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  • The Laissez-Faire Left

    Posted by Shannon Love on November 7th, 2007 (All posts by )

    Historically, one cannot find more passionate and consistent defenders of laissez-faire capitalism than most leftist, articulate intellectuals.

    Throughout the last two centuries, leftists fought ardently to protect the freedom of producers to create and sell as they thought best, and the right of consumers to purchase the products they thought best served their needs, without fear of government coercion or even informal social sanction. Whenever the unenlightened or economically naive threatened the voluntary choices of producers and consumers, leftists have always been the first in the fight to protect this most basic of human economic rights: the right to choose what one creates and the right to consume what one wishes.

    Given their superior knowledge of history, leftists quickly discerned that giving governments the power to decide the who, when, what and how of production and consumption created a dangerous conflict of interest even in liberal democracies. They deftly defeat the arguments of ignorant rightists who assert that the State possesses the wisdom and self-control to regulate only to the optimum level but no further. They argued presciently that no government could long resist the temptation to use such power to reward friends, punish enemies and in general increase the power of the State yet further. I don’t think it hyperbole in the least to assert that the leftist defense of economic freedom has preserved and expanded liberal democracy in the face of the threat poised by rightist attempts at State control of the economy.

    More importantly, leftists understand that, reduced to its essentials. production is an intrinsically creative process that requires the freedom to experiment and fail in order to generate any progress. They understand that to receive the benefits of new and innovative products we must tolerate the risk of harm caused by those products that fail.

    Leftists also understand the critical role that monetary incentive plays in inducing and enabling producers to create what consumers want. They war against high taxes on both products and the income of producers purely to insure that people will continue to create and sell the products others want.

    Many have gone far beyond my own libertarian leanings and argued that producers should remain free to chose what they produce even when they use the capital of the State to do so. They even go so far as to argue that the benefits of free production are so great that producers who work as actual employees of the State should be able to create and sell without any political oversight. One must admire their idealism, if not their practicality, in going so far.

    Of course, no ideology remains perfectly consistent and absolutely true to its ideal in the real world. Leftists have from time to time fallen prey to the idea that the State can regulate the production and consumption of this or that minor product, but when it comes to the most important and critical products of Western civilization, information, the leftist, articulate intellectual stands out from all others in his advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism. Given this defense of economic rights, I think we can forgive their occasional slips. After all, if one can freely choose to produce and consume any information one wishes, does it really matter that the State can control an individual’s access to food, clothing, shelter, medical care, transportation and all the other material necessities and luxuries of life?

    Of course not. How could the State conceivably abuse such power?

    In America in particular, leftists argued correctly that the First Amendment prevents the State from regulating the free production, distribution and consumption of informational products. America grew strong in large part due to this passionately defended restriction on economic regulation. In both American law and tradition, the State can intervene in informational economic decisions only to prevent immediate and obvious harm, and it must use only the minimal force needed to prevent that harm.

    A cynic might argue that leftist, articulate intellectuals only defend the broad freedom to produce and consume informational products because articulate intellectuals make their living producing and selling informational products. I think this idea easy to test. We need merely ask if leftists claim freedoms for themselves that they do not grant others. Surely, if leftists recognize the necessity for freedom in the production and consumption of their own work product, they must recognize the necessity for freedom in the production and consumption of the work products of others.

    I think the answer to such a cynical charge is obvious.

    So, the next time you see a leftist, articulate intellectual fighting for the right to masturbate nude with an American flag outside an elementary school or to publish someone’s leaked medical records, be sure to thank him for his defense of laissez-faire capitalism in the best tradition of libertarianism.

     

    23 Responses to “The Laissez-Faire Left”

    1. joseph hill Says:

      The final paragraph is childish and ill conceived. As for the main arguement, we have little enough govt control over lead coated toys from China and now we are asked to do away with all govt control. Part of the fun of reading this post is to see how long before the word “leftist” will lead to a condemnation. And of couse no mention of the Enrons and the morgage racket that has caused our economy and the housing market to plunge. Ah, it is not the lenders but rather the saps who took the loans. It is their fault!No fault at the desks of those who trained in their field gave loans they should not have. Ah, the left, the terrible left. We seem to need both freedom to produce and controls over what get dumped on the American consumer…that is why we have FDA etc etc, no?

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      Joseph Hill,

      I take it that you agree with me that the Left is very passionate about protecting the freemarket of information?

