Belated Thoughts on “Libertarian Democrats”

In early June, Markos Moulitsas roiled the political blogosphere with a provocative post prophesizing the rise of the libertarian Democrat. My Cato colleagues Gene Healy, Will Wilkinson, and Radley Balko offered replies on Cato@Liberty, and the DailyKos logged some 900 responses to the post. Clearly, Kos had struck a nerve.

After a month of ruminating and at the risk of being too late to the party, here are a few additional thoughts:

All good classical liberals would eagerly agree with Kos about the threat that “government and other individuals” pose to liberty. Good libertarians would be captivated by his paean to the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment (and — can we hope? — the Ninth and Tenth). Classical liberals would also join him in rebuking government’s impositions in “our bedrooms and churches” and its ongoing evolution into Big Brother. And good libertarians of all political stripes (not just Blue) would agree with him about the threat that corporations pose to individual liberty, including their pushing externalities onto others. After all, my job at Cato is to manage the institute’s 64-page quarterly criticism of rent-seeking weasels.

Up to this point, all good classical liberals, libertarians, free-market liberals, et al., would be cheering Moulitsas. If there were any hesitation, it would be over his determination to promote libertarian Democrats instead of any office-seeker who is libertarian. If a voter values individual liberty, wouldn’t that person support any candidate who shares that value, and not just candidates who have an “R” or “D” after their names? I assume Kos and all lovers of liberty — and, indeed, all politically thoughtful people — would not be so base as to view candidate party affiliation as either a necessary or sufficient condition for gaining their votes.

But, as Gene and Will both point out, further reading of Kos’s post suggests that his brand of libertarianism may be quite illiberal.

Moulitsas postulates several “rights” that he claims a “Democratic libertarian” would recognize and that government should secure:

  • The right to “roads and public transportation to give people freedom to travel wherever they might want.”
  • The right to “make a living without being unduly exploited by employers.”
  • The right to “poverty prevention programs,” so that people will not be “constantly fear[ing] for their lives.”
  • The right to “social safety net programs” and health care, so people can be free of “fear for their health.”

To be sure, the freedom to travel, the freedom from employer exploitation, and the adequate provision of necessities like food, shelter, and health care (not to mention many non-necessities) are highly valued by libertarians and the rest of humankind.

But is government the right instrument with which to secure those things, and can it do so successfully? On both philosophical and empirical grounds, I believe (those are important words) that government routinely fails either the “right instrument” or “successful” test for Kos’s purported “libertarian” government duties that I list above. Concerning transportation, I can name dubious public transportation projects and successful, welfare-boosting private ones; I would also argue that much of transit is not just wasteful but also regressive and dangerous (look at the transit data). Concerning labor issues, I question whether government can successfully identify “undue exploitation” (apart from violation of contract) and whether all workers would accept that identification — what may be exploitation to one worker may just be a hard day’s work to another.

I could make similar criticisms about other government roles that Kos claims a libertarian government should fill. Moulitsas and others would likely disagree with my claims, on both philosophical and empirical grounds. And their arguments would likely have merit — as do mine. A truly impartial observer would probably conclude that both sides seem to have a point, and that neither side could be declared clearly right or clearly wrong.

And that is why real libertarianism is so valuable, and Kos’s brand (if I understand it correctly) is problematic. True libertarianism — and, I take it, the founding principle of the American experiment — holds that society should maximize individual liberty so that different people can choose for themselves what they believe is right. This freedom is granted out of respect for individuals’ right to self determination, recognition of the variation of individual preferences, and appreciation that many issues cannot be definitively decided by political process, even after considerable philosophic and empirical analysis.

If you believe a certain employer behavior is exploitative, join a union or contract with a labor provider (e.g., Kelly, Manpower) that shares your belief and that negotiates labor conditions with employers. If you believe Social Security is a bad deal and not sustainable, opt out and prepare for retirement on your own — if government would only let you.

Perhaps that latter example provides a compromise between Moulitsas libertarianism and the traditional variety: The Kos libertarians could create whatever government programs they believe are necessary to enhance liberty, but people would be free to opt out of those programs and their costs. Kos could have his strict OSHA regulations so long as I could sign a contract saying I give up those protections. He could even have single-payer health care, so long as doctors, patients, and other health care system participants could freely decide not to participate in or pay for the single-payer system.

So Kos, would that be acceptable? You can have your libertarianism, just so long as I have my liberty.