What is “Leftism” and How Can it Be Defended?

Recently I have been doing some writing on the concept “leftism” (which will probably be available soon as a small book). It is, of course, hard to define exactly what leftism is, but most people probably have a rough idea about what it means. My own method has been to approach the term as an ideal type, i.e., a sort of loose definition which enumerates characteristics normally associated with the phenomenon in question. When talking about ideal types, it is important to note that not all characteristics need to be found in all individual cases. But it is hard to say “objectively” how many characteristics one must observe, or how strongly they must be manifested. Again, an ideal type is not a precise definition.

For the purposes of my own investigations – and my defense of leftist politics – I assumed that the most important characteristic of leftism is a defense of relatively high levels of economic redistribution. It would be hard to call someone a leftist if he or she did not want higher levels of economic redistribution (mostly from rich to poor, of course) than, for instance, conservatives or libertarians, no matter how many of the other criteria for leftism they fulfill. On the other hand, it would, perhaps, be hard to call someone a “pure” leftist if she accepts high redistribution, but rejects all other characteristics of leftism.

The other characteristics or criteria that I include in my ideal type of leftism are support for: (radical) feminism, anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action, immigration and (some sort of) multiculturalism, bottom-up globalization and special rights for workers, and participatory and majoritarian democracy. One could probably also add environmentalist concerns (and a particular view of the state’s role to meet those concerns) to this list, but for different reasons I will not include it in my book.

I defend leftist politics by appealing to my hedonist ethics. I believe that, for instance, economic redistribution from the rich to the poor, a kind of feminism that makes us see beyond culturally specific gender roles, or a state that does not privilege any particular ethnicity or lifestyle can be defended on the grounds that it maximizes pleasure and (perhaps more important) minimizes pain.

I do not, in other words, appeal to Marxism in any way to defend leftism; and I believe that extensive ownership of the means of production by the state (or similar collective entities) would be mistaken. I believe leftists has relied too much on Marxism and other related theories to defend their positions. Hedonism is a more straightforward idea and it does not suffer from the many weaknesses that can be found in most other theories used to defend leftism. Of course, some may claim that the hedonist defense of leftism is not left enough. In that case, I would only answer that that would be a problem for such “left-leftism”, not for hedonism – unless, of course, the critics in question are prepared to make a philosophically rigorous argument against hedonism itself (and make better arguments for another moral theory).

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My Ideology: Anti-Egoism

I usually discuss my ethics and my political philosophy. But to discuss one’s political ideology is to move some steps toward practical politics, leaving a few of the foundational steps behind for the sake of simplicity. After all, it is rare that a “conservative”, a “liberal”, a “nationalist” or a “socialist” is called upon to explain the moral foundations of their political views, and that is why we call these views ideologies rather than moral or political philosophies (but they can, of course, be propagated as foundational philosophies, provided that enough theoretical effort is made). And in real life (outside of the ivory towers of academia or think tanks, that is), we usually see no problem with the propagation of a “truncated” ideology rather than a complete political philosophy. In real life there is, alas, not enough time for the latter, nor enough philosophical know-how among most people to understand the philosophies in question.

So after this apology for the use of ideologies I would simply want to state what my ideology is. Put briefly, I probably adhere to what one might call anti-egoism. My view is that you simply don’t have a right to take for yourself more than is necessary for a decent life. By this I mean that you have a right to procure the means to uphold your own life (which, of course, also means keeping some savings for unforeseen events) and the lives of people who are dependent on you. I also grant the right to procure means for a few pleasures and interests that are necessary for a psychologically and culturally decent life. But wanting to go beyond this I would call egoism, at least in a world where many people lack the means to live this kind of decent life.

Now this anti-egoistic position does not by itself entail any specific economic system. In a very libertarian society the non-egoistic ideal could flourish if most people subscribe to it. In a world where many people do not subscribe to it political means are necessary to correct people’s egoism – means which might have different characteristics, depending on the circumstances. Often, however, the problem seems to be one of “financial” egoism, which often necessitates various redistribute measures through the tax system, along with other “leftist” tools. In this day and age the “environmentalist” toolkit seems to be highly appropriate as well.

