June 2007 -- “Pretty soon [the young intellectual] will announce that it is time to reject the false choices of both left and right. We must all move beyond tired old categories like liberal and conservative.”
So wrote David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise, his amusing picture of the baby boom generation at century’s end, which he saw as moving beyond left and right by combining bourgeois capitalist work with bohemian sixties values. (Hence, “bobos.”) Brooks himself, as the conservative columnistof the liberal New York Times, frequently tries to articulate positions that transcend the categories of left and right. But what he typically dishes out is nothing more than a mushy muddle of “reasonable” bipartisanship. To shift the tectonic plates that bear America’s political factions takes large amounts of energy, the sort of intense energy that only ideological passion can generate.
So it was that the latest effort to rearrange our political continents began with the Angry Left as it awaited the 2006 elections.
On June 7, 2006, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, founder and proprietor of the quintessentially Angry Left blog “The Daily Kos,” posted a brief essay called “The Libertarian Dem.” Moulitsas began by insisting that his was an empirical essay. He was not trying to hammer out a platform for some miniscule third-party movement. He was
simply describing a viewpoint that substantial Democratic politicians in the mountain states and elsewhere had already formulated. He mentioned specifically Montana’s governor, Brian Schweitzer, and its senatorial candidate Jon Tester. (In November, Tester went on to oust the incumbent Republican senator.) These politicians, Moulitsas claimed, had not just slapped together a grab-bag of winning policies but had grasped a coherent and appealing political position that represented the future of the Democratic Party—as well as the future of the libertarian movement.
At the core of this new outlook was libertarianism’s proud claim to oppose all incursions on liberty. Thus libertarians, like liberals, favor “lifestyle liberty” and the right to engage in behavior that conservatives might wish to restrict as obscene or sinful. Thus libertarians, again like liberals, are willing to push strongly for “civil liberty,” even against the claims of crime fighting, intelligence gathering, and national defense.
Yet the fact remains that, apart from a few mavericks such as Murray Rothbard, libertarians have generally tended to ally themselves with the right. The obvious reason is that libertarians, like conservatives, support free markets, and such support puts libertarians at odds with the main tradition of the Democratic Party since Woodrow Wilson. How, then, could one construct a platform for “Libertarian Dems”?
The answer Moulitsas gave was predictable: Libertarians must distinguish between the beneficent market behavior of small businesses and the potential oppression of large corporations. “The problem with [the current] form of libertarianism,” Moulitsas explained, “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.”
Having corrected libertarian thinking on that minor point, Moulitsas went on to his rousing conclusion: “The core Democratic values of fairness, opportunity, and investing in our nation and people speak very much to the concept of personal liberty—an open society where success is predicated on the merit of our ideas and efforts, unduly burdened by the government, corporate America, or other individuals.”
Because “The Daily Kos” attracts 500,000 visitors each day, Moulitsas’s argument was soon circulating through the blogosphere. And that, in turn, stirred up interest at America’s premier libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute. “Cato Unbound”—which describes itself as a “virtual trading floor in the intellectual marketplace, specializing in the exchange of big ideas”—asked Moulitsas to write the lead essay for its debate of the month in October 2006. Thus, what Moulitsas himself called “a throwaway blog post . . . on a slow news day” turned into a 3,000-word manifesto.
This time, Moulitsas bolstered his case for the Libertarian Democrat by laying out more fully the case against voting Republican, in light of libertarians’ concerns over limits on lifestyle freedom, the growth of the government’s budget, and the national-security measures adopted to fight jihadism. That approach alone insured Moulitsas a warm welcome.
Libertarians’ philosophy merges two different ideals of freedom based on incompatible views of human nature.
Ultimately, though, Moulitsas had to face up to the main issue of contention—Democratic support for the government’s regulation of corporations. He did so by quoting a pseudonymous commenter on his own site: “The fundamental reason that ‘libertarian’ has become ‘libertarian democrat’ is that corporations are becoming more powerful than governments.” That is evidenced, according to Moulitsas, in several ways: “defense contractors now have greater say in what weapons systems get built. . . . The energy industry dominates the executive branch and has reaped record windfall profits. Our public debt is now increasingly held by hedge funds. Corporations foul our air and water. They plunder our treasury.”
Of course, libertarians too have long lamented corporate power over people. But they tend to trace such power to one principal source—corporate manipulation of government—and they generally have one principal solution: Remove government from as many activities as possible, so that corporations and wealthy individuals will have no incentive to dominate government and also no coercive means with which to dominate people.
As the managing editor of “Cato Unbound,” Will Wilkinson, put it: “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.”
