Where do Libertarians belong?

Interesting panel discussion over at Reason.

It’s not easy being Libertarian.  Possessing even a mere Libertarian streak will cause one to be disappointed, time and again, by the long and relentless march to statism.   I come down on the side of the argument that says the best home for Libertarians is in the GOP, being the turd in the punchbowl that asks, of every new idea, “why do we need to do this?”  Otherwise you’re part of a 5% bloc that helps elect liberals.

Not all of Lindsey’s complaints about the right and the GOP are without merit, but there’s so much ill-willed tendentiousness and ad hominem embedded in his description of political reality, it’s hard not to conclude that his emotions have gotten the better of him. Again and again, Lindsey grabs the most convenient, negative, and often clichéd, interpretations of Tea Parties, “birthers,” rightwing paranoia and the usual parade of horribles (sorry: “gargoyles”) in order to make his case that libertarians need to divorce themselves from conservatives. Worse, he singles out sins of the right as if they are not also sins of the left—and libertarians as well. (I would submit that the distribution of “outlandish conspiracy theories” is fairly uniform across the ideological landscape.)

…There’s real merit to Lindsey’s claim that the “spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan.” But today’s champions of cosmopolitanism are hardly champions of freedom and devotees of the quintessentially cosmopolitan libertarian Albert J. Nock. Rather, they are the transnational progressive technocrats of Davos and the U.N. who, with increasing frequency, express contempt for democratic sovereignty because the people can’t be trusted to handle such problems as climate change.

Lindsey makes a perfectly fine and correct observation that libertarians—at least true-blue ones—are politically homeless. But it’s worth stressing that this is not the case where it actually matters most: economics.

I am perfectly willing to concede that the GOP’s free- market record has been fraught and festooned with disappointments and betrayals. But at the intellectual level, even among most of the people Lindsey describes as “gargoyles,” economic libertarianism remains largely synonymous with economic conservatism. The Mount Rushmore of libertarian economics—Hayek, Friedman, Mises, Hazlitt, et al—quite simply is the Mount Rushmore of conservative economics. Cato’s economic prescriptions are respected by only one of the major political parties, and it’s not the Democrats.

And yet, as a matter of practical politics, Lindsey would have libertarian spokesmen and advocates alienate conservatives in the hope that this would earn credibility with liberals. It seems far more likely that liberals would pocket libertarian attacks on the right—of the sort found in Lindsey’s essay—while continuing to ignore libertarian arguments on economics and other key areas of public policy. Left-wing environmentalists will not suddenly embrace property rights because libertarians vilify the Christian Right. But the Christian Right may well stop listening to libertarians if they all started talking the way Lindsey does here.

Lastly, this talk of turning libertarianism into centrism is intriguing but no less ludicrous for it. Simply put, centrists aren’t libertarians and libertarians aren’t centrists. Ending the drug war is at the heart of contemporary libertarianism (and has long been the official position of the “benighted” National Review, by the way). But how does Lindsey plan on making that centrist? How will he make an open-borders immigration policy centrist? Social Security privatization? Free-market health care? I know Cato has invested heavily in arguing otherwise, but the reality is that centrists, just like almost everybody else, hold libertarian views on some issues and not on others. And many views held by libertarians simply are not centrist. Like it or not, in America, the more libertarian you are on most economic questions, the more “right wing” you are. Period. (But it is not always true that being libertarian on social issues makes you “left wing.” Progressives embrace speech codes, racial quotas, state intrusions into the right of association, etc.)

If you take all of Lindsey’s talk of being “centrist” and replace it with “popular,” it clarifies his argument enormously. Basically, Lindsey wants full-blown libertarianism to be popular. I do too! But no amount of wordplay, poll-data-torturing, or bridge-burning will make this philosophy genuinely popular, never mind the new hinge for our two-party system. This is not an argument, it’s a wish.

Wishful thinking also lurks under his claim that the right is dying away. This is not only untrue as a matter of public opinion (as of this writing, polls show women, independents, etc. moving back to the GOP), but it’s untrue as a matter of policy as well. One of the main reasons conservatives have emphasized their “illiberal” policies on such issues as national security and abortion is that they are popular (even, dare I say it, centrist). Nowhere does Lindsey provide evidence that support for, say, military tribunals is unpopular, because he can’t. The Obama administration has been learning this lesson the hard way. In fact, both parties have emphasized their more illiberal facades in recent years. Nonetheless, I would still dispute that the GOP is less libertarian today than it was, say, at the beginning of Bush’s first term, when the libertarian-rebuking “compassionate conservatism” was all the rage.

I wish Lindsey had spent a lot less time disparaging conservatives and aping the punditry of The New York Times and more time concentrating on the philosophical argument behind Liberaltarianism 2.0. It’s a fascinating topic with many avenues for agreement and disagreement. Personally, I think he has it wrong in his attitudes toward religion and social conservatism. From the founding, religion was a great engine for liberty. Our constitutional order rests on the conviction that we are endowed by our creator with certain rights. Both the abolitionist and civil rights movements were religious in nature.

As for social conservatism, I think the real way to deal with Lindsey’s disdain for it is to pursue a more plausible and principled solution to the problems affecting both libertarianism and the country: federalism. As Thomas Jefferson knew, big cities will always be cosmopolitan. But there’s no reason why one narrow definition of cosmopolitanism needs to be imposed across the land. Social conservatives and libertine libertarians—and some practical progressives—should be able to find common cause in a campaign that allows people to live the way they want to live in communities that reflect their values. But that is a subject for another day and, hopefully, Liberaltarianism 3.0.

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2 Responses to Where do Libertarians belong?

  1. LOUDelf says:

    “Otherwise you’re part of a 5% bloc that helps elect liberals.”

    How does not belonging to or supporting the GOP suddenly elect liberals? Wouldn’t it be the same as not belonging to or supporting the Democrats as that might elect conservatives?

    • John says:

      I mean it just as a matter of practical politics: there have been races in which the Libertarian candidate wins 5%, enabling the liberal to win. MT Senate a few years ago comes to mind. Wouldn’t it be nice to have at least one more vote now? The Left has the same issue when a Nader-type runs.

      The GOP needs reminding, goading, cajoling, to not spend & grow government. Maybe less reminding than the Dems, but reminding nonetheless.

      I believe in the GOP, even frustrated, is a better home for Libertarians than on the outside garnering 5% of the vote. As the one panel member at Reason states: to ally w/progressives would likely mean they’d pocket “our” concession on the issues where we share common ground without giving much, if anything, on the issues where we don’t – and especially on economics.

      I forget who said this – “vote for the most electable conservative available.” Personally I’d make that “the most liberty loving”, since some conservatives have selective commitment to the notion.

      I wish the Libertarian Party, or Libertarians, had greater sway on the nation and the GOP. It is what it is, though. If the GOP is mostly tapping the brake on creeping socialism, Libertarians can sometimes help it tap harder or more often. In the end, I suspect We Are Doomed.

      Thanks for the comment. What do you think Libertarians and those with a similar bent should do for a political home? I thought the Reason debate was good stuff.

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