Saturday, July 31, 2010

Libertarian Centrism

Libertarianism has an ambiguous place within American federal politics. Since libertarianism became popular in the 1960's, libertarians seem to have defaulted towards reluctantly supporting the Republican Party. This loose alliance reached a peak during the Reagan years, as well as during the Republican revolution in the early 90s. While most libertarians continued to vote Republican through the last decade, many libertarian public figures disavowed the party during the Bush Administration. This has lead to many debates among libertarian intellectuals about how best to work within the political system to advance individual liberty. Should libertarians continue to support Republicans, or move over to the Democratic column. I will argue that neither is appropriate. The only way for libertarians to influence American politics at the national level is to remain an independent swing vote. The flip side of this is that they need to be willing to back moderate proposals from either party that will serve to advance freedom. In other words, libertarians need to claim the center.

*Before proceeding, I should point out that this argument is exclusively referring to American federal politics. Libertarians still do have something to be gained from a loose alliance with conservatives in Canada, since Canadian conservatives are nowhere near as socially conservative than their American equivalents, and tend to be far more reasonable on civil liberties issues. It also doesn't necessarily apply to State governments, since the issue set is different than at the federal level.*

A recent debate in Reason Magazine between Brink Lindsey from the Cato Institute, Jonah Goldberg of National Review, and Matt Kibbe of Freedom Works has been the subject of a flurry of discussion recently. The genesis of this debate can be traced back a few years to an article Lindsey wrote in The New Republic in 2006. His claim was that Libertarians had nothing to gain from their 'fusion' with conservatives, and should instead focus on co-operating with liberals. While he didn't expect to convert liberals en masse, he hoped to work with liberals to use market mechanisms to achieve progressive goals. He referred to this philosophy as 'liberaltarianism'. Goldberg was one of his most prominent opponents from the beginning. Goldberg wished him luck, but doubted that liberals would have any interest in using market mechanisms to achieve progressive goals.

In the Reason debate, Lindsey unambiguously disavowed any kind of alliance with the left. He recognized that "for now and the foreseeable future, the left is no more viable a home for libertarians than is the right." The left is inflexible on economic issues, as the right is on social issues. Rather than fusing with the left or the right, Lindsey advocates working with the left on social issues, and the right on economic issues. Rather than throwing money at the Republican or Democratic Party, he believes believes that libertarians should fund individual candidates who are committed to both individual and economic freedom, rather than funding candidates based on their economic views and just hoping they won't trample over civil liberties.

While Lindsey's position hasn't been fully fleshed out yet, I find it persuasive. One need only look at the survey data on Tea Party activists that Lindsay provides:

"Tea Partiers hold distinctly unlibertarian views on a wide variety of issues. According to the Times poll, 82 percent think illegal immigration is a very serious problem, and supporters of decreasing legal immigration outnumber those who want to liberalize immigration by 42 to 14 percent. Only 16 percent favor gay marriage (compared to 39 percent of the country at large), and 40 percent call for no legal recognition of same-sex unions. Meanwhile, 77 percent support either banning abortions outright or making them more difficult to obtain. "

The standard libertarian position on immigration, marriage, and abortion is laissez-faire. Furthermore, most libertarians feel strongly about at least one of those three issues. This should give libertarians pause before supporting any party who will pander to the Tea Party. I am much more opposed to mass deportations than I am to tax increases, so there is no way that I can align myself with the Tea Party. It is also worth noting that there are a non-trivial number of activist libertarians who attend Tea Parties. Remove them from the above numbers, and I suspect the numbers get far worse.

The biggest problems with working with Republicans that Lindsey pointed out are that they tend to rely on two impulses: anti-intellectual populism, and/or dogmatic religiosity. This is precisely the opposite of the libertarian ideal. Of course, the far left is no better. There is no way to reason with people steeped in anti-corporate conspiracy theories, and revolutionary sentiments. Rational, secular discourse is required for a thriving liberal democracy.

