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.
Libertarians and Liberals:
Brink Lindsey's proposal for a libertarian-liberal alliance (described here and here), has produced a lot of debate, including Todd Zywicki's post (linked below).
In my view, it is important to differentiate the theory of intellectual coherence between liberalism and libertarianism from the much more dubious possibility of a political alliance. In my view, liberal and libertarian ideologies have much in common. But that commonality is unlikely to lead to a political alliance anytime soon.
At the level of ideology and political theory, libertarians and liberals have much in common, probably more than libertarians and most conservatives do. Both groups value individual liberty; both believe that the government should generally stay out of religious and "values" issues, which should be left to individual choice (though there are some countervailing strands of thought on this among some "communitarian" and feminist liberals); both place no special value on tradition; and both want to maximize individual happiness and utility. Some conservatives also share these values, but there are a great many who do not because their version of conservatism stems from either an adherence to traditionalism for its own sake or fundamentalist religious principles.
Setting aside foreign policy (about which libertarians have deep internal differences), this ideological commonality can translate into some important areas of agreement on public policy. In particular - as a matter of ideological theory - liberals and libertarians should be able to agree to restrict government efforts to undermine "personal" liberties and also to oppose the many government interventions into economic affairs that redistribute to the wealthy and/or middle class at the expense of relatively poorer segments of the population. Such policies are extremely common, especially given that the poor have relatively little influence over the political process.
In practice, however, real-world liberal politicians are unlikely to move in this direction in the near future because of the Democratic Party's heavy dependence on interest groups - such as public employees unions - that have a vested interest in extending the size and scope of government regardless of whether the poor are harmed. For this reason, I doubted that the "libertarian Democrat" movement promoted by Daily Kos and others would ever amount to much. In principle, ideological liberals should support such libertarian economic policies as reducing farm subsidies, free trade, school vouchers, eliminating pork, and eliminating Social Security and Medicare payments that go to relatively wealthy seniors. All of them would increase personal freedom, and curtail government redistribution from the relatively poor to the relatively rich. In practice, the Democratic Party is unlikely to embrace any of these because of its dependence on powerful interest groups that find them inimical.
In addition to these interest-based concerns, many liberal intellectuals and policy analysts are simply unwilling to place any major emphasis on those non-civil liberties issues where they agree with libertarians. For example, most liberal intellectuals will, if pressed, agree that farm subsidies, porkbarrel spending, and the like are bad. But few consider their elimination a major priority. For reasons that I don't fully understand, most of them are much more enthusiastic about those parts of the liberal agenda that require expanding government than those that imply contraction. This has slowly changed over the last thirty years, as more liberal thinkers have begun to appreciate some of the virtues of markets and civil society. But the pace of change has been quite slow, and there has even been some backsliding in recent years.
There is, perhaps, a deeper problem here: most liberal intellectuals are reluctant to attribute flawed government economic policies to inherent shortcomings of the political process as opposed to the machinations of specific "evil" or "greedy" politicians and interest groups. There is a strong tendency to believe that most such flaws could be cured if only the "bad guys" such as George Bush were removed from office. I hope that, over time, liberal thinkers will bring to government economic policy the same kind of skepticism and realism that they apply to government policy on civil liberties; few of them believe that government could be trusted to regulate our sex lives or engage in warrantless searches merely because the Democrats are in office rather than the Republicans. But this too will be a slow and gradual process, if it happens at all.
None of these points precludes alliances of convenience between liberals and libertarians on particular issues. And it is possible that liberal thought will over time move further in the relatively promarket direction outlined above (and also by some "New Democrat" groups). For the foreseeable future, however, there is unlikely to be a broad libertarian-liberal alliance.
Libertarians and Conservatives:
My discussion of the prospects for a libertarian-liberal alliance is probably incomplete without some attention to the troubled relationship between libertarians and conservatives.
As I argued in the previous post, at the level of fundamental principle, libertarians have more in common with liberals than with conservatives. However, there are important countervailing factors that may make a revival of the libertarian-conservative alliance more feasible than any likely libertarian-liberal coalition. Some of these factors operate at the level of intellectual elites, and others at the level of practical politics.
