Monday, December 4, 2006

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Who's going to fuse with libertarians?

Over at The New Republic, Brink Lindsey argues that Democrats should start catering liberarians more aggrssively:

Libertarian disaffection [with the GOP] should come as no surprise. Despite the GOP's rhetorical commitment to limited government, the actual record of unified Republican rule in Washington has been an unmitigated disaster from a libertarian perspective: runaway federal spending at a clip unmatched since Lyndon Johnson; the creation of a massive new prescription-drug entitlement with hardly any thought as to how to pay for it; expansion of federal control over education through the No Child Left Behind Act; a big run-up in farm subsidies; extremist assertions of executive power under cover of fighting terrorism; and, to top it all off, an atrociously bungled war in Iraq.

This woeful record cannot simply be blamed on politicians failing to live up to their conservative principles. Conservatism itself has changed markedly in recent years, forsaking the old fusionist synthesis in favor of a new and altogether unattractive species of populism. The old formulation defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government. Just look at the causes that have been generating the real energy in the conservative movement of late: building walls to keep out immigrants, amending the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, and imposing sectarian beliefs on medical researchers and families struggling with end-of-life decisions....

Libertarian-leaning voters started drifting away from the GOP even before Katrina, civil war in Iraq, and Mark Foley launched the general stampede. In their recent Cato-published study "The Libertarian Vote," David Boaz and David Kirby analyzed polling data from Gallup, the American National Election Studies, and the Pew Research Center and concluded that 13 percent of the population, or 28 million voting-age Americans, can be fairly classified as libertarian-leaning. Back in 2000, this group voted overwhelmingly for Bush, supporting him over Al Gore by a 72-20 margin. By 2004, however, John Kerry--whose only discernible libertarian credential was that he wasn't George W. Bush--got 38 percent of the libertarian vote, while Bush's support fell to 59 percent. Congressional races showed a similar trend. In 2002, libertarians favored Republican House candidates by a 70-23 spread and Republican Senate candidates by a 74-15 margin. Things tightened up considerably in 2004, though, as the GOP edge fell to 53-44 in House races and 54-43 in Senate contests.

To date, Democrats have made inroads with libertarian voters primarily by default....

In short, if Democrats hope to continue appealing to libertarian-leaning voters, they are going to have to up their game. They need to ask themselves: Are we content with being a brief rebound fling for jilted libertarians, or do we want to form a lasting relationship? Let me make a case for the second option.

I'm not going to excerpt Lindsey's case because it should be read in full (click here to read it if you're not a TNR subscriber).

One critique of it is that while Lindsey focuses on the possible areas of common ground (corporate welfare, immigration, tax reform) he elides the issues where Democrats want to promote economic populism (the minimum wage, trade expansion) because it gets more votes than libertarians can proffer themselves. Even here, however, Lindsey could argue that programs do exist (trade adjustment assistance) that could potentially split the difference.

My only other critique comes with what's missing in this paragraph:

Conservative fusionism, the defining ideology of the American right for a half-century, was premised on the idea that libertarian policies and traditional values are complementary goods. That idea still retains at least an intermittent plausibility--for example, in the case for school choice as providing a refuge for socially conservative families. But an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era--the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration--were championed by the political left.
None of what's in this paragraph is incorrect. Again, however, Lindsey does omit the successes in microeconomic policy -- deregulation, welfare reform, declines in marginal tax rates, shifts in antitrust policy, the 1986 tax reform -- that conservative fusionism produced in the past few decades.

UPDATE: Sebastian Mallaby mulls over Lindsey's essay in the Washington Post today. Hat tip to Inactivist, who also has some thoughts on the matter. Also check out the series of posts at the Volokh Conspiracy.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Over at The American Spectator, John Tabin suggests that a liberal-libertarian fusionism won't take:

