Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Why libertarians hate us, why they shouldn’t, and what we can do about it
I spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of the American Political spectrum. Over the years I have oppressed my wife and friends with long pedantic expositions on the subject and have produced a few posts on it since I took up blogging.

Jim Abrams of the Associated Press had an excellent piece last week on how thoroughly the Republicans have abandoned their states’ rights and libertarian and embraced the exercise of coercive power from the federal center. He doesn’t present much analysis, but he lists a large number of lesser-known usurpations by the federal government now that it is in Republican hands. We should all keep a copy on hand to produce during debates with libertarians.

He wasn’t the only one to discover how much the Republican leadership has abandoned some of the GOP’s core issues and core constituencies. Sheryl Gay Stolberg had a piece in the Sunday New York Times. She has some more analysis and focuses on some of the unhappy fiscal conservatives in the party.

Does this sudden love of the Federal government mean that the Republicans were lying hypocrites to begin with or that temptations of power are too strong for any of us to resist (except Gandalf)? Have they abandoned those issues and constituencies because the party has been taken over by a band of zealots pursuing some other agenda or because their leaders care about nothing but short-term political advantage and nothing? All of the above or none of the above?

As interesting as it may be to sort out the ideological evolution of the upper reaches of the Republican Party or trace the history of recent factional struggles in the same, for the moment I’m going to say it doesn’t matter. What matters for the purpose of this post is the simple fact that the Republican leadership and Bush administration have abandoned a core constituency. I want to use that observation for two purposes: first, to make some observation on the current state of the American political spectrum and second, to point out an opportunity for the Democratic nominee in the coming election.

My own interpretation of the American political spectrum rests on a few main points (some of these I’ve blogged on; some I have not). The familiar left-right or liberal-conservative political scale is an imperfect metaphor for the range of positions represented by the two main political parties. The scale is almost worthless for describing a broader world of opinions and positions not represented in the two party coalitions. The two parties are non-ideologically based; they are based on coalitions of interest groups (short digression re “special interest groups”: are there interest groups whose interest isn’t special?). There is no single objective philosophical criterion that can be applied to predict what position the parties will adopt on a new issue. The differences in the parties, and therefore the scale, are more psychological than anything else (this is point that I hope to get back to with a longer post someday). The parties periodically shift around on the scale. The scale itself periodically shifts around.

I’ve always been a little baffled by the alliance of libertarians and conservatives and by the hostility of libertarians to the Democratic Party. In their rhetoric, both the libertarians and conservatives rail at the supposed “big government” and intrusive “nanny state” tendencies of liberals and Democrats. Yet the conservatives and Republicans are have produced their own pet intrusive, bureaucratic programs—the War on Drugs has been a perennial favorite of theirs—and they have presided over the most fiscally irresponsible administrations of the last half century. During the same period of time, liberals and Democrats have been defenders of privacy and freedom in a number of spheres.

Libertarians do not fit well on the traditional political scale. In theory, at least, their position on most issues should be determined by a philosophical principle. At best, both sides of the scale have something to offer that pleases libertarians and something that annoys them. So, why do they focus their entire wrath on one end of the scale and not the other? What the hell is wrong with the libertarians?

I think the answer is that liberals and Democrats have suffered from their own successes. Generally, liberals and Democrats favor greater freedom in areas of personal conscience, morality, and artistic expression and greater regulation in the economy and property relations, while for conservatives and Republicans the stands are reversed. Libertarians favor greater freedom and less regulation in all areas. The liberals and Democrats have all ready delivered most of what they have to offer libertarians as part of their revolutions from the New Deal to the sixties. For the last thirty years, it has been the conservatives and Republicans who have had the most to offer libertarians through their attacks on government regulation and support for unfettered property rights.

This situation has clearly changed. The Bush administration is attacking many of the freedoms that the libertarians have been taking for granted. It is now the liberals and Democrats that have the most to offer the libertarians and the Republicans who are the greatest threat (at this point I have to separate the conservatives and Republicans because the Bush administration is clearly abandoning those traditional conservative issues and constituencies I mentioned above). Libertarians must now make a choice between the principles that they espouse and the alliance they have clung to for so long. In other words they need to choose which they like more, freedom or liberal bashing.

This election is the best opportunity the Democratic Party has had in a generation to peel a few Libertarian votes off from the Republican Party. It might be that this chance is only good for forging a temporary alliance of convenience, but it might be that a significant number of libertarians could be permanently convinced that the left is the better alliance. This is one of the messages that we need to cultivate this year.

Even if the libertarians can’t bring themselves to actually vote for a Democrat after demonizing them for decades, they might choose to stay home or vote for the Libertarian Party candidate next fall. It might be worthwhile for anyone who is very serious about getting Bush out of office to do what you can to see that the Libertarian Party has a place on the ballot in your state. Sign their petitions and when you talk to those friends and relatives that would rather die than vote for a Democrat convince them of the value of third party protest voting.

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