Return of the Conservative-Libertarian Coalition?

It's no secret that the Bush years have severely strained and perhaps broken the conservative-libertarian political coalition. Most libertarians were deeply disappointed by the Bush Administration's vast expansion of government spending and regulation, claims of virtually unlimited wartime executive power, and other departures from limited government principles. As a result, many libertarian intellectuals (and to a lesser extent, libertarian voters), actually supported Barack Obama this year, despite his being a very statist liberal. Republican nominee John McCain had opposed some of Bush's excesses, including rejecting Bush's stance on torture and being one of the very few GOP senators to vote against Bush's massive 2003 Medicare prescription drug program. But McCain had numerous statist impulses of his own, including the most famous piece of legislation that bears his name. Even those libertarians who voted for him (myself included) did so with grave reservations.

With Barack Obama in the White House and the Democrats enjoying large majorities in Congress at a time of economic crisis, it is highly likely that they will push for a large expansion of government even beyond that which recently occurred under Bush. That prospect may bring libertarians and conservatives back together. Many of the items on the likely Democratic legislative agenda are anathema to both groups: a vast expansion of government control of health care, new legal privileges for labor unions, expanded regulation of a variety of industries, protectionism, increased government spending on infrastructure and a variety of other purposes, and bailouts for additional industries, such as automakers.

Even if conservatives and libertarians can find a way to work together, it would be naive to expect that they can block all the items on the Obama's agenda. Many are going to pass regardless of what we do. However, a renewed libertarian-conservative coalition could help limit the damage and begin to build the foundation for a new pro-limited government political movement.

Obviously, a lot depends on what conservatives decide to do. If they choose the pro-limited government position advocated by Representative Jeff Flake and some other younger House Republicans, there will be lots of room for cooperation with libertarians. I am happy to see that Flake has denounced "the ill-fitting and unworkable big-government conservatism that defined the Bush administration." Conservatives could, however, adopt the combination of economic populism and social conservatism advocated by Mike Huckabee and others. It is even possible that the latter path will be more politically advantageous, at least in the short term.

Much also depends on what the Democrats do. If Obama opts for moderation and keeps his promise to produce a net decrease in federal spending, a renewed conservative-libertarian coalition will be less attractive to libertarians. However, I highly doubt that Obama and the Democrats will actually take the relatively moderate, budget-cutting path. It would go against both their own instincts and historical precedent from previous periods of united government and economic crisis. If I am right about that, we will need a revamped conservative-libertarian alliance to oppose the vast expansion of government that looms around the corner.

Reforging the conservative-libertarian coalition will be very hard. Relations between the two groups have always been tense, and the last eight years have undeniably drawn down the stock of goodwill. But if we can't find a new way to hang together, we are all too likely to hang separately.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The VC's 2006 Discussion of Libertarian-Conservative Fusionism:
  2. Return of the Conservative-Libertarian Coalition?