Friday, February 13, 2009

The luxury of 'liberaltarianism'

Ross Douthat weighs in with a commentary on "liberaltarianism," the proposed fusion of liberalism and libertarianism that started getting kicked around a bit on the blogosphere a couple of years ago. (Cf., "Obamatarians," a more recent expression of the same impulse.)

The problem with this concept was never really on the part of liberals, except insofar as they either (a) misunderstood libertarianism, or (b) simply lied about their openness to libertarian ideas. Confusion and deceit among liberals is a given. But the liberals always knew what they wanted from such a transaction: Elect more Democrats.

What did the libertarians want from the transaction? It is here that the ridiculous folly of the enterprise is found. Most of the Will Wilkinson types are intellectuals who are embarrassed by what Hunter S. Thompson called the "Rotarian" instincts of the Republican Party. That flag-waving God-mom-and-apple-pie stuff just doesn't light a fire under the American intellectual class, which is not now, nor has it ever been, enamored of religion, patriotism and "family values."

As a political impulse, the sort of libertarianism that scoffs at creationism and traditional marriage wields limited influence, because it appeals chiefly to a dissenting sect of the intelligentsia. It's a sort of free-market heresy of progressivism, with no significant popular following nor any real prospect of gaining one, because most Ordinary Americans who strongly believe in economic freedom are deeply traditionalist. And most anti-traditionalists -- the feminists, the gay militants, the "world peace" utopians -- are deeply committed to the statist economic vision of the Democratic Party.

There is no natural political constituency for the sort of libertarianism that considers marijuana legalization and the flat tax as equally estimable objectives. When it comes to the basic electoral calculus of 5o-percent-plus-one, this theoretical equation has never been shown to add up in terms of real-world coalition politics. (Maybe the stoners just forget to vote?)

During the "long boom" unleashed by the Reagan revolution, it was possible for libertarian intellectuals to believe that the arguments for economic freedom were now so blindingly vindicated that even their progressive peers must admit the obvious truth. All libertarians needed to do, they fancied, was to shed the unfashionable baggage of the GOP coalition -- the Falwells and Buchanans and Dobsons and other such lowbrows -- and the progressives would eagerly sign up for this new project: Free-market gay marriage! Free-market abortion! Free-market environmentalism! Free-market transhuman biotechnology!

If that idea ever made sense, it only made sense in a context of Republican political dominance. When the Democrats were putting up losers like Mike Dukakis and John Kerry, when Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were crushing progressive dreams like so many ants underfoot, free-market intellectuals could attempt to inveigle their progressive friends: "Don't worry about those hayseed holy rollers, saber-rattling jingos and suburban Rotarians. They make a lot of noise, but they don't really call the shots. Look at your 401K balance. The market works."

Well, we passed the sell-by date of that argument somewhere between "Mission Accomplished" and "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." And all the libertarian intellectuals who've been sucking on the Koch tit over the past 25 years find that their progressive friends are as unpersuaded about the virtues of economic freedom as they ever were. Lending libertarian support to progressive causes -- the driving impetus of the gay-rights movement is egalitarian, not libertarian -- has strengthened progressivism, while doing nothing meaningful to advance the free-market cause.

With their Democratic friends now holding supreme power in Washington, progressives now openly celebrate Keynesian pump-priming and redistributionist economic schemes in a way they never would have done when Tom DeLay held the whip. Chuck Schumer can laugh that the American people don't care what's in the stimulus, and no one can effectively refute him.

At the apex of Republican power and at the zenith of the "long boom" ignited by Reaganomics, the "liberaltarian" impulse was a luxury that foundation-subsidized intellectuals could afford to indulge. The era of respectable intellectual luxury is now over, and serious people must now ponder the rude realities of coalition politics.

UPDATE: "Like the Higgs Boson, the liberaltarian is a phenomenon that hasn't yet been directly observed but that everybody hopes to find someday."

UPDATE II: Welcome, Instapundit readers! (Guess this means I'll hit the 1-million hits mark a bit early, huh?)

