The Libertarian Dilemma

This article on Reason’s blog is interesting, not merely for the article they tout by Julian Sanchez on the appeal of Howard Dean for libertarians. Count me as one libertarian (small L, I tend to vote for the Libertarian party when an election is either not close or when I don’t care about the outcome, hoping that the LP vote will be big enough to cause the two large parties to pander to me to get my vote) who reluctantly, tenatively, and not without reservation, supports Dean.

If you’re curious just who the heck these “libertarians” are and what makes them tick, there’s a good representative sample in the comments.

Libertarians run the gamut from conservatives who believe the libertarians are closest to the spirit of the old Republican party of their dreams (something of a Founder’s Intent ideal that never really existed) to former liberals who don’t like the power of the state being wielded against hippies and other cultural refuseniks. It is a fractious bunch, but core to it are a group who are not, as Julian puts it, “Republicans who smoke pot,” or even “Democrats who took an econ class”. Libertarians are different–our overriding concern is the individual, and our overriding concern for the individual is freedom.

But we have a big problem. Well, two.

The problem for libertarians is one faced by all smaller political movements in that we have traditionally had a small voice in one of the big parties, at least on certain issues. That party has usually been the Republican party, who, since Goldwater, could be counted on to at least express support for libertarian ideas in the realm of governing: sharing the analysis that government suffers from a knowledge problem and cannot form an organization that is simultaneously controlling enough to determine the course of broad social issues (say, poverty) and flexible enough to adapt to changing and local circumstances to have the intended effect. This basically meant lower taxes, fewer regulations, and at least reduced growth in government (outside of the defense budget).

Meanwhile, the Democrats had been making sure the libertarians got out and stayed out. While in theory libertarians could support the non-intervention of government into a personal decision like abortion, in practice that was one of the few issues where liberals and libertarians saw eye to eye. The hippies were largely kicked out (well they were too stoned to vote, anyway), lest the liberals be accused of being loopy. Instead, we got Stalinesque enforcement of Maoist social theories in academia and for governing that basically handed the White House, the Senate, and then the entire Congress over to the Republicans. The bizarro world of group identity politics meant that liberals ended up being as socially restrictive as religious conservatives, albeit with a different little red book as the guide.

But the Republican party, despite the simplistic, black-and-white understanding of many leftists, has had a three-way tug of war going on for the past 30 or more years. Country-club types like the law-and-order and churchgoing of the religious right, but dislike the vulgar braying of public professions of faith and fear any suggestion that they might have to give up their more refined tastes or wealth for prohibitionist or do-gooding aims. Religious conservatives like the law and order of the country-clubbers, but fear their corrupt East Coast ways. They like the way that libertarians keep the government out of their church, but fear the way libertarians keep the government out of other people’s churches (or homes or basements or bloodstreams or…).

The libertarian analysis has always been: at least I might get more than one policy implemented with the Republicans, and you can play the two other groups against one another to keep either from becoming ascendant.

That was fun for a while, but two things happened.

1) The liberals went too far. They started losing elections, and they started losing them with formerly safe constituencies. It wasn’t just national elections, they started losing state and local representation. Then along came Saint Bill. He showed the way, ejecting the worst of the excesses while still appealing to a base desperate to have a voice in national politics again. The Democratic party is no longer as beholden to the extremes as it was.

2) The conservatives figured out they didn’t really hate government. Somehow, an amalgam of the country clubbers and the more moderate religious conservatives ditched the most wacko and vote-losing of the religous types and discovered they could appeal to the middle on their reputation of economic performance. Then they set about doing the things that worked for the Democrats in the 50’s: building constituencies by granting the favors that come with power. That meant big government. That meant activist government. And, with 9/11, that meant a foreign policy based on an analysis that well, if we’re hated, let’s at least get the benefits of the things we’re going to be accused of anyway.

So now Democrats with a straight face claim to be balanced-budget types, apparently who now are very very sorry they trash talked Gramm and Rudman. Republicans want to spend a lot of money and talk about how too much tightness with the budget can prevent them from doing the Necessary Good. Wow, does nobody remember 15 years ago but me?

