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Small l libertarian

We had a spirited discussion around the breakfast table yesterday morning.  Topic: politics. Always good for some heated debate. And if you followed my Facebook profile yesterday,  you saw the evidence of the progression of that discussion.  At the beginning of the day I listed my political viewpoint as libertarian.  Part way through the day it flipped to moderate.  And it's now back to libertarian.

It began with Janice questioning my choice to label myself as having libertarian views.  She's not the only one either.  A few times recently friends have asked what libertarian on my profile means. The problem is that declared libertarians are frequently perceived to be a little nutty. In fact, that was the source of today's discussion.  Janice pointed out the platform of the Libertarian Party of Canada, which mostly stands for abolishing everything supported by government, including items like abolishing universal education. Of course I don't believe in those things.  And the Wikipedia entry on libertarianism is also full of similar radical views. 

Most political parties today are really about two things — economics and personal freedoms. They tend to define themselves on axes that range from controlled economies to free markets (left to right wing), and individual liberty (or libertarian) to authoritarianism. Traditional conservatives are authoritarian free marketers, for example, which explains the trend in recent years to a loss of civil liberties accompanied by less regulated markets. 

There's a fabulous survey tool at http://www.politicalcompass.org/ that you can take to see where you stand. I scored slightly left on the right vs left scale (-1), and feel deeply about personal liberty (-6.5) on the authoritarians vs libertarian scale. Makes sense, although I was surprised to see myself on the left side of the scale.  While I prefer open markets, I do not believe in the benevolence of corporations.  They exist to serve their shareholders, not society. And while I accept authority as a necessary requirement for society to function, I have a deep belief in civil liberties, individual rights and freedom of thought.  If there's one thing that makes me irrational it's the Orwellian idea that we should do or think something for no other reason than "it's the right thing to do".

So that's me — a small L libertarian. An economically moderate guy with a knee-jerk reaction to the arbitrary application of authority. 

Political Compass also shows where the parties in many countries would chart at various different elections.  Here, for instance, is Canada in 2005.  The chart also helps to explain why I had such difficulty in making a voting choice in the last election.  The Liberals and Conservatives were not that different, and both were much more authoritarian than I find comfortable.  The NDP, too far to the left. The Libertarian Party of Canada would be deeply libertarian and far right. The Greens, while not shown on this chart, were shown on the UK chart… as deeply libertarian and slightly left, and that's where I placed my vote.

Canadian political parties 2005

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • marcelo July 30, 2007, 10:14 am


    I took the same test (fun, fun, fun) and came out slightly below and to the right of you. That would make me my L a bit larger than yours in Libertarian. But I put myself down as "Very Liberal" on Facebook. I'm guessing you identify yourself as a Libertarian cuz you live in Canada. Check out this graph mapping the candidates for US President (http://www.politicalcompass.org/usprimaries2007). That would make you Fidel if you were to move a few kilometers south.

  • Eric Dondero July 30, 2007, 11:54 am

    There’s a home for small ‘l’ libertarians at http://www.mainstreamlibertarian.com

    We welcome input and news items from Canadians.

  • Alec July 30, 2007, 1:17 pm

    Thanks Eric.

  • Alec July 30, 2007, 2:25 pm

    For sure Marcelo. Up here there are a few folks who subscribe to the idea that health care and schools all ought to be private, but they are few and far between. Not nearly as prevalent as the Charter school proponents south of the border.

  • Heather July 31, 2007, 1:03 am

    That was a great tool Alec, thanks!

    Heather’s political compass

    Economic Left/Right: -3.25
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.62

    Hmmm. I’m more of a lefty than I had thought. Given that of the two axes, Economics are not my strong suit, I think I can assume that I need some education here. On the other hand, my compass looks like the compass of the Dalai LLama which pleases me greatly. I think he has some pretty useful things to say about International Politics with regard to ‘the protection of ligitimate economic interests.’ His social wisdoms helped me to cope with the sorrows associated with witnessing poverty and suffering in the World.

    My blood family members would score with the New Democrats. My husband would likely score near me but perhaps with a stronger Authoritarian result. He is in a quasi military occupation yet has taken on a strong role through his professional association to protect wages, health and rights to liberty.

    Generally, I score very highly in matters of Emotional Intelligence. My financial accumen, well, ahem, pretty darned average. I’m so happy that Larry has a head for business.

  • Alec July 31, 2007, 6:40 am

    It’s a very interesting scale, which produces some surprising results. In my immediate family, we’re all pretty similar — a little left of center economically, but quite anti-authoritarian. My teenage son was the closest to center. Makes me wonder if that’s a side effect of years of the public school system.