      More importantly, for purposes of debate, I will concede that the government does a bang up job of protecting us from risk poised by the evil machinations of those who produced material goods and services. If you believe this, then why don’t you believe that the government can also “protect” us from bad information? Why do Leftist argue that the State has not only the ability but the moral obligation to override individual choice in matters of material production or financial matters but then suddenly decide that the State does not have the ability or obligation to override individual choice when it comes to the work product of articulate intellectuals?

      After all people make life or death decisions based on the information provided to them by major corporations like the NY Times, academics, researchers and writers of all kinds. Who protects us when the products of these producers provide turn out to be defective? Who do you sue when you base a political decision on what turns out to be fraudulent information reported by a major media conglomerate? Look back over the last 40 years or so and look at all the fads and assertions promulgated by this or that group of articulate intellectuals. Who is held responsible when they gets things wrong and hurt people as a result?

      Why can the government decide who can and cannot get loans and under what conditions but cannot check in a nutritional study met basic statistical standards for significance? What can’t the government intervene when journalist fabricate stories out of whole cloth?

      Why is defending laissez-faire capitalism in the case of informational products nobel and virtuous but defending laissez-faire capitalism in case of material products mean and heartless? Its almost as if the segment of society who benefits economical from informational laissez-faire capitalism is the same segment that teaches us what is good and moral. Its almost as if a segment of society demands that they be allowed to work in a libertarian paradise while simultaneously demanding that everyone else work under the governments thumb.

    3. Negritude Says:

      This strawman can just as easily be made to face the opposite direction:

      Why do rightists seek government control of markets for ideas and information while claiming that markets for things like emergency health care or education for poor children require the undiminished discipline of market forces?

      Looks just as silly in either case.

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      Negritude,

      The reason is that most Rightist work in material production and do not want the government interfering with their creation. Few Rightist work in informational fields so they are less sensitive to the dangers of State control there. Leftists by contrast work primarily in information related fields and try to stop government regulation of information products but they think that the State should control material production. For both, its a case of laissez-faire capitalism for me but not for thee.

      Not all Rightist believe this of course. Libertarians are classified as being on the Right and most do not support restrictions on either information or material production.

      My actual main point was that Leftists do not support free speech for moral reasons. Instead they support it largely out of economic self-interest. They dress up their own selfishness in altruism.

    5. Negritude Says:

      But you could have used the exact same reasoning to conclude that rightists “do not support free speech for moral reasons. Instead they support it largely out of economic self-interest. They dress up their own selfishness in altruism.”

      And you’d have a point, but the absurdity would be obvious. PEOPLE dress up their selfishness as altruism.

      You’ve got to admit, Shannon: Your entry on this gives a concise demonstration of how directly and irretreivably ideological bias sans ideas can lead one into fallacy.

    6. Shannon Love Says:

      Negritude,

      PEOPLE dress up their selfishness as altruism

      Except those who follow in the tradition of Adam Smith who admit their selfishness and seek to create systems to turn their own selfishness into a general good.

      Leftists by contrast, portray themselves as utterly and completely altruistic moral exemplars who can be trusted with vast sweeping powers. They claim that they, and they alone. pursue political power and domination of their fellow citizen purely to serve the greater good. Leftists spend vast energy vast energy smearing the reputations of material producers while quietly extolling their own virtues.

      Instead, I think Leftists are merely selfish little pricks pursuing their own narrow self-interest at the expense of everyone else. Their firm belief that the State has the wisdom and obligation to regulate production and consumption evaporates when it becomes a question of regulating the production and consumption of informational products. They think everyone else should be under the States thumb except them. I find this nauseatingly hypocritical.

      Every major Leftists political philosophy, such as Marxism, can be distilled down to the idea that society will work best when the articulate and not the materially productive, make all the decisions. Marxism envisions a world in which ultimately material productivity gives no special material or social rewards leaving the articulate intellectual as the only class of people to stand out from the rest. The emotional appeal of this state to articulate intellectuals is obvious.

      The first step towards true altruism is to admit ones own selfish desires. Only when we can acknowledge our own tendencies to sacrifice the good of others for our own benefit can we even begin to poise less of a risk of oppressing our fellows. The Left never does this. They do the exact opposite, going to great lengths to hide and ignore their own selfishness. The example of their about face on informational products is merely one instance of this.

      Most of the harm that any individual will do springs from their selfish acts. Since Leftists never acknowledge and never try to control their selfish impulses, the harm they can do is immense.

    7. JoseAngel Says:

      In my opinion, it is equality and not freedom that drives the left, the two concepts appear initially harmonious, but they do oppose when your freedom ends the moment you are not supposed to have more than your neighbor.

