Sunday, January 14, 2007

Liberals, libertarians, Objectivists and National Review

The December issue of National Review has an article by Jonah Goldberg entitled the "Lib-Lib Romance" and devoted to critiquing the idea of a libertarian-liberal alliance.

Goldberg correctly points out that extreme libertarian positions—permitting hard core porn on Saturday morning television is his example—are unlikely to get much political support. And he correctly points out that many hard core libertarians are interested mostly in some single issue, such as drug legalization or the Second Amendment. But all of that is irrelevant to the case for such an alliance, since the proposal is neither to get the Democrats to adopt extreme libertarian positions nor to get hard core libertarians, a large fraction of whom don't vote anyway, to support the Democratic party.

Goldberg cites a Cato piece which estimates that about 15%—the numbers vary according to the poll—of the electorate is libertarian. Very few of those are hard core libertarians. What the authors are looking at are voters whose views are generally similar to those of conservative Republicans on economic issues and generally similar to those of liberal Democrats on social issues.

Liberal Democrats don't support Saturday morning broadcast porn any more than conservative Republicans support complete laissez-faire and zero taxation, but there apparently is quite a sizable block of voters who want change, at least moderate change, in the direction of less government involvement in both social and economic matters. In 2000, most of them voted for Bush; in 2004, a majority still voted for Bush but a sizable minority voted against him. That pattern suggests that a Democratic party that made efforts to look at least a little more libertarian than the current Republican party—which should not be very hard—could eventually pull a substantial voting block over to their side. It was a point I made, without the benefit of the data from the Cato article, in a post here a little over a year ago.

What most interested me about the Goldberg article, however, was not his confusion between libertarians broadly and narrowly defined but his explanation of why any split between libertarians and conservatives is at least partly the fault of the libertarians. He starts with a reference to the late Frank Meyer, whose "fusionist" position attempted to unite libertarian and traditional conservative views; as Goldberg puts it:

"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. But these days, phrases like “objective moral order” will get you knocked off Cato’s Kwanzaa-card list. Liberty’s virtue is no longer that it supports the virtuous. Rather, according to today’s leading libertarians, economic freedom’s virtue lies in its ability to provide everybody the custom-made lifestyle of his choice."

The mistake here is in confusing a conclusion—libertarianism—with the arguments that lead to it. There are lots of different reasons to believe in liberty, hence lots of different reasons why someone might be a libertarian. That is true now, and it was true when Frank Meyer was making his arguments. As Nero Wolfe memorably put it, "any spoke can lead an ant to the hub."

What Frank Meyer was offering was not the reason to be a libertarian but a reason why a conservative should also be a libertarian. Insofar as his argument was correct then it is still correct now. And his argument is at least as relevant to the areas where current conservatives disagree with libertarians as to the areas where they agree, so if Goldberg actually accepts it he ought to be supporting social as well as economic freedom. If he does, then he and I can agree that drugs ought to be legalized—I have no idea what his actual position on that issue is—he for his reasons and I for mine.

What immediately struck me about Goldberg's mistake was that I had seen it before. It is the same argument that orthodox Objectivists routinely use to attack libertarians—most notoriously in Peter Schwartz's essay "Libertarianism: the Perversion of Liberty." Their argument is that while libertarians and Objectivists may reach, on the whole, the same conclusions, libertarians, at least the ones who are not also Objectivists, reach those conclusions for the wrong reasons, and right conclusions reached for the wrong reasons do not really count.

Schwartz and those who agree with him might argue in their defense that they are talking about philosophy, not politics. But Goldberg is explicitly discussing politics, the possibilities for a political alliance. Politically speaking, if Republicans supported less government instead of more, they would be natural allies for libertarians, whether those libertarians reached their conclusions via Catholic philosophy, natural rights, utilitarianism, skepticism, or hedonism. Since Republicans at the moment support more government—more even than Democrats as of the last time they were in power—it is worth looking for other allies.

24 Comments:

At 6:26 AM, January 15, 2007, Anonymous johnt said...

Wherever libertarians find new allies, not that they were much allied with the Republicans, I doubt the Democratic party will be a lengthy or stable resting place.

Allowing for some limited social issues the bulk of domestic policies are distasteful to a libertarian with even a modest range of positions. Tax increases, proectionism, minimum wage increases, direct government negotiation with drug companies [coercion], are not winners with any libertarian.

And they've only started.

 
At 9:04 AM, January 15, 2007, Anonymous js290 said...

Ron Paul to the rescue.

 
At 10:27 AM, January 15, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

"Liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice - all these are ultimate human values." Isaiah Berlin

And that's exactly why libertarians are poor allies to any mainstream political party: the overemphasis on liberty, and disdain for other values.

