Monday, July 19, 2010

More On Where Libertarians Belong

The Volokh Conspiracy's Ilya Somin has an interesting back and forth with Tim Lee that's worth the read. (Somin's first post is here, followed by Lee's response and Somin's rejoinder.) If you don't get a chance to read it all through, Somin is a reluctant supporter of the traditional conservative-libertarian alliance, while Lee is more of the new breed. Here's Somin, rejecting much of the framework for liberal-libertarian cooperation:

The range of issues where libertarians and liberals genuinely agree is narrower than Lee assumes. Most liberals do not in fact agree with libertarians on civil liberties, the war on drugs, and gay rights. Certainly, both groups decry many conservative policies on these issues. But they don’t really agree on the alternatives to them. On civil liberties, for example, many liberals favor hate speech laws, restrictions on political speech by corporations, wide-ranging sexual harrassment laws that infringe on freedom of speech, and so forth. On gay rights, libertarians favor laissez-faire, while liberals tend to favor antidiscrimination laws that restrict the freedom of private organizations. On the War on Drugs, only a minority of liberals favor anything close to the full-blown legalization advocated by libertarians. Foreign policy, of course, is an issue that divides both liberals and libertarians among themselves.

The conservative-libertarian free market think tanks Lee points to succeed because the conservatives and libertarians there agree not only on rejecting liberal economic policies but also on an affirmative agenda of severely restricting government’s role in the economy. It would be much more difficult to run an economic policy think tank that brought together libertarians with “compassionate conservatives” who want to replace liberal economic interventions with conservative ones.

Lee responds:

As Somin acknowledges, there are lots of right-wingers, “compassionate conservatives” included, that aren’t interested in any part of the libertarian policy agenda. I can’t remember the last time the Family Research Council published something I agreed with, even on “economic issues.” I think Pat Buchanan’s views on “economic issues” are appalling.

Fusionist organizations deal with these elements of the conservative movement by mostly ignoring them. They don’t write about their work. They don’t hire their employees or publish their scholars’ work. And instead, they work with people in the more free-market-friendly corners of the conservative world. On the margin, this raises the prominence of the free-market parts of the conservative agenda relative to the non-free-market parts. And over time, conservatives have increasingly come to see the libertarian vision of economic policy as the conservative economic policy agenda.

The distribution of opinions on the liberal side is similar. Common Cause doesn’t see eye-to-eye with libertarians on First Amendment issues. The ACLU largely does. And so a liberaltarian organization would hire ACLU-style liberals rather than Common-Cause-style liberals to work on First Amendment issues. And on the margin, this would raise the prominence of ACLU-style First Amendment advocacy relative to Common-Cause-style First Amendment advocacy within the liberal movement. You can tell a similar story on gay rights, the drug war, immigration, and other issues. The liberal movement is not monolithic; on each of these issues you’ll find some parts of the liberal movement like what libertarians have to say and others where they don’t. A liberaltarian organization would build relationships with the libertarian-friendly parts of the liberal movement on each of these issues, thereby nudging the liberal movement in a more libertarian direction on these issues.

The only reason this seems more awkward on the left is that the project is much further along on the right. People who are “in the trenches” together tend to see their views converge over time. People who are used to glaring at each other across the barricades tend to have their views diverge over time. So after a half-century of fusionism, conservatives and libertarians are used to taking each others’ arguments seriously especially on “economic issues. In contrast, a half-century of thinking of each other as being on opposite ends of the political spectrum has accustomed liberals and libertarians to dismissing each others arguments out of hand, even on “social issues.” But that asymmetry is largely a result of the fusionist alliance, it’s not a deep fact about political philosophy. And although path-dependency is a powerful force, there’s no reason it needs to be a permanent feature of the American political landscape.

And again Somin:

There are two problems with this parallel. Libertarian-leaning liberals are a small minority on the left on most issues. As you can see from the liberal reaction to the Citizens United decision, the Common Cause view of the First Amendment has many more liberal adherents than the ACLU version. And even the ACLU has retreated from strong advocacy of free speech when it seems to clash with antidiscrimination law, as co-blogger David Bernstein documented in his book You Can’t Say That. By contrast, the FRC’s and Pat Buchanan’s views on economic issues are relatively marginal among conservatives; they are in fact a big part of the reason why most mainstream conservatives have broken with Buchanan and his followers. Support for free markets remains the dominant economic view among conservative intellectuals and activists, though some conservative politicians (notably George W. Bush) choose the big government approach when in power.

The other problem is perhaps more serious. Even those liberals who do take the libertarian view on one or two social issues rarely do so across the board. The ACLU is fairly libertarian when it comes to free speech, but not on a wide range of other social issues. Thus, it would be hard to find many liberals who are willing to ally with libertarians across a broad range of social policies, as opposed to single issues. That’s no problem if limited single-issue cooperation is all you seek. But it is a big obstacle if you want to establish a broader “liberaltarian movement,” as Lee does.