      So for leftists, supporting freedom is ok as long as it serves their interests, like burning an American flag to protests globalization or war, but it ends the moment freedom opposes the concept of equality. That’s their selfishness.

      The end justifies the means, freedom is a mean, and equality at all cost is an end and I think that is why leftist’s governments normally end up in more state control and intervention in the economy barring some or many of your freedoms in the process.

      So I think the leftists pursue a laissez-faire socialism.

    8. Shannon Love Says:

      JoseAngel,

      …it is equality and not freedom that drives the left

      Leftist seek material or economic equality at the expense of political or informational equality. Leftist seek to create a society which plays to the strengths of the articulate intellectual. The purest vision of this comes from Marx who fantasized about a world in which the most materially productive individual received the same benefit as the least productive leaving no other means for people to distinguish themselves than by intellectual endeavors.

      The great strength of the articulate intellectual is persuasive speech. Leftist seek to create decision-making systems in which the most persuasive communicator exerts more power than the physically productive. In most circumstances, this means shifting the legal authority to make decision from individuals to political bodies which the articulate can better manipulate and control.

      The Leftist seeks to create a world in which the articulate intellectual has total economic freedom but everyone else must crawl to the articulate intellectual for permission to perform the least physical act. There is absolutely nothing egalitarian about their vision.

    9. david foster Says:

      “..when it comes to the most important and critical products of Western civilization, information, the leftist, articulate intellectual stands out from all others in his advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism”…until recently, I tended to believe this: that intellectuals support freedom of speech, etc, because speech, in one form or another is what THEY do, whereas they weren’t interested in general economic freedom because they don’t typically start/run businesses. Lately, however, I’ve observed that “word people” may be typically LESS supportive of free speech than the general population.

      Possibly this is for the same reasons that businesspeople with a high market share in a particular industry often seek government protection enabling the establishment of a permanant monopoly.

    10. Shannon Love Says:

      David Foster,

      I think we are seeing the Left begin to advocate the control of speech in conditions in which they control the institutions that will do the controlling. Universities would be the obvious example. Leftists still violently resist the control of speech by institutions they do not control. For example, although they support the right of university to restrict free speech they violently resist the idea that external actors could mandate that the university restrict speech.

      I think this is fairly standard economic behavior. Its that phenomenon as regulatory capture in which business hijack the government agencies intended to regulate them and use them suppress competition.

    11. JoseAngel Says:

      But…

      Must businessmen understand basic philosophic principles which define the very nature of their existence as such?

      When they seek government protection in an effort to control markets…

      Can you accuse them of being “intellectually dishonest”?

    12. Shannon Love Says:

      JoseAngel,

      Can you accuse them of being “intellectually dishonest”?

      Yes, nauseatingly so. Business people rather routinely abuse the power of the state for their own benefit even as they pound the podium and declare their ideological devotion to the free-market.

      However, people have observed this behavior going all the way back to at least Adam Smith. Everybody in our society intuitively understands that business people seek advantage by fair means or foul and we adjust our perceptions of their assertions accordingly. When they tell us something we ask, “What are you selling. What advantage are you trying to seek by telling me this?”

      But in the case of Leftist intellectuals, most people grant them the presumption of altruism even though they exhibit exactly the same hypocritical behavior as business people. The only difference is that Leftist insist that they be granted the full benefits of the free-market even as they pound the podium demanding that the government control everyone else.

      I don’t think Leftists are anymore selfish than any other political grouping. I do however think that they have sculpted an image both for themselves and others that obscures the self interested politics. Traditionally, even conservatives have granted that Leftists had pure motives even as the conservatives also argued that the Leftists were destructively naive.

      I think that needs to end. We need to ask the Leftist the same questions we ask business people, “What are you selling. What advantage are you trying to seek by telling me this?”

    13. david foster Says:

      Years ago, I was at a company management-training program at which one of the invited speakers was a Marxist professor. He gave a presentation on the way in which class interest determines political opinions, and suggested that any preferences we (the attendees) felt for free-market economics was merely a reflection of our own economic self-interest.

      I suggested that perhaps the same analysis could be applied to professors, and that preferences for systems such as Marxist could be explained based on the benefits they felt they would gain under this system.

      Interestingly, some of the other attendees thought that it was impolite of me to challenge the purity of a speaker’s motivations…one guy (a sales manager of the old school) seemed to feel that “academic freedom” should allow professors to expresss their opinions without challenge.

    14. Ginny Says:

      The “star” system that dominated and still permeates some thinking in academic settings was generally proposed by people who thought of themselves not only on the left but as morally superior to businesses which paid extraordinarily high salaries to CEOs. Some, indeed, would think of themselves as communist sympathizers and have more knowledge of Woody Allen’s “The Front” than of The Black Book of Communism.”