The problem with this idea is that classical liberalism (or libertarianism) and modern liberalism (or progressivism, or egalitarian liberalism) are fundamentally at odds philosophically. The crux of the split is the difference between negative and positive liberty, a difference that illuminates how libertarians and liberals are separated even when they seem to be allied.
It's convenient for conservatives to make this argument, but Tabin shrewdly links to this Matt Yglesias post from a few months ago that makes the same point:
For one thing, a lot of the views liberals tend to think of us libertarian-ish liberal positions aren't actually especially libertarian at the end of the day. For example, liberals, like libertarians, don't think the coercive authority of the state should be deployed to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Unlike libertarians, however, liberals generally think the coercive authority of the state should be deployed to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians. We think that landlords shouldn't be allowed to refuse to rent houses to gay men, that bartenders shouldn't be allowed to refuse to serve them, that employers shouldn't be allowed to fire them, etc. Liberals believe in a certain notion of human liberation from entrenched dogma, prejudice, and tradition, but this isn't the same as hostility to state action, even in the sex-and-gender sphere.
To argue in favor of Lindsey now, these are good but not devastating points. Both Tabin and Yglesias assume that all libertarians are so dogmatic that they cannot compromise in the interest of pursuing larger gains. Most libertarians -- including, I suspect, the overwhelming majority of the 28 million voting-age Americans that Boaz and Kirby identify as libertarian -- will not automatically blanch at, say, anti-discrimination laws as a deal-breaker. Well, they'd blanch, but they wouldn't faint.

In other words, libertarians run the gamut from Murray Rothbard to, say, Milton Friedman. And more of them are sympatico with someone like Friedman than someone like Rothbard. [Rothbard had reasons to link with the left as well!--ed. True, which suggest a very different lib-lib fusionism than the one that interests Lindsey.]

Tabin responds to my points here.

posted by Dan on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM


I'm not a subscriber to TNR and so can't read the article you linked, but if you provide a good synopsis, then Lindsey is overlooking a couple of tremendous points.

While it's true that libertarians are dismayed over the massive prescription-drug entitlement and the federal tentacles of the No Child Left Behind Act, Democrats actually wanted these programs to be larger than the Republicans did. On those two issues, Republicans were the lesser of two evils.

But even more important is the fact that libertarians are totally at odds with most Democrats on Second Amendment issues. In fact, current Democratic leaders like Pelosi and Schumer are among the most vigorous crusaders for eliminating Second Amendment freedoms. Some of the new crop of Democrats in Congress claimed in their campaigns to be less anti-gun than their partly leadership, and perhaps that's true. But if you look at the websites of the Brady Campaign and other anti-rights groups, you'll see they are loudly cheering the new Democratic majority as an opportunity for a host of new abridgements of Constitutional freedoms. It's going to be hard for the Democrats to recruit libertarians by using an agenda like that.


posted by: David H. Roberson on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

I think that Libertarians have long made their choice. If torture, warrantless wire taps, holding of people without access to counsel, preemptive war, etc, etc, etc, haven't turned them into democrats, then it's clear where the libertarian values lay. Henke is a perfect example of this. He'd rather go to work for a bona fide racist than vote democrat.

2nd amendment rights? My lord. The king of all the amendments. I'll be glad to know I can still own a gun but I can be locked away without anyone ever knowing about it, tortured, etc.

You guys keep whining about your 2nd amendment rights while the constitution has been gutted under your noses. Yea, an armed populace really prevented Bush n' company from doing their dirty work, didn't they.

posted by: Azael on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Now, Azael, you are forgetting.

The record of the Clinton admin, on confiscations, aggressive searches, and confiscation of property, is little better than the Bushies. Clintonism created an aggressive "revenue enhancement" opportunity for fed, state, and local law enforcement to take property (cars, boats, houses) for anyone who knew someone who knew someone who once met someone who dealt drugs.

The Dems are not against illegal wiretaps, or any of the other things you (rightly) criticize the Bushies for. So I don't see why voting Dem would be an answer.

And the 2nd Amendment thing....stop drinking that Hateraid! It's making you bitter. Sure, the 1st, 4th, and 5th Amendments are more important than the 2nd. But the Dems want to gut the 5th Amdmt protections against takings, and they have little concern for the 1st Amdmt protections on political speech through campaign spending, or 4th Amdmt protections in drug cases. Finally, the weasel Dems have actually started to SUPPORT 2nd Amdmt "rights," if anything.

There is just no good reason to think the Dems will be better, or even different, from the Repubs. Like political pressures as causes produce like corrupt polices as effects, as Newton (sort of) said.

posted by: Mungowits on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

I just have to admire the kind of sickness that just says "well, the democrats would have been worse".

I mean, really.

And "hateraid"? How middle class. Slogans are a piss poor substitute for actual arguments.

It's this wonderful attitude like yours which has gotten us into this mess. It's like you've figured there's no point in worrying any more so you mine as well see how much money you can vacuum up on the way to perdition.

