Saturday, July 31, 2010
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.