Sunday, December 05, 2004

An Emerging Left-Right Consensus?

Timothy Sandefur, in his recent response to this post, said:

Now that Dole and the Bushes have almost perfected the elimination of the Goldwater faction of the GOP...there is an ever-diminishing role for us [libertarians] in that party. Some large libertarian segments, most notably Reason magazine, have simply given up on the right wing, and are overtly courting the left, hoping that social issues will draw the left into greater embrace of economic freedom. I’m really not sure whether that strategy will work—I think the left is as resolutely hostile to individualism as the conservatives are—but do we really have anything to lose? “Libertarian” has become an epithet within the controlling faction of the Republican Party. I for one am sick of it, and were it not for the war, as I’ve said, I would have voted Democrat this year. And I suspect at least some leftists will be drawn to our side if we tell our story right: if we show that the liberation of previously oppressed people must include economic liberty....

Perhaps Mr. Sandefur is on to something. Here's Jonah Goldberg, writing at NRO yesterday:

Federalism! It's not just for conservatives anymore! That's right. All of a sudden, liberals have discovered federalism and states' rights. I discovered this while listening to a recent episode of NPR's Talk of the Nation, in which host Neal Conan and various callers discussed the idea as if some lab had just invented it....It's not surprising that liberals would suddenly be interested in federalism, given that a sizable fraction of them think George Bush is an evangelical mullah, determined to convert America to his brand of Christianity. As conservatives have known for decades, federalism is the defense against an offensive federal government....

The problem with the last half-century of public policy is that liberals have abused the moral stature of the civil rights struggle to use the federal government to impose their worldview — not just on racial issues but on any old issue they pleased. But now, all of a sudden, because they can't have their way at the federal level anymore, the incandescently brilliant logic of federalism has become apparent: Liberals in blue states can live like liberals! Wahoo! (Whereas, according to liberals, conservatives could never have been sincere when they talked about states' rights; surely, they meant only to "restore Jim Crow" or some such.)

The bad news, alas, is that conservative support for federalism has waned at exactly the moment they could have enshrined the ideal in policy. Just this week, the Bush administration argued against California's medical-marijuana law. Bush is also moving ahead toward a constitutional prohibition on gay marriage (which many conservatives, including National Review, support). After decades of arguments that Washington should stay out of education, Bush has made it his signature domestic issue.

It's not that the White House doesn't have good arguments for its policies. But it is impossible to restore federalism unless you start by allowing states to make decisions you dislike. Otherwise, it's not federalism, it's opportunism.

If large numbers of liberals (or leftists, as I prefer) begin to understand that a powerful federal government can do things they don't like -- as well as things they like -- those leftists might just get on board with federalism. I imagine there are still enough pro-federalism conservatives out there to forge a formidable, pro-federalism coalition.

Now, federalism isn't libertarianism, by any means. Some States might have strict gun-control laws and other States might have none at all, for example. But, to the extent that individual States can't repeal the Bill of Rights and related law, federalism strikes me as a good second-best to the present regime, in which Washington seems willing and able to micro-manage almost all social and economic activity.

As I wrote here:

Libertarian purists argue that government should have almost no power. Libertarian pragmatists argue that government power should be devolved to the lowest practical level. The pragmatists' case is the better one, given that the urge to regulate social and economic practices is especially strong where people (and votes) are concentrated....

...City dwellers prefer more government because they "need" more; country folk feel less "need" for government because they don't rub up against each other as much as city dwellers.

Thus the ultimate argument for devolution: Push government functions to the lowest practical level and allow citizens to express their preferences by voting with their feet.

To extend the caricature, those who like guns and oppose abortion can move to Texas, and those who hate guns and approve abortion can move to New York. A typical Austinite (which I am not) might prefer New York's policies but Austin's weather. Well, it's a tough choice, but at least it's a choice.

ADDENDUM: Jesse Walker, writing at Tech Central Station on November 8 ("The War Between the Statists") offered this bit of wisdom about federalism:

...The authoritarian conservative wants to maintain the old taboos. The authoritarian liberal wants to introduce some new ones, and he's had a lot more success. The religious right may despise homosexuality and pornography, but the gay movement is thriving, despite last week's losses, and porn is more freely available than ever before.

The liberal puritans, by contrast, are riding high in the media and in the courts. For many Americans, the Democrats are the party that hates their guns, cigarettes, and fatty foods (which is worse: to rename a french fry or to take it away?); that wants to impose low speed limits on near-abandoned highways; that wants to tell local schools what they can or can't teach. There is no party of tolerance in Washington -- just a party that wages its crusades in the name of Christ and a party that wages its crusades in the name of Four Out Of Five Experts Agree.
Sometimes they manage to work together. I say fie on both.

Since Election Day, a series of satiric proposals for blue-state secession have been floating around the Internet. Here's an idea for liberals looking for a more realistic political project: Team up with some hard-core conservatives and make a push for states' rights and local autonomy. If you have to get the government involved in everything under the sun, do it on a level where you'll have more of a popular consensus. Aim for a world where it won't matter what Washington has to say about who can marry who and whether they can smoke after sodomy....