At the level of intellectual elites, there is much less disagreement between libertarians and conservatives than at the mass level. Most libertarian intellectuals find, say, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to be repulsive. I know I do. However, most serious conservative intellectuals are far more supportive of limited government and probably less prone to support government interventions in social affairs than he is. My sense is that most conservative intellectuals continue to favor major reductions in the size and scope of government despite President Bush's movement in the opposite direction. Many of them even favor reductions in the government's role on some "social" issues. For example, there are probably more conservative intellectuals than liberal ones willing to endorse the abolition of the War on Drugs - by far the most important civil liberties issue from the standpoint of most libertarians. The National Review,probably the most prominent conservative opinion journal, has supported drug legalization for decades, for example. Obviously, this is cold comfort if conservative politicians don't heed NR's advice on this point. However, it does help explain why many libertarian intellectuals continue to view conservatives as allies. The conservatives we deal with on a day-to-day basis are far more likely to be National Review types than the type who watch the 700 Club.
At the level of practical politics, there is no question that the GOP, under George W. Bush, has turned in a pro-big government direction, and that is one reason why many libertarians, myself included, wanted them to suffer a defeat in the recent election. However, most of George W. Bush's big government policies - such as the Medicare prescription drug plan, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the steel tariffs, were enacted purely for the sake of political expediency. Much of the Republican Party base hated them, and it is no accident that many Republicans are calling for a return to small government principles in the aftermath of their defeat in November. Unlike in the case of the Democrats, there is a real chance that the GOP will return to (relatively) small government principles in the near future, just as it did in the aftermath of the political defeat of its last two big government presidents - Richard Nixon and George Bush I. The political failure of Bush II may well lead Republicans to reconsider whether "big government" conservatism really is the way to go.
Civil Liberties and Social Issues
Most of those who argue against a libertarian-conservative coalition focus heavily on the issue of civil libeties. It is indeed the case that even most pro-limited government conservatives differ with libertarians on social issues such as censorship of pornography and gay rights. These differences are not going to go away. As a matter of philosophical principle, these differences are very grave. However, they matter less as a matter of practical politics because the ability of government to seriously constrain these kinds of freedoms in the modern world is quite limited. All the efforts of social conservatives over the last forty years have had little impact on people's ability to consume pornography, nor have they significantly slowed what I think is the natural and inevitable evolution towards greater social and legal acceptance for homosexuals.
The one major area where conservative policies do pose a truly grave threat to civil liberties is the War on Drugs. However, the Democrats don't show any more enthusiasm for curtailing drug prohibition than Republicans do. And, as noted above, there are probably at least as many anti-drug war conservative intellectuals as liberal ones.
While I oppose the Bush Administration's claims of virtually unlimited executive war powers, the administration's abuses in the War on Terror are not enough of a threat to civil liberties to justify a libertarian-liberal alliance on these grounds. As I discussed in more detail here, only a relatively small number of genuinely innocent people have been victimized by these policies (see also these two posts by Megan McCardle). Certainly far fewer than are harmed by the War on Drugs or by numerous policies favored by the Democrats. Moreover, Bush's more extreme claims for unlimited executive power have been repudiated by the Supreme Court and by Congress. That does not mean that libertarians should simply support pro-Bush conservatives on these issues or that there is no reason for concern. Far from it. It does suggest, however, that the issue is not enough to justify a libertarian-liberal alliance.
Whether the libertarian-conservative coalition can be saved remains to be seen. Much depends on the future course of the GOP. For the moment, however, it remains a more viable option than a libertarian-liberal alliance of the sort proposed by Brink Lindsey, Daily Kos, and others.
Brink Lindsey's Liberal-Libertarian "Fusionism":
The full text of Brink Lindsey's proposal for a libertarian-liberal alliance is now available free of charge here.