      While others in a department can find it stimulating to work with and under an esteemed scholar and it can provoke through a combination of collegiality and competition better work. Nonetheless, it can also lead to a sluggish “star” and embittered fellow teachers. In other words, the effect is what anyone who has thought much about human nature would expect. A CEO that earns a lot usually is doing something quite different and under considerably greater pressure than the man on the floor of a factory. A star may be achieving more, but generally is under less pressure and has to do less work – the star is paid for what has been done rather than what is being done.

      When a scholarly couple was brought into the local school, the department found they were EST enthusiasts and would encourage their graduate students to spend EST weekends- even if they were shortly before their orals (weekends one would think better and more cheaply spent studying). The next example was actually an interesting & thoughtful critic – I enjoyed his books & he was fairly pleasant. I’m not sure how much he invigorated the local thinking – some good books in his area were developed by some in that area. He was a bit narrow – that is, really into making lists and arranging hierarchies of his fellow scholars. I suspect this helped others to see how the star system worked and his advice was generally useful. However, the magnum opus he was working on here was not finished before he died, even though he spent his last years at another school that gave him an even lighter teaching load (no classes, I think) and more pay. He was a pretty amiable guy but such a system also encouraged some of his worse charateristics – he’d had five wives and was not above using his star power to get his colleagues in bed. Limited responsibilities can leave more time for scholarship but with some people it appears to leave more time for drink.

      Indeed, I’m not sure it is especially healthy for scholars to think of themselves as stars. Duke was an example of such thinking, and, besides the lack of ethics of the 88, the e-mails from members of that committee have demonstrated that literacy as well as civility does not seem to be a necessary component of English Department star status.

    15. Hidarinai Says:

      Shannon’s post might be persuasive if he focused on specific acts or comments by specific persons. Generalizing so widely about leftists demonstrates little other than a desire to make a loud noise with a rhetorical capgun.

      Conveniently, Shannon ignores the left’s long, deep affiliation with labor unions. Much of the rhetoric he and others deploy here to distinguish between “articulate intellectuals” and “material producers” could have been cut and paste directly from any number of Trotskyite or Socialist Labor tracts passed out on college campuses for decades.

      Also conveniently ignored are finance professionals. Do they also ”produce no material wealth” in his view?

    16. Shannon Love Says:

      Hidarinai,

      Shannon’s post might be persuasive if he focused on specific acts or comments by specific persons

      I’m not writing a book, its just a blog post that is already to long. The pattern I describe is so pervasive and of so long standing that I assume that most people with a college education can recognize it once it is pointed out.

      Conveniently, Shannon ignores the left’s long, deep affiliation with labor unions

      Not sure I understand your argument. I would say that labor unions provide Leftist with another institution by which the articulate can control the materially productive. By using their powers of persuasion, the articulate convince workers to disrupt production unless those managing production do as the articulate demand.

      Also conveniently ignored are finance professionals. Do they also ”produce no material wealth” in his view?

      People in finance are directly engaged in production. Indeed, their principle economic function is to to allocate resources to different areas of material production. Money is simply the tool they use to do this. Without finance, material production cannot occur. People in finance face the same basic limitations as other producers i.e. many, many no-human factors that no amount of articulation can effect. By contrast, articulate intellectuals depend on using persuasive communication to alter the behavior of humans. The two areas really don’t overlap.

      If you wanted a part of the business world that exists in the same environment as articulate intellectuals, you should look at those who work in sales and marketing. Both areas rely on using articulation to alter the behavior of human beings.

    17. mishu Says:

      “The first step towards true altruism is to admit one’s own selfish desires.”

      Quote of the week.

    18. david foster Says:

      “If you wanted a part of the business world that exists in the same environment as articulate intellectuals, you should look at those who work in sales and marketing. Both areas rely on using articulation to alter the behavior of human beings”..people who work in advertising, especially the “creatives” within agencies, often have the same worldview as those I have attributed to word-people; at least in my experience, this is less common among corporate marketing people such as product managers and product marketing managers, and much less common among field sales people. The latter, although they work almost exclusively with words, are also in an environment which is extremely measurable and competitive.

      Finance people (and I’m talking here about fund managers, etc, rather than about financial executives within corporations) are often surprisingly leftist. Not sure how mich of this is due to the geographical location and the social affiliations that go with it versus how much is due to the nature of the job.

