Potential Pitfalls of Political Alliances:

My recent exchange with Mark Kleiman over the issue of "fellow-traveling" with "wingnuts" raises the more general question of the dangers of political alliances. As I argued in my last post, it is sometimes necessary to make political alliances with people who we think hold flawed views or even "insane" ones (to use Kleiman's terminology). Such coalitions are a necessity for almost any political faction, but particularly a relatively small one such as libertarians. At the same time, coalition politics creates the danger that we will ignore or even try to justify the shortcomings of our political allies of convenience. The danger is real. But it doesn't justify abjuring all political alliances with people we strongly disagree with. Rather, the right approach is to recognize the problem and try to guard against it.

For example, I think that the current political situation justifies an alliance between libertarians and conservatives, who share a common interest in opposing the vast expansion of government advocated by the liberal Democratic administration and Congress. It's certainly possible that this view might lead me to ignore the shortcomings of conservatives. However, I have tried hard to keep that from happening. For example, I have not hesitated to criticize conservative icons such as Robert Bork and William F. Buckley. During the 2008 election campaign, I criticized Sarah Palin for her ignorance of important policy issues, even though I thought that the Republican ticket was the lesser of the two evils on offer last November. And I have a long record of criticizing the Bush Administration's massive expansion of government spending and regulation (e.g. - here and here). At one point, my sympathy with some of Palin's views on other issues may have led me to unjustifiably minimize her possible endorsement of creationism; however, I eventually noticed the mistake and corrected it. I suppose it's possible that I would have criticized various conservatives even more were I not in favor of a political alliance with them. But it's hard to argue that I have simply chosen to ignore their flaws from a libertarian point of view.

In sum, political alliances with people who hold what we see as flawed views are perfectly defensible so long as we don't blind ourselves to our allies' shortcomings. At the same time, it's important to make two distinctions. First, it's worth differentiating serious thinkers like Bork from far more dubious pundits such as Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. Association with the former is more defensible than with the latter. It would, of course, also be wrong to suggest that one must forego all cooperation with a political movement merely because it includes some extreme or ridiculous elements, since virtually any large political faction does so.

Second, there is a difference between active cooperation with a group and merely expressing views on a particular issue similar to theirs. In my post on "czars" that kicked off this discussion, I did not actually cooperate with Glenn Beck or other dubious right-wing pundits in any way. I merely expressed opposition to the czar system, an institution that they also oppose. I don't see why I should change my stance merely because people with ridiculous views on other, unrelated issues have the same position. If I instead supported the czar system, one could probably find equally ridiculous commentators who also hold that view. More generally, as Eugene Volokh explained in his post on the "reverse Mussolini fallacy," it is a mistake to reject a position merely because some of the people who endorse it are foolish or even evil.

Even active cooperation with the likes of Beck might be justified if a great enough good can be achieved through it. But we have to be careful that the good achieved really is great enough to justify the risks. I don't think you have to have meet anywhere near as high a standard if all you're doing is expressing a view that Beck also happens to hold, or cooperating with serious thinkers from a political orientation that also includes some crazies.