This is why we use the "left" qualifier

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Dr. Matt Zwolinski has a video defending sweatshops. I suppose if this were just another libertarian site, it might not concern me. After all, he's hardly the first libertarian to associate our philosophy with defenses of exploitation.

What gets me is that the site is called "Bleeding Heart Libertarians". Ostensibly, the goal of the blog is to defend libertarianism as a compassionate philosophy. It adds insult to injury for libertarians to make the same tired arguments not only in a flashy new medium but also on a site intended to represent a compassionate, concerned variety of the philosophy whose label we both employ.

It's not that his arguments are wrong per se. Yes, sweatshop jobs are the best of a crappy set of options for far too many people in the third world. Yes, shutting down those sweatshops without doing anything else would not improve anybody's situation. And yes, I can't contest the point that people should do things to help their situation, even if they don't remedy it completely.

There are counterarguments that can and have been made, but I don't want to focus on that. Zwolinski's arguments don't fail to convince because they are wrong; they fail but because they betray such a narrow vision. Instead of demonstrating the creative, liberatory aspects of our philosophy, such arguments encourage disadvantaged people to accept a crappy situation while telling ourselves that letting people be exploited is somehow good for them.

For example, I can vaguely imagine my situation becoming so desperate that I might agree to sell my organs, or prostitute myself for drugs, or any number of wretched things. Those activities might be my best available options if I'm sufficiently depressed or constrained by circumstances. And I would want a libertarian to defend me against a state that would throw me in jail over some of that behavior.

However, that would not be the kind of help I'd be most urgently seeking. I would not want somebody to justify those options as "good" for me -- I'd be looking for somebody to help expand my available options to include better ones, so I don't have to make such utterly shitty choices in the first place. A libertarian who extolled my "freedom to sleep under bridges" wouldn't seem like much of an advocate to me -- he would seem like somebody trying to alleviate his own conscience.

This is the myopia that plagues our movement; we have too often become apologists for the system instead of its opponents. Perhaps sweatshops are the best in a set of bad options. But if that's the case, why are talented, "bleeding heart" academics like Zwolinski expending so much precious time, energy, and money on justifying that situation? Why not invest that time, energy, and money into advocating for an improvement in the set of choices they have, so that they have better options that are not demeaning, dangerous, and unjust? Why is libertarianism being construed in a manner that props up what Zwolinski admits is unjust, rather than taking the revolutionary step of abolishing the system of injustice?

People often ask why we add the "left" qualifier to our political label. Why not just identify as "libertarian" and be done with it? Now you know: because while the principles might be the same, the vision of flourishing is of a totally different scope and scale. Without a concept of mutual aid, solidarity, and common struggle against an oppressive system, libertarianism is no more than a way to whitewash privilege and sweep injustice under the rug of "free choice". It's not enough to defend a hollow freedom, because people need more than that. We can help each other achieve more than just freely choosing the best in a set of options the powerful and wealthy provide us.

I can accept all of Zwolinski's arguments as correct insofar as they go. It's just that they don't go very far, because they betray a set of priorities that are not very compassionate, concerned, or worthwhile.

Written on Friday, June 08, 2012 | Tags: sweatshops, left-libertarianism, libertarianism, poverty