But Moulitsas ruled out that solution to the problem of corporate power by his description of how a truly free market works. Look at Silicon Valley and its counterparts, he urged: “Where else could such a motley collection of school dropouts, nerds, brown people (mostly Indian), and non-Native English speakers (mostly Chinese), not just rise to the top of their game but dominate it? This is free market activity seemingly at its best, and it works precisely because these individuals are able to take risks and be judged by the results of their work, rather than be judged by who they are, where they’ve been, or who they know.” But, he added, recognize how all this came about. “The government has put in an infrastructure to support the region, including, among many other things, roads, the Internet, government research grants, and the most important ingredient of all: education, from the lowliest kindergarten to the highest post-doc program. Such spending . . . actually provides the tools that individuals need to succeed in today’s world. If our goal is to promote and champion individual liberty and the free market, we need government to help provide those tools to all Americans, not just a privileged few. This isn’t a question of equality, it’s one of opportunity.”
Such government functions are obviously not approved by libertarianism, but neither do they constitute off-the-wall leftism. Many of the Founding Fathers and their generation believed in government support for education and infrastructure. And I know more than a few economists, especially those working in development economics, who support such infrastructure policies, although they would otherwise consider themselves thoroughly libertarian.
Moulitsas, though, was not finished. In addition to government infrastructure, he sought libertarian support for entitlement programs. As he wrote in his blog post: “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.”
And so on, indeed.
Lastly, Moulitsas wrote that genuinely free markets require government regulation. “There is also no individual freedom if corporations aren’t forced to provide the kind of accountability necessary to ensure we make proper purchasing or investment decisions. . . . Does anyone doubt that requiring food companies to label ingredients and nutritional data doesn’t enhance our liberties by giving us the information we need to make informed decisions?”
As one might expect, Moulitsas’s essay was not well received by his libertarian commentator, Reason editor Nick Gillespie. The “Libertarian” Democrat program, Gillespie observed, did not even mention an interest in such core libertarian projects as school vouchers, Social Security reform, or the repeal of McCain-Feingold. As Will Wilkinson said to Moulitsas in a post on “Cato-at-Liberty”: “Show me the libertarianism.”
In the end, then, Moulitsas failed rather dramatically in his attempt to articulate a Libertarian Democratic platform that would appeal to actual libertarians. Everyone could agree, yes, on liberals’ and libertarians’ shared concerns for lifestyle liberty and civil liberties. But that was old news. Moulitsas’s enthusiasm for Silicon Valley capitalism seemed promising, but he then used it to justify universal public education, bridge-to-the-future infrastructure projects, Great Society welfare programs, and Progressivist regulatory agencies. And that was a deal breaker. The whole idea of a left-libertarian alliance appeared to be a non-starter.
Yet the idea did not die. Following the 2006 elections, in which Moulitsas’s designated Libertarian Democrats did rather well, the editor of “Cato Unbound,” Brink Lindsey, wrote an article for The New Republic called “Liberaltarians.” He noted the recent success of Democratic candidates in traditionally conservative western states and also in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire. And he detailed, at even greater length than Moulitsas had, the egregiously anti-libertarian record of the Bush administration. That was something both sides could agree upon. As Nick Gillespie had acknowledged before launching his criticisms of Moulitsas’s proposals: “It’s President Bush and his GOP Congress who have made the best arguments for pulling the lever for any candidate that doesn't have an ‘R’ by his or her name.”
But Lindsey’s essay did not merely urge an anti-Republican, hold-your-nose coalition between liberals and libertarians. It put forward a genuine philosophical vision. “Today’s ideological turmoil,” he wrote, “has created an opening for ideological renewal—specifically, liberalism’s renewal as a vital governing philosophy: A refashioned liberalism that incorporated key libertarian concerns and insights could make possible a truly progressive politics once again.” Such “liberaltarianism” could offer “a politics that joins together under one banner the causes of both cultural and economic progress.”
To ground his project in history, Lindsey acknowledged that many of the twentieth century’s greatest libertarian accomplishments had been brought about by liberalism: “the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration.” By the same token, he said, liberals should recognize that “capitalism’s relentless dynamism and wealth-creation” had been responsible for such liberal cultural phenomena as “feminism,” “greater sexual openness,” “heightened interest in the natural environment,” and a “general decline in reverence for authority.”
That reading of history has always been a major source of libertarians’ discontent with their conservative “fusionist” alliance, a discontent that long predates the faults of the Bush administration. Culturally and socially, libertarians look upon themselves as hyper-Whigs, standing shoulder to shoulder with history’s avant-garde movements, from seventeenth-century Levelers to twentieth-century feminists. Indeed, for younger libertarians, their movement’s alliance with conservatism over the past half century seems to be, at a very deep level, unnatural and embarrassing. In conversation with their elder colleagues, these younger libertarians often strike an attitude of “What did you do in the culture wars, Daddy?”
Does libertarianism have a future beyond nurturing the two opposite ends of the political spectrum? Probably not.
But philosophy and sensibilities aside, how was Lindsey to handle the question of government’s scope, the question on which Moulitsas’s proposal had run aground? “The basic outlines of a viable compromise are clear enough,” he wrote. “On the one hand, restrictions on competition and burdens on private initiative would be lifted to encourage vigorous economic growth and development. At the same time, some of the resulting wealth-creation would be used to improve safety-net policies that help those at the bottom and ameliorate the hardships inflicted by economic change.” So, government insurance against life’s contingencies would be acceptable. But “what we cannot do is continue to fund universal entitlement programs that slosh money from one section of the middle class (people of working age) to another (the elderly)—not when most Americans are fully capable of saving for their own retirement needs.”
