In Search of the Libertarian Democrat

Virginia Postrel writes today of the importance of empiricism to advancing liberty. She also mentions the possibility of persuading Democrats to become more sympathetic to the struggle for limited government.

I decided to assess the likelihood of a liberal-libertarian coalition empirically by looking at Democratic replies to questions about government spending. How open are Democrats to limiting government? These responses came from the 2004 pre-election survey conducted by American National Election Studies.

ANES posed the following choice: “Some people think the government should provide fewer services even in areas such as health and education in order to reduce spending. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Other people feel it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7.” People could also choose 2 through 6, 4 being the median choice.

About 9 percent of Democrats responded on the low or limited government end of the scale. 70 percent of Democrats responded 5 or more; almost one in four answered 7 to the question, the response farthest from the limited government answer. Not much evidence of a desire for limited government.

ANES also asked: “Some people feel the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others think the government should just let each person get ahead on their own. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.” In other words, the lower your score, the more you favor a nanny state.

Slightly less than half the Democrats gave a 1 to 3 response to the question. One in five Democrats gave the most extreme response favoring a nanny state. Three out of four Democrats gave a median response or higher.

ANES also asked about whether spending should be increased in various ways. Here are the percentages of Democratic respondents who favored increased spending on:

Aid to the poor 73.9%

Social Security 72.1%

Public Schools 87.3%

Science and Technology 57.3%

Dealing with Crime 68.4%

Child care 72.4%

Border security, illegal immigration  57.3%

In a few cases, a majority of Democrats did not favor increased spending. Here are the percentages of Democrats who favored increased spending on:

Highways 35.9%

Welfare programs 28.7%

War on terrorism 38.3%

Foreign aid 14.1%

However, on each of these issues, the percentage of Democrats who favored either increasing spending or keeping it the same was

Highways 90%

Welfare programs 75%

War on terrorism 71.7%

Foreign Aid 60.1%

No Democratic majority could be found that favored decreasing spending on any issue broached by the ANES survey.

Postrel notes, “a liberal-libertarian coalition may sound crazy when you look at the Democratic Congress, the 2008 presidential field, or the Democrats’ reflexive demonization of pharmaceutical companies.” But this data makes it clear that the Congress and the presidential candidates reflect the attitudes of Democrats more generally.

Crazy is not the correct word for the liberal-libertarian gambit. It is not like believing the Cato Institute building is made of cheese. But a political coalition requires some agreement in basic outlook about what government should do (or not do).

To believe in the liberal-libertarian proposal, you have to believe that huge, unprecedented numbers of Democrats are going to change their minds about increasing government spending or that libertarians are going to stop caring about increases in government spending.

I am sure the former will not happen.