I am perfectly ready to concede that some people will be happy to be egoists and claim that you basically have a “right” to anything that you can take for yourself. In real life, such conflicts are unavoidable. The resolution of these conflicts can only be left to democratic decision. I suspect, however, that few people would argue that egoism is an “ultimate” good. Some people would, no doubt, argue that egoism is bad, but that it is unavoidable. There might, for instance, be innovative and creative egoists who refuse to render any services to society unless their egoistic cravings are satisfied. I am prepared to concede that to some degree these cravings might have to be satisfied. But to what degree is an empirical matter. Anyway, it is all too easy to start up with the bad-but-unavoidable sentiment and slip into a good-because-unavoidable sentiment. As long as one avoids that slippage I believe the dilemma of unavoidable egoists is fairly manageable. At least as long as the egoists are not the majority.

So, that was the simple story of my political ideology. Less egoism in the world, that’s it. Not a complicated message, one might think. Of course, I am always ready to defend this ideology on a more philosophical level, but in – what I have called – real life such defenses are rarely called for; and I am beginning to think I am wasting my time with philosophical details.

Minority Rights You Should Not Fight For

I belong to a small minority, namely those who are interested in philosophy. Reading, and occasionally writing, philosophy (mainly political philosophy) is an important part of my life. One might even say that being a perpetual student of philosophy is a part of my “identity” (if we must use that concept). Yet it is not the easiest thing to be interested in. It is not easy to find particular books that you want to read at a reasonable price (unless you are a university professor or student, and even then you can only use the books for a short time), and it is hard to find people who are equally interested in philosophy in order to start clubs or the like. These things the state could do something about: they could lower the VAT on philosophy books or subsidize their printing in other ways; they could support philosophy clubs and associations financially; they could broadcast more philosophy programs in national radio and television.

However, as important as philosophy is to me, I don’t believe the state should do those things. I don’t believe the minority to which I belong should receive any special support. My view is that the state should uphold rights that are universally important, like the need for food, shelter, healthcare, education, etc. (of course, there will always be eccentrics who will reject, for instance, healthcare as a basic need, so let’s call these needs virtually universal). But special rights to advance lifestyle choices of minorities, no. And I see no difference if the principle is applied to the cases of ethnic or religious minorities. There are, for instance, certain ethnic groups who are used to making a living in certain specific ways, and who therefore believe that this lifestyle should be subsidized, lest their ethnic group will be dissolved. I do not see, however, why an appeal to historic tradition or the survival of a certain “culture” should be weightier than, for example, professed enjoyment (as in the case of the philosophy fans).

Nevertheless, as a consequentialist I must concede that this should only be taken as a rule of thumb. For instance, it may the case that certain special rights and subsidies are granted to people who are disadvantaged in other, more important ways (i.e., pertaining to universal needs). If people of one ethnic group face so much discrimination in the job market that it would be virtually impossible for them to leave their traditional (subsidized or protected in other ways) occupations, then these special minority protections would perhaps be better than nothing at all (but a robust welfare system and job opportunities for all citizens would, of course, be better).

Often these discussions relate to linguistic minorities. How will my views be applied to them? Well, if this group is disadvantaged in special ways, as described in the last section, then special rights for that linguistic group might be warranted. But I don’t see that the mere survival of a language is so important that the state should offer extra support (in addition to what people spend themselves) to keep it alive. Many many languages have already disappeared completely, and it is hard to view that as a big tragedy.

How could one argue for the opposite of what I am arguing for? The only way that the opposite view would be practicable would be to choose certain minority lifestyles as more “worthy” than others. But it is hard to see how one could make those decisions about “worthiness” without making very controversial moral statements (at least more controversial then the idea of universal needs discussed above). How could we, for instance, argue that religious or linguistic minorities deserve special rights, while other, more “secular” or “modern” (recently “invented”) lifestyles do not deserve it. Surely it cannot be that the members of the different groups view their lifestyles as more important to their “identity”. Some members of linguistic or religious minorities do not regard their religion or native language as especially important in their lives, and, conversely, some members of modern subcultures regard this membership as extremely important to their “identity”.

The Value of Knowledge

There are some sorts of “elitism” that most people find wholly unacceptable, like ranking people on the basis of race or sexual preference. There are other kinds of elitism that we may describe as semi-acceptable. We might, for instance, admire athletes or musicians greatly for their abilities, but we usually do not base our “total” assessment of that person on those specific abilities. Thus, most people would agree that an athlete who obviously outperforms everyone else is at least a better athlete than everyone else, and that is something one is “allowed” to admire.

