Topic: Government and Politics

A Case for a Different Libertarian Party

All of this blogtalk about which major party is likely to be more receptive to libertarian policy positions, I suggest, is a waste of time unless the winning candidate of either party is dependent on the votes of libertarians.

Increased outrage about the state of American politics and the prospect for a larger number of close elections increases the potential effectiveness of a different libertarian party – one that sometimes endorses one or the other major party candidate but does not run a party candidate for that position.

The Libertarian Party’s efforts to promote their policy positions by running Libertarian candidates is counter-productive when they reduce the vote for their favored major party candidates. A disciplined group that is prepared to endorse one or the other major party candidate in a close election, however, can have a substantial effect on the issue positions of both major party candidates. The following conditions must be met to achieve this effectiveness:

  1. The party cannot run a separate candidate.
  2. The size of the party must be larger than the expected vote difference between the major party candidates.
  3. After the major party candidates are selected, the party leadership must have the opportunity to bargain with both major party candidates on the issue positions of highest priority for the party.
  4. The party, as much as possible, must act in concert to support the major party candidate who is chosen by the members of the party in that district.

There is no reason for this libertarian party to be active in any district for which the party does not meet all four of the above conditions. (For most libertarians, the most difficult of these conditions to meet, I suspect, is condition 4.) In addition, the party should not emphasize the same issues in every district, because the choice of these issues should depend on those for which the major party candidates are willing to bargain.

This is a strategy to increase the approval of libertarian policy positions rather than the usually counter-productive effort to increase the number of votes for Libertarian candidates. Maybe it is better to term the organization that I have described as a libertarian political action group, not a libertarian party.

Marriage Amendment Failure

Supporters of the Marriage Protection Amendment say that even though it failed in the Senate on Wednesday, they are pleased that it did better than two years earlier. But let’s do the math. In 2004 supporters lost a cloture vote 48-50, with two opponents not voting. So their strength on moving the amendment to a floor vote was 48-52. This year the vote was 49-48, far short of the 60 needed to invoke cloture or the 67 for a constitutional amendment. If all senators had voted, the vote would likely have been 50-50. So maybe that’s a pickup of two votes for amendment supporters.

But the Republicans picked up four Senate seats in the 2004 election. So relative to the number of Republicans in the Senate, support for the amendment actually slipped by two votes. Supporters picked up no Democrats, and they lost two Republicans. Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter voted for cloture in 2004, though he would have voted against the amendment itself; this year he voted against cloture and quoted two Cato publications in his Senate speech. Judd Gregg joined his New Hampshire colleague John Sununu in voting for federalism over centralism after realizing that the 2003 Massachusetts court ruling for marriage equality in that state is not being replicated nationwide. Given that younger voters are much more supportive of same-sex marriage than older voters, it seems unlikely that support for an amendment will grow in future years.

Reagan in Leipzig

On a trip to East Germany last week I talked to a politician who had been involved in the 1989 Leipzig protests that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall. I asked him, “When Reagan said ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ in 1987, did you know that?” He said, yes, not from East German TV but from West German TV, which they could watch. And what did you think, I asked. “We thought it was good, but we thought it was impossible.” And yet just two years later, “peace prayers” in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche turned into protests for liberalization and open borders. The Leipzig politician told me, “As it says in the Bible, we walked seven times around the inner city, and the wall came down.”

Then I went to a museum exhibit in Leipzig on the history of the German Democratic Republic. It was very impressive, with a large collection of posters, letters, newspapers, video, and more. Alas, it was all in German, so I had only a dim understanding of what it all said. I did get the impression that it wasn’t a balanced presentation of communism such as might be found in a Western museum; these curators knew that communism had been a nightmare, and they were glad to be out of it. As it happened, the only English words in the entire exhibit came in the collection of audio excerpts that greeted visitors in the entry foyer. And they were a familiar voice proclaiming “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!”

Liberaltarianism

I’ll add my two cents to the Kos post Gene Healy and Will Wilkinson address below.

I too find myself sympathizing more with the left these days than the right, but I suspect that’s merely because the right happens to be in power at the moment. I’ve always thought libertarians’ best bet is to forge alliances on an issue-by-issue basis.

Even that is proving difficult. I cover a lot of issues for which there ought to be some common ground with the left. But I can count on one hand the number of Democrats in Congress who care much about the effects of drug prohibition, for example, or how the DEA is hampering the treatment of pain. So any wholesale casting of lots with either side doesn’t seem all that productive to me.