    19. Jonathan Says:

      Finance people (and I’m talking here about fund managers, etc, rather than about financial executives within corporations) are often surprisingly leftist. Not sure how mich of this is due to the geographical location and the social affiliations that go with it versus how much is due to the nature of the job.

      I think it’s the nature of the job. If your education is limited and you lack confidence in your values, it is easy to succumb to the facile idea that success in finance is parasitic, that you are not producing but skimming cream that less-alert people have left for you, that your success is a gift rather than the result of productive work. Part of the antidote to this attitude is education about the productive role of financiers and speculators in the economy, but this kind of education is not always provided in universities.

    20. Ginny Says:

      An understatement: “this kind of education is not always provided in universities.” I would add, however, that little in our pop culture encourages that either. How many movies, books, etc. have dealt with the drama that undergirds all small busineses? (It has always seemed to me central to It’s a Wonderful Life; however, even in that salute to a savings & loan that enabled many to buy their houses, the villain is a less imaginative financier.)

      It helps when the relationships are more personal and the imagination of the investor comes into more obvious play. Seeing it on a small scale (as in most things about village life) helps us see it in a bigger one.

      Someone should do a comparative study of the success of small towns. My parents always believed that our town, which generally did better than some of the surrounding ones, had a better banker. (Well, better in some senses – my mother did not approve of his affair with our neighbor and my father regularly got irritated with the fact he was more talkative at parties than one might want from a banker.) I’m not sure how much of that was because the water level was high enough and the land flat enough to make irrigation more economic or if it was just that our banker had a vision that others didn’t. But those loans made a difference in that economy.

    21. JoseAngel Says:

      Articulate and not so articulate leftists are successful in universities because they can find fresh, idealistic and unwitting young men and women who ignore history and can be easily convince about the “wonders” of socialism.

      In labor unions they find a proletariat who, not possessing capital or production means, and having to make a living by selling their labor, are easy catch of leftists who are particularly cunning at stirring up and igniting hate and envy of successful and wealthy business people. Labor unions are, for the most part, monolithic in their ideology thanks almost entirely to articulate leftists.

    22. Dave Eaton Says:

      Leftists by contrast, portray themselves as utterly and completely altruistic moral exemplars who can be trusted with vast sweeping powers. They claim that they, and they alone. pursue political power and domination of their fellow citizen purely to serve the greater good. Leftists spend vast energy vast energy smearing the reputations of material producers while quietly extolling their own virtues.

      I am an industrial scientist. I am a material producer of intellectual property, I guess. I have never really understood how a reasonable wariness of power is so readily abandoned, both on the left and right, when people with the right politics are the locus of power.

      Joseph Hill makes a good though incomplete point, though as someone from the class that would be called on to implement parts of the regulation of (say) imported toys, a criticism I would level at the political/regulatory class is their rank ignorance about what might constitute a threat (lead is obvious- a polymer that metabolizes to a dangerous sedative, much less so, and the “unknown unknowns” no doubt dominate). This and the blithe disregard for the costs and the details of a scientific testing program, gum up a lot of otherwise noble plans.

      Even routine science is incredibly time-consuming and expensive. It will always be something that must be used sparingly.

      Extrapolating, the places where details and unknowns trump good intentions and/or plans is why I, an admittedly politically naive scientist, tend to be libertarian. I don’t need to suspect the motives of people who would control things to not want too much control to sit in anyone’s hands.

      I want the goodies that both the capitalist and the regulator say they want- goods and safety, fairness and prosperity. If anything, I have a sort of rosy, leftish ideal of how the world ought to be. I just expect that capitalists will be constrained, ultimately, by the need to succeed, whereas a regulator has the guns, clubs, handcuffs and cages (and, most importantly, society’s sanction to use them) without having any obligation to show efficacy. So I am, rationally I think, a bit more suspicious of anybody with unfettered power telling me that they have my best interest at heart. I don’t trust the capitalist without reservation, either, but at least I am free to give him the finger if I become convinced he is evil.

    23. Ginny Says:

      The left sees its responsibility as protecting (and deciding for) a gullible and dependent public.

      We can argue about the theoretical goodness of that – or badness in making for a more dependent population or a stagnant economy. The hard left has shown – both by valuing the state over the individual in small and large ways in communist countries (let’s take Chernobyl & the dramatic difference in pollution to the east) and assuming that if all is state managed its motives must be pure – it isn’t all that great at really protecting its people.

      The softer left, because it often appeals to emotion and feels that its motives are sincere seems to assume facts will support their positions; thus they are more susceptible to cascading – look at the food pyramid, DDT, global warming.