More on Libertarians and Democrats

In a blog post yesterday, my colleague John Samples tried to pour cold water on my idea of libertarian outreach to the left. Specifically, he cites depressing polling data that show strong support among Democratic voters for increased government spending. Alas, the appetite for free ice cream from Washington isn’t restricted to Democrats, as I point out in an essay for this month’s issue of Cato Unbound. I’ll concede, though, that Democratic voters are especially unlikely to pressure their representatives to show spending restraint.

Does that mean libertarians have no business seeking common ground with liberals? Let me make just a couple of quick points.

First, polls aren’t everything. After all, as Cato’s Stephen Slivinski has written, real federal spending increased at an annual rate of only 1.5 percent under Bill Clinton, as compared to a 5.6 percent rate of growth during George W. Bush’s first term. So Democratic politicians can run and win on a record of fiscal prudence. Yes, it’s true that Clinton’s good spending record was due in significant part to the fact that he faced a GOP Congress for most of his time in office. But this just shows that people who care about controlling spending would do better to rely on divided government than on Republicans’ small-government rhetoric. And you can’t have divided government without electing some Democrats!

Second, spending isn’t everything. The cause of limited government has many other dimensions besides the degree of budget bloat. How, I wonder, do Democratic voters compare to Republicans in their attitudes on getting out of Iraq? Getting into Iran? Torture? Warrantless wiretapping? Immigration? The drug war? Whatever voters tell pollsters, it’s clear that Democratic politicians are more likely than their GOP counterparts to resist government overreaching in these vital areas.

The sad fact is that libertarians have few allies today in either political party. Why on earth then should we refuse to seek common ground with those Democrats who hold relatively pro-market attitudes?