Tag: conservatism

Reagan’s Libertarian Spirit

At the Britannica Blog I take a look back at Ronald Reagan on the occasion of his impending 100th birthday (February 6):

Libertarians have mixed feelings toward Ronald Reagan. When we’re feeling positive, we remember that he used to say, “Libertarianism is the heart and soul of conservatism.”

Other times, we call to mind his military interventionism, his encouragement of the then-new religious right (“I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”), and his failure to really reduce the size of government. But the more experience we have with later presidents, the better Reagan looks in retrospect….

And in those moments we’re tempted to paraphrase the theme song of All in the Family and say, “Mister, we could use a man like Ronald Reagan again.”

Bonus: The entry contains links to Encyclopedia Britannica entries on such topics as libertarianism and individualism, normally available only to subscribers. More Britannica reflections on Reagan here. Some other Cato thoughts on Reagan here.

The Libertarian Trend

There’s been lots of talk lately about a turn to the right in American politics. President Obama’s declining poll numbers, the sharp rise in opposition to his health-care plan during 2009, the growth of the grass-roots Tea Party movement, and the polls predicting a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives all point to a resurgence of conservatism in the electorate. But as I noted last year, there are also trends in the direction of social tolerance these days. Some indeed have described current political trends as a libertarian resurgence.

California voters are getting ready to vote on a marijuana legalization initiative, and polls show rising support. The New York Times points to other signs of change on the marijuana front: Pot has already become essentially legal for anyone in California who can tell a medical marijuana clinic that it would make him feel better. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the federal government would back off its attempt to enforce the federal laws against medical marijuana in the 13 states that have legalized medical use. The threats to prosecute Michael Phelps for a bong hit were widely ridiculed. Those developments have led Andrew Sullivan, Jacob Weisberg, and CBS News to speculate about a “tipping point” for change — at last — in marijuana prohibition.

Meanwhile, TPM and AOL’s PoliticsDaily also see a tipping point for marriage equality. A majority of New Yorkers now join Gov. David Paterson in supporting same-sex marriage. That same ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that “in 2004, just 32 percent of Americans favored gay marriage, with 62 percent opposed. Now 49 percent support it versus 46 percent opposed — the first time in ABC/Post polls that supporters have outnumbered opponents.” Since the passage of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, several states and the District of Columbia have granted marriage rights to same-sex couples.

This chart, prepared for me by Garrett Reim, shows recent trends in public opinion polls on several issues – support for smaller government, marriage equality, and marijuana legalization along with opposition to President Obama’s health care plan and to the job the president is doing. The latter two have moved more sharply, but all five lines move at least marginally in a libertarian direction:

Longer-term charts would show more of a trend on marijuana and marriage. See Nate Silver’s chart on rising support for marijuana legalization over the past 20 years. And here are three depictions of rising support for marriage equality over the past 15 to 20 years.

As some analysts have noticed, what’s going on in American politics is a shift in a libertarian direction. This chart provides some more evidence.

Libertarian Politics in the Media

Peter Wallsten of the Wall Street Journal writes, “Libertarianism is enjoying a recent renaissance in the Republican Party.” He cites Ron Paul’s winning the presidential straw poll earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rand Paul’s upset victory in the Kentucky senatorial primary, and former governor Gary Johnson’s evident interest in a libertarian-leaning presidential campaign. Johnson tells Wallsten in an interview that he’ll campaign on spending cuts – including military spending, on entitlements reform, and on a rational approach to drug policy.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Rand Paul had a major op-ed in USA Today discussing whether he’s a libertarian. Not quite, he says. But sort of:

In my mind, the word “libertarian” has become an emotionally charged, and often misunderstood, word in our current political climate. But, I would argue very strongly that the vast coalition of Americans — including independents, moderates, Republicans, conservatives and “Tea Party” activists — share many libertarian points of view, as do I.

I choose to use a different phrase to describe my beliefs — I consider myself a constitutional conservative, which I take to mean a conservative who actually believes in smaller government and more individual freedom. The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism, and in the views of countless Americans from across the political spectrum.