In sum, Lindsey argued for an animating vision of “progressivism” that encompassed both economics and culture, a vision that could then be applied to various political and social issues. How to apply it would be a matter of discussion and debate among liberaltarians. But once the basic premises were embraced, “liberals and libertarians would begin talking with one another and engaging one another regularly. Over time, they would come to see themselves as joined in a common endeavor. And, in the shared identity that would emerge, there would be plenty of room for continuing disagreements, even sharp ones, just as there are in any robust political movement.”
Well, if libertarians had made quite clear that they were not buying Moulitsas’s concept of Libertarian Democrats, liberals made even clearer that they were unsympathetic to Lindsey’s liberaltarianism. Unfortunately, though, the most prominent liberal responders barely deigned to consider Lindsey’s article as setting forth a philosophical vision rather than an electoral platform such as Moulitsas had proposed. Ezra Klein of The American Prospect perhaps came closest to considering the ideas involved: “What [Lindsey is] doing is redefining progressivism around social equality while seeking to quietly abandon its economic concerns.” But, having said that, Klein then quickly descended to the policy level. “You see this when [Lindsey] gets into ‘the most difficult problem facing would-be fusionists,’ entitlement programs. On health care, for instance, what he argues for isn’t a compromise at all, but the replacement of modern health insurance with a pay-as-you-go system. That isn’t ‘Liberaltarian,’ it’s libertarian.”
Other commentators also could not lift their eyes above the level of concretes. Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic, argued that (contra Lindsey) entitlements for the elderly do in fact aim at risks that individuals cannot handle personally and confidently. “Lindsey’s rationale here is not unfamiliar—since most people can anticipate their retirements, he argues, they should provide for them on their own. But liberals respond that people can’t anticipate if they’ll be retired for one year or 30, or how much they’ll earn in their working years. Social Security eliminates those risks.”
Likewise, Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote, “Universal pensions and universal healthcare are bedrock parts of the social safety net, and it’s simply not conceivable that liberals will give ground on these. Nor should we. 13% of the country may be libertarian leaning, but something around 100% of the country likes Social Security and a pretty sizable majority like Medicare too. Universal healthcare will be equally popular eventually, and will also be far more efficient than the pseudo-free market alternative we have now.” Political popularity and electoral majorities seemed to be the left’s measure of ideas.
For the moment, then, it appears that the left-libertarian alliance is off, principally because the left has not confronted that possibility at a theoretical level. For my part, though, I believe that Moulitsas and Lindsey have picked up on a definite fact about libertarians: They are liberals under the skin. Cato’s Will Wilkinson has found that audience members at his libertarian lectures tend to answer a psychological test much as one would expect a liberal, Democratic audience to answer it. “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.”
That confirms exactly my own lifetime of experience with libertarians. But the similarity, I believe, goes deeper than psychology. It goes all the way back to Ayn Rand ’s characterization of libertarians as “hippies of the Right,” unfair though that description may have been in any literal sense.
Libertarians claim for their philosophy a straightforward logical consistency, and yet it merges two quite different ideals of freedom: the Continental ideal of a freedom to actualize an idiosyncratic self (hence, “hippies”) and the Anglo-American ideal of a freedom to pursue the bourgeois life of a rational producer (hence, “of the Right”). These two conceptions of freedom are, in turn, based on two incompatible ethics. Bourgeois freedom emerges from a modern Western ethics of personal survival that stresses the virtue of prudence and depends upon the institution of private-property rights. Bohemian freedom, on the other hand, emerges from a Romantic ethics of passionately felt experience. It stresses the virtue of authenticity and seeks a politics of subsidized opportunity (witness Moulitsas’s idealized Silicon Valley).
The faith of libertarians has been that they can separate the right of private property from its bourgeois grounding and join it to the Romantic right of self-actualization. But in that they have not succeeded, and I do not think they can. Hence, their wanderings between left and right.
Yet if libertarians can never merge with left or right, they do have much to offer both sides. To the right, they can contribute policy. Indeed, they have already proven to have a splendid aptitude for devising policies that employ private property for the prudent handling of difficult or new social and economic problems. And as for the left: This recent debate has shown that libertarians can provide it with some much needed advice about the benefits of relying on thoughtfully applied principles rather than on electoral expediency.
But what of libertarianism itself? Has it a future beyond nurturing the opposite ends of the political spectrum? Probably not. History suggests that the natural victory of intense but shallow movements lies in rendering themselves unnecessary, and so it may prove with libertarianism. That, however, would not be nothing, far from it. Indeed, it would be a great accomplishment. To be sure, such an end would not be the triumphant crusade libertarians initially envisioned for themselves. But “In this sign, do your own thing” never was much of a crusading motto.
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