Thursday, February 28, 2013

I was part of the problem: Why I am a proud and passionate bleeding heart libertarian and libertarian feminist

I think we all go through stages of political identity, and that our friends and experiences make all the difference in how we see the world.

I started out political and conservative. I was what I now recognize to be a pretty standard partisan. And I was angry. When you are a political person, the world is zero-sum. For you to win someone must lose. If you are heavily involved enough the adversarial nature of politics can pervade everything in your life – down to your dearest friendships. I remember lashing out at my best friend because she wouldn’t help me on a campaign. My brain just couldn’t square the circle of her being someone I like and respect and also being someone with whom I disagreed. She wasn’t against me, but she wasn’t with me. In my black and white world, it didn’t compute. I should never have lashed out at her for something so trivial. We were - and are - so close.  But it wasn't enough to protect her from partisanship.

The one good thing about politics is that it is where I met the love of my life. We both had this crazy preoccupation with policy, and he was something called a libertarian. He gave me Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do to read. I devoured it. He started reading Atlas Shrugged. I read his copy when he put it down. I read Anthem, The Fountainhead, We the Living. He attended an IHS seminar. We attended a Fraser Institute student seminar. We attended our very first Liberty Summer Seminar. We were addicted to ideas.

Meanwhile, that same friend was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and told by a doctor that she would never be able to take care of herself. She had to go on social assistance. I am deeply, deeply ashamed to admit it, but I accused her of leeching off of the system. I think I told her she was part of the problem. In those words. I made her ashamed of herself for needing help – and she really did need help. I had become one of those libertarians. I was part of the problem.

I wasn’t done with politics yet, but it was coming. First, we won! We took a man who had quit politics out of principle to head up a small-government pressure group and who wrote his Masters’ thesis against Keynesian stimulus spending, and we made him Prime Minister. But things didn’t get better, and the longer they stayed the same the more I saw the rottenness and futility of politics. So I quit.

I don’t know if it’s because I’d read so much Rand, because I was trapped in the adversarial mindset of politics, or if I was just young with a hefty dose of Type-A personality, but after I was an angry young politico I was an angry young libertarian. People who disagreed with me hated freedom. They were "commies!" They were everywhere I looked!

But I was beginning to soften. I apologized to my friend, who I think had forgiven me already, for treating her like a villain. I told her that if she needed help, she should take it. After all, there was nowhere else to get it. Private charity in mental health has been all but crowded out by government programs.

I have written elsewhere about breaking free from angry-libertarianism, for which I credit Dr. James Buchanan and public choice theory. When this happened, it happened all at once. I felt as though someone had been pressing on my chest, crushing the air out of me, and that their hands had been pulled away and I could finally breathe. Anger is a terrible, debilitating thing to carry and I am grateful every day that I was able to overcome it.

I became understanding of alternative points of view. People weren’t mystifying any more. I didn’t have to square the circles. I took this new perspective on the world and I threw myself into it. I attended seminars and I refined my ideas through blogging. I helped to found The Institute for Liberal Studies, an educational charity that holds seminars on university campuses in Canada to bring a classically liberal perspective to campus, and through this organization I have met brilliant, inspiring people.  

But I overdid it. I got liberty fatigue. I had to take a step back. You see, there was something missing from the liberty movement: its heart. To find it, I had to step away from the books and the blogs and look at real life.  

All this time my friend and I supported one another the way that friends do. She is an inspiring person who has worked harder for what she has than most of us ever will. But in spite of being heavily medicated she would periodically suffer breakdowns or bouts of depression that the medication didn’t seem to help. Being there for her while she worked so hard further softened my outlook on the world.

Like it or not, libertarians, it’s not as simple as “Poor people just need to get a job, they're not my problem.” I found I was in favour of a social safety net in the form of a guaranteed minimum income – taboo for many libertarians. The more I looked at the real world, the more I gravitated toward issues on which the arguments for liberty were grounded in sympathy and dignity, such as the drug war, and away from harder economic topics on which I found the standard libertarian line too abrasive or simply less relevant.

I can’t remember if I stumbled upon it or if someone gave me a heads up that there was this new thing, “bleeding heart libertarianism.”

I looked into it, and I felt a way I hadn’t felt since I first picked up Atlas Shrugged. They were right. They were so right!

They were writing what I already knew: we ought to judge the systems in society on how they take care of the very worst off. The strongest always find a way, but those who need support can be ground down by a bad system. And they are. I’ve seen it. In being sympathetic, in being helpful, in preserving the dignity of the very worst off, government has failed miserably.  But there’s another way, and it’s taking problems away from government and giving them back to people to solve.

Heck, some of them were even on board with the minimum income thing.

Yes, yes, yes. This was it. This was what had been missing.

But there was more.

