Roger Douglas is a Left-Libertarian

Roger Douglas nicely lays out the principles of classical liberalism as they relate to the poor (hat tip: Anna):

Many think that ACT New Zealand is a party for big business. It is a real tragedy that ACT suffers from this stereotype. It is a tragedy because the profile is so out of whack with the reality.

I have spent most of my adult life in the Labour Party. For 21 years I represented one of the poorest electorates in New Zealand. (…)

The goals I have today are the same as those I had when I was in Labour. I am just as concerned today as I was then about poverty. I am just as concerned today as I was then about opportunity. I am just as concerned today as I was then about second class citizens.

But where I have changed is what I see as the cause of second class citizenship.

New Zealand has two classes of citizens. And we have two classes not because the Government isn’t doing enough for the poor, but because what the Government does for the poor denies them choices, destroys the incentives they have to get ahead, and subjects them to political abuse. (…)

I hold the same ideals I always have. In fact, every party in Parliament claims to share essentially the same goals when it comes to welfare. National, Labour, and the Greens are all wedded to the current system. Only ACT has an alternative to the failing status quo.

The problem with the status quo is that it all about power. Politicians control who gets an operation, where kids get educated, and how much superannuation you receive.

I can share the goal of equal opportunity for all, and have a different way of achieving it.

Pre-fucking-cisely.

I’m not one for electoral politics, and would certainly never support the ACT party these days, but Roger Douglas is good people and the whole article is well worth reading. Surely he must realise, though, that stupid policy is what government always reverts to. We can’t just complain about policy without thinking about the underlying system which produces it. He has done more than any other politician to improve policy, only to see many of the changes reversed.

If Roger were to accept that coercive government is always going to produce policy which disproportionately harms the poor, his views would be nearly identical to many anarchist left-libertarians. This excellent Freeman article from Charles Johnson, aka Rad Geek, springs to mind (which Mike Gogulski recently read aloud as a podcast):

Artificially limiting the alternative options for housing ratchets up the fixed costs of living for the urban poor. Artificially limiting the alternative options for independent work ratchets down the opportunities for increasing income. And the squeeze makes poor people dependent on—and thus vulnerable to negligent or unscrupulous treatment from—both landlords and bosses by constraining their ability to find other, better homes, or other, better livelihoods. The same squeeze puts many more poor people into the position of living “one paycheck away” from homelessness and makes that position all the more precarious by harassing and coercing and imposing artificial destitution on those who do end up on the street.

I’d love to see Roger Douglas come out as an anarchist.

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9 Responses

  1. Many people I talk to these days describe themselves as ‘left-libertarians’, and though I agree with some of them I simply can not find purchase or sense in much of the basic ‘premises’ that seem to float around – that people aren’t largely responsible in some pretty serious ways for their own dire straits, and that it is the incompetence of the majority (and not the exploitation by minorities) which mainly has to do with the existing of statist and other absolutist ideologies. And the whole notion of ‘equality’ or ‘intrinsic human worth’ is just bats, in my opinion.

    I definitely feel more ‘reactionary/anti-humanist/social darwinist’ than ‘liberal’, much less ‘left’. My anti-statist tendencies come not at being appalled at brutality or authoritarianism so much as at the ineptitude of those living under it. People asked for democracy, and they’re getting it good and hard.

    • I agree with completely that illiberal government policy is the result of mass (rational) irrationality rather than a cloistered group of puppetmasters controlling the state for their own benefit, which I think some self-described left-libertarians come close to saying.

      I also have a problem with the “free-market anti-capitalists” assuming that there would be no hierarchical firms in a freed market – I think the absence of regulation would reduce average firm size by lowering barriers to entry, but there would still be many big firms running roughly as they are today.

      I have fairly humanist and bleeding-heart impulses, though, and do think the state disproportionately harms the poor. Many poor people are pretty much responsible for their own problems insofar as they haven’t made the best of things within the current system. I’d also say that big government tends to infantilize those people and makes it harder for them to claw their way out of poverty and idleness.

      Also, some people just are incapable of providing for themselves, and I think charity to help those people is extremely important.

      • I should add: I definitely see myself as a liberal, but I don’t feel comfortable saying I’m either left or right – both have way too much baggage.

      • Brad,

        Thank you for the mention. And for the kind words.

        I also have a problem with the “free-market anti-capitalists” assuming that there would be no hierarchical firms in a freed market…

        Well, I think the claim is usually not that there will be no “hierarchical firms” in a free market, but rather that firms will be (much) less hierarchical on average, and that hierarchical firms will be (much) less prevalent and (much) less central in the broader economy than they are today under the rigged state-capitalist economy. At least, that’s my view. (Similarly, it’s not that I think a free economy with a rich bed of mutual aid networks and wildcat unions will result in there not being any employer-employee relationships anywhere at all; rather, what I think is that those kind of relationships will no longer be the overwhelmingly predominant means for workers to make a living, and that those workers who do agree to them will be much less dependent on them for their economic survival.)

        In any case, these theses aren’t just something that we’re “assuming.” They’re the conclusion of an argument. (Or rather, of several converging lines of argument. Having to do with, e.g., ways in which the state burns out informal-sector alternatives to hierarchical firms, subsidizes hierarchical firms over grassroots alternatives through government-granted monopolies, cartelized captive markets, corporate welfare, “development” policy, etc., privileges politically-connected big landlords, mobilizes tremendous amounts of money to support capital-intensive forms of production, big agribusiness, large-scale resource extraction, and long-distance shipping, etc.) Maybe these arguments don’t go far enough to establish their intended conclusions; but I think that they are at least a pretty substantial line of argument that needs to be engaged with by those who predict business-as-usual to continue, even if with greater competition from the bottom, when the gigantic firms you see running today pretty much all depend very heavily (as in fact they do) on government privileges that would be abolished in a freed market.

