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Libertarian Democrats?

The internet is abuzz with controversy over Markos Moulitsas' (A.K.A. - DailyKos) argument for "libertarian Democrats," the claim that the Democratic Party, if given power, is likely to promote libertarian values, or at least do so to a much greater extent than Republicans have. Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council, and liberal economist Mark Thoma have tried to buttress Kos' case with additional arguments of their own.

I agree with the libertarian Democrats enough to believe that a limited Democratic victory in the 2006 elections will be good for libertarian values on balance. This is not because I have any confidence in the Democrats per se, however, but because I believe that divided government can limit the growth of the state (as it did in the 80s and 90s) and that a Democratic victory is necessary to punish Republicans for their many errors and sins.

I am skeptical, however, of Kos' broader claim that Democrats are truly the party of limited government, or are likely to be more of one than the Republicans. There are two big flaws in the case: The Democrats' position on government spending, and their heavy dependence on political support from public employees' unions.

Kos and his allies in this debate have rightly focused on the Republican's massively profligate spending over the last few years. And I too am more than willing to condemn Bush and the Republicans on this score. But it is significant that the Democratic Party, for the most part, not only failed to oppose Bush's spending increases, but actually argued for even more domestic spending than the Republicans were inflicting on us. For example, Democrats opposed Bush's massive $500 billion prescription drug benefit in large part because they thought it should be even bigger than it was, and the Democratic Party today continues to argue for replacing Bush's plan with one that is even bigger. The same is true of the Democratic position on most of Bush's other major spending initiatives, such as the No Child Left Behind Act. In the 2004 campaign, John Kerry likewise called for even more domestic spending than had been approved by Bush. Although I am not going to analyze the issue in detail here, what is true for spending is also true for regulation: on most issues, the Democrats support as much or more government regulation as Bush's Republicans do.

In addition to its position on specific size-of-government issues, the Democratic Party also has a major structural obstacle that will make it difficult for its politicians to move in a libertarian direction: the Party's dependence on public employees unions. Public employee unions such as AFSCME and the National Education Association are probably the biggest and most important sources of funds and political activists for the Party. Teachers union members alone accounted for about one quarter of the delegates at the 2004 Democratic national convention (see previous link).

It is difficult to think of an interest group more inimical to limited government than public employees unions. After all, efforts to shrink government necessarily mean fewer jobs and/or less income for the union members, and less union dues to pay the salaries and provide the perks of union leaders. The need to cater to these powerful interests significantly limits the extent to which the Democrats can move in a libertarian direction. Liberal bloggers such as Kos and Thoma can afford to ignore or downplay the needs of the unions, but Democratic politicians who want to get elected to office cannot.

The Republicans, of course, have their own pro-big government interest groups, such as large agribusinesses who benefit from farm subsidies, and corporations who benefit from corporate welfare. However, at least as far as I can tell, no such interest group provides anything like as large a proportion of Republican funds and political activists as the public employees unions do for the Democrats.

UPDATE: Jane Galt/Megan McArdle of Asymmetrical Information, presents some additional criticisms of the libertarian Democrat position here.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. How to be a libertarian Democrat:
  2. Libertarian Democrats?
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How to be a libertarian Democrat:

Back in 2002, co-conspirator Randy Barnett published an op ed providing a list of steps that conservative Republicans could take to increase their appeal to libertarians without abandoning their own principles. The current internet debate about "libertarian Democrats" gave me the idea of creating a similar list for liberal Democrats. I have deliberately confined my proposals to those that do not go against basic principles of mainstream liberalism and those that are at least somewhat politically feasible. Here are the three best suggestions that occur to me:

I. Oppose Government Subsidies for Rich People.

There are numerous government programs that subsidize big business, wealthy individuals, and others who are not needy by an stretch of the imagination. Not all of these can be immediately eliminated at an acceptable political cost to Democrats, but at least some of them can. An excellent example of the latter is the massive system of federal farm subsidies, considerably expanded by President Bush's 2002 Farm Bill. The vast majority of the money goes to large agribusinesses. From the point of view of partisan Democrats, it is also worth noting that most of the money goes to socially conservative Red States (just ask uber-liberal economist Paul Krugman). If the Democrats advocate repeal of the 2002 farm bill, they can not only please libertarians, but also defund some of their most inveterate political opponents, thereby improving their political standing at little cost to themselves.