Surveys such as the Cato one at 15% libertarian-leaning are nonsense precisely because they do not measure how and why individuals make tradeoffs between these values (and others such as family.) Instead, these surveys frame a few cherry-picked issues as liberty versus no liberty.

Far be it from me to suggest that libertarians might be more effective if they were less self-deluded on such issues.

 
At 10:51 AM, January 15, 2007, Blogger Lester Hunt said...

The greatest single political development to occur in this country since my freshman year in college was the abolition of the draft -- the only human agent that ever tried to enslave and kill me. This great event was the work of a small group of libertarians working with the Nixon administration.

Moral: Its possible for us to have an impact, but we have to be willing to work with the two main parties. Which party it should be, I would say, depends on which issue you are most interested in. Dems are better on some issues, Republicans are better on others.

 
At 12:53 PM, January 15, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Folks attributing the end of the draft to libertarianism are silly.

Congress allowed the 1967 Selective Service Act to expire in 1973, towards the end of the Vietnam War. This was as a result of widespread public dissatisfaction with the war and the draft, voiced on the left by liberals and even on the right by conservatives such as Goldwater (in '64).

 
At 1:22 PM, January 15, 2007, Blogger Lester Hunt said...

"Folks attributing the end of the draft to libertarianism are silly. Congress allowed the 1967 Selective Service Act to expire in 1973..."

I'm trusting old memories here, but I seem to recall that the impetus here was a presidential commission on an all-volunteer force, which Nixon convened because certain people had his ear. The anti-war left, as a matter of fact, didn't make abolishing the draft a priority. The lefties I knew in those days, and they were many, were against the injustice of the war, not the unjustice of conscription per se.

 
At 5:25 PM, January 15, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike writes:

"Folks attributing the end of the draft to libertarianism are silly."

Lester actually described it as "the work of a small group of libertarians working with the Nixon administration."

That's reasonably accurate. In the presidential election, Nixon had come out for a volunteer army, his Democratic opponent had not. At the 1966 conference that Sol Tax organized, and later on the Gates commission, the main voices in favor of the volunteer military were academics who were libertarian in the broad--i.e. classical liberal--sense of the term.

The Gates commission started with fifteen members, divided five for, five against, five undecided. The five for included W. Allen Wallis, Milton Friedman, and Alan Greenspan. By the end of the conference the vote was unanimously for.

It was apparently Martin Anderson who originally suggested the idea to Nixon.

 
At 10:15 AM, January 16, 2007, Blogger William Newman said...

"Liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice - all these are ultimate human values." -- Isaiah Berlin, quoted by Mike Huben

Nice thought, but isn't the left about things other than that? For example, I find it difficult to understand the way that deep hostility to inherited property coexists with absolute acceptance of inherited citizenship rights. Do many leftists actually hold Berlin's priorities? Then I'd expect them to be more upset about inherited inequality under the law than by people voluntarily transferring private wealth.

When nationalism doesn't intervene, leftists often conform to my expectations. Idealists may be upset about private inheritance, but they are even more upset about hereditary inequality under the law: aristocracy, apartheid, lesser legal rights for women, legal systems with different legal rights for different castes, etc. To have an inheritance tax on high-caste people and redistribute 95+% of the take to high-caste people would tend to leave most leftists cold: it's not a step in the right direction, it's a travesty.

Is nationalism an ultimate human value? And given that one makes the exception, how can one justify not mentioning it, since it's such an enormous part of inequality in the world today? Given the importance of the nationalism exception in leftists' actions, fine words like Huben repeating Berlin ring false to me, like reading Thomas Jefferson repeating a slogan about equality and not mentioning race.

In some cases the nationalism exception could be explained pragmatically. E.g., I expect many people sincerely believe that the US would've collapsed into chaos if we had continued to honor the words on the Statue of Liberty, probably even more sincerely than Jefferson would've feared the economic collapse and chaos which'd follow from equality. But opposition to immigration doesn't explain disinterest in making transfer payments, since in other contexts leftists are often fond of those. And what about within the EU, where it seems particularly hard to make the argument that societal collapse would necessarily follow? Even in the EU leftists seem to be on board with inherited differences as long as they're inherited citizenship.

So perhaps the list technically begins "nationalism, liberty, equality within the nation, spontaneity ..." but the nationalism part is so intuitively obvious and axiomatic that Huben considers it pointless to mention it? Unfortunately, it's not so obvious to many libertarians.

