Tag: libertarians

A Post-Health Care Realignment?

From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to Joe Biden’s Big F-ing Deal, progressives have led a consistent and largely successful campaign to expand the size and scope of the federal government. Now, Matt Yglesias suggests, it’s time to take a victory lap and call it a day:

For the past 65-70 years—and especially for the past 30 years since the end of the civil rights argument—American politics has been dominated by controversy over the size and scope of the welfare state. Today, that argument is largely over with liberals having largely won. […] The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done. There are big items still on the progressive agenda. But they don’t really involve substantial new expenditures. Instead, you’re looking at carbon pricing, financial regulatory reform, and immigration reform as the medium-term agenda. Most broadly, questions about how to boost growth, how to deliver public services effectively, and about the appropriate balance of social investment between children and the elderly will take center stage. This will probably lead to some realigning of political coalitions. Liberal proponents of reduced trade barriers and increased immigration flows will likely feel emboldened about pushing that agenda, since the policy environment is getting substantially more redistributive and does much more to mitigate risk. Advocates of things like more and better preschooling are going to find themselves competing for funds primarily with the claims made by seniors.

I’d like to believe this is true, though I can’t say I’m persuaded. It seems at least as likely that, consistent with the historical pattern, the new status quo will simply be redefined as the “center,” and proposals to further augment the welfare state will move from the fringe to the mainstream of opinion on the left.

That said, it’s hardly unheard of for a political victory to yield the kind of medium-term realignment Yglesias is talking about. The end of the Cold War destabilized the Reagan-era conservative coalition by essentially taking off the table a central—and in some cases the only—point of agreement among diverse interest groups. Less dramatically, the passage of welfare reform in the 90s substantially reduced the political salience of welfare policy. The experience of countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, moreover, suggests that if Obamacare isn’t substantially rolled back fairly soon, it’s likely to become a political “given” that both parties take for granted. Libertarians, of course, have long lamented this political dynamic: Government programs create constituencies, and become extraordinarily difficult to cut or eliminate, even if they were highly controversial at their inceptions.

We don’t have to be happy about this pattern, but it is worth thinking about how it might alter the political landscape a few years down the line.  One possibility, as I suggest above, is that it will just shift the mainstream of political discourse to the left. But as libertarians have also long been at pains to point out, the left-right model of politics, with its roots in the seating protocols of the 18th century French assembly, conceals the multidimensional complexity of politics. There’s no intrinsic commonality between, say, “left” positions on taxation, foreign policy, and reproductive rights—the label here doesn’t reflect an underlying ideological coherence so much as the contingent requirements of assembling a viable political coalition at a particular time and place.  If an issue that many members of one coalition considered especially morally urgent is, practically speaking, taken off the table, the shape of the coalitions going forward depends largely on the issues that rise to salience. Libertarians are perhaps especially conscious of this precisely because we tend to take turns being more disgusted with one or another party—usually whichever holds power at a given moment.

The $64,000 question, of course, is what comes next. As 9/11 and the War on Terror reminded us, the central political issues of an era are often dictated by fundamentally unpredictable events. But some of the obvious current candidates are notable for the way they cut across the current partisan divide. In my own wheelhouse—privacy and surveillance issues—Republicans have lately been univocal in their support of expanded powers for the intelligence community, with plenty of help from hawkish Democrats. Given their fondness for invoking the specter of soviet totalitarian states, I’ve hoped that the folks mobilizing under the banner of the Tea Party might begin pushing back on the burgeoning surveillance state. Thus far I’ve hoped in vain, but if that coalition outlasts our current disputes, one can imagine it becoming an issue for them in 2011 as parts of the Patriot Act once again come up for reauthorization, or in 2012 when the FISA Amendments Act is due to sunset. In the past, the same issues have made strange bedfellows of the ACLU and the ACU, of Ron Paul Republicans and FireDogLake Democrats.  Obama has pledged to take up comprehensive immigration reform during his term, and there too significant constituencies within each party fall on opposite sides of the issue.

