The Great "Whither Libertarians" Debate

Over at Reason, Brink Lindsey is debating Jonah Goldberg and Matt Kibbe about whether libertarians should continue (once again?) ally themselves with the conservative movement and the GOP, or whether they should “go it alone” and “define a new center.” As one would expect, Lindsey opts for the latter while his interlocutors disagree.

I admit, I come at this question more from Goldberg and Kibbe’s perspective than Lindsey’s, but I come to a very different conclusion.

Lindsey looks at the general outlook of libertarians, finds the contemporary right uncongenial, but finds the left basically uncongenial as well. So he wants libertarians to advocate for the whole package on their own, and only ally tactically with one party or the other.

Goldberg and Kibbe basically say: listen: there’s a group of people out there who take seriously one part of the libertarian package, namely the importance of free markets and restraining government intervention in the economy. The Democrats aren’t gonzo on any of it. So fine, dissent from the contemporary right on one thing or another, but your only real, substantial allies are in that quarter.

But I would argue that, over the past thirty years, there has been a vast increase in appreciation of the importance of free markets across the political spectrum. Yes, government spending has spiked way up in the past two years as a consequence of the financial crisis and the recession (TARP, ARRA) – but discretionary non-defense spending is still much lower as a percentage of GDP than it was in 1980. The health care reform passed in this congress reflected a move to the “left” by the country – but it reflected a move to the “right” by the “left” inasmuch as it reflected conservative criticisms of past left-wing health care overhaul plans such as President Clinton’s failed first-term effort. Socialist parties in Europe preside over efforts to overhaul their welfare states to make them more efficient and responsive. Private sector unionization in the United States continues to drop, down to 7.2 percent in 2009. While very recently there’s been a revival of enthusiasm for regulation (particularly of the financial sector), the overall trend has been of more and more widespread acceptance of basic insights from economics that are part of a libertarian’s stock in trade.

So, yes, libertarians should find a friendlier home in the GOP if their priority is pushing the traditional GOP agenda of low taxes and weaker regulation of the economy. But should this be their priority?

Over the same period that saw libertarian priorities in economics relatively ascendant, we have seen a distinctly negative trend in the growth of militarism and the national security state. In principle, this should worry libertarians as much as government intrusion in the economy. In practice, it should worry them more, for two reasons: first, the trend has been in the wrong direction for a while; second, while there are large organized interests fighting against government intrusion in the economy, there are no large organized interests similarly interested in fighting the growth of the national security state.

If what libertarians are interested in doing is shifting the national conversation, they could do the most good by organizing people who are not culturally liberal but who value freedom into opposition to military spending and the cult of national security. If Brink Lindsey and, say, Andrew Bacevich got together to say: listen: moving the national conversation on the security state security and our military posture matters more to freedom today than keeping taxes low, and matters more to each of us than stuff we disagree on like immigration and gay marriage – that would get noticed. Over time, commitments like that could have a real impact – opening up space in one or both parties for candidates to step outside the Washington consensus on these matters without fear of being trampled to death.

Moreover, consider the “Tea Party” movement and its commitments on matters related to the national security state. Are they strong? I somehow doubt it. Rather, I suspect their views are predominantly shaped by the cues they get from elites that they consider culturally relevant. (Note: no disrespect to the Tea Party folks intended; I think this is the way almost everybody, including most people who are politically active, behave.) Libertarians, whatever their views on subjects other than taxes and spending, should find a reasonably welcoming audience at a Tea Party gathering. If you wanted to convince Tea Partiers of one thing that they don’t (by and large) currently believe, one thing that both (a) they might plausibly believe, and (b) makes a real difference to the future of freedom, what would it be? That creationism is an affront to science? That true libertarians should favor open borders? Or that “war is the health of the state” and, that being the case, when a politician conflates patriotism and militarism, you should watch your wallet?

Finally let me make an analogy to the impact of the Liberal Democrats on British politics. In the Thatcher era, what the Lib Dems did was make it possible for the Conservatives to take over by dissenting from Labor in a moderately rightward direction on economic matters, thereby splitting the left. Labor eventually responded, and we got Tony Blair’s “New Labor” which basically disavowed the old-left commitments of his party and got with the program of managing the welfare state within the context of a basically neoliberal free-trading world order.

But “New Labor” was distinctly illiberal on civil liberties issues and distinctly hawkish on national security issues. This left the Lib Dems to dissent from Blair’s Labor to the “left” on these questions. Which, in turn, ultimately led the Tories to shift their ground, to the point where the Lib Dems and Tories are now governing in a coalition that, if they keep their promises, should move the policy needle in the Lib Dems’ direction on both these fronts in a material way. And, more to the point, if the coalition government works then the presumptions of Conservative Party voters about what “good Conservatives” believe about national security and state police powers may change, which could have more lasting effects.

I’m not suggesting that libertarians form a doomed third party or anything of the kind. I am suggesting that libertarians could do more for liberty by pushing on areas that aren’t as well-worked as economic policy and the culture wars, areas where they might plausibly change the emotional dynamic in either or both parties, which is something I think this country dearly needs.