Huben can slam libertarians for self-delusion all he wants, but when I read stuff like this, ostensibly laying out the principles, my usual libertarian "I must not've gotten the memo" clueless feeling about post-1900 leftist ideals often ramps up to "now that I've *gotten* the memo it still doesn't explain what I thought I had missed before."

 
At 2:25 PM, January 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something I consider relevant here: the distinction between those who want less government, and those who want less Federal government but more state or local government.

Dan Goodman

 
At 1:48 PM, January 18, 2007, Anonymous Mark said...

johnt said: "Tax increases, proectionism, minimum wage increases, direct government negotiation with drug companies [coercion], are not winners with any libertarian."

I think you can find plenty of elected Democrats these days who do not support most (or possibly any) of these old-left positions.

 
At 7:37 PM, January 18, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

"Nixon had come out for a volunteer army, his Democratic opponent had not. At the 1966 conference that Sol Tax organized, and later on the Gates commission"

The draft ended because the law expired. Not because these particular people were convinced of anything. The law expired because the Democratic majority in Congress wouldn't renew it. They were not libertarian nor convinced by libertarians.

The lengths libertarians will go to, trying to claim relevance. Sheesh.

William: your failure to understand "the left" is hardly the issue. Whatever "the left" is, whatever other political positions are, they do not have the monotonic "liberty" focus that libertarians claim, and attempt to balance other important interests with liberty.

 
At 9:29 PM, January 18, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

What amuses me (on second thought) is that David and other libertarians are really arguing by factoid. Cite some true event: how can anybody doubt you? Well, really, you need to show how the true event is connected to the end of the draft. The end of the draft was brought about by the Democratic congress, not the people David's events mention. There's a gap in David's explanation of several years and several hundred people.

Nor was the draft ended for libertarian reasons. It was ended largely for reasons of social justice (it placed disproportionate burdens on the poor and blacks who were less able to evade it, but were rewarded less by our social system) and because of the pragmatic judgement that we were wasting lives of our youth on a foolish and futile war.

 
At 12:28 AM, January 19, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

I am curious which of the following facts Mike disputes, if any:

1. During the presidential campaign, Nixon came out for ending the draft, an idea suggested to him by Martin Anderson.

2. Nixon set up the Gates Commission to consider the question of a volunteer army, and it came out strongly in favor.

3. The outcome of the Gates Commission was largely a result of the arguments offered by libertarian academics on it, using "libertarian" in the broad sense. Edward Kennedy opposed the volunteer army.

4. Nixon did not ask for the draft to be renewed--indeed argued against renewal.

It's true that when the act expired, a majority of the Congress consisted of Democrats. But it was the Republican President who had pushed the idea of a volunteer army. We don't know whether, if the Democrats had tried to renew the act, he would have vetoed or not.

Incidentally, at the time, Mike's rhetoric about "the poor and the blacks" was employed mostly in opposition to the volunteer army, not in support.

 
At 8:39 AM, January 19, 2007, Blogger Lester Hunt said...

At UC Berkeley in 1968 I and some other students founded a group we called Students Opposed to Conscription. We were all (and called ourselves) libertarians, except for our president, who was a socialist. I should say, he started out that way -- because we converted him to libertarianism! I vividly remember how little enthusiasm there was for abolishing the draft on the anti-war left, because I found it very disappointing and frustrating.

As to the poor and the blacks, I think that argument had already been addressed, insofar as it was an objection to the draft, by abolishing the student deferment. Which of course then increased anti-draft sentiment by forcing middle class families to pay their fair share of the death-toll.

 
At 1:45 PM, January 19, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

David, as I said rather clearly, I'm not disputing any of your four factoids. I am disputing your assertion that they are the cause of the end of the draft.

As Lester points out, the middle class had become very anti-draft. Nixon, and more importantly Congress, may well have been responding to that much more than the influence of "libertarians in the broad sense", whatever that is.

 
At 6:39 PM, January 19, 2007, Blogger liberal journal man said...

As a liberal and a Democrat with libertarian leanings, I can work with the 'hardcore' libertarians. The problem is most so-called libertarians also want to restrict abortion and teach religion in schools--they are libertarian in wanting less taxes, but staunchly conservative on social issues.

 
At 5:42 AM, January 20, 2007, Blogger Gary McGath said...

Support for the draft in the twentieth century has come mostly from Democrats. Ted Kennedy was a major supporter of the draft; I don't think he ever reversed his position, though he eventually stoppped talking about it.

Today the chief advocate in Congress of conscription is Democrat Charles Rangel, who wants a slave army for "social justice" reasons.

The main appeal of Democrats to libertarians is that they oppose George W. Bush, and sometimes take the pro-freedom side as a result. But this is a matter of political strategy, not principles.