Our Founding Fathers were clearly libertarians, and constructed a Republic with strict limits on government power designed to protect the rights and freedom of the citizens above all else.

And he appeals to the authority of Ronald Reagan:

Liberty is our heritage; it’s the thing constitutional conservatives like myself wish to preserve, which is why Ronald Reagan declared in 1975, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

Reagan said that several times, including in a Reason magazine interview and in a 1975 speech at Vanderbilt University that I attended. A lot of libertarians complained that he should stop confusing libertarianism and conservatism. And once he began his presidential campaign that fall, he doesn’t seem to have used the term any more.

You can see in both the Paul op-ed and the Johnson interview that major-party politicians are nervous about being tagged with a label that seems to imply a rigorous and radical platform covering a wide range of issues. But if you can call yourself a conservative without necessarily endorsing everything that William F. Buckley Jr. and the Heritage Foundation – or Jerry Falwell and Mike Huckabee – believe, then a politician should be able to be a moderate libertarian or a libertarian-leaning candidate. I wrote a book outlining the full libertarian perspective. But I’ve also coauthored studies on libertarian voters, in which I assume that you’re a libertarian voter if you favor free enterprise and social tolerance, even if you don’t embrace the full libertarian philosophy. At any rate, it’s good to see major officials, candidates, and newspapers talking about libertarian ideas and their relevance to our current problems.

Mark Penn Mourns the Plight of Libertarian Voters

Mark Penn, who has been a pollster and consultant to the presidential campaigns of Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Anderson, and Ross Perot, writes about political discontent in Britain and the United States in the Washington Post today, noting that in this country

socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters believe, especially after what happened with health care, that they have no clear choice: They must sign on with the religious right or the economic left.

Exactly the point that David Kirby and I have been making in our studies on the libertarian vote, as in the first line of this January study:

Libertarian — or fiscally conservative, socially liberal — voters are often torn between their aversions to the Republicans’ social conservatism and the Democrats’ fiscal irresponsibility.

Libertarian-leaning voters are a large swing vote, and they do indeed find problems with both parties. As parties increasingly cater to their “base,” libertarian-leaning independents find themselves dissatisfied with both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. We noted in our first study, “The Libertarian Vote,” that according to the 2004 exit polls, “28 million Bush voters support[ed] either marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples” and “17 million Kerry voters … thought government should not … ‘do more to solve problems.’” That was 45 million voters who didn’t seem to fit neatly into the red-blue, liberal-conservative dichotomy.

But Penn is on less solid ground in his next line:

It is just a matter of time before they demand their own movement or party.

Movement, maybe. The Ron Paul campaign certainly appealed to antiwar, small-government voters. And the Tea Party movement focuses almost exclusively on economic and constitutional issues, making it more appealing to libertarians than typical conservative organizations. Meanwhile, as the Tea Party opposition to the Democrats’ big-government opposition surges, so does progress toward marriage equality and rational drug reform. Maybe those various libertarian-leaning groups will find each other. But a new party is a much bigger challenge. It’s no accident that the only third party that achieved even modest success in recent history was headed a billionaire who was also a celebrity, Ross Perot. Ballot access laws, campaign finance restrictions, exclusion of third-party candidates from debates and media coverage, single-member districts – all make it difficult to start a successful third party. It may also be the case that moderates, who tend not to be very angry, and libertarians, who don’t really much like politics, are particularly ill suited to undertake the massive amount of work that a new party requires.

But Penn is absolutely right to point to the plight of “socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters,” forced in every election to ”sign on with the religious right or the economic left.”

GOP Congressmen: Most Republicans Now Think Iraq War Was a Mistake

In a Thursday panel at Cato on conservatism and war, U.S. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and John Duncan (R-Tenn.) revealed that the vast majority of GOP members of Congress now think it was wrong for the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003.

The discussion was moderated by Grover Norquist, who asked the congressmen how many of their colleagues now think the war was a mistake.

Rohrabacher:

“I will say that the decision to go in, in retrospect, almost all of us think that was a horrible mistake. …Now that we know that it cost a trillion dollars, and all of these years, and all of these lives, and all of this blood… all I can say is everyone I know thinks it was a mistake to go in now.”