So where are the libertarians? The Democrats distrust us as they view us as pot-smoking Republicans. Democrats no longer smoke pot (or at least they don’t inhale), and, well, they’re not Republicans. The Republicans figure they no longer need us and we are antithetical to their plan to use government to push their agenda and buy votes. The Libertarian party, which was starting to make news in the late 80’s and early 90’s was wiped out of the public eye by Perot.

So we’re divided.

That being said, there are two issues: the presidential election and general political strategy.

For the presidential election, the choice is between a big spender with an inflationary health care plan and the Democrats. Oh, and then there’s the war.

I think the big thing deciding whether I would simply vote Libertarian party or actually vote against Bush (voting for was a non-starter, almost from the beginning, unless he’d done some fairly incredible things) was the war. I was not opposed to the war. Had there been a nice cache of WMDs and a significant facility or two for producing them, it would have been the Right Thing to Do. Sorry, but international law, just as the Constitution, is not a suicide pact.

But the doctrine of pre-emption legally and morally requires very certain intelligence that the clear and present danger exists. It’s the ultimate gamble, and Bush lost. You simply can’t make a mistake on starting a war.

So he’s got to go. He took the risk, now he has to accept the consequences. So I’m almost guaranteed to vote for the Democratic candidate. So problem solved, right? Not quite.

There is a slight possibility that libertarians could actually convince liberals to take their newfound (and, pace my colleague Jason, it is newfound) commitment to fiscal responsibility and Clinton’s understanding of how not to completely screw up a nice growth cycle, and use it to recapture what they used to believe about personal freedom. Ditch the Andrea Dworkins, they don’t work. Try saying “hey, we believe in you, the American citizen. You’re an adult, and you can make your own choices.”

Now I know better than to hope that Democrats, specifically the liberal wing, will ever give up their addiction to trying to, à la the social conservatives, remake the world in their own image because of the incredible impatience they have and fundamental distrust of the decisions of individuals to result in positive social outcomes. Perhaps over time experimenting with choice in the personal realm (sexual, artistic, speech) will give them more faith, but I won’t hold my breath.

But better to encourage the liberals who can give us some of the things liberals and libertarians used to agree on. So, of the bunch, Dean comes the closest. He actually is willing to stand up to his base on gun control, which is a good thing. That shows a certain trust in local knowledge and individual responsibility.

Clark strikes me as a Perot-like publicity hound who is in love with his ability to command, and doesn’t want to give it up. He seems to have come by his beliefs yesterday, and his proposals have been the sort of pablum 80-percentism that Al Gore tried. Hey, if I want a Republican, I know where to go.

Plus, of course, no fan of Babylon 5 can vote for a President Clark.

5 thoughts on “The Libertarian Dilemma

  1. Probably the best articulation I’ve read of the issues Libertarians will face in the next election. Great, great read.

    New York


  2. “So now Democrats with a straight face claim to be balanced-budget types, apparently who now are very very sorry they trash talked Gramm and Rudman. Republicans want to spend a lot of money and talk about how too much tightness with the budget can prevent them from doing the Necessary Good. Wow, does nobody remember 15 years ago but me?”

    Very well said. That last sentence especially. I recall hating Gingrich at the time, though compared to the current crew of Republicans I’d given anything to get him back. I’ve always supported the Democrats, but I am bewildered by their absolute loyalty to the state. Why, for instance, can’t the Democratic party support school vouchers? In what way do school vouchers violate the ideals of a progressive politics?

    It seems to me the finest moment in American politics during the last 30 years can’t be ascribed to any one person, but rather, it grew out of the conflict of two – Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. The settlement they achieved, regarding the budget, in 1995 was, on accident, one of the wisest policies the government has adopted in decades, and I think it helped pave the way for the economic growth of the late 90s.


  3. Howard Dean is a Spammer

    Update: Blue State Digital claims they are not responsible for the e-mail list software (Lyris) being used by Democracy for America. So I’m going to remove my more incendiary comments about them and the links to their site. However, I’ve taken the e-ma…


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