In January of 2012, my friend mentioned something she had told me years before but just hadn’t sunk in – a story that’s not mine to tell.  She was just rambling, letting thoughts out, but I stopped her. I made her explain again, to be sure I understood.

“Oh my god. You realize that that’s rape, right?”

She actually argued with me, said that couldn’t have been what it was. But I could tell it was sinking in. She started hyperventilating. She started crying. She went to sleep because she didn’t know what else to do. I told her I would learn what kind of help she could get in the meantime. I had to do something. When I started asking around, that same night, another friend confessed to me that she, too, had been raped.

If realizing the world wasn’t filled with evil people was a weight pulled from my chest, this was a bucket of ice water in the face. I didn’t know what to think, only that something was deeply wrong with the way I had been looking at the world. To be honest, I sort of panicked - or maybe I was just angry. My heart was racing. I was shaking.

I admit that I used to be one of those libertarians, the ones who say things like “Well obviously I believe in the OLD kind of feminism, from when women weren’t equal. But we pretty much have equal rights now and the movement has just been taken over by socialists.” Again, I was part of the problem.

My friend had spent ten years not realizing that her rights had been severely violated. On some level she blamed herself. She thought she was just “easy,” that she had put herself into a bad situation and that’s just what happens sometimes. But no. No! There is absolutely no excuse for sexual assault. It is never the fault of someone who has had their rights violated.  Not even partly. Not even on some level. Never.

Her life has changed dramatically since this realization. The debilitating, stigmatizing bipolar diagnosis was made in error – she has had post-traumatic stress syndrome since her rape a decade ago. PTSD, though sometimes so severe it can be mistaken for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, is something from which a person can recover, and I know she’ll pull through. But the fact remains that she lost almost a third of her life so far to a social environment that supports the idea that rape can be anything other than what it is.

Ten years lost to a societal preconception of women, of how we ought to behave and why we deviate from it, that is not benign.

The fact that “No means no” campaigns seem cheesy instead of intensely  serious, that a woman can spend a decade not realizing that she’s been raped, that you probably know someone who has been the victim of sexual assault even if you don’t realize it. That that people laugh at rape jokes when it’s happened to their friends. These are signs that something is terribly wrong.

Once you realize this, you see it everywhere. It’s amazing and scary that it’s not obvious to everyone. The only reason I can think of to explain why more people don’t, and I didn’t, see it is that we assume that somehow changing the laws has fixed this. But like so many important problems, government can’t solve this, and yet it seemed even libertarians hadn’t seen it! Somebody has to speak up.

But some already were. Through my new bleeding heart connections I found the Association of Libertarian Feminists, and I found that it is growing. It is growing not just because there are more women in the movement, but because so many libertarians are concerned about real-world problems, not just economics and philosophy – important though they may be.

There is real-world discrimination - against women, the LGBQT community, against minorities, against the chronically poor, the mentally ill. Against so many marginalized groups. The fact that government action has been the primary tool for confronting this discrimination has made libertarians hesitant to acknowledge there's a problem at all. But there is. There is. "Corrective" government action has created the mindset that's told us we've already done all we can do to help these people and the remaining failings are their own. Because the government has acted, employing force, libertarians think we've done too much for them. 

Are you a libertarian, and do you believe this? Think about what you're saying. If government has done too much, it implies that it's succeeded in fixing the problem, then gone to far. But the problem was never fixed! Government has failed, again, as it always has and always will, to provide meaningful, compassionate, human solutions to problems that have to come from all of us. The government's "solutions" have dehumanized and institutionalized intensely human problems. This is not acceptable.  

We don't have to agree on the solutions, but we absolutely must acknowledge that there is a problem.

Poverty. Discrimination. War. These real, human problems are, as Magatte Wade said in her keynote address to the International Students for Liberty Conference this month, the low-hanging fruit for people who understand why liberty is so important.

I believe that a presumption of liberty acts as a starting point for solving these and so many problems. I am filled with optimism because I am part of a movement that cares about not just prosperity, but dignity. We have become a more human movement. We are waking up.

I am grateful for all of the experiences and people who helped me find this branch in the fight for freedom. I am fiercely proud to be a part of it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Young Waverer

Long-time followers of this blog and attendees of the Liberty Summer Seminar know all about the outlandishly talented Lindy Vopnfjörð. Lindy released his new album, Young Waverer, today, which you can (and should) buy on iTunes.

The music is beautiful, the lyrics are powerful. My favourite song on the album, Trail Tracker, is inspired by the story of Peter Jaworski's family's flight from communist Poland in 1984. Warsaw's Blinking Lights by Larry Reed's story of the underground radio, also in Poland. Inspiring stories of real-life heroes that shouldn't be forgotten. The Limit, according to, is pretty much guaranteed to pick up my pace when I'm out for a jog. Hearing Voices is a painfully beautiful song that leaves with me goosebumps. I could go on about every song on the album.

