Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Marriage of Convenience.

"Is this a trick question?"

That was my first reaction to Cato Unbound's "big-picture" topic of the month: "Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?"

Forget the essays for a moment. Let's just look at the question, which is either incomplete or meaningless. To be fair, this provocative headline is intended to stimulate discussion, and is not intended as a rigorous inquiry. Still, there are ways to pose the question so it can be answered meaningfully. I submit for your consideration, a few examples along with the correct answers:
  1. Should libertarians become Democrats?
  2. Should libertarians vote Democrat in the 2006 midterms?
  3. Should libertarians only vote for the Libertarian party?
These questions can be answered with more rigor and certainty, and the short answers are:
  1. No
  2. Yes
  3. No
Longer answers follow, accompanied by rambling comments on the CATO essays in progress.

I love posing political arguments to libertarians. If you frame the argument correctly, validate your assumptions, construct it logically, present and document your facts, you can occasionally get a libertarian to actually change their position, and agree with you. This is very different than my experience with partisan Republicans or Democrats, who, if the argument has merit and they don't like the conclusion, will generally perceive it as an attack to be crushed by any means necessary, including invective and obfuscation (see Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Sean Hannity, Al Franken, etc.).

Markos Moulitsas lead essay "The Case for the Libertarian Democrat"
is an attempt to answer the "trick" question in the headline, and is consequently a muddle. I read it as answering question number one (1) in the affirmative ( i.e. it is a recruitment pitch for the Democratic party) and along the way, also making the correct argument for question number two (2). I suspect that he would be perfectly happy to just get agreement there.

As he mentions, this is his second attempt to invoke the concept of a "Libertarian Democrat". The first was a June 7 post on his blog titled "The Libetarian Dem". In the Cato essay, Moulitsas takes pain to distance himself from that first effort, calling it "a throwaway blog post" and "coarse, raw, and incomplete". I enjoyed the first post. It prompted me to join DailyKos in order to post the very last (and widely unread) of 900 comments with a subject line "practical libertarians and tactical voting". This quote is from that comment. In it I outline the primary problem I found with the original post, which is just as applicable to his latest.
"Invoking the bogeyman of large corporations as an evil that restricts freedom is simply not going to play with libertarians. Reason: There is a fundamental difference between governments restricting individual freedom, and corporations restricting individual freedoms... Government is sanctioned to use force (guns, jails, police, military, courts) to restrict individual freedom for the objective of common defense and domestic tranquility. The relationship between individuals and corporations is theoretically voluntary. Individuals can choose to be employed or not by a corporation, and to buy or not buy their products. "
Moulitsas was wrong then, and wrong now, when he endorses a statement that "corporations are becoming more powerful than governments." The statement is nonsense on the face of it. There is no real need to belabor the point as several responses to his essay takes Moulitsas to task on this very point, including: Michael Hampton at Homeland Stupidity, Mona at Inactivist, and Andrew at Obsidian Wings. Trent McBride at Catallarchy takes it a step further with this offer:
"Persuade me that corporate (coercive) power, to the extent that it exists, does not rest on governmental power at its foundation. I’ve never really seen anyone try, though that certainly could be my own fault for not having seen it. The most promising candidate in the comments (or in email) will be awarded a guest post to expound on this issue, along with a used (old but good condition) copy of The Machinery of Freedom."
Methinks that Trent's book is safe. Although I find this particular dead horse to be sufficiently beaten by the above, I am compelled to add a kick or two. This is the exactly wrong argument to make with Libertarians. Consider the examples that Moulitsas offers in support:
"... defense contractors now have greater say in what weapons systems get built (via their lobbyists, blackmailing elected officials by claiming that jobs will be lost in their states and districts if weapons system X gets axed). The energy industry dominates the executive branch and has reaped record windfall profits. Our public debt is now held increasingly by private hedge funds. Corporations foul our air and water. They plunder our treasury."
These assertions are either factually inaccurate, misleading, or off-target. If a corporation is engaged in criminal behavior (blackmailing, bribery) it is the legitimate role of government to prosecute and regulate their activity. If corporations endanger life and health by polluting air and water, It is the legitimate course of government through the courts or law enforcment to remedy, prosecute, or arbitrate. But to mix these examples in with oil company profits and hedge funds trading government bonds for profit as if they are all cut from one cloth, is incoherent at best. As I said - a muddle.