Further out than that it’s hard to predict. But more generally, the possibility that I find interesting is that—against a background of technologies that have radically reduced the barriers to rapid, fluid, and distributed group formation and mobilization—the protracted health care fight, the economic crisis, and the explosion of federal spending have created an array of potent political communities outside the party-centered coalitions. They’ve already shown they’re capable of surprising alliances—think Jane Hamsher and Grover Norquist.  Suppose Yglesias is at least this far correct: The next set of political battles are likely to be fought along a different value dimension than was health care reform. Precisely because these groups formed outside the party-centered coalitions, and assuming they outlast the controversies that catalyzed their creation, it’s hard to predict which way they’ll move on tomorrow’s controversies. It’s entirely possible that there are latent and dispersed constituencies for policy change outside the bipartisan mainstream who have now, crucially, been connected: Any overlap on orthogonal value dimensions within or between the new groups won’t necessarily be evident until the relevant values are triggered by a high-visibility policy debate.  Still, it’s reason to expect that the next decade of American politics may be even more turbulent and surprising than the last one.

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.

Monday Links

  • Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron: “Economists find weak or contradictory evidence that higher government spending spurs the economy. Substantial research, however, does find that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that fiscal adjustments—attempts to reduce deficits by raising taxes or lowering expenditure—work better when they focus on tax cuts.”

How Will the Independents Vote?

In a recent Cato study, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,”  authors David Boaz and David Kirby found that libertarian voters, who make up about 14 percent of the electorate, are a leading indicator of how independents will cast their ballots.

Appearing on Freedom Watch earlier this week, Boaz explained the results of the study, and what it means for the next election. Watch:

How Many Libertarian Voters Are There?

In our new study, David Kirby and I round up various estimates on the number of libertarian-leaning voters. Our own calculation, 14 percent, is actually the lowest estimate.

We use three questions on political values from the generally acknowledged gold standard of public opinion data, the surveys of the American National Election Studies, and find that 14 percent of respondents gave libertarian answers to all three questions. But other researchers have used somewhat looser criteria and found larger numbers of libertarians:

For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup poll has been using two broad questions to categorize respondents by ideology about economic and social freedom… Combining the responses to these two questions, Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian. In 2009 they found 23 percent libertarians, along with 18 percent liberals, 19 percent populists, and 31 percent conservatives (9 percent were unclassifiable).

In a 2008–2009 panel study, ANES asked [two] questions… If we define “libertarian”  as those who believe that the federal government should have less effect on Americans’ lives and do less to influence businesses, we get 25 percent of voters—slightly higher than Gallup’s 23 percent…

Finally, we commissioned Zogby International to ask our three ANES questions to 1,012 actual (reported) voters in the 2006 election… We asked half the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” We asked the other half of the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?”

 The results surprised us. Fully 59 percent of the respondents said “yes” to the first question. That is, by 59 to 27 percent, poll respondents said they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

The addition of the word “libertarian” clearly made the question more challenging. What surprised us was how small the drop-off was. A healthy 44 percent of respondents answered “yes” to that question, accepting a self-description as “libertarian.”

We summed all that up in this handy but not necessarily helpful graph

The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama

Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts seems to reflect some of the trends David Kirby and I note in our new study, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” released today. We wrote, “Libertarians seem to be a lead indicator of trends in centrist, independent-minded voters. If libertarians continue to lead the independents away from Obama, Democrats will lose 2010 midterm elections they would otherwise win.” That seems to have happened in Virginia, New Jersey, and now Massachusetts. Young voters, whom we examine in the study, also seem to have moved sharply in Massachusetts from heavy support for Obama in 2008 to slightly less strong support for Brown this week.

Using our strict screen based on American National Election Studies data, we find that 14 percent of voters were libertarian in 2008. Other analysts using broader criteria find larger numbers. Gallup calculates the distribution of ideology every year and found that libertarians made up 23 percent of respondents in their 2009 survey. Our analysis of data from a 2007 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that people with libertarian views were 26 percent of respondents. And a Zogby poll found that 59 percent of Americans would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” while 44 percent would accept the description “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian.”