There is one major problem with breaking away from conservatives: fundraising. Libertarian think tanks have been fairly close with conservatives, and by explicitly moving away would jeopardize at least some fundraising capacity. However, I don't see any need for think tanks to change their policy focus, or their outreach efforts. Most think tanks have very limited political advocacy efforts anyways. What's more important is how libertarian donors and activists act.

The fundamental rule for activism and political donations for libertarians should be to always work towards divided government. Neither party can be trusted with the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. In terms of specific candidates, I would recommend a two track approach. Obviously, actual libertarians like Jeff Flake and Scott Garrett deserve our support. More importantly, libertarians should work with moderates in both parties. There are several reasons for this. First, they are typically more thoughtful than the average member. This means that they are more open to shifting policy positions. Second, they compose large blocks of semi-independent swing votes. Third, they tend to have very high national profiles. One way to achieve this would be to start a liberaltarian version of Freedom Works. I'm not sure how feasible this idea is, but it would be an excellent way to provide the fundraising and volunteer muscle that would be required to show these candidates that there is something in it for them if they adopt slightly more libertarian policies. This sounds crass, but it's the game that conservatives and liberals play.

When thinking about how to influence politics, libertarians often refer to the Overton Window (not the unrelated Glenn Beck book). The Overton Window theory dictates that there is a middle ground of policy positions that are politically palatable. If legislators move too far to the right, or the left, they risk alienating the average voter. The key for libertarians is to try to move the window of public policy options into a more libertarian direction. The strategy for advocacy groups (not necessarily think tanks) has been to try to move towards more economic freedom without much regard for social freedom. This has prevented libertarians from gaining as much traction as we could with young people. Since younger people are more preoccupied with social issues than economic issues, they naturally gravitate towards the left. That is a major missed opportunity for us.

In my opinion, the most effective libertarian advocacy organization is the Institute for Humane Studies. I use the word advocacy loosely, since they are actually an educational organization. That distinction is exactly why they are effective. While Freedom Works is out recruiting older conservatives and libertarians to Tea Parties, IHS is inviting high school and college students to educational seminars. The mistake that advocacy groups make is to focus on herding existing sympathisers. Instead of doing this, the IHS is helping to build the activist base. Far from brainwashing students, they encourage them to debate classical liberal philosophy. Above all, they encourage disagreement, and scepticism. Since any student who is motivated enough to spend a week at a seminar is likely more inquisitive than the average student, IHS is confident that their participants are able to make up their own minds about whether or not they agree with libertarian principles. This approach is all the more important since most intellectually interested young people identify with modern liberalism. For every one that embraces libertarianism, there is one less radical activist. More importantly, each one of these new recruits will no doubt discuss these ideas with their friends in their own language. Yelling out anti-government slogans doesn't appeal to young activists. Rational discussion sometimes does.

In short, we have nothing to gain from pandering to the right. They are reactionarily anti-government anyways. They won't vote any different on any substantive policy, no matter what libertarians say. The Tea Parties won't go away just because libertarian activists stop showing up. The key is to work with moderates, to show them how more economic freedom will help to achieve the policy outcomes they desire. Distancing ourselves from the Tea Party is crucial if we intend to do this. This doesn't mean libertarians shouldn't work with conservatives on certain issues. It means that we should focus equally on working with liberals on important issues like immigration, and drug war reform as well. We need to be a swing vote, rather than a faction.


  1. Steve,
    Good post. I've been beating the drum for a divided government voting heuristic on my blog for a few years now - and continue to think that a centrist libertarian swing vote is the key - as you outline here. The rub, is that there is no swing vote if it is not organized in some manner - and nobody yet has figured out how to herd these cats. This is sometimes refered to as the "Hot Tub Libertarian Problem". If you'll indulge me - I'll paraphrase from my post "Curing Libertarian Electile Dysfunction" with my solution:

    Libertarian swing vote organization is going to have to look different than traditional politics, after all, it is something we will have to be able to accomplish while sitting in the hot-tub. What is needed, is an organizing principle. Ideally, a principle that is so obvious, so logical, and so clear-cut, that no leadership is needed, no parties are needed, no candidates are needed, and no infrastructure is needed. Ideally it is this easy: You think about the principle, and you know how to vote.