  • Jim August 9, 2007, 1:18 pm

    I like the quiz at http://www.politicalcompass.org because the questions sometimes don't give an indication of where the answer would put one. On the other hand, that could cause confusion about how to answer the question, because the questioner's meaning may be the opposite of the answerer's interpretation of the question.

  • Jim August 9, 2007, 5:05 pm

    I’m a bit concerned that the quiz at http://www.politicalcompass.org doesn’t give any credit to Nolan, who is the inventor (as best as can be told) of the basic concept — see
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nolan_Chart — the discussion behind the article is also illuminating (I did a Google search of politicalcompass.org and Nolan was not found).
    The quiz at http://www.politicalcompass.org would be better presented in the way that the Nolan Chart became presented — see http://www.theadvocates.org/quiz.html .
    The square should be presented as a diamond, with the libertarian position at the top or bottom corner and the authoritarian position at the bottom or top corner. The economic/social scales are good (and the same as on the Nolan Chart) on http://www.politicalcompass.org , but the objective libertarian position is full economic freedom and full personal freedom (for right or wrong) — there is no left/right libertarianism; the position occupies a single point. Similarly, there can be no room for maneuvering at what should be only a totalitarian corner. The “libertarian left” is no more libertarian than the “authoritarian right” is authoritarian; on the political left, economic freedoms are abrogated while on the political right, personal freedoms are abrogated (my realization is that it’s pretty much impossible to get out to the full left or right point, since the liberties on one hand will counteract the oppression on the other — you can’t outlaw the personal smoking of marijuana if its economic trade is completely free — or at least that would be pretty difficult to do). Draw a cartesian graph with economic freedom increasing from zero on one axis and personal freedom increasing on the other axis. Project the 100% freedom points to meet at the libertarian point, forming a square. Tip the square onto its authoritarian point (or its libertarian point) and there is a much clearer picture. The conventional left-right spectrum was realized to curve, before the idea of the Nolan Chart was conceived; that spectrum can be seen as an upside-down tear drop with its point at the authoritarian corner (putting Hitler and Stalin correctly at the same point) and its curved top varying distances towards the libertarian corner, with varying degrees of fatness, or even shapes, towards left and right.

  • Jim August 11, 2007, 9:13 pm

    re: Abolishing universal eduation:
    Libertarians have traditionally been poor at PR, probably because they were typically geeky kids who want to sound powerful, so they talk about “abolishing” and “anarchy”. Quite to the contrary, libertarians don’t want to abolish any useful things; they just think that government shouldn’t run them. Education has been non-government-run in the past, and has been of higher quality. Why isn’t food-providing run by the government? Because the effect of much worse quality and availability happens quickly enough that everyone can see cause and effect clearly (see http://www.geocities.com/forpropertyrights/Essays/WhySocialismDoesntWork.htm for the reason); it’s not so fast with education. One will die in about ten days or so without food — this is why we can’t afford to let the government run the food-providing operation. A property-rights market does a better job with education, and most other things, too (the job of best allocating resources — as an aside, it is not always the case that resources are scarce).
    Similarly, libertarians aren’t really for anarchy, as the term is commonly understood (lawlessness), but for property rights, which lead to a more stable order (banks become massive granite edifices, companies sign one-hundred year contracts, prices remain so stable that they can be printed onto warehouse boxes along with the name of the product, etc.) than we have today.
    Many libertarians like me have to run clean-up on the popular understanding of libertarianism, unfortunately largely due to libertarians themselves (see Michael Emerling Cloud and “The Essence of Political Persuasion”, now available in book form as “Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion”: http://www.theadvocates.org/secrets.html for inspiration on this).

    I’d argue that full economic and personal freedoms for individuals is close to being right, with a caveat: you obviously can’t have individual liberty if other individuals are free to infringe on the liberty of others. But liberty can be maximized if we strictly outlaw the infringing upon the persons and property of others, defining that as direct injury, and refrain from using direct injury via law to attempt to rectify situations of indirect injury that aren’t great — that “cure” is worse than the disease. When many blacksmiths were unhappy during the industrial revolution, the solution wasn’t to tax (punish) the innovators to give the then-redundant blacksmiths a handout (or to forbid the innovation), it was to let the blacksmiths invest in retraining themselves to do something needed by people. (See “My version of the Libertarian Statement of Principles (SOP)” at http://www.geocities.com/forpropertyrights/index.html#Essays ).
    Strong environmental protections that result from strictly forbidding pollution of other peoples’ property may slow down the economy somewhat — we are seeing the difference between Canada and the USA and the productivity of China, where environmental protections are lax — but we could make up for it by removing much government restraint of trade (professional education and other quotas, permits, tariffs, taxation, forced unionism, etc.). Anyone who can meet the standard should be allowed to be a professional in a given field; there should be no legal restraint on the numbers of MDs who can go to school and graduate, for example. Here is one way that we can do without taxation: http://www.geocities.com/forpropertyrights/Essays/FundingGovt.htm .

