Sebastian Mallaby's column in today's Washington Post directed me to this article by Cato's Brink Lindsey in the New Republic posing a question that has been posed around here occasionally, whether libertarians should reconsider their traditional affiliation with the conservative movement and move toward the Democratic Party. I know that many libertarians do not consider themselves to be part of the "conservative movement," but I think it is generally true as a descriptive matter.

Both Mallaby and Lindsey focus on the level of specific policies, but I think there is a more fundamental question here about philosophies.

I often have pondered whether in the post-Cold War era a more natural alignment of American political parties are along the general lines of libertarian v. populist, rather than the traditional conservative v. liberal distinctions.

Many have remarked on the tension in the coalition of religious traditionalists and libertarians on social views. But I've never really understood why religious voters would be partial to free market economic policies. There seems to be an obvious distrust of the amorality of the market there, especially as it often produces what religious voters obviously consider to be immoral entertainment and other products. Nor have I ever seen among religious folks a particular appreciation of the invisible hand process of the market, as their worldview seems much more comfortable with a constructivist rationalism than spontaneous order systems. To the extent that there is a coherent economic philosophy here, it seems to me that it is more naturally communitarian than free market. This is consistent with the more specific policy observations that religious voters seem perfectly content with economic policies like farm subsidies, steel tariffs, immigration limits, and distrust of the WTO and other international trade organizations. Note also that during this past election, support for ballot initiatives that increased the minimum wage drew overwhelming support in the red states on which they were proposed. That doesn't seem very consistent with a free-market worldview.

On the flip side, it has never been clear to me why wealthy urban and entrepreneurial people would support heavier taxation and regulation as the baggage for the social policies that they like from liberal movement.

So why have the current "conservative" and "liberal" coalitions proven so sticky? My hunch is that it is captured in the distinction in Thomas Sowell's Conflict of Visions. I suspect that what distinguishes the two groups today are unspoken and unrecognized implicit assumptions about human nature and the way they manifest themselves. So it is not policies, nor is it governing philosophies, so much as it is the differences between the "constrained" and "unconstrained" visions of man, as described by Sowell. If Sowell is correct, and I think a strong case can be made that he is, then the "conservative" v. "liberal" distinction may be sustainable.

I know that many libertarians dislike Sowell's classification because libertarians do not seem to fit well within it. I have heard this criticism, but I think it misses the point of Sowell's analysis. My impression just from hanging around libertarians for the past 20 years is that at root, most libertarians actually bring either a constrained or unconstrained vision to the table. Hayek/Friedman economics libertarians generally have a constrained vision, Rand/Nozick natural rights libertarians have more of an unconstrained vision. Some, like Rothbard, seemingly resist categorization, but having read a lot of his work, it seems to me that he is more likely to fudge his economics to fit his philosophical priors than vice-versa, so I would actually place him in the unconstrained category.

Regular readers of this blog will note these sorts of tensions among the various conspirators here. I suspect that if pushed most of us would generally identify ourselves with the "conservative movement" generally speaking and have been known to frequent Federalist Society gatherings with some regularity, although it may at times be difficult to identify what exactly is the common glue that holds together even our little group.

Which seems to leave us with the ultimate question--on what basis do people, and libertarians specifically, choose their political affiliations? At the level of policy, governing philosophy, or human nature? My sense is that in order to answer the Mallaby/Lindsey question of whether libertarians eventually will migrate out of the conservative movement, or whether the parties will migrate toward different policies and philosophies, depends on the answer to that more basic question.