Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Can Liberals "Leave Us Alone"?

John Schwenkler cautions that despite the concerns ECL and I have raised about social conservatives being part of a "Leave Us Alone Coalition," similar concerns can be raised on social issues about many/most mainstream liberals.

Before responding to John's thoughtful post, I want to say two important things: first, my various posts regarding my prediction of, and optimism about, a left/libertarian alliance are written on my behalf alone - I honestly don't know the extent to which ECL or any of my new co-authors agree or disagree with those sentiments. Second, I want to promote John's blog, Upturned Earth, of which I was unaware until just yesterday, but which is easily one of the most thoughtful conservative/libertarianish blogs around.

Turning back to John's critique, he observes:

"There is a whole host of issues near and dear to the hearts of many religious conservatives and other traditionalist types - from homeschooling and gun ownership to sex education, vouchers for parochial schools, and the freedom not to violate one’s own convictions in dealing with same-sex unions - where liberals and secularists decidedly are not willing to take up the same sorts of “tolerant” stances that they demand (with sadly little success) in response to their own choices."

He then goes on to argue that any left-libertarian coalition will need to account for this in order to be successful, and that in the process it may wind up, ironically, bringing social conservatives into the fold. I want to make a few points in response:

1. Although I firmly believe that a left-libertarian coalition of some sort is inevitable, I do not believe such a coalition will be permanent any more than the right-libertarian coalition is or was permanent. Political coalitions are constantly shifting; so the question isn't whether a coalition will be permanent or even particularly long-lasting, but rather whether it can exist in the foreseeable future.

2. The areas John identifies are most definitely areas where liberals are inclined to interfere with peoples' lives in a way that is quite unlibertarian. However, I don't think they are large enough issues to prevent some form of left-libertarian coalition, which would be primarily centered on civil liberties and foreign policy much as the Republican coalition that included libertarians was centered on anti-Communism (and, after the fall of Communism, on the Contract with America, which by its nature could only be a temporary unifier). In the Republican coalition, libertarians sacrificed quite a few values on secondary and tertiary issues in order to protect their then-primary issue of fighting socialism and central planning (broadly defined). As such, they were more willing to go along with foreign adventurism and social conservatism. Now that anti-Communism and the Contract with America no longer serve as very good umbrellas for protecting most libertarians' primary issues, those formerly secondary and tertiary issues (such as civil liberties and foreign policy) have moved or are moving to the forefront for many libertarians. Just as libertarians sacrificed some secondary and tertiary values to advance their then-primary values within the Republican coalition, they would inevitably sacrifice some secondary and tertiary values to advance their currently-primary values in the context of a liberal coalition. It may be that the issues John mentions would eventually destroy a left-libertarian coalition - but only if and when civil liberties and foreign policy ceased to be the unifying issue behind which libertarians and liberals could unite.

3. Despite point 2, above, I think the issues John mentions are issues on which Dems and liberals have been getting significantly better over time or which are likely to be non-issues in the long run.

On guns, the Heller ruling largely ends any fears that there would ever be a nationwide gun ban; moreover, the reaction amongst younger liberals to the Heller ruling was surprisingly calm, and as far as I could tell the majority of younger liberals were either ambivalent about the ruling or in many cases even supportive of it (older, dyed-in-the-wool liberal newspaper columnists were a different story).

On homeschooling and vouchers, I would point to David Friedman's support of Obama in part because he believes Obama is more sympathetic to those issues than previous liberals have been; I would also point to the debate I had this past winter with Kyle from Comments from Left Field, which shows that liberals are more flexible on the issue than perhaps they get credit for (this is not to say that they do or will soon support parochial vouchers, just that there is more flexibility on the issue than is widely perceived).

Sex education is not really a national issue. Moreover, once we accept that some sort of publicly mandated curriculum is going to exist no matter what we do, the exact strictures of that curriculum are not really a libertarian issue, though they may certainly be an issue for conservatives (for instance, most libertarians I know of think that abstinence education as an alternative to traditional sex ed is an awful idea).

Finally, on the issue of compelling government officials to preside over same-sex marriage or civil unions, I don't think the libertarian position is at all clear. To be sure, public officials do not give up their religion when they join the government. However, longstanding law (which no one has sought to overturn, and which is partly the result of liberal anti-discrimination laws) makes clear that government employees are entitled to "reasonable accommodation" of their religious beliefs. So, if someone else is available to perform a ceremony to which a government official is religiously opposed, the government official cannot be forced to perform the ceremony. However - and this is important - a government official's duty is to the law as it exists. If the official is so religiously opposed to the ceremony as to be unable to perform it, then he has no right to hold that position with the government if the result of his doing so is that a gay couple is unable to obtain their civil union. In refusing to perform the legal ceremony, the official - who, again, represents the government in his official capacity - is placing his religious viewpoint above the law, and is thereby violating basic church-state principles. Put another way - a government official, acting in an official, non-discretionary capacity, may not act in a way that favors his religious views over another's. But this is not an infringement of the government official's liberty, either: the official is still free to believe as he wishes; he is just not free to use his capacity as a government official to impose those beliefs to the detriment of others. Finally, I would add that a government official's presiding over a civil union cannot, in and of itself, violate that government official's religion, as civil unions and civil marriage are not religious institutions, but are rather legal contractual relationships.

4. There are still issues where liberals take a clear position in favor of government intrusiveness, and ultimately these issues may be areas that cause a split in any liberal-libertarian coalition. But these areas are not areas that are primary issues for most libertarians right now. The examples that come to mind first right now are the the War on Fat and smoking bans.