Tag: libertarians

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.

Credit Card Dementia and Boundary Cases

credit cardsThe most interesting libertarian-related conversation I’ve read today comes from Rortybomb, by way of Andrew Sullivan, with commentary by Megan McArdle. Here’s a challenge to libertarians from Rortybomb, aka Mike Konczal:

I want to pitch to the credit card and financial industry a new innovative online survey. It is targeted for older, more mature long-time users of our services. We’ll give a $10 credit for anyone who completes it. Here is a sense of what the questions will look like:

- 1) What is your age?
- 2) What day of the week are you taking this survey?
- 3) Many rewards offered are for people with more active lifestyles: vacations, flights, hotels, rental cars. Do you find that your rewards programs aren’t well suited for your lifestyle?
- 4) What is the current season where you live? Are any seasons harder for you in getting to a branch or ATM machine?
- 5) Would rewards that could be given as gifts to others, especially younger people, be helpful for what you’d like to do with your benefits?
- 6) Would replacing your rewards program with a savings account redeemable for education for your grandchildren be something you’d be interested in?
- 7) Write a sentence you’d like us to hear about anything, good or bad!
- 8 ) How worried are you you’ll leave legal and financial problems for your next-of-kin after your passing?

Did you catch it? Questions 1,2,4,7 are taken from the ‘Mini-mental State Examination’ which is a quick test given by medical professionals to see if a patient is suffering from dementia. (It’s a little blunt, but we can always hire some psychologist and marketers for the final version. They’re cheap to hire.) We can use this test to subtly increase limits, and break out the best automated tricks and traps mechanisms, on those whose dementia lights up in our surveys. Anyone who flags all four can get a giant increase in balance and get their due dates moved to holidays where the Post Office is slowest! We’d have to be very subtle about it, because there are many nanny-staters out there who’d want to coddle citizens here…

I smell money – it’s like walking down a sidewalk and turning a corner and then there is suddenly money all over the sidewalk. One problem with hitting up sick people, single mothers, college kids who didn’t plan well and the cash-constrained poor with fees and traps is that they’re poor. Hitting up people with a lifetime of savings suffering from dementia is some real, serious money we can tap as a revenue source.

Clearly, only an evil person (or a libertarian!) would allow a scam like this one. Megan responds, I think rightly:

I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a hard question for libertarians. I mean, I might argue that preventing people from ripping off the marginally mentally impaired would, in practice, be too difficult. Crafting a rule that prevented companies from identifying people who are marginally impaired might well be impossible – I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to, I could devise subtler tests than “What day of the week is it?” And while the seniors lobby is probably in favor of not ripping off seniors, they’re resolutely against making it harder for seniors to do things like drive or get credit, which is the result that any sufficiently strong rule would probably have.

But it’s pretty much standard libertarian theory that you shouldn’t take advantage of people who do not have the cognitive ability to make contracts. Marginal cases are hard not because we think it’s okay, but because there is disagreement over what constitutes impairment, and the more forcefully you act to protect marginal cases, the more you start treating perfectly able-minded adults like children.

The elderly are a challenge precisely because there’s no obvious point at which you can say: now this previously able adult should be treated like a child. Either you let some people get ripped off, or you infringe the liberty, and the dignity, of people who are still capable of making their own decisions.

I’d add two responses of my own.

First, I can’t believe there’s all that much money to be had here. Anyone who wanders into Tiffany’s and back out again without remembering what they bought is, generally speaking, a bad credit risk. Mildly irresponsible people – those who slightly overspend, then have to make it up later – those are probably great for creditors. Lesson learned: If you’re not demented, don’t be irresponsible. (If you are demented, you’re not going to follow my advice anyway.)

Second, I am always amazed at how border cases are dragged out, again and again, as if they proved something against libertarianism. Border cases – How old before you can vote? How demented before a contract doesn’t bind? – are a problem in all political systems, because all systems start with a presumed community of citizens and/or subjects. We always have to draw boundaries between the in-group and the outliers before we have a polity in the first place.

What makes the classical liberal/libertarian approach so valuable is in fact that it draws so few boundaries. Where other systems depend on class boundaries, race boundaries, religious boundaries, and so forth – with annoying boundary issues at every stop along the way – libertarians make it as simple as I think it can be. We presume that all mentally competent adults are worthy of liberty until they prove themselves otherwise.

The boundary cases are still there, but they are fewer and more tractable. Konczal just wandered into one of them. It proves much less than he thinks.