So, you know how my blognado was supposed to get my juices flowing again? Yeah, well so much for that plan. I can plead all manner of excuses: I’ve started a new project at work that’s tapping my creative juices, I didn’t want to touch the contraception issue because my distaste for the Catholic Church made it impossible for me to be at all objective, the sun was in my eyes. But none of that matters, because I’m back.
I’ve been thinking lately about political ideology and the way libertarianism functions in politics (or at least how it fails to do so), mostly because of l’affaire Cato, though I don’t really want to talk about Cato in specific because I can’t imagine what I could say that would be relevant given that there are plenty of people who actually know what they’re talking about (such as Will Wilkinson or Jason) commenting on it already. As a general rule I try to avoid talking about things when I have no idea what I’m talking about. Instead I’d like to start from first principles, and ask the central question of Realpolitik that plagues libertarians – given that libertarian thought is a minority, and probably always will be, how do we influence government? The normal practice in politics is to ally with another group to advance mutual goals. Ah, but who?
One of the many strange things about libertarianism is that despite being a form of liberalism (it’s even in the name) it is most commonly associated with conservatives. The reason for this, like so much of politics, is historical accident.
In the beginning the economy was without plan, and Depression stalked the land. And then FDR moved across the surface of the deep and He said “Let there be the New Deal!” and it was good. At least for the left it was. Conservatives were naturally unhappy with such sharp changes to the American system of government and economics, but they weren’t the only ones. Some liberals were closer followers of Hayek than Keynes and were worried that government getting so closely involved with the economy would end in tears, many were also incensed at the presumption that the government had a right to assume such a large role in society. Ultimately this split in liberal thought goes right back to the Enlightenment, where it could be seen in the distinctions between the Scottish and French Enlightenments, and in the US (itself a product of the Scottish Enlightenment) things had suddenly gotten a bit too French for some liberals. OK, I’m oversimplifying this a lot, but I think that covers the issue well enough for what I’m talking about here, this post is going to be long enough already.
It was from these disaffected liberals that libertarianism was born. And so when the early libertarians were searching for allies it was only natural they would go to the conservatives. But the factional nature of human psychology, added to the effects of status quo bias, can make what was a historically-contingent alliance of convenience seem like a true alignment of interests. And I think that alignment of interests started to break down some time in the 1980s, primarily because the left’s view of economics changed during that time. The sclerosis and collapse of the Soviet Union made central planning much less intellectually tenable (not that the mainstream left in the US was ever socialist, but still the interventionist “heavy corporatism” of FDR looked a lot less tenable when it became clear that the USSR was not the economic powerhouse it claimed to be, and that in the end it could produce neither guns nor butter), and the stagflation of the 1970s and early 1980s showed that Keynesian economics, as applied by real world governments, had some limitations. So while today’s Democratic Party is not libertarian by any standard, it no longer represents the early and mid 20th Century Progressivism that libertarians first fought against either.
The Republican Party has also changed, and not for the better. Since 9-11 Neoconservatism has captured Republican foreign policy, in effect they have taken the standard interventionist view of government and applied to to foreigners instead of Americans. On behalf of foreigners, permit me to say thanks, but no thanks. And then there’s the steady expansion of the Security State domestically. Remember back during the Red Scare when conservatives warned of the horrors of communist totalitarianism? How you wouldn’t be allowed to travel within your own country without showing identity papers at government checkpoints? How the government would limit your ability to petition the government for grievances? How every phone-call and private activity could be monitored by The State? Sure you guys may not be back in the USSR (for one thing, your gulag only takes foreigners), but what is it about the fall of communism that made conservatives think it was a good idea to steal their playbook? Add that to the ever-growing conservative push in the Culture Wars, and I see little reason to see the Republican party as the home of libertarianism. Hell the only issue where we have strong agreement is taxation and that doesn’t count because as Milton Friedman pointed out long ago cutting taxes doesn’t count as shrinking government unless you also cut spending. Taxation delayed is not taxation denied.
So do we pack it all in and shack up with the Democrats? Well, that wouldn’t be wise either. While Obama style “light corporatism” is more libertarian than FDR “heavy corporatism”, there’s still a sizable gap. For one thing Democratic politicians see no problem with pursuing the “War” on Drugs with just as much fervour as Republican ones do. And I’m not convinced the Democrats are any better on the Security state than the Republicans are. Plus the ACA is not a libertarian piece of legislation to put it mildly. What I’m proposing instead is more of a cold-blooded approach to politician alliances. Sometimes we’ll see the Democrats are right on an issue, and when they are, we should support them. And sometimes we’ll see the Republicans are right on an issue, and when they are, we should support them.
“But what about political candidates?”, you might ask. Should we try to get Republican or Democratic nominations? Well, why not both? Libertarianism is a set of beliefs about how government should work, unlike Liberalism and Conservatism which are much broader views about what a good society is. While the first libertarians were liberals, years of alliance with conservatives have produced conservative libertarians too. Take Ron Paul, he’s a conservative by any stretch. When he’s not talking about government his view of the world is very similar to any standard conservative. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m a liberal. I don’t like organised religion (or religion at all really) I find nothing wrong with homosexuality, abortion or any of the culture war issues that conservatives rail against. I’m not even very Burkean, I can see too much persistent madness and horror in human history to think too highly of the status quo (not that I reject Burkean principles entirely, I just don’t weight them anywhere nearly as highly as any good conservative should). By morals are driven by humanist principles, not by Divine Commandment theory or by appeals to tradition. If you look at my ideal of what a good society is, but leave out the part about what government should do to make it happen, I look like a liberal.
What I want to see is a left-wing equivalent of Ron Paul challenging the Democratic nomination. I want people to think of libertarianism as its own political force that cuts across partisan lines. I want to see liberaltarians and conservative fusionists each working with their own groups to advance libertarian goals whenever and wherever they can. I doubt we can accomplish much, we’re a small group and libertarian thought runs counter to the natural psychology of politicians (people who are sceptical of government’s ability to do good tend not to become politicians), but I think we can do more good than we are right now by extending a hand to potential allies on both sides of the political aisle.