The case for democracy
One thing libertarians talk about a lot is coercion. If you really peel back libertarian philosophy, that word looms just about as large as “liberty” or “freedom”. Coercion can take a bunch of different shapes. Taxes are coercion. Democracy is coercion. Unions are coercion. Anything that represents the will of the collective over the will of the individual is coercion.
Theoretically, the ideal libertarian society would have no democracy at all. That’s the only way to prevent collective decision making. So in order to actually craft Libertopia, democracy is out. Ideally not even a representative democratic republic would remain.
Michael Lind recently wrote a piece on libertarian hostility to democracy and at the time I felt as though something were missing from the otherwise excellent article. I believe that many libertarians sincerely do believe in liberty. Yet for all that, the antipathy to democracy – which goes well beyond Hayek’s preferred “liberal dictatorship” – reveals the fundamental internal conflict within libertarianism: in order for it to exist as a model for society, democracy must be snuffed out through coercion.
We see it in the economy already: workplace democracy is dying. Our political system is already rigged against democracy, between the filibuster and the Electoral College. For libertarians, the less democracy the better. One reason the right-fusionism has worked so well for so long is that Republicans are hard at work to make that happen.
I enjoyed Jim Henley’s explanation of his own departure from libertarianism, years ago when the notion of privatized Social Security really sunk in; for me it is simply this: I don’t want to live in Libertopia. And while libertarians may say they don’t want to live in my welfare state either, at least I can say “Then go vote against it.” In Libertopia no such option would exist. That doesn’t smell like freedom to me.
As much as I admire the convergence of civil libertarians from progressive and libertarian circles, ultimately I see that alliance as stillborn in any meaningful electoral sense. It is an “intellectual indulgence” which is fine. On some issues progressives and libertarians are aligned, no doubt. The war on drugs, the police state, mass incarceration, gay rights.
But at the ballot box?
Progressives who are bothered by the civil liberty record of this president should probably work to change the Democratic party and the culture that drives Democrats to the center rather than spend their votes trying to elect Ron Paul, if only because the top-down route is bound to backfire. There’s a strong case for working outside of politics to change politics. Working with civil society, with unions, with activists to push policy from the ground up. Sinking the Obama presidency on the pipe dream of a left-libertarian united front doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t just strengthen the Republicans, it strengthens centrist Democrats.
And in a two-party system like ours, you work with the coalition you’ve got and you work to change that coalition for the better. That usually doesn’t happen from the top-down. It happens in the weeds.
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