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Who is Andy Stahl?

Gambling on the unknown

Who is Andy Stahl? It’s not clear, from reading the campaign literature and newspapers, what Stahl’s political philosophy is. That’s part of the problem. You might even call it a problem of transparency, ironically, since that is what his opponent incumbent Pete Sorenson is accused of in the South Eugene Lane County commissioner race.

What kind of Democrat is Stahl? A left-liberal Democrat in the tradition of FDR Democrat; or, a William Clinton centrist neo-liberal Democrat? Is he a libertarian that serves the fantasy of right-wing liberal Democrats?

On April 5 (in Slant) EW first connected Andy Stahl to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. Stahl’s longtime friend and campaign contributor Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow in that organization.

Those facts don’t necessarily mean that Stahl is a libertarian. But we have nothing else to go on because Stahl has not yet set himself against or with that characterization. He hasn’t defined himself politically.

We might get a sense of where Stahl stands in political space by carrying out an act of understanding that will allow us to treat Stahl and his libertarian friends with all the dignity they deserve. In order to do so, we will need to make descriptions of what Stahl and other libertarians are about that they’re not making and may not want to make.

For the last 30 years, we’ve been in a reactionary era of deregulation. And the dismantling of the welfare state hurt and continues to hurt the poor — and the natural environment for which Stahl has done a lot.

Still, in the context of 2012, I find Stahl’s alleged identification with the Cato Institute, and the libertarian ideology it unapologetically represents, the polar opposite of what is needed in these times of increasing disparities of wealth and potential for regional and environmental collapse.

During the last 30 years, libertarianism defended capitalism from increasing state intervention. But in the 21st Century libertarianism symbolizes the tyranny of the market and the “privatization” of key government functions that many of us fought long, hard, even bitter political struggles to establish.

Libertarians believe in a kind of negative freedom. They want government to “get out of the way.”

In sharp contrast, Oregon Democrats and FDR-style political liberals such as my father, Charles O. Porter, a U.S. congressman (1957-61), and his mentor, former senator Wayne Morse (1955-69), believe government has a positive, constructive role in regulating the economy for such ends as economic justice and environmental protection.

 

Stahl and his supporters make a lot of the ability to work with others. But we can do so only if we have the capacity to reach out and feel the force of another’s ethical-political views and thereby gain a real respect for each other. Taking this even further, we must understand with deep sympathy the moral views of libertarians.

Such understanding enables us to discover the sources of libertarian moral values and see that they are richer and more like what we want to address than many realize. In other words, if we look closely at why people hold negative freedom as an important value — freedom from as opposed to freedom for — we can see that this stance is rooted deeply in a part of the modern Western tradition that views people as self-determining beings who find their own identities.

But if one looks even more closely at what it is to discover who one is, one sees that that can only happen in relationship to others — including the natural environment. When this is seen, the negative libertarian position, which subordinates community and the natural environment to the individual pursuing economic self-interest, begins to dissolve. 

Trying to understand libertarians as sympathetically as possible will, I think, have the effect of shaking some of their dogmas in this way.

If Stahl is the libertarian EW implies, then such understanding and shaking is an advance. If not, Stahl can and should tell us just where he stands in political space not only with reference to his libertarian friend, Randal O’Toole, but also, and more importantly, with reference to the American political tradition as a whole.