Libertarian voters swung away from Bush and the GOP in 2004 and 2006, but in 2008 they swung back, voting for McCain by 71 to 27 percent, presumably because the prospect of a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress in the midst of a financial crisis was frightening to small-government voters. Also, while many libertarian intellectuals had a real antipathy to McCain, the typical libertarian voter saw McCain as an independent, straight-talking maverick who was a strong opponent of earmarks and pork-barrel spending and never talked about social issues.

One encouraging point in the study: libertarians may be becoming more organized. In our 2006 study we wrote, “Social conservatives have evangelical churches, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family… . Liberals have unions… . Libertarians have think tanks.” In the past three years, however, libertarians have become a more visible, organized force in politics, particularly as campaigns move online. Note the Ron Paul campaign and the heavy libertarian involvement in the widespread and decentralized “Tea Party” movement.

The new study also includes new data on young libertarian voters, Ron Paul voters, libertarians and abortion, “secular centrist” voters, and how libertarians voted for Congress in the past five elections.

Libertarian Surge

David Paul Kuhn at RealClearPolitics sees a surge of libertarianism in the current political scene:

The philosophical casualty of the Great Recession was supposed to be libertarianism. But signs to the contrary are thriving.

Americans are increasingly opposed to activist government programs. The most significant social movement of 2009, the Tea Party protests, grew out of that opposition. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand is as popular today as ever. Rand’s brilliant and radical laissez faire novel “Atlas Shrugged,” sold roughly 300,000 copies last year, according to BookScan, twice its sales in 2008 and roughly triple annual sales in recent decades.

We are witnessing a conservative libertarian comeback. It’s an oppositional advance, a response to all manners of active-state liberalism since the financial crisis. It’s a pervasive feeling of invasiveness. The factional bastions of traditional libertarianism, like Washington think tank Cato, now have an intangible and awkward alliance with a broad swath of the American electorate….

This limited libertarian resurgence has haunted Obama’s domestic agenda. The fundamental mistake of the Obama administration in 2009 was underestimating the American public’s ongoing tension with active-state liberalism, a fact visible from the outset and one only belatedly confronted by Obama….

Today’s limited libertarian revival is a response to a sense of overreaching elite technocrats as well as fear of an intrusive bureaucracy. Responsiveness is the core impulse. Rand’s radical libertarianism, where man is an ends in himself and the welfare state is fundamentally immoral, was a response to the radically invasive Soviet state that weaned her as a girl. On a drastically less extreme scale, one side of this American debate could not exist without the other. The Obama administration brought with it ambitions of a resurgence of FDR and LBJ’s active-state liberalism. And with it, Obama has revived the enduring American challenge to the state.

I’ve been struck by the fact that two recent profiles in the New York Times magazine — one on Dick Armey and one on the rise of Marco Rubio in Florida — have identified Tea Party protesters as libertarians, which I think is largely right but not generally noticed by pundits who can only hold two concepts (red and blue, conservative and liberal) in their minds at once. It’s not that the Tea Partiers are carrying pro-choice or anti–drug war signs, it’s just that their focus and their energy are, as the Armey profile put it, “libertarian, anti-Washington, old-fashioned get-out-of-my-way-and-I’ll-make-it-on-my-own American self-sufficiency.” They’re up in arms about spending, deficits, bailouts, government handouts, and a government takeover of health care. That’s a populist libertarian spirit.

Kuhn describes the current mood as “conservative libertarianism,” which he contrasts to “traditional libertarianism” that embraces a laissez-faire approach to both economics and personal freedom. He may be right that a lot of the Tea Partiers are not as comprehensively pro-freedom or “anti-government” (really, pro-limited government) as I’d like. But I see some evidence of a social libertarian surge as well, as I wrote back in May. Polls are finding growing support for marijuana legalization and for marriage equality, especially among young people. As young people and independents also become increasingly disillusioned with President Obama’s big-government agenda, this may be a real shift in a libertarian direction. And don’t forget, at 90 days into the Obama administration, Americans preferred smaller government to “more active government” by 66 to 25 percent.