    Another thing wrong with the graph at http://www.politicalcompass.org is that the economic freedoms axis is depicted as the authoritarian/libertarian one, and the social freedoms axis is depicted as the left-right one. But the authoritarian/libertarian scale includes both personal and economic freedoms, and left-right depends on them, too. That graph is messed up, man.
    We can mark out a libertarian area around the libertarian point on the better chart, but it doesn’t include the left or the right corner of the chart. Nolan himself wrote an article in which he identified five areas that define libertarianism: 1. You own yourself (no draft, for example), 2. No criminal possession laws (i.e., full property rights — the “war on drugs” is badly corrupting law enforcement), 3. The right to self defence (owning weapons falls under no. 2., but it needs repeating) 4. honest money (a gold standard — see http://www.geocities.com/forpropertyrights/Essays/HonestMoney.htm ) and 5. no income tax (see above in this post).

    re not being able to get out to the full left or right point: obviously individuals with their theoretical quiz answers could locate themselves at those points, but society wouldn’t be able to get there. That’s why the conventional left-right spectrum had to curve.

  • Alec August 13, 2007, 7:17 am

    Hi Jim,

    First, thanks for the volume of thoughts you’ve written down here. You’re obviously more well read on what’s au courant in Libertarian thinking than I am.

    I was familiar with the Nolan chart, but to my mind the results are more difficult to read, and the “worlds smallest political quiz” overly simplistic. For what it’s worth, if you box Nolan’s chart, rather than representing it as a diamond, I scored approximately the same — centrist, or a little left on economic issues, and quite anti-authoritarian on personal issues.

    As to how to answer the questions at Political Compass, I did it as follows: There are some that I would always agree with, some always disagree with, and some where I tend to agree or disagree. Viewed through that lens, rather than trying to discern the questioners intent, I found them reasonably easy to answer.

    Vis a vis the other pieces, I think this is where you and I will tend to disagree. I believe, for instance, that private schools show better results than public schools today because of their admissions criteria. The cream rises to the top, and they have the ability to skim it off. Put those private school educators in an environment where every child, including the addicted, the poor, and the mentally disabled has a right to an education, and I think you will see a different result. Indeed, this is where my view on corporations — that they exist to serve their shareholders — leads me to believe that those constituencies would be underserved. If I was running an educational corporation, I would likely find a way to tailor my company’s product to those most able to pay.

    I do agree with you on doctors, professional education, the environment, and so on. Those choosing to enter the professions have a right to practice in the manner they wish. I would argue in the case of medicine that that right includes being funded at the tax-payer’s expense, or going into private practice.

    On your five principles — i am not sure about two of them. I believe that weapons ownership requires a test of competence. It’s far too easy to harm another with a weapon, and once done it’s frequently fatal. And as far as the gold standard goes, the idea of tying currency to a particular commodity is an antiquated idea that will lead to rapid deflation unless the quantity of gold held by the central bank increases at the same rate that the economy grows. What you’re seeking to do, I believe, is to ensure that the central bank doesn’t arbitrarily print currency and manipulate interest rates. I am not sure what the best mechanism is, but it seems to me that the quantity of currency in the economy should be tied to GNP or some other measure of economic activity.