It takes a lot more, however, to judge someone to be a better person than another. Perhaps there are a few in this world who refuse to judge anyone, but many would probably say that someone who rapes and murders children is a worse human being than those who refrain from this behavior. On the other hand, someone who always goes out of their way to help people we could call a better person than most of us (as long, of course, as this help is not of a misdirected and ineffectual kind).

But could we say that people who have much knowledge should be admired in the same way that we admire a morally upstanding person, and, vice versa, that an ignorant person should in some way be blamed for this shortcoming? Is, in other words, an “elitism” based on wisdom and knowledge an acceptable form of elitism?

There seems to be at least one sense in which we can call that kind of elitism justified. If we believe that it is our duty to do what we can do make the world better, being ignorant about how this can be done certainly does not help anyone. Even if we think that doing good can be left to professional people, we still need some knowledge to hire the right kind of professional do-gooders. This is especially important in a democracy, which is why there might be some grounds to truly blame a voter (with normal intellectual capacities) who chooses to remain ignorant about political matters (the case would obviously be different with someone who has, for instance, some cognitive deficiencies).

Of course, there are some cases where we might argue that more knowledge is not valuable. Sometimes, for example, people hide the truth from you to spare your feelings. In these cases knowledge about the truth might be worse than being ignorant about it. But these are probably rare cases. Most of the time it is valuable to know more rather than less about whatever you are doing.

Does an “elitism” about knowledge have any practical implications? Certainly, the implication should not be that present intellectual or academic elites should be favored even more than today. Political creativity should, rather, be directed to making sure that more people become interested in furthering knowledge, and not necessarily as a career. Especially important is probably to encourage young people who one would not expect to educate themselves to become interested in intellectual matters. Perhaps more generous scholarships and the like directed at poor neighborhoods could be one measure to take. Another measure could be to redirect some of the public spending that goes to, for instance, associations devoted to sports or religion to associations devoted to the advancement of learning. My own government spends a lot of money encouraging the youth to get healthy bodies and healthy “souls”, but not to get a healthy intellect.

But there are probably limits to what politics can achieve if there is no broader social acceptance of the worth of knowledge. I don’t really think that people in general admire scientists very much today; the feeling is probably something more like well-meaning indifference. I think they simply take for granted that scientists will keep working in the shadows to make sure that constant technological progress is delivered. When it comes to scholars in the humanities I think most people have no idea what they even do at work (which leads to complete indifference towards them). And some of the “intellectuals” that appear in the media are probably viewed as buffoons (or worse), rather than people to be admired (although it might be technically correct that some so-called intellectuals are buffoons, I believe most people dismiss them for the wrong reasons).

In short, it is important to discuss the consequences of people’s ignorance about the world, because one person’s ignorance usually has consequences for other people as well. When people refuse to learn about the suffering that goes on and the methods to alleviate it, the suffering will simply continue (or get worse). Even if one believes that suffering is best alleviated by doing less, this is a conclusion that should follow from serious reflection; it must not simply be a rationalization of one’s unwillingness to learn anything.

The Might of Numbers (or: Might Does not Make Right)

You have probably heard the expression “might makes right”. People who are too “dogmatic” about the democratic procedure or who ascribe to legal positivism are often accused of adhering to that slogan. The complaint against it is that something cannot be right (or good) just because a majority of the people wants to impose it. What is right is right, and it does not change when majorities change. One implication of such a contrary view could be to endorse a strong constitution, perhaps one that protects our “natural” rights.

Now, I am a rather dogmatic defender of majoritarian democracy, and I do not believe in strong constitutions (and definitely not in natural rights). But I also reject the idea that might makes right. I do not believe that the mere fact that a majority wants to do something makes this right or good in any general (or perhaps “objective” sense). The fact that a majority thinks something is right does not necessarily make that right for people who are not part of that majority. You do not have to change your opinion of what you believe is right when you are in the minority (incidentally, this also means that there can be no “objective” duty to obey anyone).

However, the idea of democracy is not that only things that everyone believes are right should be done. In our societies it will always be the case that people have different ideas about what is right. But if these ideas are mutually exclusive, a decision has to be made (keeping the status quo might also be a decision). The only pertinent question is if we should make a decision in accordance with what the majority thinks is right or what the minority (or one of the minorities) thinks is right. I believe one should choose the majority line – not because it is right in any “objective” sense, but because it is the only reasonable decision procedure.