 
At 8:38 AM, January 20, 2007, Blogger Lester Hunt said...

"Support for the draft in the twentieth century has come mostly from Democrats."

Yes. Don't forget that the President who created the selective service system in the first place was a Democrat(Wilson) and that the one that brought back registration for the draft (apparently as some sort of symbolic gesture of support for the concept of a draft) was another (Carter).

 
At 11:53 AM, January 20, 2007, Blogger Richard A Garner said...

Of course, a la Mike Huben's arguments elsewhere, one could simply say that national service is really jst a contractual agreement with the government, and enforcement of conscription laws is simply enforcement of this contract.

 
At 10:34 AM, January 21, 2007, Anonymous Bryan Eastin said...

It seems to me that politics is often marked by a kind of selective blindness. The “other party” is always some monolithic and ominous thing at whose feet can be lain all the evils of the party, whereas “my party” is always this well meaning but flawed alliance whose wrongs are either necessary evils, mistakes, or not reflective of what I actually believe.

Perhaps I should start reading conservative blogs too.

I am not the quintessential Democrat nor the quintessential liberal, but if I were required to pick labels those are the ones I would pick. The things that I want out of a government, as nearly as I can tell, are

1. Freedom of action – People should be allowed to do what they want, whether it's a good idea or not, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of others.

2. Equality under the law – The law should apply in the same way to all people, not to be confused with equal outcomes.

3. Basic services – The government should offer basic services widely deemed to be desirable and not effectively implementable through private transactions.

4. Minimal assistance – People who do not wish to starve or die of preventable causes should be offered assistance, even if their condition is largely their own fault.

5. Rectification of market failures – Situations in which the market does not operate well due to transaction costs, inequalities in information, or the exclusion of competition should be corrected.

6. Environmental protection – An effort should be made to preserve the natural environment from damage, particularly damage that is effectively irreversible.

I suppose you could lump 4-6 into 3, but I felt they warranted their own number. There are inherent conflicts in this set of goals, so I often wind up choosing between two options that are both unpalatable to me.

 
At 5:55 AM, January 22, 2007, Blogger Richard A Garner said...

1. Freedom of action – People should be allowed to do what they want, whether it's a good idea or not, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of others.


In other words, rights should be compossible. But, if my property rights end where yours begin, doesn't viewing all "human rights" as property rights solve this problem?

2. Equality under the law – The law should apply in the same way to all people, not to be confused with equal outcomes.

Do you really mean this? So, if taking a person's property without their consent is illegal for one person, it is illegal for all, whether they call themselves a government or not? What about taxation and eminent doman?

3. Basic services – The government should offer basic services widely deemed to be desirable and not effectively implementable through private transactions.

I agree. But, of course, there are none!

4. Minimal assistance – People who do not wish to starve or die of preventable causes should be offered assistance, even if their condition is largely their own fault.

Of course, libertarians don't object to anybody, governments included, offering assistance. What they object to is government who use other people's person or property to do so. But, if a) taking a person's property is to be illegal, and b) people should be equal before the law) then c) it will be illegal for the government to take people's property without their consent in order to "offer assistance."

5. Rectification of market failures – Situations in which the market does not operate well due to transaction costs, inequalities in information, or the exclusion of competition should be corrected.

Why are government programs immune to the same problems as are supposed to occur under "market failure?" Your example above is a prime example - if people should be given assistance by the government even if their condition is their own fault, then you have a clear externality problem, and actions whose costs outweigh their benefits will be over produced, thanks to your government assistance program.

Secondly, who competes with the government?

6. Environmental protection – An effort should be made to preserve the natural environment from damage, particularly damage that is effectively irreversible.

And is government the best agency to do this?

 
At 8:18 AM, January 22, 2007, Anonymous Bryan Eastin said...

Richard,

Like I said, there are contradictions between most any two, and sometimes one of my desires. This is not news. The problem is that I am not willing to give up any of those goals, so I have to make compromises. I consider small, local government and low (or even non-existent) taxes to be desirable, but not so desirable that I don't want a fire department, an army, a police force, etc.

I would actually love to see a practical libertarian strategy for achieving my goals.

 
At 1:45 PM, March 11, 2007, Blogger The Thinker said...

Was General Patton a libertarian? Probably not, but he was a much better American than all those anti-war pissants. So there is no virtue in conservatives making alliances with libertarians. Libertarians care nothing about the nation, only about individual liberties. No nation can survive if it is populated by too many such people. While Patton may not have been big on taxes for purposes of welfare, he sure as hell would have been if the proceeds were going to arm the military to keep paperhangers in check.

 
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