Geez, louis. No wonder you guys got your asses kicked in November.

posted by: Azael on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Libertarians are more heavily represented in the blogosphere than anywhere else on earth, with the possible exception of Cato's own building. Politically speaking, they are good for big talk, and that's all.

You can always find evidence of libertarian passion for the easy stuff, like tax cuts and opposition to gun control. You can often find similar passion for hopeless stuff, like abolishing Medicare and legalizing drugs of all kinds. But on the doable but difficult stuff, like cutting government spending, libertarians are reliably AWOL. No politician, or party, thinking of trying to appeal to "the libertarian vote" should expect to gain much from the effort.

posted by: Zathras on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Isn't the calculus of many libertarians that Republicans are better on economic liberty issues, and Democrats on social liberty issues, and support tends toward Republicans because economic liberty issues have more effect on most libertarians? Yes, we can and should decry the prescription drug plan and increased federal spending from Republicans. However, that doesn't change the fact that on various taxation and regulation questions, Republicans are much closer to libertarian values than Democrats are.

Let's face it - not every libertarian out there, or even most, has a personal interest in drug legalization, or cares strongly about social liberty issues the Republicans are largely incapable of changing. What does affect just about every libertarian is taxes, in all their forms, and regulations from the many, many agencies that try to regulate our lives. And that's where support for Republicans comes from.

posted by: Sisyphus on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

that's where support for Republicans comes from

Precisely. And that's why it's a Sisyphean task for the democrats to ever try to "lure" the libertarians away from the Republicans. Torture, civil liberties, constitutional guarantees - these things simply don't have the impact in the same way that money, drugs and the right to own slaves does on the libertarian mind.

Y'all talk a good game, but really...

posted by: Azael on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]


No POLITICIAN is reliably Libertarian, because the sources of power -- continued employment and lobbyist goodies -- for a politician are based on stupid spending or stupider tax cuts. And how is Reagan remembered today? For cutting government? Not really. His reputation rests on winning the Cold War.

The American People have not embraced term limits (though the last GOP Congress was a significant argument for them) or resdistricting reform, and the thought leaders have generally refused to concentrate on these issues. Campaign finance "reform" was more fun. (And better for the politicians.)

To Dan's point -- the past is nice, but the present is where we are. It may be, to accomplish some libertarian aims in the political sphere (no torture, no badly thought wars, some kind of protection against civil liberties intervention), better to play with the Democrats. The GOP, on spending and government intervention and protectionism, aren't furtheing libertarian aims, and are unlikely to do so until the current governing philosophy is rejected by the party. Welfare reform was swell -- and so ten years ago...

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

For those without a TNR subscription, the article can be read at

I haven't yet read it, but I will note that one of the great libertarian triumphs of the past several decades--the end of the draft--happened in alliance with a Republican administration that was anything but libertarian. A lot depends on time, place, and circumstances, as well as effective arguments like Milton Friedman's in that instance.

posted by: Virginia Postrel on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Given that the ideological libertarian constituency amounts to something like 0-3 percent of the population (the typical results achieved by LP candidates) does it really matter who fuses with them? The are a lot more high school educated white (and black) males out there that want a more populist economic direction -- practical v. ideological trade policy, lower immigration, maybe a more progressive tax structure. Conservatives should go after these guys. Nothing in Burke mandates free trade or open borders, quite the opposite.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

"the legalization of abortion" as a "libertarian breakthrough?" Sure, unless you're the unborn child.

When Democrats actually get some serious tax and spending cuts done should Republicans be worried about a permanent libertarian shift.

From my experience with libertarians they much prefer to be in their own corner from where they can pick and choose their political alliances as they see fit.

posted by: Sean Hackbarth on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Mitchell is absolutely right. Libertarians are such an insignificant portion of the electorate that they aren't worth worrying about. What we see on the Internet is an example of selection bias; libertarians have a lot to say and aren't afraid to say it, while people with more mainstream views generally don't feel the need to lurk on blog comment threads or Usenet.

Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security shows just how unpopular libertarian ideas are among the American public. And this isn't even the worst or most unpopular idea from that crowd. Sure, Americans love tax cuts, especially if they think they won't have to pay any real price in exchange for them. But when it comes down to something truly important, that goes by the wayside. National health care is desired by a large majority of Americans, and polls show many would even be willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for that.

