DECEMBER 25, 2006
One price we liberals have had to pay for the Democrats' drearyelectoral record over the last few decades is regular lectures abouthow we have failed and must rethink everything. I had hoped that,after the 2006 elections, the demands that we sweep away ourcalcified doctrine would come to a halt. (At least until the nextDemocratic electoral debacle.) But no. In the December 11 issue ofThe New Republic, Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute argued thatwe are in dire need of a new ideological synthesis with thelibertarian movement (see "Liberaltarians"). While his essay,written in a friendly spirit and with an uncharacteristicallymodest tone (by the standards of theliberals-must-rethink-everything genre, anyway), is quite thought-provoking, it ends up proving the opposite of what it intends.Lindsey thinks we need to become more libertarian. I say we shouldrun screaming in the other direction.
Lindsey begins with a raw political argument. The Democrats'newfound success, he maintains, depends upon the defections oflibertarian voters. But, he continues, those defections have moreto do with opposition to various Republican statist misdeeds thananything positive the Democrats have done. Therefore, he warns,"[I]f Democrats hope to continue appealing to libertarian- leaningvoters, they are going to have to up their game."
As evidence for the proposition that Democrats need libertarians,Lindsey leans heavily upon a recent study by David Boaz, also fromCato, and David Kirby of the America's Future Foundation. Boaz andKirby gamely attempt to demonstrate that libertarians constitute avital swing bloc--around 13 percent of the electorate. Alas, thestudy is shot through with conceptual problems. The first isdefinitional. Boaz and Kirby classify their subjects based on theirresponse to poll questions on the role of government. Those whogive libertarian-esque answers to all three questions--forinstance, they choose "the less government, the better" as opposedto "there are more things that government should be doing"--arelibertarians. Voila, 13 percent of the United States turns out tobe pro-free market and socially tolerant. (Congratulations! Youwill all be issued a copy of Atlas Shrugged.)
But, as Newt Gingrich learned to his dismay, support for smallergovernment as an abstract proposition almost never translates intoopposition to government as it actually exists. The vast bulk ofthe federal budget is consumed by Medicare, Medicaid, SocialSecurity, and defense--all of which enjoy solid public support. YetBoaz and Kirby move seamlessly from the general to the specific."Imagine a Democratic candidate who, say, supported privateaccounts for Social Security (as President Clinton considered doingin 1998), promised to cut wasteful programs, and actually defendedcivil liberties," they write. "He or she would surely build onKerry's 38 percent support from libertarians." But only one-thirdof the public opposed the Patriot Act in 2004, and fewer stillsupported shifting money from guaranteed Social Security benefitsinto private accounts.
Which brings us to the second conceptual problem with Lindsey'spolitical strategy: It presupposes that any new libertarian votersthe Democrats attracted could simply be added to their preexistingbase. In reality, it would cost them support.
Boaz and Kirby inadvertently demonstrate this very point. Theystress that President Bush's share of the libertarian vote droppedprecipitously between 2000 and 2004. But, during that time, Bush'stotal share of the vote rose by almost 3 percent. So, however manyvoters were turned off by the prescription- drug bill or thePatriot Act, many more were turned on. This demonstrates theobvious (to nonlibertarians, anyway) point that wooing a small blocwith unpopular views is not a sound political strategy. Likewise,if Democrats were to denounce psychiatry and quote endlessly fromthe works of L. Ron Hubbard, they could jack up their share of theScientologist vote, but it probably wouldn't help their overallpopularity.
In the second half of his essay, Lindsey turns to the related notionthat libertarians are liberals' natural intellectual partners. Itquickly becomes clear that by partners he means masters--forliberalism, in his telling, is an empty shell awaiting takeover bylibertarian overlords. "As a governing philosophy," he writes,"liberalism has been moribund." Here Lindsey offers up the sort ofabuse to which liberals have grown accustomed--terms like "JimmyCarter," "obstruct," "nostalgia," and other classic epithets of thegenre. However, the only evidence he provides is that Democraticpoliticians have avoided the liberal label. This strikes me as apoor gauge of a philosophy's intellectual vitality, not to mentiona strange one for someone of Lindsey's bent to embrace. (How manyself-identified libertarians have occupied the White Houserecently?)