Interestingly, he describes the proposal as one for a liberal-libertarian "fusionism," similar to the liberal-conservative "fusionism" that began in the 1960s and is now undergoing a crisis. I agree with Lindsey that a liberal-libertarian fusion would be desirable. But, as he points out, figuring out how it would work is a "daunting task." To my mind, the potential room for agreement involves a combination of liberals opposing the many big government programs that redistribute to the rich and middle class from the poor,libertarians accepting redistribution that benefits the genuinely destitute, and both sides placing greater emphasis on those personal liberties issues on which they already agree. Lindsey's proposed program seems similar.
However, for reasons outlined in my post on "Libertarians and Liberals" the political and even intellectual obstacles to this vision are very great. If it happens at all, it will only be over a long period of time. Meanwhile, libertarians should not abandon efforts to work with small government conservatives to put the GOP back on a small government track.
What Is (or Was) "Fusionism"?
With all of this talk about the demise of the conservative-libertarian "fusion," and the potential for "liberaltarianism," I thought it would be worthwhile saying a little bit about the origins and content of "fusionism."
In post-war American conservatism, the term "fusionism" is most closely associated with Frank S. Meyer, a conservative intellectual who was a senior editor at National Review, where he penned the column "Principles & Heresies." Meyer argued American conservatism was a distinct philosophy that blended a traditional conservative emphasis on value, virtue, and order, with a libertarian political outlook. Whereas some post-War conservatives argued that virtue was a necessary precondition for freedom, Meyer maintained that virtue required free choice. Wrote Meyer, "the belief in virtue as the end of men's being implicitly recognizes the necessity of freedom to choose that end." And:
acceptance of the moral authority derived from transcendent criteria of truth and good must be voluntary if it is to have meaning; if it is coerced by human force, it is meaningless.
Freedom means freedom: not necessity, but choice; not responsibility but the choice betwen responsibility and irresponsibility; not duty but the choice between accepting and rejecting duty; not virtue, but the choice beween virtue and vice.
Meyer was no "I'm okay, you're okay," relativistic libertarian - he endorsed traditional conservative notions of virtue and morality - but he nonetheless desired a minimal state in which individual freedom had the widest range of potential expression.
Meyer's philospohy, dubbed "fusionism" by Brent Bozell, was outlined in his best-known book In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo (available from Liberty Fund in this collection of Meyer's writings edited by William C. Dennis). The aim of the book, in Meyer's words, was "to vindiciate the freedom of the person as the central and primary end of political society." Yet Meyer saw his work as both prescriptive and descriptive, and believed "fusionism" was a distillation of a unique American variant of conservatism that embraced America's founding on classical liberal ideals.
Here for the first time a polity was established based upon the freedom of the person as its end and upon firm limitation of the powers of hte state as the means to achieve that end.
Meyer believed American conservatism was based upon seven principles:
- "the existence of an objective moral order based on ontological foundations;
- the primary reference for political thought and action is the individual, not the collective";
- the limitation of government power;
- opposition to state control of the economy;
- "firm suppord for the Constitution of the United States as originally conceived";
Meyer, a former Communist himself, wrote at the height of the Cold War. No doubt that influenced his thinking, and may have some bearing on whether his fusionism remains a relevant political philosophy today. But before anyone writes fusionism's obituary, it is worth exploring what was meant by the term.
Bainbridge on Bush and Fusionism:
Professor Bainbridge offers his thoughts on how President Bush's policies fractured fusionism and drove away libertarian-minded conservatives:
The GOP succeeded in breaking out of 40+ years as a minority party because people like Ronald Reagan and, yes, Newt Gingrich consistently embraced a fusionist approach to policy that enabled libertarians, social conservatives, and fusionists to live together more or less peaceably under the same big tent. Bush's departures from fusionism broke the back of that coalition.
How did Bush do this? Utopian foreign policy, profligate spending, and the embrace of big government programs like "No Child Left Behind."
Interestingly, Bainbridge cites conservative thinker Russell Kirk repeatedly in his discussion of fusionism. Yet Kirk never embraced Meyer's fusionist philosphy. Indeed, Meyer and Kirk were often at odds. Indeed, in a 1955 article for The Freeman, "Collectivism Rebaptized," about Kirk and other "new conservatives," Meyer concluded:
Only the principles of individual freedom--to Dr. Kirk the "conservatism of desolation"--can call a halt to the march of collectivism. The New Conservatism, stripped of its pretensions, is, sad to say, but another guise for the collectivist spirit of the age.
