Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Where Do Libertarians Belong?

Reason has launched an interesting debate over the question of where do libertarians belong, politically speaking. Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute (who's previously been a proponent of a libertarian-liberal movement) argues now for a libertarian-centerism that can play off the limited government leanings of both the right and the left. Jonah Goldberg of National Review (a conservative) and Matt Kibbe of Freedomworks (a more libertarian-leaning conservative) both argue against Lindsey in favor of the more traditional libertarian alliance with the right. Reason has a roundup of some of the reactions around the interwebs here.

What's fascinating about Lindsey's position is that he explicitly rejects the Tea Parties as too reactionary. Meanwhile, some libertarians- Fox News analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano comes to mind- have been enthusiastic in their embrace of the tea party. (And check out the footage of Napolitano here, arguing on CSPAN's Book TV that George Bush and Dick Cheney should have been indicted for torturing, spying, and warrantless arrests.) I bring up Napolitano because intellectually speaking, he and Lindsey seem to share virtually all of the same values. Where they differ is who they chose to associate with- Lindsey would rather have nothing to do with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, while Napolitano has filled in for Beck and had Palin as a guest on his own show- which is precisely what the Reason debate is all about.

Reason presents this in the context of political maneuvering, that is, which political alliances are best suited to reigning in government and promoting individual freedom. But there's a subtext here that's just as much about high school squabbles as it is pure politics. And I don't mean high school in a purely pejorative sense. Except for perhaps the most staunch individualist (of the sort who wouldn't be interested in politics in the first place), we all care about the people we associate with and with whom we share ideas. Many commentators would prefer to divide these associations along the traditional left/right divide, in part because it gives them the largest possible audience and in part because it makes for the simplest, most compelling narrative. Libertarians may be the biggest showcase where that dividing line just doesn't work, but it's a problem for those within movements as well.

Cato's Julian Sanchez sparked a debate several months ago when he brought up the term epistemic closure in regards to the conservative movement's tendency to become far too inwardly focussed and disengaged from real intellectual debate with the other side. My post on "the coming intellectual crisis" was a variation on the same theme, the idea being the vast swath of ideas that adherents to a particular ideology are expected to hold and how those ideas are never given self-scrutiny over time. This happens on both the right and left, but in terms of the left, one only need to look and see the way that the left was honest in their attempt to sell health care reform as fiscally responsible to see how the left has put their ideas to the fire over the last several decades. Where the left fails to self-examine is where it prays to the Goddess of regulation. Liberals who question the need of the regulatory state tend to suffer the same fate as conservatives who would question the size of our military and the scope of it's mission.

To return to this idea of "people we chose to associate with," the point isn't that conservatives or liberals should abandon the more heterodox elements of their ideology, but that this heterodoxy is only a problem in the context of our two-sided debate. That this heterodoxy is imposed by either side is both anti-intellectual and anti-productive in terms of providing ideas for the political arena. Take for instance drug prohibition, a topic of which there is much dissent from the pro-prohibition position on both the right and the left. You won't be cast out by either side for questioning prohibition, but it's a non-starter in terms of the effecting of any changes. Perhaps there's a majority or a strong vocal minority of Americans opposed to the war on drugs, but that group, however big it might be, has no real voice or outlet in our current system.

And this is precisely where we come back to Brink Lindsey's idea for a libertarian centerism. It's not entirely unrealistic to think that small government could claim the political center, although I have no idea how one goes about combating the institutionalized ideology that already exists.

Personally, I still like the term "liberaltarian" because it highlights the work that libertarians still need to do with the left. The right (and the tea parties) tend to use the same buzz words- small government, individual rights, ect.- but there's still a great deal of hostility toward the idea of limited government on the left. Heterodox conservatives dismiss libertarians as well-intentioned folks going a bit too far, but the heterodox left can, at times, treat libertarians as potentially more evil than conservatives. Selling libertarianism to the left is at least a few steps behind it's sale to the right. But whether it's through a push to the center or through a fragmented group of coalitions for individual issues, I've got to agree with Lindsey that the future of libertarianism lies with neither the left or right. The left is utterly dismissive of any notion of economic freedom, while the divisions with the right over issues like national security and immigration seem too big to overcome.


Anonymous rose said...

I read that piece too. I disagree w/ a lot of what you and Lindsey and Sanchez think.

Conservatives definitely are re-evaluating their assumptions and priorities. Econ minded pols like Paul Ryan have gained prominence in the last year. Ron and Rand are gaining popularity. The Huckabees and Palins are losing ground. Polls show the tea party is focused on economic issues. (And does Lindsey think only he has re-evaluated their foreign policy views in the wake of Iraq? Iraq was an eye opener for many conservatives as well.)Yes, the christian fundies, xenophobes and war mongers are always gonna be republicans in the two party system. But the power and energy has shifted to the free-marketers.

Look at the atmosphere that elected a libertarian conservative president in 1980. A decade of economic stagnation. Out of control regulation and spending. And a failed war. What happened? The free-marketers gained power in the republican party and elected Reagan.

I'm not saying that republicans will always be an easy alliance for libertarians, but anyone who can't see that Iraq, the bailouts and Barack Obama, has clearly focused the right on economic freedom for now. The economic problems have conservatives looking for another Reagan revolution and liberals looking for another New Deal. Good luck to libertarians finding common ground w/ dems.

2:33 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

On a real personal sort of note, I can recall a time where I used to feel a certain ideological affinity for guys like Rush Limbaugh and I just plain don't anymore. Some of it is about specific issues like immigration and the like, but a lot of it has to do with framing and narratives.