Lindsey's most interesting argument is that the greatest liberaltriumphs of the postwar era have been libertarian ones. Hemaintains that desegregation and other progressive social movementshave been enabled by economic liberalization. (The mechanization ofhousework has enabled feminism, for instance.) "[I]t has becomeincreasingly clear that capitalism's relentless dynamism andwealth- creation--the institutional safeguarding of which lies atthe heart of libertarian concerns--have been pushing U.S. societyin a decidedly progressive direction," he writes. "Yet progressivesremain stubbornly resistant to embracing capitalism, their greatnatural ally."
Here, though, Lindsey betrays his incomprehension of liberalism.Socialists disdain capitalism. Liberals don't. And, if you wantproof that liberal policies are compatible with economic dynamism,consider Lindsey's own examples. The economic dynamism that hecredits with producing postwar social progress occurred primarilyunder--guess what?--liberal-style big government. In his attempt todemonstrate that liberals must abandon their statist ways to enablesocial progress, Lindsey has disproved his own case.
When it comes to suggesting specifics, Lindsey's offerings do notbode well. A few areas of potential cooperation--such as tax reformand opposition to corporate welfare-- are well-taken. But those areissues where, essentially, policy wonks of all stripes agree.Venturing onto more ambitious turf, he proposes to essentiallydismantle Social Security and Medicare, which together account forhalf of all domestic spending. ("We need to move from the currentpay-asyou-go approach to a system in which private savings wouldprovide primary funding for the costs of old age.") Lindsey'srationale here is not unfamiliar--since most people can anticipatetheir retirements, he argues, they should provide for them on theirown.
But liberals respond that people can't anticipate if they'll beretired for one year or 30, or how much they'll earn in theirworking years. Social Security eliminates those risks. And whywould we force retirees into the individual medical insurancemarket? After all, we've tried that system with the working-agedpopulation, and it has produced 45 million uninsured. Lindseyargues that these issues ought to be treated "as technical,empirical questions about what does and doesn't work, rather thanas tests of ideological commitment," which is fair enough. Problemis, Lindsey doesn't just want to trim Social Security and Medicareor make them more efficient, goals liberals might support. Hedisagrees with their core mission.
If I understand Lindsey, he is proposing the following bargain:Libertarians will give up their politically hopeless goal ofeliminating two wildly popular social programs that represent thecore of liberalism's domestic achievements. Liberals, in turn, willagree to simply eviscerate these programs, leaving perhaps somerump version targeted at the poorest of the poor. To be fair,Lindsey offers these ideas only as the basis for negotiation, butthe prospects of bridging this gulf seem less than promising.
In fact, the politically fertile terrain seems to lie in the anti-libertarian direction. The most impressive Democratic performancesin 2006 came from candidates like Bob Casey, James Webb, and HeathShuler, who combined economic populism with social traditionalism.The ideological counterpart to this strategy would be to flesh outa kind of liberal-populist fusionism, rooted in fighting the waysthat massive inequality and income fluctuation have underminedtraditional family life.
Am I saying that libertarians should just vote Republican? Not atall. As Lindsey notes, the libertarians' alliance with the GOP hasmostly failed. They now have two electoral alternatives. One is tovote for social views they find abhorrent combined withdebt-financed big government. The other is to vote for social viewsthey find congenial combined with tax-financed big government. Froma libertarian perspective, Democrats would clearly seem to be thelesser evil. They should vote Democratic because they have nobetter choice.
I think the spirit of my proposed arrangement was best expressed byMichael Corleone, who said, "You can have my answer now if youlike. My offer is this: nothing." I don't blame libertarians forwanting more than the lesser of two evils. But, when your beliefsare wildly unpopular, supporting the lesser of two evils is aboutthe best you can expect.