    That organizing principle exists. It is Divided Government. It is absolutely clear-cut and easy to understand. Divided Government is documented by Niskanen to work in a practical real-world manner to restrain the growth of the state. As a voting strategy it can be implemented immediately. More importantly, it can collectively be implemented individually as we sit in our hot tubs and ponder the sorry state of the world. Whatever the percentage of the electorate that libertarians represent, whether it is 9% or 20%, if they vote as a block for divided government, they immediately become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single most most potent voting block in the country, specifically because they are willing to vote either Democratic or Republican as a block. Specifically because they are not fused to one party or the other.

    If the libertarian "divided government vote" is shown to swing elections for two or three cycles, then libertarians will no longer be inchoate, their message no longer diffused, and their political clout no longer flaccid. As long as the bulk of the electorate remain polarized and balanced, even a small percentage libertarian swing vote organized around divided government will be enough for libertarians to display the biggest swinging political "hammer" in town.

  2. Hey Steve,

    Forgive me if this post gets a bit disorganized. The confusion surrounding this issue always aggravates me.

    So, let's be clear on our terms. If when we use the term 'libertarian' we mean "the unwavering commitment to the belief that our individual rights require all forms of political coercion without regard to their utility or tradition, a la Rand," then, no, there can be libertarian-conservative alliance, and thank god there can't, because that kind of libertarianism is stupid and pernicious.

    And, if when we use the term 'conservative' we mean "whatever the most visible elements of the Republican Party happen to be doing on CNN right now," then principled libertarians can't commit themselves a priori to whatever those elements will do on CNN in the future.

    But if we take libertarianism and conservativism to be political movements defined by the best intellectuals on both sides, then I don't see any real contradiction. In fact, I think that sometimes the contradictions are imagined, manufactured even, by libertarians hoping to score points with people who are repulsed by the idea of conservatism they have received from the New York Times.

    It's been my observation that libertarians are very often young people who basically have pretty standard conservative policy positions, but who don't want to be identified as 'conservative,' because they're worried about being stigmatized by their young friends, or because they watch too much CNN and think that conservatism is synonymous with theocracy, nativism and all other kinds of dirty words. For some reason, what the popular culture identifies as 'conservatism' is much, much different from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the writings of Jonah Goldberg etc. The best conservative publications will entertain theological reasoning on the subject of abortion. But are they theocrats/Christianists/right-wing authoritarians trying to shove religion down our throats? Well, read them, and you will have trouble characterizing them that way. Both publications will entertain writers who think we need to get our borders under control--but are they nationalist/nativist/right-wing authoritarians? Well, just read them and you will have trouble saying 'yes.'

    Indeed, it's telling to me how left-libertarians are selective in their apoplexy about certain kinds of religious intrusion. Reason Magazine--which, despite its adolescently self-congratulatory name--very often is, in fact, the voice of reason had writers who took to calling George Bush "Bushitler," presumably because of things like the Patriot Act, and faith-based initiatives. Well, Barack Obama has extended the Patriot Act and expanded faith-based initiatives, and now these same Reason magazine writers are telling us that libertarians need to unite with these same liberals because, of course, today's conservatives are proto-Nazis.