UPDATE III: A slight diversion, to take aim at the false dilemma (either tax cuts OR Keynesian spending) argument as put forward by Newsweek's Daniel Gross:
Adherents of the tax-cuts-only strategy are suspicious of free-spending Democrats, old-fashioned Keynesians, and big government. They believe -- no, they know --that tax cuts are more efficient than government spending, since people and businesses make better and quicker decisions about spending than government does. . . . The current, somewhat extraordinary circumstances, and the nation's changing economic geography, should make us wonder how effective tax cuts will be in stimulating new spending and investment.
Now, I addressed this either/or fallacy Monday, with reference to Megan McArdle's suggestion that marginal rates are now low enough that major Laffer-curve effects are not to be expected from further tax cuts. (Argue amongst yourselves.) What kills me is that Gross is allowed to make an expressly political argument under the guise of an economic expertise that he does not, in fact, possess:
Mr. Gross graduated from Cornell University in 1989, with degrees in government and history, and holds an A.M. in American history from Harvard University (1991). He worked as a reporter at The New Republic and Bloomberg News, and has contributed hundreds of features, news articles, book reviews and opinion pieces to over 60 magazines and newspapers. Areas of expertise include: economic and tax policy, the links between business and politics, the rise of the investor class, the culture of Wall Street, and business history. (Emphasis added.)
The man is a journalist, not an economist, and his echoing of Obama administration talking points ought not be disguised as economic analysis. Nothing wrong with being a journalist, you understand, it's just that Newsweek is doing a bait-and-switch by presenting Gross as an economic "expert." But if Paul Krugman can win a Nobel Prize, I suppose we're all experts now . . .

UPDATE IV: Linked by The American Catholic.

Mark Thompson says I'm "somewhat hyperbolic." Dude, you're just now noticing this tendency?



  1. That's harsh. But probably correct.

  2. It's hard to avoid a little schadenfreude at watching libertarians discover that, no, the Democrats really don't favor free markets/economic liberty. They've been played by the left and have served as useful idiots in enabling the biggest blow to their cherished principles since the New Deal, largely because they're deathly afraid of those icky social conservatives.

    How's that working out again?

  3. The hipper Libertarians just wanted to be free to smoke dope in an otherwise oppressive state,somewhat akin to
    Brave New World".
    Or they, like that overly tall idiot Megan McArdle, wanted to seem smarter and more hip at parties full of younger Libertarians.
    Now they have helped foist this leftwing dictatorship upon us.

  4. Another liberaltarian issue is immigration, where libertarians extend their fantasy ideology into helping the Dems import more people who'll give power to those who have anything but libertarian ideas. And, at the same time, that position turns off some of those who might otherwise support some libertarian ideas. Loose borders may also result in profits for some of those groups that underwrite the cosmotarians.

    Regarding Schumer, it would be fairly easy for someone to "effectively refute him" by going to one of his appearances or catching him in a hallway somewhere and asking him real questions designed to discredit him. Video of that can then be uploaded to Youtube. The problem is that no one else is willing to push such a plan, despite the fact that a very good video would result in a Drudge link and hundreds of thousands or millions of views.

  5. "the Democrats really don't favor free markets/economic liberty."

    What, precisely, about the last eight years would lead one to believe the Republicans are any different?

    I mean there's a couple of them out there, and for the most part they've been mocked and ridiculed by their own party.

  6. Yeah, how's that vote for Obama working out for you guys?

    Libertarians were an Epic Fail from 2004 to 2008. Too many of them were virtually indistingusihable from moonbats in their BDS. You've had a big part to play in this monster that has been created, all because you have the temperament of little children.
    You couldn't disagree respectfully, you had to amp up the paranoia and hysterics.

    Your chicken have come home to roost.

  7. As a libertarian, yeah, i did say "well, Obama might not be so bad". Make fun of me if you want, but in 2000 I also said "well, Bush might not be so bad". It's not like I had a choice in the matter.

  8. This post makes the common mistake of assuming that everyone who associates themselves with section of the political spectrum marches in lock-step with the rest of their labelled group. This is convenient for writing simplistic screeds such as this one, but is sufficiently removed from reality to be useless for anything other than generating snickers of agreement with less intellectually rigorous members of The Choir.

