if the dominant view is, say, that the Scandinavian countries violate the rights of their citizens by taxing them too much. Given a Rawlsian choice, I’d plump for Denmark any day. It’s not egalitarianism: Social liberals are liberals, of course, not communists. And at least they recognise what got us into this horrible mess in the first place.

Armstrong: It’s Okay to Disagree Sometimes

I never intended my web page Freedom Outlook to become the center of a broad Reason-Rights Coalition; that’s just not the purpose of the page. I’m happy to be part of that coalition and to use my page to promote it. But I realize that most people whom I regard as part of this coalition will not share most of my political views.

I hope people don’t write me off as a “Right-wing pressure group,” especially given that I don’t consider myself part of the right (or the left), that I’m not a group, and that I focus on writing articles rather than influencing politicians. I’m trying hard to reach out to people with different political views, and I hope others are willing to do the same.

Incidentally, I don’t consider myself a conservative, either. Rather, I identify as a liberal, as that term was “classically” understood. Those interested in my views are welcome to read my essay “Reclaiming Liberalism.”

I will add here that I do claim that genuine liberalism just is free-market liberalism and that statist “liberalism” is not fully liberal. Bluntly, I think that taking people’s stuff by force and controlling aspects of their lives by bureaucratic fiat are illiberal policies.

At the same time, I recognize that Rawlsian leftists think their views represent the truest form of liberalism and see my basic political orientation is largely illiberal. I’m not trying to resolve that dispute here. I do want to emphasize that we are both liberals in the broadest sense of that term, and we shouldn’t let our disagreements totally overshadow our many shared values.

I will say a few words about your remarks about the rise of neofascism. I don’t think that short-range economic policies played much role in that. Instead, I see neofascism as an ideologically driven, international movement, with roots far older and deeper than the mortgage meltdown. And I see today’s “alt-right” as feeding off of the postmodern left—both of those groups at some level reject objectivity as such and also reject economic progress as an important value.

Beyond that, I do not think that “laissez-faire” policies created the mortgage meltdown. Rather, I see statist policies—including easy-money actions by our Federal Reserve and political promotion of risky mortgages—as mostly to blame. On the topic I suggest people such as Johan Norberg and Thomas Sowell. (Also, Jeffrey Friedman coauthored a book on the financial crisis that I haven’t read but that I’d put on my list if I wanted to explore the issue in greater depth.) Of course, as a free-market advocate, I oppose corporate bailouts and subsidies.

Obviously we’re not going to settle a debate over the financial crisis in a brief exchange. I do want to gently suggest that charitable treatment of potential allies can promote fruitful collaborations. I’ll try to do better in that regard.

Here are some important beliefs that I’m confident we share. Respect for reason and the facts matters. Our goal is to promote human flourishing. The right to freedom of speech is fundamental to liberty. Government should be organized by broadly liberal principles, including the rule of law, the separation of church and state, democratic-republican distribution of power, and protection of the rights of members of minorities. Civil discourse is essential to preserving civil society.

I’d say that’s quite a lot.

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