Liberals, libertarians, Objectivists and National Review
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.