Populism, not libertarianism, is the road to travel. That said, gun control is a losing issue for the Democrats, and it should be dropped. And given the makeup of the Class of '06, I don't think that any new gun control proposals are going to be floated. It's a silly issue and not worth spending real political capital on, when that capital could be used to help out the middle class.

posted by: Firebug on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

A question for libertarians, or anyone who knows one: do you really not like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act? It seems that something like this is necessary to the efficient functioning of a free market. Am I confused?

posted by: foolishmortal on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security shows just how unpopular libertarian ideas are among the American public.

But you can't balance the budget or stop the eventual Social Security and Medicare train wrecks without (fiscal) libertarian policies.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Virginia, you make an excellent point about libertarians and their opposition to the draft. Interesting that a Democrat -- Rangel -- is leading the charge to bring it back.

posted by: David H. Roberson on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Yglesia is exactly right -- in fact the opposition to the sixties Civil Right legislation was justified on just such libertarian grounds, that the federal government or government in general had no right to tell Mr. Smith to whom she had to rent. After all, Barry Goldwater was Mr. Libertarian, and he opposed most all of the sixties Civil Rights agenda. Even Reagan was famous for his statement that "In America you have the right to be wrong" specifically in a racial context.

Fact is, libertarianism only works in a fairly homogeneous society. Hong Kong could be libertarian because it is overwhelmingly Han Chinese. Singapoore is a libertarian's nightmare -- it has to be authoritarian to prevent its ethnic groups from going at one another.

Or take a look at California. Sure libertarians might approve of the 'free market' operation of Mexicans lining up to do yard work or sell oranges at intersections, but those Mexicans and their offspring vote for politicians that push for minimum wage increases, universal (government paid) healthcare, expand the power of public sector unions, and so on. Libertarianism, the open borders kind, eats itself.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Mr. Lindsey should realize that no one trusts a frontrunners whether it be in sports or politics. It is interesting that Mr. Lindsey and other CATO Institute scholars didn' propose this alliance in 2004 but waited until 2006 when it looked (correctly) that Democrats would take at least one house.

Furthermore, Mr. Lindsey may be pro-choice and pro federal spending on stem cell research but Libertarians themselves are divided on those issues (see Ron Paul or Steve Chapman). Libertarian and social liberalism are not one in the same and are too often confused. Remember, Goldwater the Libertarian Conservative ran against Rockefeller the social liberal and they disagreed on more than just economic principles.

Here are a host of major issues that almost all Libertarians of the CATO Institute variety and liberals disagree on:

(1) Guns (excepting those liberals who are doing so now for political expediency.)
(2) free trade
(3) size of the government in general
(4) socialized healthcare
(5) foreign policy on humanitarian interventions
(6) tax cuts
(7) minimum wage
(8) social security
(9) affirmative action
(10) differences still on immigration as libertarian tend to favor guest worker programs more than liberals do
(11) environmental regulation

Ironically, the people with the most libertarian economic views (i.e. Tom Coburn and Shaddegg and Pence) also have very socially conservative views as does the one libertarian in the house, Ron Paul.

posted by: Ian on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

the future of the Democratic Party, I'm sorry to say, if with Lou Dobbs and the backlash against globalization. This might have worked when Bill Clinton ran the party to the center on economic issues, but its won't any more. The Democrats will move to economic populism/nationalism, and will slowly become more conservative on social issue. the traditional "Nation" wing of the party will be out of control in 20 years, just like the moral-majority types took over the Republican party after the southern strategy.

posted by: Gordon on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

one of the great libertarian triumphs of the past several decades--the end of the draft--happened in alliance with a Republican administration that was anything but libertarian

In alliance? I seem to recall that there was some pretty significant opposition to the draft that was decidedly non-Republican. Milton Friedman notwithstanding, to present this as a triumph of libertarian thinking, rather than a political move that happened to coincide with libertarian ideas, misplaces the emphasis badly.

posted by: Bernard Yomtov on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

the opposition to the sixties Civil Right legislation was justified on just such libertarian grounds, that the federal government or government in general had no right to tell Mr. Smith to whom she had to rent.

No. The opposition, with very few exceptions, was based on racism. I would, by the way, include Goldwater among the exceptions.

posted by: Bernard Yomtov on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

Reading the articles over at Reason and the commentators, one gets the feeling that tax cuts and drug legalization is more important than civil liberties or habeus corpus.

And none of the so-called Libertarians who yell for tax cuts have ever come up with a good suggestion for what should go in their place. As far as I can tell, they seem to think that the money for defense, the law courts, the roads, etc. all just appear out of thin air.

posted by: grumpy realist on 12.04.06 at 08:10 AM [permalink]

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