I've found the framing of Obama as a radical and a socialist as particularly uninspired and unhelpful. Obama has cozied right up to big business when it's proved helpful to him politically (he could have never passed health reform without the explicit approval and support of Big Pharma). And I couldn't count the number of times I've heard commentators on the right bashing Obama's foreign policy rhetoric while failing to take one moment to note that Obama places nowhere near the importance on foreign policy that George Bush did and that he's continued the Bush policy for the most part.

And then there are guys like Glenn Beck, who for all the good he's doing preaching the virtues of freedom, still manages to craft a conspiratorial, revisionist vision of American history where Woodrow Wilson is a villain along the lines of Stalin and one of the first in a long evil line of progressive leadership bent on destroying the foundations of the country ... or something like that. And it's not that Beck is entirely wrong (there are plenty of good critiques to be had of Woodrow Wilson the president, Wilsonian internationalism, and the misconceptions of the early progressives), but I just couldn't put my name to the narrative he comes up with.

The tea party can remain a force if it remains focused on economic issues, but I worry when the Sarah Palin's and Sheriff Joe Arpaio's of the world are keynote speakers at tea party events.

I think part of the problem is that people see what they want to see, which is why I wanted to contrast Lindsey with Judge Napolitono (who by the way, now has a weekly show, Freedom Watch, on Fox Business- and it's great, the way he fires libertarian hardball questions at conservatives and Republicans). I think people read a lot into the tea party movement that just isn't there- Not that tea partiers are stupid, just that it's not a uniform ideological movement in terms of their politics or even their solutions to these economic issues ... and that's in big part because it is grassroots (in a similar way, I think to the grassroots anti-war movement).

I know I'm bouncing back and forth here, but I think my major problem is the way in which the two-sided ideological divide plays right into the hands of the two party system and further solidifies the worst statist aspects of each party.

5:16 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

I completely agree with you about Limbaugh and Hannity and co. (I think Beck gets a bad rap, but that's another story). But I think you overrate their importance.

I think it's really a simpler story than we're making it out to be. I see the current situation like 1978. The failure of Keynsian economics in the US and around the world led to the election of relative economic conservatives and free market reforms in most major countries. Yes, half of the people who voted for Reagan may have been the worst kind of statist republicans, but so what? Independants voted overwhelmingly the guy and he came in with a mandate to cut government.

Today, independants overwhelmingly lean right on economic issues and the energy on the right is with fiscal conservatives and lean left on social and security issues. Why can't that combination elect relatively libertarian republicans?

I'm sure you can poke holes in that argument. But the bigger point is that the left is "epistemically" closed on economic issues. All the diversity on the left is on security issues (Lieberman types) and social issues (the midwestern dems).

How can you watch Obama's FTC trying to "reinvent journalism" and think libertarians share one shred of common ground with actual liberal pols? You might share views with Glen Greenwald types, but guess what, they don't exist in politics.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous rose said...

(in the 3rd paragraph, i was trying to say that indy's lean right fiscally and left socially. typo)

9:48 AM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Rose, do you disagree with Lindsey's idea of a libertarian centerism? In a way, I think it fits in to much of what you were saying, the idea that the American body politic is becoming more socially liberal and more fiscally conservative over time.

I think one of the problem with this whole debate is that people take these political alliances and coalitions in very different ways. The ultimate goal is a libertarian agenda, but how is that best accomplished? Is it better to attempt to work within the existing political framework or is it more effective to take a "pox on both your houses" approach?

I'm reminded of a post Glenn Greenwald had a few weeks (or maybe a month) ago on Ron Paul, where he pointed out the numerous ways in which Ron Paul had more in common with progressives than Barack Obama. But Greenwald's point was meant to be more analytical and not at all political. In some ways though, whether or not some on the left embrace Ron Paul is the same dilemma faced by many libertarians: how do you form coalitions, how do you work with people, and how does your "purity test" work. It's interesting for libertarians because in some ways we can be the most demanding in terms of idealogical purity, but then there are all sorts of big issues where libertarians can transcend the traditional liberal/conservative divide.

I agree with you 100% on Obama - the problem is, the same problem exists with a hell of a lot of Republicans. But I look at that as a problem of politics, not ideology ... I was trying to get at this before, but the worst aspect of our political system is the ideological filter we get with political parties. Politicians come down in favor of government power the vast majority of the time and that's what I'm not sure how to change.

12:35 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

I strongly believe that if enacting the libertarian agenda is the goal, the tactics should be to try to influence the republican party.

1) Republicans are still very unpopular.
2) They lack leaders.
3) Free-market ideas are surging.
4) Iraq has taught a reasonable number of conservatives a lesson about what can be accomplished militarily.

I think the party is ripe for a libertarian shift. And there is the Reagan precedent for it happening.

So, Lindsey's libertarian centrism. I don't disagree w/ the idea that people are trending libertarian, I just think he's missing the bigger picture, that Iraq and Obama have opened the door for libertarianish republicans to get elected. And I think liberaltarianism is delusional.

2:34 PM  
Blogger mw said...

I came away with a different perspective. Aiming for the middle does not quite cut it. Nor does aiming to shoot the right as Lindsey does, nor aiming to shoot the left as Goldberg does, nor aiming at both as Kibbe does.

From a practical perspective, asking rhetorically "where libertarians belong" is less important than understanding how they can be politically relevant.

One key to political relevance is simple - a predictable centrist libertarian swing vote. The rub - for a swing vote to be predictable it has to be organized. And nobody yet has figured out how to herd these cats. This is sometimes referred to as the "Hot Tub Libertarian" Problem.
There is an answer. There is a way to herd these cats. Paraphrasing from my post "Curing Libertarian Electile Dysfunction":

Libertarian swing vote organization is going to have to look different than traditional political organization. After all, it is something we will have 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 be 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.

1:09 PM  

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