There are many similar examples of "corporate welfare" in the budget, though farm subsidies are the single largest. Many general programs such as Social Security and Medicare also give a lot of their benefits to the wealthy and the upper middle class. Means testing these programs would be one way for liberal Democrats to appeal to libertarians by reasserting the liberal principle that government should not be in the business of taking from the poor (among others) to give to the rich.

In theory, of course, many liberal Democrats already oppose these kinds of policies. But few (Krugman excepted) have made a priority of attacking them, and congressional Democrats supported the Farm Bill and most other corporate welfare polices no less than Republicans did. If Democrats put real emphasis on changing these policies and made this an important part of their political program, they could make far greater inroads with libertarians.

II. Reconsider Federalism.

Traditionally, liberal Democrats have supported a strong central government and opposed limits on its power. However, this position was premised on the notion that the federal government will usually (if not always) be under liberal Democratic control. For the last 25 years, however, and on into the foreseeable future, it is likely that conservative Republicans will control Congress and the White House as much or more often than liberal Democrats. Indeed, the Bush Administration and its congressional allies have raised the art of using federal power to override liberal policies enacted by state governments to new heights. Consider the examples of No Child Left Behind Act, medical marijuana, assisted suicide, Terri Schiavo, and a host of other cases. (for details, see the last part of my article here). Some liberal legal scholars and intellectuals, such as Franklin Foer, have taken note of these developments and have begun to argue for federalism and decentralization. But not enough to make a real difference. Liberal Democrats are never going to support as much decentralization of government as libertarians do. But they can certainly support considerably more stringent limits on federal power than exist at present.

III. Restrain the War on Drugs.

Far more people are unjustly imprisoned as a result of the War on Drugs than as a result of President Bush's policies on the War on Terror. There are more than 300,000 Americans incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, including some 55% of all federal prison inmates and 21% of state prison inmates. If even 1% of these people are actually innocent of the offenses charged (probably a lowball figure), this would be far more than the total number of inmates at Guantanamo (who include a large number of genuine terrorists, as well as a certain percentage of innocents). And this approach to the issue implicitly assumes that punishing people for using drugs disapproved by the state is in itself morally justified, a premise that pro-choice liberals committed to the idea that we own our bodies may want to question.

Given the prevalence of prison rape and other abuses, it is also likely that many drug offenders undergo far worse conditions in our prisons than do Guantanamo detainees. Moreover, at least in the federal system, a defendant can be sentenced to an extremely lengthy term for possessing or planning to sell even very small quantities of illegal drugs.

As Radley Balko shows in this excellent recent paper, the expansion of the War on Drugs has led to numerous military-style raids on the homes of mostly nonviolent drug suspects. Balko cites estimates as high as 40,000 such raids per year. He also shows that these raids often kill or injure innocent people, as well as causing extensive property damage. The resulting harm (or even a fraction thereof) almost certainly dwarfs that caused by civil liberties abuses resulting from the War on Terror.

Unfortunately, a complete cessation of the War on Drugs is not politically feasible in the near future. But liberal Democrats could at least support scaling back the war at the margins. For example, there is broad public support for legalizing medical marijuana, even in conservative states. Liberal Democrats could also back Balko's proposals for abolishing military-style drug raids. Although there is not the space to list them all here, there are numerous other incremental reforms that could be enacted in this field as well. Obviously, some voters will strongly oppose even incremental Drug War reforms, but most of them are likely to be staunch social conservatives who are unlikely to support Democrats in any case.

Some liberal Democrats already support drug legalization, and I commend them for it. However, few Democrats have made the War on Drugs an important part of their agenda, and certainly liberal criticisms of that War are far outnumbered by the denunciations of War on Terror policies that, whatever their merits, pose far less danger to civil liberties than the War on Drugs does. Indeed, one small sign that libertarian Democrats have truly come of age will be the day when liberal commenters on the VC take us to task for neglecting the War on Drugs (on which some of us have real expertise) as much as they do for neglecting War on Terror detainee treatment policies (which I, at least, have no expertise on). I look forward to it!

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. How to be a libertarian Democrat:
  2. Libertarian Democrats?
51 Comments