Leaving the Right to Save the Right
Amongst several others, Ross Douthat has some really good thoughts on my arguments for a more liberal libertarianism. So good are a lot of these responses that I could probably spend the next month discussing them (don’t worry, I won’t). But Ross’ points are probably the most comprehensive. I can’t do Ross’ post justice by just block-quoting, so read the whole thing. But his points amount to:
1. My conception of liber-al-tarianism has a lot in common with the ideas he and Reihan Salam propose in Grand New Party, at least on economic policy, so there’s a good basis for reform conservatives and reform-minded libertarians to work together to reform the American Right.
2. While liberals and libertarians have an awful lot in common on principle, that’s true of most Americans; the differences on implementation are the real problem.
3a. Deneen, Dreher, and Larison-style traditionalist conservativism would not come to dominate the Right if libertarians left because the “appeal of dynamism, to borrow from Virginia Postrel, is too pervasive to admit of an effective political coalition organized in opposition to it”
3b. Instead, the Right would become even more the Party of Rush Limbaugh, who is very much a liberal/dynamist on economics.
4. Meanwhile, it is highly unlikely that a libertarianism absorbed into liberalism would have much effect at all on liberalism. More likely, it would just result in a national-scale California.
On points 1 and 2, I completely agree. On point 4, I also actually agree – at least for the near future, which was a central point of my first foray into this arena the other day. And I also think he’s right, at least in the short-term, that the departure of libertarians from the Right (though I jump to add that this is not quite the same as joining the Left) would make the GOP even more the party of talk radio.
Where I disagree is in the long-run. I also disagree that a more traditional conservatism would fail to be a politically viable alternative to liberalism.
An essential element of why I think this is that libertarian-conservative fusionism, despite (I’d say because of) several decades of political strength, has ultimately corrupted both worldviews to the point that it has formed this kind of incoherent, inflexible dogmatism that more or less lays claim to being a master ideology of the Right – even though it is barely representative of any of the ideologies that make up the Right.
In becoming a Frankenstein’s Monster of the various forms of libertarianism and conservatism within its ranks, movement conservatism – the portion of the Right that actually matters for policy purposes – is unable to articulate any kind of clear set of goals that animate its decision making beyond the vacuous and vague “strong economy, strong families, and strong defense” triumvirate. And how can a political coalition implement good policy when it can’t articulate a coherent vision of where it wants that policy to lead us?
But if one element of the coalition were to gradually depart in the short run (and the evidence suggests libertarians have started doing this over the last four years, though the Dem response to the economic crisis has probably paused that trend for awhile) and become political free agents in the intermediate term, the remaining elements of the coalition, over the course of several years, could begin to reform around a coherent mission that would potentially have appeal to some of the other coalition’s core constituencies…or maybe to more political free agents (including libertarians).
If that were to happen (and the fact is that the makeup of political coalitions is historically far from static, so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in thinking it eventually will), and some Dem constituencies were to gradually shift to the Right, the Left would cease to be beholden to those constituencies much as the Right will have ceased to be beholden to libertarianism. And the most logical such constituencies are the more socially conservative but economically populist constituencies (read: least libertarian).
While all this is going on, the now-free agent libertarianism will inevitably become free from the prejudices instilled by its alliance with the Right. How this would ultimately look, I suppose it’s hard to predict; but liber-al-tarianism is, I think, best viewed as an attempt to hasten such a result, creating a libertarianism that is truer to its classical liberal roots. But I have a hard time seeing how libertarianism will be able to free itself from the prejudices of its alliance with the Right unless it actually leaves the right for a few elections, even if only by becoming independents.
So, that’s the mechanism by which I could see libertarians becoming part of the political Left: a few years of blissful, purist independence during which both parties tried to pander to us (either that, or we’d be reliving the “remnant” days), but also during which the Right became less libertarian on the whole, causing some of the least libertarian elements of the Left to move to the Right. The total time frame for this is quite long, maybe even decades and the response to the current economic crisis probably adds an extra 5-10 years.
Of course, it’s also possible that the Right will reform in such a way as to be more libertarian-friendly, depending on which issues come up in the next few years. But so long as the core constituencies of the Right remain unchanged, I have a really hard time seeing how the Right will be able to escape from the all-encompassing dogma that tolerates no dissent from the party line. More likely, I think libertarians have to at least temporarily leave, allow the Right to reform itself, and then go back.
And that is where I probably most disagree with Ross, who understandably thinks that the Right can – and must – keep the existing coalition intact if it is to reform itself. The ideas I outlined in my Promise of Liberaltarianism post may well be similar/compatible with the ideas in Grand New Party, but they are also ideas that are going to be anathema to most libertarians so long as they remain constituents of the political Right. Of course, it’s possible that reform could occur if some other constituency left the Right; but libertarians seem like the most politically expendable. After all, Mike Huckabee trounced Ron Paul just about everywhere in the primaries last year, so I don’t see traditionalists going anywhere.
To be sure, talk radio is unlikely to change its views on these issues even if libertarians left the coalition. But if libertarians were no longer part of movement conservatism, wouldn’t talk radio’s influence gradually decline? I think it would. I also think that there are a handful of voices that could quickly become as or more influential on conservatism’s remaining constituencies.
I’ve gone on too long already and haven’t really addressed the issue of whether a conservatism based primarily on stability and tradition would be a viable alternative to a liberalism based primarily on growth and dynamism. So, just briefly – I think it would. To quote myself:
[T]his imagined new conservative coalition along the lines of Deneen, Dreher, and Larison need not be “anti-growth.” It’s much more “pro-stability.” There is some pretty interesting polling data out there that [ed: flip to page 30] would suggest such a platform would be quite electorally viable – one really good example of that is the fact that a significant majority of Americans are opposed to free trade (at least as long as you don’t associate the concept with either party), even though it’s close to indisputable that free trade spurs economic growth. Part of that, I think, is that people really do place a lot of value in stability and security.
UPDATE: Will Wilkinson also responds to Ross. Simple translation (I think): It’s ultimately about creating a better libertarianism, nay, a more coherent political philosophy than currently exists. If that results in a coalition of libertarians and the Left, so be it. If not, so be it.
UPDATE II: Reading Wilkinson’s response again, I’m actually kind of sorry I wrote this piece. Not because I think it’s wrong, but because I think it distracts from the purpose of the whole liber-al-tarian concept…effects on political coalitions are secondary to the idea.