The Stairway to Heaven, part 4: Libertarian Socialism

This week, we’re going to make a slight digression into political philosophy. Specifically, we’re going to start with my base principles — thou art God, nothing is more sacred than an individual’s freedom to choose, etc — and derive from that the most appropriate sociopolitical structure for a society based on those principles. Spoiler alert, it’s libertarian socialism. So let’s jump right into the definitions.

There’s a lengthy Wikipedia article on liberterian socialism that you can go ahead and read if you want (I didn’t, full disclosure) — I expect it does a good job of exploring the various subheadings of the philosophy. As per my usual idiom, I’m ignoring all those and coming up with my own definition, or at the very least my own description. Specifically, I’m describing libertarian socialism as a style of government in which the government is given exactly as much power and purview as it needs to fulfill its purpose, and absolutely nothing more. Nothing is regulated that doesn’t need to be regulated for the common good. Nothing is outlawed unless it is demonstrably harmful to others, or debilitating to society as a whole. No government intrusion into the privacy or decision-making of the body politic is tolerated unless the benefits returned by that intrusion for the common good outweigh the assault on freedom and dignity such intrusions constitute.

Lots of weasel words there. Judgment calls. “Common good.” What’s the standard? We need something as objective as possible, so as to protect against corruption.

Well, let’s start by thinking about society. What is a society? It’s a gathering of people, a concatenative assembly, who come together for a common purpose. The success story of humans, evolutionarily speaking, is derived from two primary factors: tool usage and communalism. Tribalism. Strength in numbers. People have instinctively known, all the way back to the beginning, that they could get more done by sharing the load. This is why we have society in the first place: because it’s easier to survive when a bunch of people are all working on that survival for each other’s benefit.

We must take as gospel that a human’s right to choose, a human’s agency, is the most valuable thing that they own. It is, in fact, arguably the only thing a human truly owns. So if you’re going to ask a human to surrender that right, you’d better have a damn good reason, and you’d better not ask for any more than you absolutely need. Importantly, you must also give them the option to refuse.

Therefore, a just society is one which:

  • Improves the lives of each of its members;
  • Respects the agency of its members by demanding the surrender of as little as possible of that agency;
  • Permits individuals to “opt out” of the society and live under their own terms

A society that does not incorporate these three features cannot be said to be a just society.

It should be apparent that modern American society fails all three of these tests. For one, there’s no means of opting out — there’s nowhere on Earth you can go to live truly free, completely unfettered by the laws of one nation-state or another. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, it’s pretty hard simply to shed your American citizenship if you happen to have it, meaning you’re subject to American laws no matter where you go. American society certainly doesn’t respect the agency of its members; so many things, harmless things, trivial things, are illegal. As for whether or not American society improves the lives of each of its members, well — let’s compare and contrast the urban poor, living in wage and debt slavery, to a hunter-gatherer tribe. Who lives the better life?

The way I see it, the only government type that can hit all three of these marks is a socialist government. If we’re going to come together, give up some of our freedom, pay our taxes, toe the line, follow the law, we’d best be getting something pretty damn good out of it. Something like, say, not having to worry about the bottom two tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy anymore. Food, clothing, and shelter are the minimum. Medical care. Access to communications infrastructure. Police protection. Firefighting services. Regulations on food, water, and air. Education. Honesty in advertising. The job of the government in this equation is effectively to manage the resources which are “owned” by the body politic, ensuring that everyone has enough, a fair share, before putting the rest “up for grabs” in a capitalist system.

Yeah, that’s right, I don’t see capitalism as incompatible with any of this. I like capitalism conceptually — competition can be a good, healthy thing, after all, and leads to all kinds of improvements and refinements. Likewise, consumerism isn’t inherently bad — remember, half of how humanity got to where it is today was via our tools. Where capitalism fails is when it’s unregulated, when profit is allowed to become the driving force of society. That’s the situation in which the body politic is asked to make sacrifices without really getting much in return. That’s what the government must exist to protect against. Once everyone’s gotten their fair share, once everyone is housed, clothed, fed, and secure, once everyone has been duly paid for surrendering their freedoms, then you can let the capitalists have at the surplus.

Democracy is obviously essential — if you take away the people’s voice, their right to choose, then you’ve effectively taken everything. No system of government in which each individual member of society doesn’t have an equal say in how that government is run can possibly be thought of as valid. (Whether or not we exercise that right is another matter.) Any non-democratic form of government is inherently disrespectful of the people’s right to choose; any society which requires the people to forfeit this right is inherently invalid.

In any case, the society I envision as a just society is pretty well-regulated. This is strictly necessary if you’re going to permit any kind of capitalism, as concentration of wealth is concentration of power, and it’s all too easy for the powerful to abuse the body politic for the sake of gaining more power (source: turn on the news). As society must serve the entire body politic in order to be valid, so must society therefore protect the commons against those who would use and abuse it for their own selfish purposes. The government’s primary purpose, in a sense, is ensuring that greed and selfishness do not become systemic — that they are not permitted to cause harm to the people under the government’s umbrella.

Thus, the just society is a society of laws and a society of services. It is a welfare state — for the entire point of a state is to ensure the welfare of its citizens. The just society has a robust safety net, strong social programs, affordable education, and a wide array of consumer and environmental protections. A just society sees to the physiological needs of its citizens, and provides the safety and security for all that would not be available to people standing on their own. The just society draws the lines, but it draws as few and as narrow lines as possible. Beyond what it is necessary to proscribe to serve this function, all must be permitted. We are God, and we must be free to apprehend that responsibility.

This, therefore, is what I mean by libertarian socialism — a society of Gods who have come together in common cause, to efficiently regulate and allocate the resources they control to maximize the individual prosperity and individual liberty each member of the society enjoys. This is the government that we must work towards, and learn to live with. All other ways are simply prisons by another name.

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