Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Great Minds Agree, More or Less


Randy Barnett, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, says:
In hindsight, I think that the creation of the Libertarian Party has been very detrimental to the political influence of libertarians. Some voters (not many lately) and, more importantly, those libertarians who are interested in engaging in political activism (which does not include me) have been drained from both political parties, rendering both parties less libertarian at the margin....

While some libertarian political activists are certainly Republicans and Democrats, the existence of the Libertarian Party ensures that there are fewer activists and fewer voters in each major party coalition than would otherwise exist. Therefore, each party's coalition becomes less libertarian. I do not mean to exaggerate the extent of this effect. But even a handful of political activists in local and state party organizations can make a big difference. Whatever one thinks of the initial creation of the Libertarian Party, its continued existence seems to be a mistake for libertarians.
Here's my take (from October 26, 2004):
Max Borders, writing at Jujitsui Generis, says:
A viable Libertarian Party is going to have to change its ways: 1) its platform, i.e. to moderate its views; 2) it’s [sic] image, i.e. of geeks and pot-smokers; and 3) maybe even its name and brand, i.e. a name and brand sullied by 1 and 2.
Here's a better plan. Don't run LP candidates for office -- especially not for the presidency. Throw the LP's support to candidates who -- on balance -- come closest to espousing libertarian positions. Third parties -- no matter how they're packaged -- just don't have staying power, given the American electoral system. The LP's only hope of making progress toward libertarian ideals is to "sell" its influence to the highest bidder.
My approach would keep the LP intact, as an ideological center of gravity for politically active libertarians, who would determine which major-party candidates and causes are worthy of endorsement and active support. It seems to me that such a scheme would give libertarian ideas greater visibility and leverage than the alternative posed by Barnett.

Given a say in the matter, I would argue that the LP ought to lean toward Republican candidates and causes, for reasons I have discussed in earlier posts (here, here, and here):
[L]ibertarians and conservatives generally see eye-to-eye on so-called social programs, affirmative action, Social Security reform, school vouchers, campaign-finance laws, political correctness, and regulation. Libertarians will never see eye-to-eye with conservatives on all issues, but it seems to me that they see eye to eye on enough issues to make a political alliance worthwhile.

If libertarians were pragmatic they would adopt this view: An alliance with conservatives is, on balance, more congenial than an alliance with liberals because conservatives are closer to being "right" on more issues, and their theocratic leanings are unlikely to prevail (the social norms of the 1940s and 1950s are gone forever). If libertarians were to approach conservatives en bloc, libertarians might be able to help conservatives advance the causes on which there is agreement. If libertarians were to approach conservatives en bloc, libertarians might be able to trade their support (and the threat of withdrawing it) for influence in the councils of government. Libertarians could use that influence to push conservatives in the right direction on issues where they now differ with conservatives.

Many libertarians will reject such a strategy, but they would be wrong to do so. We will never attain a libertarian nirvana -- whatever that is -- but we can advance some libertarian causes. We shouldn't let the "best" be the enemy of the "good."

* * *

Getting the left (i.e., Democrats) to buy into economic liberty may prove to be just as hard as getting Republicans to buy into gay marriage, abortion, and decriminalization of drugs. Bill Clinton alienated much of his party by supporting welfare reform and NAFTA. He also raised taxes (against Republican opposition), tried to nationalize medicine by the back door after his 1993 plan failed (thanks to Republicans), and seldom saw a regulation he didn't like (whereas the Bush administration has slowed the pace of regulation considerably).

Are Democrats likely to offer us another "Clinton" (but not Hillary) anytime soon? Perhaps the results of the 2004 election will cause them to do so. But that prospect doesn't do much to brighten my day. Social freedom has advanced markedly in my lifetime, in spite of rearguard efforts by government to legislate "morality." Government control of economic affairs through taxation and regulation has advanced just as markedly, especially under Democrats.

In sum, libertarians may be repulsed by the moralists who have taken over the Republican Party, but that moralizing, I think, is a lesser threat to liberty than regulation and taxation. For that reason -- and because Republicans are more likely than Democrats to defend my life -- I'm not ready to give up on the GOP.