On the other hand. there is the kernel of an idea here that could appeal to libertarians in 2006. I thought Moulitsas abandoned one of his more salient points from the June 7 post in this most recent essay. Then, he made a distinction what he calls "traditional" libertarians and "practical libertarians".
"Traditional "libertarianism" holds that government is evil and thus must be minimized. Any and all government intrusion is bad. While practical libertarians (as opposed to those who waste their votes on the Libertarian Party) have traditionally aligned themselves with the Republicans, it's clear that the modern GOP has no qualms about trampling on personal liberties."
I'll amplify this point, as I think Moulitsas could and should have. The purist or "traditional" libertarians and "practical" libertarians subscribe to the same political philosophy. However, when that philosophy is taken to its extreme logical conclusion, it brings you to a fictional place, inhabited only by the New Libertarian Man. It is a place that has never actually existed outside of an Ayn Rand novel - A utopian ideal that has exactly as many real world historical examples as there are examples of the utopian communist ideal populated by the New Soviet Man. Which is to say zero, none, nada, zip. There is simply no evidence that a "pure" libertarian society can or would work. Inspired by Trent McBride, I will offer my (slightly used) first edition and autographed of copy of Barbara Branden's "The Passion of Ayn Rand", to anyone who can document a historical example of a "pure" Libertarian" society.

However, there is plenty of evidence that, to the degree that a flawed real world society guarantees and nurtures both individual civil and economic freedoms, to that degree a society prospers. The practical libertarian recognizes this , and will make decisions, support policy, and vote for leaders that will incrementally increase freedom in our inevitably compromised political society. Or perhaps more accurately, vote against the greater threats to freedom.

There is fertile ground here, if you want to plant seeds and harvest libertarians to vote democratic. It requires persuading "practical" libertarians accustomed to voting Republican, that by voting Democratic in 2006, they are voting to slow the growth of the state. To make that case, one need look no further than the sidebar of the CATO Unbound home page under the "RELATED @ CATO" heading. Slivinski's "Grand Old Spending Party", Healy and Lynch's "Power Surge" unambiguously document that the greater threat to our Freedom is found in this crop of Republicans holding the reigns of power in Washington. Niskanen's article "Give Divided Government a Chance" documents the only course of action available to practical libertarians in the 2006 midterms. Bruce Reed's reaction essay is essentially limited to this theme, but with a more partisan bent. Harold Meyerson's reply adds little to the discussion. It is interesting only in that he stakes out the "Traditional Democrat" position vs. Moulitsas "libertarian democrat" in an almost perfect analog of the "Traditional Libertarian" vs. the practical libertarian dynamic discussed here. In the Best of the Blogs reaction, Jane Galt at Asymetrical Information and Ilya Solmin at the Volokh Conspiracy reach the same (and correct) conclusion:
In short, in 2006 we have made a match, and will consummate a marriage of convenience between democrats and libertarians. It may be little more than a fling, a star-crossed union that is destined to fall apart in a year or two. But, it'll have plenty of fireworks, and be fun and exciting while it lasts.

Returning to the questions asked in the Cato Unbound title and introductory paragraph:
"Of course, the fact that libertarians have been so badly abused by conservatives doesn't necessarily imply they will find a more welcoming home among liberals. Is the Democratic tent big enough to include small-government free marketeers? Perhaps libertarians have something to gain by supporting to Democrats, but does the Democratic party have anything to gain by courting libertarians?""
We need to check some assumptions in that paragraph. In addition to sloppy punctuation and grammar, there is some sloppy thinking here. Voting for Democrats in 2006 clearly does not imply "finding a home among liberals." And the rhetorical question of whether the Democratic Party has anything to gain by courting libertarians is just silly. Of course they do. It is the same thing that the Republican Party has to gain by courting libertarians. Votes. In a polarized partisan environment, a small voting block can have influence far out of proportion to their actual numbers. Here is the a better question: Can practical libertarians organize sufficiently as a voting block to influence the positions, platforms and policies of both major political parties?

I outlined such a strategy when responding to the Ryan Sager post, "Hot-Tub Libertarians". The conclusion is reprised here:
"As pointed out in Ryan's article, libertarian organization is going to have to look different than traditional politics, after all, it is something we will have to be able to accomplish while sitting in the hot-tub.

What is needed, is an organizing principle. Ideally, a principle that is so obvious, so logical, and so clear-cut, that no leadership is needed, no parties are needed, no candidates are needed, and no infrastructure is needed. Ideally it is this easy: You think about the principle, and you know how to vote.