(Let me also add that I am aware that often there is no majority for any line of action in a particular case. There might, for instance, be 35% who favor policy A, 35% who favor policy B, and 30% who favor policy C. This, however, causes no problem, since if they are all unwilling to make some compromise to reach a majority for one policy, they all know that the status quo will continue to be the policy. There is, in effect, a majority that prefers the status quo to some compromise.)

So, instead of “might is right”, one should simply adhere to the slogan that “might is might”. The interesting question is not what is right, but rather whose might we are talking about: might in numbers or might of some other kind, e.g., moral expertise, divine inspiration, seniority, or physical strength. Since I see no meaning in might of those “other kinds” I must put my trust in the might of numbers. One alternative is, of course, to revert to anarchy, or the war of all against all, which, indeed, some people prefer over a democratic state.

Libertarians and Proportional Representation

As I have mentioned before, I follow debates within libertarianism rather closely (it’s one of my main scholarly interests – I’m not a libertarian myself). A hot topic within libertarianism is always the role of political activism: should one vote? should one stand for election? et cetera. Some hold that one should attempt to change what one can change (better to be tortured six days a week instead of seven, and so on) through politics, while others believe that one should give up on politics and attempt to withdraw as much as possible from the sphere of the state as possible, maybe while trying to change hearts and minds outside of the political parties.

However, the fact that some libertarians have given up on party politics might also be a result of the American political system (I am mostly familiar with American libertarianism). Since the US has the rather absurd first-past-the-post system, it is extremely difficult for any party besides the Republicans and Democrats to gain any real power. Since congressmen are chosen in one-person districts only the party who gets the most votes receives representation for that district. Thus, one does not have to have the support of the majority to get elected, which, in fact, makes the American system a system of minority rule. To me, this is a very unfair system. The only way for political groups outside of the establishment (Republicans and Democrats) to get any power is to attempt to “capture” one of the major parties or to threaten to “steal” votes from the party that is politically closest unless the bigger party agrees to change or adjust their policies (the latter is, of course, a dangerous strategy, as people who voted for Ralph Nader had to experience in 2000).

Proportional representation, on the other hand, is based on larger electoral districts, which makes Congress a more accurate reflection of the political opinions of the people. In addition, most people do not have to risk throwing their vote away, since every minority may get some representation (possibly there might be some small threshold like 4 or 5% of the total votes in the country to gain representation). If a district is to choose, for instance, six congressmen instead of one, a “pure” libertarian candidate might have a chance of getting elected. This might not give the Libertarian party a majority at once, but it would give the party a platform in Congress and the possibility to make important speeches and to reach the public. Perhaps they may even get the power to negotiate over the budget and lawmaking with the ruling party (or coalition). Surely this kind of power would be better than no power at all (unless you are a libertarian of the uncompromising give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death kind).

Yet, I very rarely hear a libertarian make a serious plea for proportional representation in the US. I can only speculate about the reasons for this (since I have not heard any libertarian make a case against it either). One reason might be that they are certain that proportional representation will also let more greens, socialists, and the like into Congress, and that they are prepared to live with political isolation as long as greens, socialists (and other left-of-Democrat groups) also remain isolated. Another reason might be that they feel confident that they will be able to “capture” the Republican party in the future, by getting more and more candidates like Ron Paul. Both of those reasons – and I do not know if they are the true reasons – do, however, display a certain degree of insecurity and lack of confidence, since they seem to presuppose that the Libertarian party would not easily be able to defeat, for instance, a Socialist party in open debate (with real Congress seats at stake).

Now, the fact that I, a non-libertarian, think that proportional representation is fairer than the American two-party system, perhaps means that a libertarian should not support PR. Because why would I support a voting system that I believe would give more power to my “enemies”? Perhaps I am insidiously leaning on the surveys which claim that Americans are in general more left-wing than the present politicians, and that PR would only open up the floodgates for those leftists (imagine a Congress consisting of 30% Sanders-“socialists”, 30% Democrats, 30% Republicans, and 10% other parties). Besides the point that this seems to doom American libertarians to perpetual irrelevance (if they believe those statistics on the views of the American people), I can only say that if you can find a country where the same kind of transition to PR would mostly favor (democratic) right-wing parties, I will support that transition too (in fact, this is basically what happened in Sweden when the two-chamber system was abolished in 1970) . This is a matter of a general principle of fair representation. Who the representatives are is totally irrelevant.