Lindy is one of our best-kept secrets, but he shouldn't be. He should be everywhere. Check him out.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Trade & Charity

When I talk to my friends about international trade someone often raises (more or less) this objection:
If we're going to trade, that's fine, but where we can we should buy from our own country first. Why do we really need to buy something that's made all the way across the world when we can build (grow, provide, etc.) it here?
The economist's answer: restricting purchases to domestic goods make lives of consumers worse (they would have purchased imports for a reason - typically because it means they can afford more) and removes the incentive for producers to reach their full competitive potential. While some people can certainly afford the luxury of purchasing based on country of origin, those who live paycheque to paycheque cannot.

But if what we want is to ensure that purchases are made from Canadians first there are ways to address the problem of increased poverty - when we restrict trade we can compensate the worst off with more generous social supports to ensure they can afford the more restricted and expensive lifestyle we're imposing on ourselves. If we're OK with this trade-off, the economist's answer falls short for many people.

But we shouldn't want to ensure Canadians have first right to exchanges with one another. 

We might decide that we would rather live in a more restricted world, but we can only enforce it by dictating that people who are struggling to build better lives with much less than we have must also live in a world that is smaller, poorer and offers fewer opportunities. It is arrogant to believe we can make this choice for others. It is irresponsible to make it through neglect. (We certainly get that point when it happens to us.)

How interesting that many of those concerned by international trade favour providing charity to foreign nations, receiving nothing in return, or buying hand-made trinkets from entrepreneurs in developing countries, fully understanding that this is a tremendous help!

Why does this feeling of global community and goodwill fade away when it comes to, say, tomatoes? To beef, chickens or milk? To cars, furniture or clothes? Why are we willing to let the developing world provide us with trinkets but not willing to accept them as equals?

I love living in a global marketplace. I love walking to the store up the street and buy something grown on the other side of the planet. I love knowing that just by buying something that I want I'm interacting with and improving the lives of people all the way across the world.

If you ask me to choose between seeing entrepreneurs around the world as adversaries or peaceful neighbours, I'll choose peace every time.

I know it's not normal for me to think of the person who grows roses in Kenya as equally deserving of my care as a strawberry farmer only a few kilometers away, but the world would be a better place if it was.

By the way, if you want to support businesses in the developing world as equal partners, check out these shoe companies I learned about at a talk by Magatte Wade at last weekend's International Students for Liberty Conference. Move over TOMS - these shoes are made by Africans in Africa and help to create the jobs that they need to create lasting improvements in the lot of the developing world.

Health problems, health solutions.

A few days ago I posted that if we want to reduce the number of guns on the street, we should end the prohibition of drugs. Some argue this would certainly be worse, and that drug use and the problems associated it would only increase if this were the case. Portugal decriminalized all drugs, soft and hard, in 2000 and this has not been their experience. Instead the situation has dramatically improved since they have stopped mismatching health problems with criminal solutions.

Glenn Greenwald gets to this in the video below at about 8:28 - the money quote, though, is here:
... it's actually incredibly cruel to criminalize and put people in prison for what even prohibitionists are now arguing is a health problem. I mean, it's a basic precept of Western justice that we don't punish people with prison for things that they do that are the byproduct of disease. Even if you murder somebody, and then demonstrate that you did so as a byproduct of mental illness, you will not go to a prison but to a mental health facility because we treat health problems with health solutions, not criminal solutions.
You can watch all of Greenwald's talk on Portugal's success here:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Want fewer guns? Legalize more drugs.

This week there was an arrest for drug possession on the block we used to live on in Windsor - four people were arrested for having enough cocaine to be considered traffickers. Almost immediately friends and family started sending us notes to let us know. I received updates that they had guns in the house, too!

This is much more alarming to many of my friends than the presence of drugs, but if we want to be sympathetic observers we should consider the situation of the people in that house:

If your profession is selling something like cocaine, you are operating outside the law. You are more vulnerable to crimes like theft (you can't recover your goods through legal action) and assault (calling the police for protection is likely to get you thrown in jail if there's cocaine around your house). You have no legal means for protecting yourself because of the legal status of what you sell. To you, the police are enemies, not allies. Of course you would have guns in the house.

No doubt they will suffer stiffer criminal penalties because of the presence of guns in addition to cocaine in the house, but to channel Bryan Caplan, this is a problem that can be solved much more cheaply and humanely. If you want to reduce the number of people who have guns, especially people who have guns and know very little about gun safety, fix the incentives.

Treat people who are selling drugs as people who deserve the protection of the law - because in all other aspects of their lives, that's exactly what they are and what they would still be if they chose to sell almost any other good. Legalize (or at least decriminalize) drugs and focus on preventing and punishing violence.

Bernier's bad bet

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press Maxime Bernier is taking a gamble. He believes that there is a large, disenfranchised voting bloc in Canada...