    Not all Republicans are religious. Not all Democrats want to spend the country into the ground. There are even quite a few Libertarians that have interests in freedom that go beyond smoking dope. Shockers! Personally, I share some beliefs with the Republicans, some with the Libertarians, and some with the Democrats. I support issues, not parties.

    Engaging in such shadenfreude (as thirteen28 so aptly described your piece) is entirely misplaced. The problem is that your party just got its ass handed to it two elections in a row and in just over half a decade has gone from controlling the White House and both houses of Congress to being as impotent as the Libertarians you're ... I really can't tell if you're mocking them or whining at them or what. Perhaps if you took a break from pointing fingers and engaged in a little introspection, the Republicans would realize that their own worst enemies are themselves.

    There are many large issues out there, and various people are at various positions along each spectrum involved. Most people, though, have little to no idea as to what's actually going on in the world and get their information from the MSM. So you can never count on the truth to be told about your positions and accomplishments. Frankly, you need a pretty close to 100% success rate to look good. It sucks and it's not fair, but that's reality.

    The Republicans completely abandoned fiscal conservatism and limited government during the Bush administration, and used social issues to win a few elections. Yes, there were some bad policies attributable to Democrats involved, but the Republicans could have fixed them when they had the power and it was the Bush administration that wiped out the hard reserves requirements for the banks, allowing them to use bogus mathematical models and computer simulations to determine how much cash they needed. We all know how well this worked out. Bush's people screwed up the transition of the Iraqi government pretty badly too - only when the Rumsfeld's strategy was replaced by Patreus' did things finally come together. Those are some pretty spectacular mistakes, and the party is paying the price.

    The question is, why didn't the party members hold their representatives accountable during this period? My answer is pretty harsh, but it fits what I've seen: Republicans got into power, and started buying votes with pork. They tried to "buy" the Hispanic vote with effectively open borders (another breathtakingly stupid move). When their constituents complained, their representatives told them to shove it and vote for them anyway because if they didn't they'd get liberal judges telling filthy hippies they could smoke weed, gays getting married, and drive-through partial-birth abortions for twelve-year-olds. And like the unprincipled, spineless, useless tools they are the Republican masses bent over, said "OK," and voted them right back in. What does voting out of fear instead of voting your principles get you? You lose the Presidency, Congress, and you'll wind up getting everything you were afraid of anyway.

    You want power back? Well, you'll have to wait a few years for Obama and the Dems to screw things up so badly even the MSM can't hide it. Hopefully, by then the Republicans will have purged themselves of their baser instincts and have regained their principles. Because I'd rather have you guys in power than the Democrats (as long as you're living up to your alleged principles, even though I don't agree with all of them).

  9. I'm really beginning to think that no libertarian sentiment is possible under our current political constitution and that a political upheaval--inevitable with unsustainable statist and socialist policies--is necessary for its ascendancy.

    Think I'm dreaming? Take a look at this blogpost at the Nashville Post. Someone writes (jokingly?) "lets get torches and pitchforks and burn down the Capitol" and a few dozen commenters chine in saying "Hell yeah! Let's do what Thomas Jefferson said to do." Meanwhile, Congress has approval ratings as low as 9%. If you read on the news tomorrow that any other country had 9% confidence in its elected officials, you would think (correctly) that some political revolution was about to take place there. If times get bad enough in the US, why wouldn't the same happen here?

    In the 1850s, no one saw a 5-year, 100,000+ causality civil war coming, but the country had an unsustainable political/social problems that weren't being ameliorated by the powers that be, and the situation deteriorated exponentially from there. The antebellum abolitionists were a strong political sentiment without a party also, and it was given one (the Republican party) after the collapse of another party (the Whig party) that could offer only wishy-washy rhetoric and compromise on the biggest injustice in American history. Sound familiar?

    Nor should we consider our current power structure to be the most liberal democratic, that it couldn't be improved upon by a politcal upheaval. The current mantra among Democrats is "We won the vote, you lost the vote. Stop being sore losers and take your socialist medicine." But any honest look at American politics shows that fair up-or-down vote on differing political views are few and far between.

