Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Dem-Libertarian Lures?

Sebastian Mallaby discusses a New Republic essay (subscription required) that poses the question whether libertarians should ditch the Republicans in favor of the Democrats:

Brink Lindsey, the director of research at the libertarian Cato Institute...is not merely joining the large crowd of disenchanted conservatives who believe that the Republican Party has betrayed its principles -- spraying money at farmers, building bridges to nowhere and presiding over the fastest ramp-up in federal spending since Lyndon Johnson. Rather, Lindsey is taking a step further, arguing that libertarians should ditch the Republican Party in favor of the Democrats.

Why react to the temporary corruption of a party by abandoning it outright? Lindsey's answer is that Republicans are not merely failing to live up to their principles; the principles have altered. The party has been virtually cleaned out of the Northeast; it has suffered setbacks in the Mountain West; it increasingly reflects the values of its stronghold in the South. As a result, it has lost its libertarian tinge and grown more religious and traditionalist.

Would libertarians be more comfortable in the company of Democrats? On moral questions -- abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research -- clearly they would. But on economic issues, the answer is less obvious. For just as Republicans want government to restore traditional values, so Democrats want government to bring back the economic order that existed before globalization. As Lindsey puts it in his New Republic essay, Republicans want to go home to the United States of the 1950s while Democrats want to work there.

If Democrats can get over this nostalgia, there's a chance that liberaltarianism could work. For the time has passed when libertarians could seriously hope to cut government: Much of what could be deregulated has been, and the combination of demographics, defense costs and medical inflation leaves no scope for tax cuts. As Lindsey himself says, the ambition of realistic libertarians is not to shrink government but to contain it: to cut senseless spending such as the farm program and oil subsidies to make room for the inevitable expansion in areas such as health.

As it happens, this also describes a plausible agenda for the Democratic Party -- at least if it can shed the back-to-the-1950s yearnings of its reactionary left. Precisely because Democrats want government to provide social insurance against the volatility of globalization, the party has an interest in cutting unneeded federal spending. Precisely because entitlements are expanding so expensively, the party needs cost-saving ideas from anyone who has them -- including libertarians.
Of course, on one "social" issue liberals and libertarians are in very much different camps -- affirmative action. Libertarians don't like the idea of counting by race or trying to get defined racial and gender outcomes in college admissions or hiring practices. Clearly, Republicans are on the side of the libertarian "angels" on that issue.

Another area that poses problems for a Democratic-libertarian alliance is that Mallaby notes how conservatives were victims of their success because of welfare reform. Well, the Holy Grail for libertarians is entitlement reform -- Social Security, Medicare, etc. Mallaby seems to think that libertarians will happily just smile and enjoy the "inevitable" expansion of health-related costs. Put me down as dubious on that score.

However, Lindsey and Mallaby may be on the right track IF libertarians have become like many conservatives and liberals who are more interested in the role of government government plays in overseeing (or not) cultural and lifestyle issues -- economic issues be damned.

If that is the case, then, yes perhaps libertarians will line up with donkeys rather than elephants.

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