ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Libertarians will never be in the Liberal (Progressive) Sphere

Bruce Bartlett has this column which makes the case that Progressives & Liberals might be able to accommodate libertarian members within the ranks of the Democratic Party, essentially the fusion of political thought into Liberaltarians.

Here's an excerpt of his column:

I recently attended a dinner with a group of prominent liberal and libertarian bloggers to see if there is a community of interest that might lead to closer cooperation on some issues.

On the surface, there would appear to be potential for an alliance. Libertarians tend to be liberal on social issues, favoring such things as gay marriage and drug legalization; and also liberal on defense and foreign policy, opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and opposing torture and restrictions on civil liberties in the name of national security.

But libertarians are conservative on economic policy--favoring a free market with virtually no government intervention except the enforcement of contracts, and no government spending or taxes except those to pay for a very minimal police force and military.

Libertarians' views on social policy and national defense make them sympathetic to the Democrats, while their views on economic policy tend to align them with the Republicans. If one views social, defense and economic policy as having roughly equal weight, it would seem, therefore, that most libertarians should be Democrats. In fact, almost none are. Those that don't belong to the dysfunctional Libertarian Party are, by and large, Republicans.
One is not likely to run into that type of libertarian at a Washington dinner party. These libertarians tend to be well-educated, arriving at his or her philosophy through reading obscure books or random contact with some libertarian in graduate school. They don't own guns--probably never even fired one, don't mind paying taxes too much, have no particular nostalgia for the gold standard and certainly would not choose to live in isolation on a mountaintop. They are cosmopolitan, urbane, articulate and interested in ideas more than just about anything else. They are not especially career-oriented--they are happy to be paid less than they probably could make as long as they don't have to compromise their principles and can do work that advances the cause. For the most part, they aren't family-oriented or religious, and they mostly fit the stereotype of a nerd.
I believe there should be more balance in the libertarian strategy, with civil liberties and non-interventionism having closer to equal weight with economic freedom.

In return, liberals can learn something important about economics from libertarians. Liberals often turn to government to solve social problems simply because that is their default position. But often, there are private-sector alternatives that may in fact be superior. The rich diversity of America's states and localities shows there are many different ways of dealing with social problems that don't necessarily require more government.

I hope the dialogue continues.

Bruce Bartlett is a former Treasury Department economist and the author of Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action and Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.

Bartlett points to the extension of the Civil Rights Act and Women's suffrage as two examples where the Feds action resulted in more freedom for the individual, demonstrating that there may be common ground between libertarian and Democrat initiatives. (Never mind that the GOP passed the deciding votes for the Civil Rights Act.) Unfortunately these examples are few and far between.

Another point I would like to make with Bartlett's analysis is that he's talking to inside the Beltway Libertarians. These folks do not represent the vast majority of people who might rally to the cause of individual freedom. In all likelihood, these D.C. libertarians are steeped in Libertarian thought, but their daily life is spent at the teet of the Federal government or of some wonkish think tank.

The final piece of analysis that Bartlett doesn't consider is how far afield the Democrat/Liberal/Progressive movement has gotten from the concept of liberalism (as defined by classical liberalism). While the Left may push for Gay Marriage, Abortion, drug legalization (certainly not a position any conservative would ever tolerate - please don't look at Clarence Thomas or William F. Buckley), in the end the Democrat/Progressive/Liberal animating force is to eliminate individual freedom and transfer that power to the collective.

Education? Democrats have no interest in letting you decide on the best education for yourself or your family. This is clearly an individual rights issue which would put the Left and Libertarians at odds.

Health Care? Rationing of care to the sick guided by the state is the end goal. Similarly controlling your health (e.g. every decision you make throughout any given day which might impact your health) is a major initiative of the Left, from taxing soda and sugar to outright banning of smoking, amounts of salt, and trans fats.

Foreign Policy? I doubt a libertarian would appreciate liberal foreign interventions (only in cases where no national interest is involved) over "conservative" interventions (where there are geopolitical, economic, and humanitarian concerns).

The Environment? The progressive push is to limit individual choice and free market innovations to increase the role of government in identifying and selecting technologies to improve the environment.

Private Property? The progressives are eager to seize property under the takings clause if it can be justified as expanding the tax base. Seizing large, multinational corporations for the benefits of the workers and public policy is not something that Libertarians would view as compatible with their philosophy.

Abortion? I could make an extremely compelling argument that the practice of abortion - especially late-term abortion - is anathema to libertarian philosophy, since the liberty of the child is the penultimate factor which turned me away from a "pro-choice" position. (My wife was born to young parents and there was much discussion amongst the wider family about whether her teenage should take advantage of the now legalized and "safer" procedure. I am grateful that the teenage mother and father thought about her right to live.)

I see little in the philosophy of the Left which would make it appealing to a true libertarian. Bartlett makes the mistake of equating Libertarianism with only economics. He fails to understand the economics is actually not about money (taxes, spending, fiat money, etc) but the freedom to choose - the freedom to weight the costs and benefits of a particular action and make your own decision on what is best for you.

Bartlett fails to understand that individual activity is economics.

While many libertarians may focus on tax policy, red-ink spending, etc., the underpinning for libertarian thought is that the individual is better able to make decisions which (in the aggregate) are better informed than a centralized bureaucracy.

The decision to drive to work? Economic decision.
The decision to eat at a fast food joint? Economic decision.
The decision to see the doctor about a cold? Economic decision.
The decision to spend an hour visiting a friend instead of shopping? Economic decision.
The decision to go to a private school of your choice vs. the local government run school? Economic decision.
The decision to purchase a large vehicle which can transport you and your family in safety and comfort over a small car? Economic decision.
The decision to fire an employee who is underperforming? Economic decision.
The decision to have another child? Economic decision.
The decision to go to a 4 year university or start your own business instead? Economic decision with long-term implications.

You get the point. And each and every one of these decisions has a cost and benefit to the individual which he or she weighs against a myriad of alternatives. This is economics.

I do not see the Left/Progressive/Democrat philosophy ever moderating itself in this regard.

If Bartlett wants to get a better understanding of libertarian thought, perhaps he should do a bit more than read 1) the talking points from single website and 2) have cocktails with inside the beltway libertarians.

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler

Comments (4)
Elisa said...

Very good essay! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This is just one more reminder that the only real way to keep our economy strong is not by raising taxes, but by keeping taxes low, fair and simple.

We need to take action and contact our legislators and sign petitions like the ones the U.S. Chamber of Commerce backs (here).

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Anonymous said...

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