        Many poor people are pretty much responsible for their own problems insofar as they haven’t made the best of things within the current system.

        Well. Everybody makes mistakes. Certainly I’ve made my own, and I have lots of friends who got themselves into all kinds of financial trouble through their own bad decisions. Not least the college-educated kids from well-off families who enter their mid-20s with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to repay and no clear plan on how to do it. But I think the interesting thing is how far people have an economic support structure, or available economic opportunities, to cushion the fall and to get back up on your feet after it, once you’ve made your mistakes.

        But the situation faced by the economically comfortable, and the situation faced by the poor, in these respects are very different. Things like whether or not you have access to credit, whether or not you have access to alternative housing, what your options are for alternative ways of making a living if your current arrangement falls through, whether or not you are constantly being socked with new expenses that knock you back, whether or not you have access to insurance to cover emergency expenses, etc. And I’d say that in each case, the differences between rich and poor in these respects are in no small part the result of either direct government assaults on poor people’s property rights and alternative survival strategies (as I discuss in “Scratching By”) or else indirect ripple-effects of cartelizing, rigidifying, and subsdizing interventions by the state into the market. Everyone walks a tightrope, and people of all classes fall off from time to time; the real question is whether you’re allowed to work with a net, or whether the government has cut it down and taken it out from under you.

      • To RadGeek:
        “In any case, these theses aren’t just something that we’re “assuming.” They’re the conclusion of an argument. (Or rather, of several converging lines of argument. Having to do with, e.g., ways in which the state burns out informal-sector alternatives to hierarchical firms, subsidizes hierarchical firms over grassroots alternatives through government-granted monopolies, cartelized captive markets, corporate welfare, “development” policy, etc., privileges politically-connected big landlords, mobilizes tremendous amounts of money to support capital-intensive forms of production, big agribusiness, large-scale resource extraction, and long-distance shipping, etc.) Maybe these arguments don’t go far enough to establish their intended conclusions; but I think that they are at least a pretty substantial line of argument that needs to be engaged with by those who predict business-as-usual to continue, even if with greater competition from the bottom, when the gigantic firms you see running today pretty much all depend very heavily (as in fact they do) on government privileges that would be abolished in a freed market.”
        I agree with this generally, but I think I should emphasize in absurdity in attempting relative-size or quantification attempts in regards to a market system which we have never seen the likes of in a future whose relative resources and talents we can not forsee. The middle ages were very decentralized, and there were almost no ‘centralized’ production centers; and they were certainly not free market. We can easily imagine that scarcity of certain abilities (such as entrapeneurial talent and drive) may frequently favor a semi-centralized organization. This isn’t to deny that many currently existing corporations are over-capitalized, over-centralized and over-bureaucratized. Nor to deny that the state regulations on exploiting resources or engaging in commerce denies many would-be entrepaneurs (including independent tradesman) the liberty and opportunity they would otherwise have. Simply that we can not rule out that, absent state and customary interference in markets, some methods and directors of production may become even more profitable than these lumbering corpse-rations.

        “Well. Everybody makes mistakes.”
        But not everyone makes systematic and pervasive mistakes. Likewise, some people make opportunities of situations, and some people – do not.

      • Rad Geek – I agree that we’d see many more self-employed people and very small firms, and with the fallback position of self-employment, workers wouldn’t be so bound to their jobs. Big companies today take advantage of what state privilege they can can get, but It’s not clear to me that they wouldn’t adapt to life without such privileges.

        I suspect you’re right that firms would be smaller on average in a free market, it’s the “much” I have problems with. Also, I don’t think libertarians should get too hung up on the equilibrium the market ends up producing. A free market gives people more options, and that’s all that should matter to us.

        I agree with Vichy: we just don’t know what a free market would look like.

  2. “and do think the state disproportionately harms the poor.”
    As a general rule, disasters fall with disproportionate frequency and severity on the less capable.

    “I’d also say that big government tends to infantilize those people and makes it harder for them to claw their way out of poverty and idleness. ”
    That, and it tells them that their half-baked tribal instincts are appropriate ways to deal with coordination in a largely impersonal society, furthering their own tendency to approve of asinine policies that sound ‘fair’, and the academics do their part. It hardly seems one can look at an economist or philosopher attempt anything other than backpeddling from the implications of a self-regulating system of self-interest and its contradictions with many common, even ‘natural’ social aesthetics people have. Likewise, they are quick to assure people that these ‘altruistic’ tendencies will still be preserved. But – why? Why do people feel the need to defend themselves from the ‘charge’ of egoism? I don’t want to sound Randian here, but there is no good reason I can see that ‘altruism’ or ‘natural morality’ gets the benefit of the doubt as against calculated self-seeking, either personally or socially.

    • “But – why? Why do people feel the need to defend themselves from the ‘charge’ of egoism? I don’t want to sound Randian here, but there is no good reason I can see that ‘altruism’ or ‘natural morality’ gets the benefit of the doubt as against calculated self-seeking, either personally or socially.”

      Most people (myself included) value altruism, and will provide help to the genuinely needy in situations where their own wellbeing is relatively secure. I wouldn’t want to force anyone to behave altruistically, but I think most people have a tendency to do so – we are incredibly social animals and psychological egoism is just empirically false wrt most people.

      I value Rand’s ethic of living your own life as you see fit without worrying about those who would tell you it’s wrong, but I see no virtue in selfishness. I don’t see all that much vice in it either (I don’t think anyone has an original debt to pay to society), but I definitely see altruism as a good thing.

      That’s not based on rational reflection or anything, it just seems right to me and I’m really not sure how to go about knowing whether my fundamental values are justified.

  3. […] Come on, Roger. Admit you’re an anarchist. […]

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