I think, once again, we have libertarians talking in circles. Whether we're talking about a "liberaltarian project" or "libertarian centrism" what we're really talking about is radically altering how we think about politics and how libertarian ideas are filtered into the mainstream. Everything Somin says is undoubtedly true, but that's precisely because he's talking about the status quo. That the prospects for shifting libertarian alliances are difficult given the current political framework is a given, but the odds of altering that framework are a bit more difficult to determine.

Tim Lee responds with one more post, making the point that conservatives and libertarians share a common way of talking about freedom, but don't share the same commitments to freedom.

Conservatives and Republicans like to invoke the Founding Fathers, talk about free markets and limited government, quote Hayek, and so forth. But political rhetoric is a lagging indicator of ideological commitments. A lot of fusionist slogans have become so shopworn that they’re what Orwell called dead metaphors. The fact that they’re often combined with calls to “keep your government hands off my Medicare”, promote “energy independence”, and build a police state along our Southern border suggests that these slogans are little more than empty rhetoric. When the typical Republican politiician says he cares about limited government, his purpose isn’t so much to express support for a specific policy agenda (most of the Republican policy agenda involves expanding government) so much as to signal membership in the fusionist political coalition.

Because libertarians and conservatives share a political vocabulary we find it relatively easy to communicate with each other. Liberals and libertarians obviously “agree on some basic philosophical principles”—that’s why many libertarians still call themselves classical liberals. But many libertarians talk about liberty in a right-wing way that most liberals find off-putting. And liberals, for their part, talk about liberty in a way that’s alien to most libertarians. This “language barrier” exaggerates the degree of disagreement between us. Without a shared vocabulary, it’s challenging for liberals and libertarians to recognize and build on areas of shared agreement.

I think Lee and I are mostly on the same page, but what's interesting is the reference to Republican politicians and Republican political agendas. Politicians always have an interest in government and an interest in their own power, so the disparity in what 90 something percent of Republicans say and do isn't all that interesting to me from an intellectual perspective. What's more interesting to consider is the extent of self-identified conservatives commitments to freedom, which delves into the nitty gritty of how people perceive the political world in the first place. Libertarians are a particularly astute political group, who've generally spent a great deal of time reaching their political positions, but we forget that far too many people who consider themselves liberals or conservatives are more interested in taking sides and cheerleading than in reaching meaningful intellectual conclusions. I'm purposely not throwing out any numbers because I don't no, nor would I have any idea of how to calculate these abstract ideas. Maybe it's 20%, maybe it's 80%, but there's some percentage of people to whom politics is more about the fight than it is about ideas.

The tea party movement, confuses the issue, because it is not an idealogical movement no matter how much it appears to be. That doesn't mean the tea party isn't real or useful, but it is limited in it's ability to be a lasting political movement. What the tea party has done is provide an outlet for those sick and tired of excessive government spending. What it has not done is provide a concrete road map as to where our political system should go from here. This is not to put down people who march in the street, but there's a major difference between the masses who take to the street and a think tank. There's a possibility that the tea party could be an effective engine at helping to politically alter the political landscape in a more libertarian direction, but I'm just not sure how many tea partiers would truly be in favor of following a Cato Institute roadmap.

This ties back to the liberaltarian debate in that I really don't know how many individual liberals would be equally willing to follow a libertarian roadmap if the terms of the discussion could be altered so that libertarians and liberals were actually able to communicate. The problem is exactly what I've danced around a few times now: That it's not just the two party system that's institutionalized, but the public perception of political ideology itself. Libertarianism is a losing cause as long as it remains solely associated with conservatives. The idea of pushing ino liberal circles, of pushing into the center, is to change the nature of the debate itself, to make it so that libertarianism (and individual rights over state power) is the normative position and the statist impulses of the left and right become political outliers.


Anonymous Simon Jester said...

I disagree that the path to bringing libertarianism to the forefront is by jumping in bed with liberals. Look at the current movement pushed by the Obama progressives which has brought the new health care and economy reforms, not to mention there cap and trade nightmare and all the Roosevelt social programs. Once those are in place, it is difficult to impossible to ween people of them. The system becomes entrenched. We are not talking about working with 80's Democrats here, this is a far more statist breed. They have too m any revolutionary elements to work with. On the right, the biggest issues are social controls. I really hate those too, but the thing about those is that they are easier to change. If you fight to change social laws, once they are passed, you don't have to worry about fighting the bureaucrats and social crutches caused by big programs. All it takes is a new law to open things up. With the programs progressive liberals want, they create a state of dependency. Generations of welfare mothers, food stamp patrons, section 8 dependents. If this programs disappeared overnight there would be chaos. It is much harder to work with liberals. Social issues are very important, but make no mistake, the party of "government can fix your problems" is not the answer.

10:15 PM  

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