Part 5

What Mises wants to reestablish is a liberal program which was never fully realized during the “liberal era” of the 1800s. As long as politics basically went in the classical liberal direction human productivity increased substantially, people got a higher material standard of living, and child mortality was reduced – all this proves the effectiveness of liberalism, according to Mises. But the socialist experiment, which had influenced liberalism for a few decades, had only led to misery.

For Mises the economist liberalism “is a doctrine directed entirely towards the conduct of men in this world. In the last analysis, it has nothing else in view than the advancement of their outward, material welfare and does not concern itself directly with their inner, spiritual and metaphysical needs.” Liberalism “does not promise men happiness and contentment, but only the most abundant possible satisfaction of all those desires that can be satisfied by the things of the outer world”. Those who believe they have a doctrine that can better satisfy people’s material needs are welcome to prove this by pointing to relevant facts.

Moreover, Mises – like the early liberals – thinks that the tasks of government should include nothing but the protection of property, liberty, and security. Everything beyond this is “evil”. One example of the difference between Mises’s and Hobhouse’s liberalism is economic support to the unemployed. Such benefit schemes only raises unemployment, according to Mises: “If what is involved is a case of unemployment springing from dynamic changes in the economy, then the unemployment benefits only result in postponing the adjustment of the workers to new conditions. The jobless worker who is on relief does not consider it necessary to look about for a new occupation if he no longer finds a position in his old one; at least, he allows more time to elapse before he decides to shift to a new occupation or to a new locality or before he reduces the wage rate he demands to that at which he could find work. If unemployment benefits are not set too low, one can say that as long as they are offered, unemployment cannot disappear.”

In short, the liberalism of Ludwig von Mises is founded on considerations regarding which kind of system will be most effective when it comes to increasing material wealth. In his voluminous work Human Action, from 1949, he sharpens his critique against the “interventionist” systems between socialism and (classical) liberalism. Especially important for him is that the price mechanism works without obstacles, i.e., that prices of goods, wages, interest rates etc., are set without institutional obstacles, so that the right relation of supply and demand is revealed. The longer one – through government planning – drifts away from the price formation process of the free market, the worse the economic outcome will be when it comes to material well-being. (Mises explicitly focuses on material needs, because he perceives that that is what most people want to maximize. He is, in other words, attempting a value-free means-end discussion about the best policy, given people’s preferences.)

Another economist who wanted to take back the term liberalism from the social liberal camp was Friedrich August Hayek. He was the driving force behind the formation of the Mont Pelerin Society, established in 1947 with the intention to reshape liberalism. The contention was that this concept had been connected with “arbitrary power” and had lost its connection to private property and market competition. There is also a critique against the assumed loss of belief in “absolute moral standards” and Rule of Law. To Hayek, Western civilization was a result of liberal ideas. Therefore he did not like that liberalism – especially during the first half of the 20th century – hade been mixed with socialist ideas. This is something which will lead to totalitarianism, he claimed, and, like Mises, he sets up a liberal (in his classic sense) regime as a counterpart to socialism, and claims that one must avoid middle stages. The most “populist” expression of Hayek’s thinking is The Road to Serfdom, from 1944, in which he claims that government planning is a route that may lead to naziism and fascism.

Anyway, the founding of Mont Pelerin Society was an important part of the creation of a new liberalism – neoliberalism – with the message that all forms of collectivism, even milder, rationalistic, liberal reforms, will lead to dictatorship and economic disaster.

In this essay, I have avoided criticizing any of the discussed systems of thought directly. My main purpose was to showcase the tendency to polarization that seems to exist within all ideologies, as well as between different ideologies. During the 20th century it is obvious that the kind of radicalism espoused by both communists and neoliberals has not been popular among democratic voters to any large degree. And it his hardly an original observation on my part that politics in Western democracies has revolved around solutions that lie slightly to the right or slightly to the left of the center (regardless of temporary longer forays in either direction). In light of this, it is easy to question whether the strong either-or thinking regarding socialism and liberalism of, for example, Mises and Hayek can ever be accepted by the large mass of people whose political thinking includes both equality and liberty, both private capitalism and social engineering, both personal responsibility and tax-based solidarity.