  3. Ah, and then there is the endlessly fascinating apex of our cultural politics--same-sex marriage. I support same-sex marriage wholeheartedly. But I fail to see how same-sex marriage is a libertarian issue. That is, I, as a conservative, can support same-sex marriage, because I am okay with government doing some things to acknowledge/promote healthy relationships, to perform symbolic gestures that improve our culture, and to expand participation in cultural traditions such as marriage--all of which instituting same-sex marriage would do. But for a libertarian whose mantra is "always oppose government expansion and coercion," there is no basis from which to support same-sex marriage. Because, let's be clear, nobody is today FORBIDDEN to go into a church and get a pastor to declare them husband and husband or wife and wife--that is, the government is not taking away anyone's negative liberty to have same-sex marriage. RATHER, the government is FAILING to provide positive liberty--i.e. to expand to gay couples participation in the legal benefits of civil marriage. If libertarians are only concerned with individual rights/negative liberties, then I can't see how same-sex marriage is a libertarian issue. As a conservative, I feel quite comfortable making a moral judgment--that is, positively affirming the goodness of committed homosexual relationships. But as a libertarian who is supposed to keep moral judgments out of your policy, what basis can YOU find for instituting same-sex marriage?

    Then, the other big issue for libertarians is immigration. Well, the funny thing is that both right and left are divided. And tossing of the arguments of either set of opponents as "nativist" is immature, it's a way of declining to argue, trying to wave the conversation away with a magic dirty word (and I say this as someone who is very pro-immigration). Given that both left and right have pro-immigration and anti-immigration elements, I don't see how libertarians cleaving from conservatives makes sense here.

    Then there's other stuff I don't like about this. Some of it seems to be an effort by a number of libertarians to score points off of revulsion with the the "unwashed, midwestern conservative masses." One speaker talks about how conservatism is a kind of identity politics, a backlash against the arrogance of the coastal elite. Okay. Fine. That is one aspect of it. But, honestly, I think that some hostility toward the coastal elite is justified AND libertarian. I mean, it's New York Times editorialists who called libertarian protestors against Obamacare racists. It's the political class who wants bigger and bigger government even as ordinary people are saying no. It's Hollywood that produces movie after movie in which the noble and good-looking characters are fighting for progressive virtues against the woefully lower-middle class Christian bigots.

    Heck, I'm from New York, I went to Yale, I read Proust and drink lattes, and I still completely understand and sympathize with that backlash. Does that make me some kind of narrow-minded bigot with whom no Lover-Of-Liberty can associate?

    Another speaker mentioned torture. Is torture really a conservative vs. libertarian issue? I thought we would both agree that terrorist sacrifice their natural rights, and that, consequently, torture is not an ideological issue, but a nuanced, pragmatic one of balancing the need to protect the liberty and security of our citizens with the need to not go too far in cruelty or leave open too much leeway for abuse. It's a tough line to draw. We can disagree on where exactly to draw it, but can we really say there are intractable differences between libertarians as a whole and conservatives as a whole?

  4. Steve, I encourage you and other libertarians to actually go out there and read the best conservative literature. In Russel Kirk and Edmund Burke, in the WSJ and NR, you will find little creeping authoritarianism--in fact, I think you will find a more solid foundation for political liberty. The Republican Party goes wrong a lot, no doubt, as do all parties in all times in all places. But, like it or not, the Republican Party is at least willing to listen to us--even when they don't actually uphold the policies we want, they're still the ones who bring small-government rhetoric to the campaign trail, they're still the ones who are actually accepting the data from AEI and Cato rather than the data from public sector unions.

    Conservatism is fundamentally about political liberty, robust culture, a reasoned skepticism of the violence both of ideology and demagoguery. Ordered liberty and political prudence are our mantras. The idea that conservatism is through-and-through nativist, militarist, and theocratic, is a willful caricature of the left-wing media. I think libertarians should know better than to trust them.

  5. Matthew,

    I did use the word conservative (twice, I think), though I did so colloquially. I was obviously not referring to Burkeans, as I am personally in that (near extinct) camp.

    The reason that I am skeptical of the modern American conservative movement has less to do with the dwindling number of conservative intellectuals, and more to do with the talk radio driven grass roots. If NR had the kind of influence it did 50 years ago, I'd be less concerned. However, we all know that this isn't the case. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the voice of modern conservativism. Unless secular conservative intellectuals can reign in the anti-immigrant, gay bashing, drug war pushing grass roots, the movement will not be worth supporting.