Like Will, I’m also curious as to what issues Moulitsas might offer up for “libertarianization.” Recent events offer plenty of room for skepticism:

  • The left generally supported the Supreme Court’s decision in Raich (the five most liberal justices plus Scalia formed the majority in that case). There were a few exceptions. But by and large, the left approved. (Moulitsas himself took a more middling position). The reasoning I read from leftist pundits was that opposing it would have opened the door just a hair more for the short-lived Rehnquist federalism revolution. In other words, a ruling for Angel Raich would have put the slightest of curbs on federal power. And that was too much. In this case, the left couldn’t even bring itself to support a decision allowing sick people to get access to the medication they needed, because it might have hampered the ability of the federal government to enforce hiring quotas, or the EPA’s ability to save endangered, cave-dwelling toads in Texas (the latter argument was actually made by the Washington Post editorial board). It’s hard to take in the left’s reaction to Raich and believe modern American liberalism stands for much of anything anymore, save for raw, unfettered government power.
  • Same goes for the Kelo decision (again decided largely by the Court’s left). Some on the left at the time seemed to sympathize with the fifth-generation homeowner who loses his house to, say, Wal-Mart or General Motors, yet still couldn’t get too worked up over a decision that, after all, (1) struck a blow to demon “property rights” advocates, and (2) once again, gave more power to government.
  • How about the broader drug war? It’s true that a few of Kos’s diarists have been eloquent opponents of drug prohibition. Bully to them.

Show Me the Libertarianism

As Gene noted earlier, Markos “KosMoulitsas has put up an interesting big-think post over at DailyKos advancing the ideals of the “Libertarian Democrat,” about which, apparently, he is writing a book. Kos rightly points out that libertarians have very little in common with the GOP in its present incarnation. So what is to prevent libertarians from siding with the Democrats in elections? Before I delve into Kos’s answer, let me say what I think is the major barrier to a left/libertarian lovefest.

There is some evidence that personality traits predict party affiliation. For example, “openness to experience,” one of the “big five” personality traits, strongly correlates with ideological preference. According to psychologist Robert R. McCrae:

Open individuals have an affinity for liberal, progressive, left-wing political views, whereas closed individuals prefer conservative, traditional, right wing views. Indeed, a case can be made for saying that variations in experiential openness are the major psychological determinant of political polarities. [Paper abstract.]

Now, the following is far from rigorously scientific, but I think it’s pretty indicative. I have a talk on the psychology of persuasion that I’ve given to a number of libertarian groups. I’ve been giving out a short “openness to experience” quiz at the beginning (inspired by this fascinating presentation [ppt] by UVA psychologist Jonathan Haidt. ) The results? People who self-select to attend a libertarian talk about persuasion score extremely high on “openness to experience,” which predicts an audience with socially liberal preferences and largely Democratic party affiliation. But almost none of these people vote for Democrats. Why not?

Insofar as political commitment isn’t simply a matter of personality, or of reflexive adherence to what the people around you happen to believe, I think the barrier between liberals and libertarians has almost entirely to do with different answers to empirical questions about the way markets and governments function. The different syndromes of approving and disapproving sentiments about market and state characteristic of libertarians and welfare state liberals more or less follow upon these prior judgments of fact. Libertarians and liberals—classical liberals and welfare state liberals—are generally the same kind of people at the level of certain core aspects of personality that tend to influence political affiliation. The difference, then, is likely a function of the way different sets of beliefs mediate the expression of personality.

The thing that keeps me from throwing my lot in with Democrats has everything to do with their consistent underestimation of the efficacy and justice of institutions that make the most of the information carried by market prices, and their consistent overestimation of the efficacy and justice of bureaucratic political management. Love markets more, and love the state less, and libertarians may come a knockin’. A recent Pew survey reported that only 50 percent of the people they identify as libertarians either identify as or lean toward Republicans, while a healthy 43 percent identify as or already lean toward Democrats. Libertarians may be ripe for the pickin’.

Now, here’s Kos:

The problem with this form [the usual form] of libertarianism is that it assumes that only two forces can infringe on liberty – the government and other individuals.

The Libertarian Democrat understands that there is a third danger to personal liberty – the corporation. The Libertarian Dem understands that corporations, left unchecked, can be huge dangers to our personal liberties.

I think Kos underestimates just how wary of corporations libertarians generally are. Classical liberal political economy tells us that the greater the scope and power of state coercion, the stronger the incentive for economically powerful private interests, such as corporations, to use it to their own advantage, squashing competition, consolidating advantage, and channeling taxpayer dollars into corporate coffers. Libertarians have never believed in leaving corporations unchecked. The way you check corporations is by taking political power off the table.