That organizing principle exists. It is Divided Government. It is absolutely clear-cut and easy to understand. Divided Government is documented by Niskanen et.al. to work in a practical real-world manner to restrain the growth of the state. As a voting strategy it can be implemented immediately. More importantly, it can collectively be implemented individually as we sit in our hot tubs and ponder the sorry state of the world.

Whatever the percentage of the electorate that libertarians represent, whether it is 9% or 20%, if they vote as a block for divided government, they become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single most potent voting block in the country, specifically because they are willing to vote either Democratic or Republican as a block. Specifically because they are not fused to one party or the other.

This means, libertarians must ignore what the politicians say and look at what they actually do. It means ignoring spurious invitations to fuse with a big tent party that no longer stands for anything meaningful. It means voting straight Democratic in 2006, and (if successful in establishing divided government with a Democratic Congress) voting Republican for President in 2008. It means the difference between libertarians being a completely impotent political force, and libertarians having the biggest swinging political "hammer" in town.

And it can be done from the hot tub.

And we can start this year.
UPDATE: 10/11/06
Nick Gillespie compares a libertarian/dem marriage with non-existent "couples porn" in the final reaction essay "Libertarian Democrats: The Titillating Myth". He takes his turn at the fish-barrel, shooting at the Democratic hacks trotted out to respond to Kos' lead essay. Frankly, I expected more. We are a few short weeks away from the mid-term elections. As Gillespie states, libertarians have been on the forefront of documenting the erosion of liberty and the advance of the state under the mantle of these big spending, big deficit, big government Republicans. He also explicitly acknowledges the benefits that could be derived from divided government:
"Reed is surely correct that many things went well during the Clinton years, yet the Man from Hope's biggest accomplishments — pushing NAFTA through, reforming welfare, balancing the budget, and electing a Republican Congress (miracle of miracles) — are inextricably linked to divided government, not longstanding Democratic aims."
Yet when it is time to connect the dots with the obvious conclusion, we get this limp summary:
"... Pew Research said that 9 percent of the electorate is libertarian — a bloc of voters big enough to swing any election these days. Pew also reported the libertarians went heavy for Bush over Kerry, 57 percent to 40 percent ... Based on conversations with ideological confreres these days, the GOP won't be getting anything like that kind of support come this November or in November 2008. But it's far from clear that many disgruntled libertarians will — or should be — moving to the Dem column in any straight-ticket way, especially if it means signing on to Meyerson's "New Dealish," Scandanavian social democracy (currently being rethought by its practitioners). Until Democratic partisans such as Moulitsas and Reed make a convincing — or maybe even a half-hearted — case for laying in with the party of Robert Byrd and Henry Waxman, they're just peddling the political equivalent of couples porn."
Kind of soft and flaccid, Nick. The country is on a highway to statist hell, and libertarians are supposed to wait for Moulitsas and Reed to "make a convincing case"??? What are you thinking? The case is closed and the verdict is in. Two more years of single party Republcian control takes us two more years slipping and sliding down the wrong road. For libertarians, this was never about "signing on to Meyerson's "New Dealish," Scandinavian social democracy". This is all about securing the documented benefits of restrained spending growth, and the oversight, checks and balances that are only available through a partisan divided government.

That libertarian 9% could be the difference in November. That libertarian 9% could become a meaningful political force, and get the attention of both parties. But it only happens if libertarians stop playing with themselves. Libertarians don't need to be looking for "couples porn" right now. Take my word for it, it is a lot more fun with a partner. Libertarians need to pop some viagra, and take a chance on romance with the Dems for the just next four weeks. Then we'll see how they behave. Sure, the marriage won't last. But it does not need to last longer than November, and who knows? - we might even give birth to something new and interesting. A potent libertarian political force.

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.

Just Vote Divided.


Michael Hampton said...

Since you really haven't defined a "pure libertarian" society, it's not really possible for anyone to claim the prize.

Nevertheless, I think the book is mine.

The Icelandic Commonwealth, existing from 930 to 1262 A.D., was the closest any society on earth has ever come to pure anarcho-capitalism, according to economist David Friedman.

It's a fascinating historical read.

mw said...


I am not yet ready to send you the book, as it looks like I have some reading to do. But, with this comment I will acknowledge that MH is first in line.

Let this be a lesson for all of us ...

Never bet on a sure thing. - mw