* * *

I view a stable society as a necessary condition of liberation. Stability helps to ensure that we keep the liberation we've gained as individuals, without sacrificing other values, such as the prosperity we enjoy because of somewhat free markets and the security we enjoy because we remain resolute about fighting criminals and terrorists.

Of course, there is such a thing as too much stability. For example, a society that frowns on actions that do no harm to others (e.g., a white person's trading with or marrying a black person) and then uses the government to bar and penalize such actions is not conducive to liberty.

But efforts to secure personal liberation can be destabilizing, and even damaging to "liberated" groups, when "liberation" proceeds too swiftly or seems to come at the expense of other groups (e.g., the use of affirmative action to discriminate in favor of blacks, the insistence that marriage between man and woman is "nothing special" compared with homosexual marriage). For, as I said here, "[t]he instincts ingrained in a long-ago state of nature may be far more powerful than libertarian rationality."

Where does that leave libertarians? Well, it leaves this libertarian rather more sympathetic to conservatives, who are more reliable than leftists about defending life and economic liberty....

When I say "defend my life," I mean on city streets as well as overseas.

...I think libertarians have a lot to lose by throwing in with leftists. And they probably have nothing to gain that won't be gained anyway, as society proceeds -- in its glacial way -- to liberate individuals from the bonds of repressive laws.

Why should libertarians make a Faustian bargain with the left to achieve personal liberation -- which, with persistence, will come in due time -- when the price of that bargain is further economic enslavement and greater insecurity?


For corroboration, I turn to Philip Klein's "Rifts and the Right" at Tech Central Station:
Whether libertarians like it or not, cultural issues most likely did more to reelect President Bush than enthusiasm for Social Security reform.

This does not mean that libertarians who want to influence conservative thought should throw their hands up in despair. A debate that has echoed in conservative and libertarian enclaves on the Internet over the past few days has focused on the rift between the two groups, but there is a common ground to be had. To achieve this common ground, libertarians must acknowledge that values are important and conservatives must push to remove government from the values debate.

Libertarians should realize that it is not, by definition, a contradiction of limited government principles to suggest that the erosion of traditional values has had adverse effects on American society. In fact, the existence of a culture that fosters shared values is essential to a free society....

The problem with social conservatives lies not in their ultimate goal of strengthening families or in their belief that religion has an important role to play in society, but in their means of getting what they want. If conservatives believe in small government, they can't make an exception on social issues.

Almost every major "values" issue originates from the government being overly involved in areas it shouldn't be in. The debate over stem-cell research is spurred by government involvement in medical research. School prayer is controversial because parents are denied control over their education dollars....

Libertarians and conservatives share a common interest in getting the government out of people's lives while preserving the values on which this country was founded.

As I wrote in Part IV of "Practical Libertarianism for Americans":
Forbearance from meddling in the socio-economic order implies laissez-faire, except to prevent or remedy an actual harm....As Hayek pointed out, liberty requires a degree of stability in society; otherwise, how can you decide, with any degree of confidence, what sort of life and livelihood to pursue? Of course, there can be such a thing as too much stability (as Hayek also argued), as well as too much instability. Thus it is equally damaging to liberty to use the law to bar interracial marriage, to foster affirmative action as it is practiced in the United States, to prohibit smoking on private property, or to regulate economic activity on the basis of environmental hysteria rather than sound science.

To paraphrase what I wrote here, you may want government to meddle in certain private matters because that meddling seems to advance liberty. But it should bother you that government can just as easily restrict liberty, all in the name of meeting a pressing social or economic need. Government has taken liberty down a slippery slope, and every instance of meddling -- always for a "good" cause -- creates a precedent for another step down the slope. It all reminds me of this exchange from Act I, Scene 6, of Robert Bolt's play about Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons:
Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law.

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that.

More: Oh? And when the last law was down--and the Devil turned round on you--where would you hide? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.