As a result of this essay, Kirk did not wish to join the National Review
masthead once Meyer became a senior editor in 1957.
UPDATE: Bainbridge has more here. I agree with him that Kirk was an important figure in post-war conservative thought. I respectfully disagree that Kirk was a particularly reliable friend of liberty, and would add that Kirk also expicitly rejected Meyer's fusionist philosophy as "weary liberalism of the nineteenth century."
Russell Kirk, Libertarianism, and Fusionism:
It is somewhat ironic that Steve Bainbridge would cite Russell Kirk's ideas as a basis for a renewed conservative-libertarian fusionism. Kirk himself despised libertarians, whom he called "chirping sectaries" in the title of one of his essays. In that same essay, he wrote that "[t]o talk of forming a league or coalition between these two [conservatives and libertarians] is like advocating a union of ice and fire." He even claimed that a socialist-conservative alliance was a more viable possibility than a libertarian-conservative one:
Conservatives have no intention of compromising with socialists; but even such an alliance, ridiculous though it would be, is more nearly conceivable than the coalition of conservatives and libertarians. The socialists at least declare the existence of some sort of moral order; the libertarians are quite bottomless.
The essay also displays a number of typical shortcomings of Kirk's work, including the difficulties he had in understanding ideas opposed to his own (not just libertarianism, but also others), and a tendency to resort to ad hominem attacks.
Unlike such conservatives as Frank Meyer and Bill Buckley, Kirk was an opponent of fusionism, not a supporter of it. To the extent that conservatives embrace his ideas, the chances of a revival of fusionism are reduced.
UPDATE: In fairness to Bainbridge, I should note that he also cites Meyer in his post, more prominently and extensively than Kirk. However, he cites the latter's critique of the Bush 41 administration as part of the possible basis for a new fusionism without considering Kirk's lifelong hostility to libertarianism and fusionism.
Goldberg on "Liberaltarians":
NRO's Jonah Goldberg weighs in on the prospects of a Liberal-Libertarian fusion, such as that advocated by Brink Lindsey. Among Goldberg's more interesting claims is that a significant portion of the libertarian movement has shifted its focus (and here I paraphrase) from "freedom from coercion" to "freedom from constraint." In Goldberg's words:
Libertarianism was once primarily concerned with negative liberty — i.e. delineating a zone free of government intrusion. Meyer's libertarianism was primarily concerned with the ability of the individual to find the virtuous path within "an objective moral order based on ontological foundations" best expressed in Western civilization. As such, fusionism was less a coalitional doctrine than a metaphysical imperative.
That was then, but this is now.
[A]ccording to today's leading libertarians, economic freedom's virtue lies in its ability to provide everybody the custom-made lifestyle of his choice. . . . This emphasis on the liberating power of technology and wealth — i.e., materialism and positive liberty — represents an enormous philosophical transformation within libertarianism that echoes, albeit faintly, elements of the economic liberalism of John Dewey and FDR. It also shows that today's libertarians have a different view of the 1960s than their forefathers.
Goldberg acknowledges that conservatives have changed as well -- and are far more friendly to big government than they once were -- but he thinks libertarians need to acknowledge their evolution as well.
if the conservative-libertarian union is in trouble, it's not solely because conservatives have strayed from their vows. Marriages tend to dissolve when both parties "grow apart," and libertarians have been doing quite a bit of growing themselves. "You've changed" is a fair accusation from both sides, though "I don't even know you anymore" is surely an exaggeration. Perhaps the real lesson here is that conservatives and libertarians need to recommit themselves to the fusionist project. In other words: Let's seek counseling.
Lindsey Defends "Liberaltarianism":
Brink Lindsey returns to the pages of The New Republic to defend "liberaltarianism" from Jonathan Chait's critique (available only to TNR subscribers). Lindsey's bottom-line: "Liberals deserve better than to wind up as tax collectors for the gerontocracy. Moving in a libertarian direction offers a way out."