    To function in American politics is to function under a two-party system, and it's insidious spawn of the primary system and party machinations therein. This is the system that got John McCain the Republican nomination when <50% of actual registered Republicans wanted him as the nominee. This is the system basically guarantees the only way of getting rid of a party Congressional incumbent is by having that incumbent lose to the opposing party. This is the system that encourages politicians to chase after disinterested citizenry (e.g the 30% who couldn't name Joe Biden as VP) with pandering soundbites and novel, overlapping government giveaways. Our electoral system doesn't guarantee bad leadership. It guarantees no leadership.

    So pardon me if I sound pessimistic here about rearranging the libertarian chairs or the two-party deck of our constitutional Titanic, but there are certain lessons that need to be learned by our political class about taxation, spending and the proper scope of government. If our leaders aren't learning them through peaceful elections, they may need to be taught them by other means.

  10. Evil Red Scandi made a lot of good points about Republican failures, so I won't repeat them. I would like to address a specific comment from TexasJew, though:

    Now [Libertarians] have helped foist this leftwing dictatorship upon us.

    No, you have George Bush to think for that. He defeated McCain in 2000, and again in 2008. The circle is complete.

  11. Right, because McCain was the clear libertarian choice in 2000. His platform in 2008 was what we labored under; the only degree of enthusiasm
    came from the Moose hunting gal, who had to carry McCain and the TARP..

  12. Thanks for taking notice of American Catholic. There is a diversity of opinion within Catholicism on this (but not on life issues, pro-life is the only way), so we appreciate and study up on the many ways to pursue a leaner and less centralized government.

  13. This libertarian (by default) is hardly interested in whether or not cannabis is legal (actually seeing the matter of sanctioned lawsuits and addictive backlash as a reason for modern prohibition), quite annoyed that those of an alternative lifestyle can't make a honorable, legal commitment (care not what you call it) but most concerned with the ever-growing government having no reflection of the favored mantra - personal responsibility. I see little in practice either by our Representatives or by those who support their placement.

    (I do like borders, though - easier to keep track of what I'm responsible for.)

    I was not swayed by the Left. I was not encouraged by the Right.

    I voted third party and caught a ridiculous amount of flack for it from both 'sides', because, of course - I was "really voting for the other guy." No. Actually, I was voting my conscious.

    I did not have any delusion of a Third Party succeeding the White House (Barr???), but I could not get behind the policies that either major party currently parades as ideal.
    I would be thrilled if somehow, some day we raise up a set of candidates that pick whatever quality from the Libertarian beliefs, then appropriately (realistically) apply the ideology.

    By this definition, I guess I'm not a hep Libertarian.
    That's alright...I'm too old to care.

  14. I've thought for a while now that liberals who learn economics are more likely to become libertarians than conservatives because the former allow them to support decriminalizing drugs, abortion rights, gay marriage and other stuff liberals seem to go for while opposing the bloat in government like the latter. What you call liberaltarianism is not really a philosophy. It's a farrago of whims, which is probably the best way to describe Obama himself.

    Anybody familiar with the LBJ, Nixon and Jimmy Carter administrations should have been able to see what was coming. I guess that's why I've heard so many renditions of "Won't Get Fooled Again" since the election.

    You'd think we as a people would have learned a lesson about gifts from government, but we never seem to.

    I have always believed that Obama's main talent was talking the liberal talk about change and hope, but without any real intellectual capacity beneath it. (Of course, I tend to view all liberals that way.) And his arguments for this "Stimulus" bill has only confirmed it. "Doing nothing is not an option!" is not a rational argument for spending multiple trillions of dollars. Talking about that kind of spending, I'd say that not doing it should be the first option, with the burden on those proposing it to give specifics and rationale for how it will bring the economy out of its decline.

  15. that considers marijuana legalization and the flat tax as equally estimable objectives

    You are correct. The two are not equally estimable.

    Legalizing marijuana is far more important if the objective is to restore any sort of constitutionally limited government.

    Until the right figures out that the idea is for no one to possess the power to shove their point of view down their neighbor's throat, the choice will remain between being force fed one of two sets of morality.