  • Jim August 15, 2007, 11:39 pm

    It’s not the gold standard that is antiquated, but rather it is the tradition of robber governments that belongs in the dustbin of history. The progress of history should be viewed as that of increasing individual liberty, and allowing the government to loot peoples’ savings constitutes going backwards, not forwards. As noted in the post at
    http://www.geocities.com/forpropertyrights/Essays/HonestMoney.htm , I am seeking to end the fraud and theft (the mechanism is explained clearly and simply there; it’s nothing but authorized counterfeiting). It might be possible to simply declare the value of a unit of currency to be an arbitrary amount greater, to match the growth of goods and services in the economy, but that won’t be done because the desire of the government is obviously to use inflation as a defacto tax on peoples’ savings.
    There’s nothing wrong with deflation per se; wouldn’t it be nice to have prices continually decreasing rather than increasing? During a prolonged period of deflation towards the end of the 1800s in the USA, productivity increased (which explains the deflation).
    Also, doing what is right has to be a strong consideration. We don’t pollute other peoples’ property here in the West, even if doing so would spur the economy, because it’s just not the right thing to do. Similarly, refraining from decreasing the defacto amount of peoples’ savings is also the right thing to do, even if manufacturers don’t get a feeling that they’re getting continually higher prices for what they produce. That is just a feeling, moreover. Due to the instability created by positive feedback, we get booms and busts due to inflation, which causes uncertainty, which is bad for business; the busts cause suffering and people are generally worse off. In the end, after peoples’ savings are looted, nothing else really changes; it just takes about 36 dollars to buy what 1 dollar used to. Income tax is used as a brake on the instability, and it would be hard to end income tax without making the instability worse; and income tax is just an absolutely horrible invasion of privacy and violation of property rights. We need a gold standard so that we can end the income tax without making a real mess.
    Nolan listed those five points as points of “no compromise” to libertarian views. As someone whose savings are being depleted by the inflation in the US over the past five years, I also disagree that libertarian views can include support of policies that lead to defacto fraud and theft. The common thread of all libertarian views is consistent individual property rights (counting self-ownership).
    Thanks for your reply; I really hope that you’ll reconsider.

  • Alec August 16, 2007, 7:03 am

    James, you could prevent the inflation cycle you write about in your essay by tighter management of credit at the banks. Banks are required to keep a certain amount of cash in reserve (12% I believe it is in Canada) in order to redeem deposits. Simply increasing the reserve requirement would tighten the money supply.

    I believe you understate the impact of deflation. As prices and earning power fall, the buying power of those who accumulated money in inflationary times rapidly increases. Loans acquired during inflationary times will go into default as borrowers become unable to make the payments, and the asset itself decreases in value at an accelerated rate. It’s a recipe for economic collapse.

    I remain unconvinced on a return to gold, or any commodities based currency. Our economies and populations are expanding faster than the supply of gold.

  • Jim August 16, 2007, 12:22 pm

    >you could prevent the inflation cycle you write about in your essay by tighter management of credit at the banks.

    That is pretty much what I am saying: a rigorous reserve requirment. Money should be rigorously backed by gold, which means that a borrower should be able to demand the loan in gold, if the lender is willing to lend at all. Not being able to get the loan in gold, once it has been approved, should be considered serious fraud. This means that the lender would not be allowed to lend out money that he does not have, which is the definition of inflation.

    >Loans acquired during inflationary times will go into default
    That is the fault of the inflation, obviously, not the deflation. It should be clear that it is an error of logic to assign the fault of one process to the other. We do get bad economic collapses due to inflation, as from the runaway inflation of 1929. We haven't had economic collapses due to deflation. The gold standard was abandoned because people want to steal! The discipline of respecting others' property rights is too unpopular, politically.
    The gold standard of the USA and other countries was a futuristic innovation; the bad old ways of rulers taking what they like was stopped for a while. It can be a futuristic innovation again.

  • Jim August 18, 2007, 4:26 pm

    Since some other libertarian friends of mine have clearly picked up the idea that libertarianism is harsh, I think it needs to be emphasized that it is really about a gentle, not a harsh discipline. It’s like getting up at 7:00AM instead of noon (if you yourself, not some else, realizes what is good for you). You feel better. But it’s not like having to get up at 3:00AM, which is unhealthy (and you feel lousy). In return for respecting others’ property rights, you won’t get mass-murdered, as happens under socialism. Under libertarianism, you will never be told “Sorry, Bob, it’s your turn to get your throat cut for the good of the rest of us. You know the way this works.” As just happened in Windsor, you will never have the government tell you that your home and the property it is on is being commandeered by the government at a price that it ultimately will tell you that you will have to accept. You will never be told that your business’s product is “messing up the market” and that you won’t be allowed to trade it any more.
    Also, I believe that the property-rights (free) market works better, so changing to it will cause benefits, not problems. Stability and predictability is good for the economy, so businesses will be able to pay their loans, even if prices go down, because the economy will continue to expand. As I said, continued deflation, as happened towards the end of the 1800s, meant continued productivity: the amount of goods and services (the real wealth) continued to increase, so history shows that this is true. Money itself, such as Gold, is not all wealth, in and of itself; it is just a medium of exchange.
    See also my comments at: http://saunderslog.com/2007/08/14/driving-on-the-right-hand-side-in-a-left-hand-wireless-world/#comments

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