  6. p.s. note that I in no way advocate a vain pursuit of any libertarian (again, used colloquially) alliance with the left. As I pointed out, they are just as scary as the far right.

  7. Though I shouldn't let conservative intellectuals off the hook so easy on immigration. Check out Ortega's immigration article at NRO. The old "the rule of law is sacrosanct when we happen to agree with the specific law" bit.

  8. Right, so here's the thing.

    You say, "Unless secular conservative intellectuals can reign in the anti-immigrant, gay bashing, drug war pushing grass roots, the movement will not be worth supporting."

    Okay. (1) 'Anti-immigrant' is what in the good old days journalists would call a 'loaded term.' People who oppose illegal immigration would not say that they are anti immigrant. They don't hate people who are here legally, and not necessarily those who are her illegally either. They are against the process of illegal immigration. Can you really cast off their argument so easily just with a scare word?

    (2) 'Gay bashing.' Okay, again, we 'conservative intellectuals' keep hearing about that 'gay-bashing' freaks out there in the midwest, but scant evidence is provided for their existence. A majority of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, sure, but that is very different than 'gay-bashing.' Question for you, Steve: Is Obama a gay-basher? Because, well, he publicly opposes same-sex marriage. Bill O'Reilly, however, that bete noir of all respectable mankind, told him to just top enforcing DADT and he didn't.

    (3) Drug-war pushing? Well, again, this is just another libertarian fantasy. The drug war is not a major talking point for most Republican pols. We don't have a sensible drug policy, surely, but that has nothing to do with there being a major "drug-war pushing" wing of the conservative movement.

    Steve, I hate to do ad hominems, but it seems to me you're deluding yourself. You're treating America's political demographics as a kind of Rorschach block onto which you can project your personal preoccupations. You read all kinds of horrible bigotry (flippantly using the phrases 'gay-bashing' and 'anti-immigrant') as a way of congratulating yourself on how above all "their" prejudices you are. You don't provide evidence, you just construct a fantasy so that you can posit your own political identity in contradistinction to it.

    To be honest, I've done the same thing. It's tempting. It makes you feel good. You can sort of prove that your cool with the gays and minorities by calling other people homophobic and nativist. It makes you feel like part of the in crowd to use those words. It's good for your health and your relationships.

    But it's also dishonest. Serious intellectuals try to avoid that.

  9. 1) anti-immigrant is a loaded term. If it was JUST that self identified conservatives wanted to deport 12 million undocumented workers, then I guess I could say they are simply anti-illegal immigration. However, they also seem to want outright reductions in legal immigration as well. They may not hate immigrants personally, but a solid majority of self identified conservatives are very anti-immigration.

    2)I threw in the gay marriage numbers (since they were conveniently available), and I agree that opposing same-sex marriage does not make one a gay basher. However, I've been around enough reactionary social conservatives to know that there are plenty of homophobes in the crowd. If I were gay, I coulnd't imagine wanting to be withing a mile of that crowd.

    3) Republicans don't need to go around spouting drug war rhetoric anymore. If reform actually were on the national agenda, the rhetoric would resurface (as it has in California).

    Perhaps my rhetoric is over the top, but it's much less so than what's coming from most of the Fox News type pundits. While I don't have rigorous statistical analysis to prove that a majority of self described American conservatives conform to my caricature, I have a hard time believing that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck could become celebrities if their thoughts didn't resonate with some large constituency.

  10. As for the psycho-analysis, I should point out that you're mistaken. While it admittedly makes me feel good to advocate on behalf of marginalized groups, it doesn't help my life in any way. I'm not just a casual observer of conservatism. I work with conservatives (as well as libertarians). Fortunately, Canadian conservatives are nowhere near as socially conservative as their American counterparts seem to be.