McClintock:

“I think everyone [in Congress] would agree that Iraq was a mistake.”

Watch the clip:

In Praise of Libertarian Fickleness

A few follow-ups on the post by David Boaz, below.

Libertarians are basically a sect of conservatives, say John Zogby & Zeljka Buturovic in the National Review Online. That’s because libertarians care more about economics than about foreign policy, cultural, or other issues:

Let us for a moment [assume] that a person’s ideology is solely determined by his policy views. And let us also assume that social and economic liberties can largely be disentangled and that libertarians are as close to liberals on social issues as they are to conservatives on economic ones – a view implicit in the argument for liberaltarianism. Still, our data show that different aspects of ideology are not equally important for a person’s ideological identity, and, somewhat ironically, that this is especially true of libertarians. For all their insistence that liberty has multiple facets, libertarians appear to cherish one of them much more than others.

Supporting data shows that 60% of self-described libertarians find “economics” more important than the “social/cultural,” “foreign policy,” “energy/environment” or “other/not sure” issue areas.

I’m not convinced. A common libertarian approach to any issue is to begin with the economics of that issue. Certainly it’s true of energy and the environment. It’s also very likely true of foreign policy, because wars aren’t cheap, and it’s at least plausibly true of social and cultural issues. Libertarians see economics everywhere, not just in “economic” policies. It’s a common belief in our tribe that we are among the very few to grasp sound economic principles at all.

We can (and should) debate whether this is true, of course, but such is libertarian belief. And when conservatives abandon what we see as sound economics – as with the George W. Bush administration – well, we start looking for the exits.

Lately, though, it’s been easy for libertarians to return to conservatism. To no one’s great surprise, the Obama administration has continued the profligate spending. We may have hoped that the new administration would compensate in other areas, but this just hasn’t happened. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp should have been closed by now. On military tribunals, search and seizure issues, indefinite detention, and our expensive, never-ending foreign wars, there’s little difference between this administration and the last.

I don’t want to say that liberaltarianism is dead. But is it endangered? Sure. It deserves to be.

If libertarians seem more conservative lately, it’s not only that we’ve been pushed away by the left. Attendees at this year’s CPAC ranked “reducing size of federal government” and “reducing government spending” as by far their highest policy priorities. They also chose Ron Paul as their preferred presidential candidate. Those same attendees even booed speaker Ryan Sorba for condemning gay Republicans:

(Though many seem to share it, I wouldn’t personally trust Sorba’s understanding of Aquinas.)

Today’s young conservatives appear embarrassed by the culture wars, which must seem to them like a relic from someone else’s past. Many young conservatives have known a literal state of war for their entire adult lives. They may not even remember the last balanced federal budget. And they know that putting a Democrat in the White House hasn’t helped. Personally, I’m no conservative. But there is strength in fickleness, and if conservatives can do better, then good for them.

Conservatism and Gay Rights

We had a spirited forum at Cato on Wednesday on the question “Is There a Place for Gay People in Conservatism and Conservative Politics?” Nick Herbert, who is likely to be part of the British Cabinet in another 100 days, gave a powerful and pathbreaking speech on the Tory Party’s new inclusiveness. In the video below you can find his remarks beginning at about the 3:00 mark, where he says, “I’m delighted to be here at Cato, the guardian of true liberalism.”

Andrew Sullivan (24:00) gave a moving and eloquent defense of a conservatism that has a place for gay people, declaring himself “to the right of Nick, a Thatcherite rather than a ‘One Nation’ Tory.” And Maggie Gallagher (39:15) did an admirable job of presenting her own views to an audience she knew was very skeptical.

Then the fireworks began (51:50). Andrew denounced my question – reflecting many complaints I’d received before the reform – about whether he can really be considered a conservative at this point. “Preposterous,” he declared. There followed sharp exchanges on hate crimes, marriage, adoption, religious liberty, and the state of conservatism today.

Watch it all here:

Or listen to a podcast of Nick Herbert’s speech. Subscribe to Cato’s podcasts on iTunes here.