Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Towards a Libertarian Realignment

In my post on the DNC deal on Sunday, I linked to Will Wilkinson's outstanding post on so-called "Liberaltarianism." Wilkinson's post is outstanding and, as much as I didn't want to, I found myself nodding in agreement with just about everything he wrote. In the post, Wilkinson points out that although much libertarian attention is focused on Rand and Rothbard, thinkers like Hayek and Friedman were far less absolutist in their approach and far more willing to argue on behalf of some form of basic social safety net. This is not to say they were socialists - far from it. And that is exactly Wilkinson's point, which is that not every single government program represents an irrevocable slide towards socialist totalitarianism. Indeed, he argues that the experience of most liberal welfare states in recent years shows a general trend away from socialism and towards a "liberal-capitalist welfare state."

Finally, Wilkinson argues that the death of any possibility of full-on socialism, combined with the end of Communism has permitted libertarians to more greatly emphasize social issues, something I have argued repeatedly. As a result, we no longer have much of anything in common with the American Right. On the other hand, the effective death of outright socialism in a large part of the American Left makes a long-term alliance with them completely natural. Indeed, such an alliance would be much more of a reunion than a new coalition - as Hayek himself argued in his classic Road To Serfdom, many socialists were really just classical liberals who became frustrated with the speed of free markets and were effectively suckered into alliances with groups that had rather illiberal ends. In other words, the difference between libertarians and many, even most, American liberals is one solely of means rather than ends. By comparison, after 8 years of the Bush Administration, I think it is increasingly clear that the differences between libertarians and American conservatives is fundamentally one of ends rather than just means.

Ron Chusid, a self-avowed liberal with whom most libertarians disagree only rarely, notes that liberals should welcome libertarians into their fold, saying: "If you think of libertarianism in terms of the prominent political candidates this year, you are also missing a considerable amount of libertarian thought which is much closer to liberalism, especially if we remember the origins of liberal thought. "

This is not to say that Wilkinson's points, which have been receiving an awful lot of attention in the libertarian blogosphere, are above criticism. Indeed, Arnold Kling has written his own partial dissent that is worth reading (H/T: Art of the Possible). However, I think Kling falls into a significant logical trap, as I wrote in a comment at AOTP, and which reiterates much of what I have stated repeatedly on this blog: that politics are about shifting coalitions, and there is no reason to believe that a coalition will remain static if its constituent members cease to have much in common:

I think Kling makes an extremely common mistake, which is in assuming the political left to be monolithic. The fact is that the “Left” in this country, just like the “Right” is just a mish-mosh coalition of various ideological groups. Those interest groups can and do change sides over the course of time, as different issues come to predominate within the group.

Much of what the “Left” generally claims to believe in is not as universally held as they like to think. Instead, many in the modern Left coalition, just like many in the modern Right coalition, conform their political views over time on lower priority issues to match the views of coalition members to whom those issues are of higher

So I think it depends which element of the “Left” you’re talking about. The Barack Obama wing of the Dem Party, for instance, typically is most concerned with civil and personal liberties and a less aggressive foreign policy; meanwhile, the populist wing of the party (now dedicated to HRC) is primarily concerned with populist economics. The Obama wing tends to have a pretty good understanding of the concept of free markets; what winds up happening, though, is that they wind up sounding like outright socialists because the figure that people within their coalition who care more about the issue than they do probably also know more about it than they do. Similarly, politicians in this wing of the party have to tailor their message to be more populist on economic issues in order to make sure they retain the support of the more populist elements of the party.

If you look at the survey TNR posted a week or two ago regarding the respective political messages of the two parties, you kind of get a good idea of what I’m talking about. In that survery, something like 60 or 70 percent of Dems wound up agreeing with restrictions on free trade when the survey indicated that free trade was the Dems’ position; but when you removed party labels from the questions, that number dropped to barely half, with the rest saying that they supported more open trade policies.

Bottom line: if economic populists begin to shift to the Republican Party due to the GOP’s stance on social issues, foreign policy, and immigration, then the remaining Dems are likely to be well worth libertarians joining as coalition members. As I said yesterday, the threatened defection of HRC supporters would hasten this result. However, without that kind of defection, McCain is probably not the candidate to pull the economic populists into the GOP fold. Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, would have been exactly that candidate.

In the short term, the coalitions have not switched enough to make me willing to gamble on Obama, even though I think he is a far superior candidate to most recent Dems. In the long-term, though, I see no reason for libertarians to return to the GOP fold.

UPDATE: Several other bloggers have picked up on this now, each with some very smart takes that provide a good supplement to what I've written above: Fester at Newshoggers, Kyle at CFLF, and Ron Chusid. Fester's post does a particularly good job of describing the nature of political coalitions, concluding that:

The coalitions that are assembled under the labels and institutions of Republicans and Democrats will change after this election. But that is normal and healthy. And this is the far more likely outcome than a complete rejiggering of American voting rules, political norms and constitutional governance structure that would be needed to break a two party hold on power.