From “Liberaltarianism” to Libertarian Centrism?

Reason has an interesting debate on the question of libertarian political strategy. Should libertarians seek to forge an alliance with conservatives or liberals or neither? Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg and Tea Party leader Matt Kibbe argue for reconsituting the libertarian-conservative coalition that was badly frayed if not completely severed during the Bush years. Cato Institute scholar Brink Lindsey argues against that view. Although I am much closer to Lindsey’s political views than Goldberg’s, I find myself agreeing somewhat more with Goldberg’s position in this particular debate.

I. Brink Lindsey’s Retreat from Liberaltarianism.

Lindsey seems to have stepped back from his much-discussed 2006 argument for a “liberaltarian” coalition between libertarians and liberals.

Today, Lindsey argues that libertarians should instead try to occupy “the center,” because an alliance with the left is no more viable than one with the right:

Does that mean I think that libertarians should ally with the left instead? No, that’s equally unappealing. I do believe that libertarian ideas are better expressed in the language of liberalism rather than that of conservatism. But it’s clear enough that for now and the foreseeable future, the left is no more viable a home for libertarians than is the right.

It would be interesting to know what led to Lindsey’s change of heart about liberaltarianism. I suspect that the vast expansion of government promoted by the Obama administration and the decline of relatively pro-market views among liberal intellectuals were both contributing factors. Lindsey’s new view of liberaltarianism is now remarkably similar to the one I expressed back when he made his original proposal: that liberals and libertarians have much in common in terms of ultimate values, but relatively little common ground in terms of practical policy agendas.

II. What Would Libertarian Centrism Look Like?

I would also be interested to learn more about what Lindsey means when he urges libertarians to seek out the center. Lindsey does advise this:

Declaring independence from the right would require big changes. Cooperation with the right on free-market causes would need to be supplemented by an equivalent level of cooperation with the left on personal freedom, civil liberties, and foreign policy issues. Funding for political candidates should be reserved for politicians whose commitment to individual freedom goes beyond economic issues. In the resources they deploy, the causes they support, the language they use, and the politicians they back, libertarians should be making the point that their differences with the right are every bit as important as their differences with the left.

It’s not clear to me, however, that Lindsey’s program is much different from what many libertarian organizations are already doing. Many of them have long championed such causes as drug legalization (a signature libertarian issue, if there is one), removing restrictions on immigration, and curtailing law enforcement powers, for example. Defense policy is an issue that divides libertarians among themselves, as Lindsey himself has reason to know. Still, more isolationist libertarians have not been shy about expressing their differences with conservatives in this field. Lindsey’s own employer, the Cato Institute, is a good example. Overall, it’s hard to name any prominent libertarian organization or think tank that hasn’t been involved in major causes that put them at odds with conservatives. At the level of the mass public, libertarian-leaning voters have in fact tended to be “swing voters” in recent elections, with a relatively weak sense of partisan loyalty.

To the extent that this hasn’t resulted in “an equivalent level” of cooperation with the left as that with the right on economic policy, it may be because few liberals have been willing to reciprocate. It’s striking that Lindsey’s own highly publicized efforts at forging liberaltarian cooperation met with little or no positive response among liberals. The same goes for similar attempts by other prominent libertarian intellectuals. Another factor is that the the left’s commitment to “noneconomic” freedom has eroded over the last several decades. Many on the left now favor such policies as paternalistic regulation, censorship of “hate speech,” government-mandated “diversity,” and so on. There are still important social issues where libertarians and the left see eye to eye. But there are also many where left-wing liberals favor not laissez-faire but a different kind of government intervention from that supported by the social right.

A successful libertarian centrism – if possible at all – would require a much stronger foundation that Lindsey lays out here. Among other things, it would have to overcome the difficulties associated with operating outside the two major parties in a political system like ours. The longtime failures of the Libertarian Party are relevant here. It would also have to reckon with the reality emphasized by Goldberg: many libertarian positions simply are not centrist in the important sense that they are far from those of the median voter.

Even if a strong centrist libertarian movement were created, that still would not eliminate the need for political coalitions with either the left or the right. So long as libertarians are not a political majority (and they are in fact about 10-15% of the electorate), they cannot succeed without cooperation from other political movements.

III. The Libertarian-Conservative Alternative.

In the short run, I think there is no alternative to some sort of political coalition with conservatives, a position I argued for back in 2008, soon after Obama’s election. As I expected, Obama and the Democrats have heavily emphasized expanded government spending and economic regulation – precisely those issues that divide libertarians from liberals while uniting them with conservatives. Moreover, the conservative backlash against Obama has to a large extent taken a libertarian small-government form rather than the nativist or right-wing populist forms that could easily have happened. It’s noteworthy that the Tea Party movement has overwhelmingly focused on libertarian themes, to the point where some social conservatives have attacked it for failing to emphasize social issues.

Most important, libertarians have a strong interest in restoring divided government, which would make it much harder for the Democrats to enact more massive expansions of government power. Historically, divided government has been a great boon to the small-government cause. For the moment, the only way to restore divided government is to cooperate with conservative Republicans. I hope for a Republican victory in 2010 for much the same reasons as I wanted a Democratic one back in 2006.

I also think that some of Lindsey’s arguments against a libertarian-conservative alliance are overblown. For example, he argues that the conservative movement is no longer a fit ally for libertarians because it has been taken over by “a raving, anti-intellectual populism, as expressed by (among many, many others) Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.” I’m no fan of either Palin or Beck. Still, just about any major political movement has its share of crude demagogues. As Lindsey admits, libertarians and conservatives were able to productively cooperate on many issues from the 1970s to the 90s. It’s not clear to me that Palin and Beck are any more objectionable than Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell, and Jesse Helms were. The typical conservative activist of thirty years ago was likely more anti-intellectual, populist, and xenophobic than, say, today’s Tea Party activists, who are on average more educated than the general population and often cite high-brow writers like Hayek.

Finally, it seems to me that the political right is now in flux. Having suffered painful defeats in 2006 and 2008, and witnessed the failure of Bush’s efforts to establish Republican dominance through “compassionate conservatism,” many conservative Republicans may be open to moving in a more small-government oriented direction. The newfound prominence of libertarian-leaning Republicans like Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan is some evidence of that. Libertarians might help influence the GOP in that direction. By contrast, there seems little chance of our being able to effectively influence the course of liberal Democrats at this particular point in time, when most of them seem more committed than ever to expanding the power of government and less willing than a decade ago to consider reducing it. Political defeat might change that, as it did in the 1980s and 90s. But the defeat will probably have to come first.

That said, I also think that there is a lot to Lindsey’s critique of the right for its major streaks of nationalism, illiberalism, intolerance, and xenophobia. On these points, Lindsey is often more persuasive than Jonah Goldberg’s rebuttal. Hayek’s classic critique of conservatism remains relevant here. For these reasons, I don’t propose any full-blown “fusionism” of the kind once advocated by Frank Meyer. I have too many deep disagreements with conservatives to want that (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Short-term or even medium-term political cooperation is not the same thing as a deep affinity. I also don’t propose that we ignore the many flaws of the right or forget about the wrongs of the Bush era. Political allies don’t have to be soulmates. But we can and should recognize that right now we have an important common interest.