The economic hurdles of a left-libertarian alliance
~by Shawn Gude
We’re in rather unpropitious times for left-libertarian bridge-building. I don’t take glee in making this assertion; I’m more crestfallen than content. Indeed, I’ve spilled a fair amount of ink arguing that leftists and libertarians should join forces on an array of paramount issues (and advanced the selfsame argument in my senior thesis). It seems to me, though, that economic malaise and fiscal austerity may vitiate the viability of left-libertarian alliances.
Before I explain why, though, a digression on left-libertarian coalitions is in order. As far as I can tell, there are two types of left-libertarian coalitions that have been proposed.
First, a philosophical alliance based on congruent principles and common telos. People in this camp—liberaltarians— argue that progressive ends are best realized by libertarian means. The left is correct on social issues, but they need to jettison their antediluvian, fiscally unsustainable commitment to Social Security and Medicare and embrace markets. In addition, libertarians should rethink their historical alliance with the conservative movement, and center-left Clintonites should lock arms with libertarians. This is a deeply condescending—and unworkable—type of fusionism, in my view. Progressives’ intelligence is implicitly oppugned ("If only you understood…"), and legitimate, intractable ideological differences are omitted. Matt Zwolinski’s Bleeding Heart Libertarians project is in a similar vein (yet less condescending), as his goal is to make liberals more libertarian. (Whatever you think about the normative merits of bleeding heart libertarianism, the blog is always erudite and thought-provoking. Read it if you don’t already.) Here’s Zwolinski:
[T]he difference between libertarians and progressives is over means, not ends. Of course, values matter too, and some values such as economic liberty and opposition to coercion have become so closely associated with libertarianism as to seem distinctive of it. But this, I hope to show, is a mistake. Progressives have good reason to embrace these values too, not necessarily as substitutes for their own fundamental commitments, but at least as supplements to them… In other words, I think progressives should, at the margin, be more willing to trust the realization of their values to free markets and the voluntary actions of civil society, and less willing to trust them to government.
The other kind of alliance is a pragmatic, issue-based alliance between the Ralph Nader left and the Gary Johnson right, between the Greens (and liberal Democrats) and the libertarians. This symbiosis would be animated by agreement over immediate means rather than long-term ends. As I see it, the foundation of a viable left-libertarian coalition has to be strictly issue-based—not based on philosophical convergence—because the two ideological cohorts’ core values are fundamentally opposed; leftists, for instance, value positive liberty more than libertarians, whose conception of liberty is typically a strictly negative one. Both camps do agree, though, that the War on Drugs is an abomination, that foreign interventionism and empire building are counterproductive and morally questionable, and that the imperial presidency and curtailing of civil liberties are anathema to a free society. That should be enough.
The nasty recession we’re stuck in scuttles this all. The liberaltarian strategy requires the assent of center-left on economic issues. The issue-based strategy requires downplaying differences, especially on economic issues. In less impecunious times, bracketing differences and focusing on areas of convergence is at least conceivable. When economic and deficit concerns crowd out all other issues, though, already-tenuous alliances become unmanageable. Electing Ron Paul could enable the block-granting of Medicaid and slashing of Medicare. Ron Paul, of course, doesn’t speak for all libertarians: E.D. Kain is an anomaly in his advocacy of counter-cyclical spending, for example. And if more libertarians were writing things like "chains first, then crutches," leftists would have fewer objections.
But they’re not. Simply put, the preponderance of libertarians are right-libertarians. As far as I can tell, the average libertarian is a Paul-backing union-hater with an affinity for exiguous tax rates. Whether they’ve since eschewed their callow solipsism, innumerable libertarians were introduced to individualist ideas by Ayn Rand; most aren’t bleeding heart libertarians. Most had no problem—indeed, many have welcomed— the anti-union contagion that has swept the country.
That said, the left (and libertarians) can use parallel organizing strategies in seeking to achieve their policy goals. I believe that creating a more just, democratic America will require a revivified labor movement. But I also believe that the bipartisan status quo needs to be ripped asunder. Immediately. Because neither left-liberals or libertarians have sufficient strength, it only makes sense to band together on issues where commonality is present. It will be uncomfortable, especially when right-libertarians inevitably champion union-busting legislation and the left champions policies that bolster unionization rates. Coalition members will also have to assume good faith, intelligence, and thoughtfulness on the part of their partners and interlocutors. In most cases, differences will have to be chalked up to divergent values, not ignorance; coalitions aren’t built on condescension. We’d also have to develop a common language and expurgate pejorative terminology from our respective lexicons—no more labeling each other "statists" or "corporate shills."
So maybe it’s not all hopeless. Maybe leftists and libertarians can forget about uniting in the electoral arena—save for maybe backing Ron Paul or, in my case, Gary Johnson in the caucuses—until the country is on firmer fiscal and economic footing. And in the mean time, we can build rhetorical bridges and grassroots coalitions.
Economics drive an enormous wedge between libertarians and the left, even when unemployment is low and growth is steady. That’s an unavoidable fact and an ineradicable conflict. But further acrimony between libertarians and the left only redounds to the benefit of status quo protectors.