Here is Kos’ key paragraph, which contains the real division between classical and statist liberals:

A Libertarian Dem believes that true liberty requires freedom of movement—we need roads and public transportation to give people freedom to travel wherever they might want. A Libertarian Dem believes that we should have the freedom to enjoy the outdoor without getting poisoned; that corporate polluters infringe on our rights and should be checked. A Libertarian Dem believes that people should have the freedom to make a living without being unduly exploited by employers. A Libertarian Dem understands that no one enjoys true liberty if they constantly fear for their lives, so strong crime and poverty prevention programs can create a safe environment for the pursuit of happiness. A Libertarian Dem gets that no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so social net programs are important to allow individuals to continue to live happily into their old age. Same with health care. And so on.

It’s pretty clear that Kos is pushing a program of positive liberty rather in opposition to the classical libertarian notion of liberty as non-interference. I fear that once you cash out precisely what Kos has in mind by ensuring that people aren’t “unduly exploited by employers,” whatever that means, or by “poverty prevention” and “social net programs,” we’ll discover something disappointingly like the Democratic party status quo. In which case, Kos will be simply declaring a pretty standard set of Democratic policies as “libertarian,” in defiance of the normal understanding of the term. Is this a Machiavellian attempt at the dark Lakovian arts of re-framing? Or, more hopefully, a reflection of a sincere wish to court libertarians away from a lately abusive alliance with Republicans?

If it is the latter, then simply recognizing that the 2nd Amendment is in fact part of the US Constitution and using the word ‘libertarian,’ is not going to much help Kos’ cause. As Gene did, it really is worth pointing out common ground between libertarians and the left. Nobel-winning libertarian heroes such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have supported a tax-funded safety net, and so would I, if it was sanely designed. Now, if Democrats like Kos really meant it, and started thinking about market and government institutions in anything remotely like the way Friedman and Hayek were thinking when they proposed their minimum income policies, or started thinking about environmental policy like PERC, or threw away their silly vestigial Marxist model of agonistic employee-employer relationships — which is just to say, if Democrats actually become more recognizably libertarian— then I think the psychological evidence supports the hypothesis that personality-compatible libertarians would flock to the Democrats in droves.

But talk is cheap. So show me the libertarianism.

 

“Libertarian Democrats”?

Blue-Team Blogfather Daily Kos has posted an ode to the “Libertarian Democrat,” a creature he sees as the possible salvation of the party:

A Libertarian Dem rejects government efforts to intrude in our bedrooms and churches. A Libertarian Dem rejects government “Big Brother” efforts, such as the NSA spying of tens of millions of Americans. A Libertarian Dem rejects efforts to strip away rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights – from the First Amendment to the 10th. And yes, that includes the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms.

That’s the part traditional libertarians will like best. The rest, not so much. The “libertarianism” Kos describes checks its antistatism at the door, emphasizes economic security and fears corporate power as much as state power. Though judging by Kos’s legal blogger “Pericles,” who I should thank for his or her very kind write-up of “Power Surge,” libertarians and Libertarian Democrats have some common ground on constitutional issues. See “Cato vs. Caesar.”

Does the Libertarian Democrat exist? It’s doubtful, though Kos has a few examples, including the impressive James Webb, Vietnam war hero, former Secretary of the Navy, and current Democratic challenger to Virginia Senator George Allen. But then the Libertarian Republican has been an elusive creature of late as well, judging by the GOP’s constitutional amendment fetish. The last time the flag-burning amendment came up for a vote in the House, only an even dozen Republicans voted against it, and only a couple of those could reasonably be described as “libertarian.” Neither party is a reliable friend of liberty, but any effort to move either party in the right direction ought to be applauded.

The Democratic party is quite unlikely to evolve in the direction Kos’s post suggests. But if it did, for all its flaws, it would still beat “Big Government Conservatism” any day of the week.

Hey Baby

Did you know that last year, Paris was a much more popular girls’ name than Britney? Or that Madison was the 3rd most popular girls’ name, while Jefferson was only ranked 628th among boys’ names? Or that 179 baby boys were actually named Baby?

More importantly, do you care about any of this? I sure don’t, but the government does.

As Senator Tom Coburn points out, the Social Security Administration, wastes significant time and money compiling this report on popular baby names.

Senator Coburn astutely jests, “Increasing one’s web traffic doesn’t seem to be in the Constitutional charter of the Social Security program. Your tax dollars hard at work, indeed.”