Topic: Government and Politics

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.”

Should We Criminalize OPEC?

Well, should we? An increasing number of Congressmen seem to think so. Last year, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH) introduced the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act” (S. 555), aka “NOPEC,” which would make oil-producing and exporting cartels abroad illegal. Although the bill went nowhere, supporters have tried repeatedly to attach it to energy legislation moving through the House and Senate. The idea was last spotted when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) embraced elements of the bill in his relatively unhinged “Oil and Gas Antitrust Act of 2006” (S. 2557), and the trade press is full of reports that the next GOP energy bill might well include NOPEC in its legislative basket of economic buffoonery.

You might think that imposing U.S. antitrust law on foreign, state-owned companies that (with the exception of CITGO) operate nowhere near U.S. borders is such a crackpot idea that only an American politician could entertain such a thing with a straight face. You would be wrong. The other day, Ariel Cohen and William Schirano at the Heritage Foundation gave NOPEC an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “If Congress is serious about alleviating the price-gouging that contributes to high gas prices,” they wrote, “it ought to begin by allowing the federal government to sue OPEC.”

The temptation is to simply ignore nonsense like this. But nonsense like this (particularly on the energy front) is increasingly the coin of the legislative realm. So let’s do what its proponents have obviously not done and give the idea a few moments of thought.

First, the obvious question arises—exactly how would the U.S. government enforce such a law? After all, I rather doubt that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Venezuela, et al will quickly disband the cartel in a panic once Uncle Sam deems their club illegal under U.S. law. “You and who’s army?!” is the natural response we might expect. Given that no army would be on the way to stamp out such illegal activity, which leaves trade sanctions or nothing. The former would be counterproductive while the latter would be embarrassing.

Next, exactly what gives the Congress the right to impose U.S. economic regulations on companies that aren’t doing business in the United States? Do all national governments have this right, or only the United States? If the former, what’s to prevent Saudi Arabia from declaring it illegal for U.S. banks to charge interest on loans (an activity ostensibly banned in many Islamic countries)? If the latter, then it’s a naked statement that U.S. policy is premised upon the idea that the biggest guy on the playground makes the rules for everyone else whether they like it or not—might makes right. And if so, then wouldn’t those forced against their will to live under U.S. law rightly argue that subjects of governmental power ought to have a right to vote about the laws they are compelled to live under? Or is that a right that only applies for some and not others?

Finally, there’s an economic principle of real importance at stake. To wit, who should have the final say over how much of a product or service is delivered by a commercial enterprise; the owners or the customers? If the latter, then companies are merely slaves of the state, dictated to produce as much as the public wants regardless of business considerations. Does the Heritage Foundation really want to plant their flag on that proposition?

One might argue that the state can prohibit price fixing and collusion without prohibiting companies from having the final say over their own production schedules absent coordination between firms. But there are a large number of oil economists who maintain that OPEC is not really a cartel at all—it’s simply a vehicle through which Saudi Arabia unilaterally exercises power over the market—and that collusion within OPEC is not particularly meaningful. If so, then NOPEC would have little effect even if by some miracle it could be enforced.

Even so, what if OPEC countries preferred to constrain production so that sufficient reserves would be available down the road when they would presumably be more valuable? In that case, production restraint might simply be another form of national savings. Should the U.S. Congress be in the business of declaring such trade-offs between present and future revenues “illegal”?

Sure, it would be wonderful if private companies owned oil reserves, not national governments. And it would be nice from the consumers’ point of view if those companies produced as many barrels of crude as a normal profit would allow. And it would be wonderful if OPEC disappeared tomorrow. But Congress’ ability to translate those wishes into reality as far as foreign petroleum operations are concerned is probably nonexistent.

The best we can do is to refuse to help the Cartel or its members in the course of their enterprise. Sending the Texas Rangers or some such after them would render us an international joke.

Politics Is Not Religion

Will Wilkinson offers some telling criticisms of Charles Morris’ recent New York Times op-ed.

Morris writes that the economy has a “spiritual dimension” that is lacking in contemporary America. He implies that an active and expansive government should supply a “conviction of fairness, a feeling of not being totally on one’s own, a sense of reasonable stability and predictability.”

The state, then, should be in the business of providing spiritual goods.

Morris’ essay reminded me of what one of the founders of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol, once wrote: “A nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid.”

So politics is apparently about more than mere material matters; it has a higher dimension. In our time, that higher dimension has become the politics of national greatness that in turn became a crusade to bring democracy to others.

Both Kristol and Morris are confusing politics for religion. They expect more from politics than it can or should give. Or at least, they expect more than a politics consistent with liberty can give.

The End of “Reform” at the New York Times?

The reporters and editorial writers at the New York Times are powerful advocates of imposing new restrictions on campaign spending. They typically refer to the leaders of interest groups like Common Cause as “advocates of campaign finance reform.” That helps the cause of restricting campaign finance. After all, who could be against “reform”?

So it is noticeable when the New York Times calls the partisans of restrictions something other than “reformers.” In today’s edition, a Times reporter twice called them “advocates of changing campaign financing.”

It is both a revealing and misleading choice. It is misleading because these people seek more restrictions on campaign finance. To be sure, they expect new restrictions will lead to changes in campaign finance, but what they actually hope to do is impose new rules that restrict campaign spending.

Here’s the revealing part: The Times has never before called the Shays-Meehan-Common Cause crowd “advocates of changing campaign finance.” They are usually called “reformers.” (I checked on Lexis-Nexis). Why the new name?

The “advocates of changing campaign financing” along with congressional Republicans are trying to eliminate 527 groups; today’s article concerns one skirmish in that war. That effort against 527s is expected to harm the Democrats who used the groups extensively in 2004.

So if a person pushes restrictions on speech like McCain-Feingold that were expected to help the Democrats, the New York Times called them “advocates of campaign finance reform.” If the same person demands restrictions expected to hurt the Democrats, the Times dubs them “advocates of changing campaign finance.”

I know the New York Times would never have a partisan purpose in advocating restrictions on political speech. Still, this new term for their former friends does create a disturbing appearance of partisanship.