Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Howard Dean to the White Courtesy Phone

The movement that formed around William Buckley some fifty years ago was a libertarian/traditionalist coalition. It included classical liberals, traditionalist conservatives, and many who accepted elements of both positions. The libertarians got support for free market economic policy, the traditionalists got support for anti-communist foreign policy, and the two factions agreed to disagree on domestic social policy and civil liberties. The overall package was closer to the policies of the Republican party than those of the Democratic party, so conservative political activity was mainly in and through the Republican party.

Libertarians still tend to identify with the Republican party. Save for historical reasons, it is hard to see why. The current administration, despite its free market rhetoric, has been no better--arguably worse--than its predecessor on economic issues. Its policy on public schooling, the largest governent run industry in the U.S., has been a push towards more central control, not less. Its support for free trade has been at best intermittant. Reductions in taxes have been matched by increases in government spending, increasing, not shrinking, the real size and cost of government. It has been strikingly bad on civil liberties. Its Supreme Court nominees have not been notably sympathetic to libertarian views of the law. Libertarians disagree among themselves on foreign policy, but many support a generally non-interventionist approach and so find themselves unhappy with the Iraq war.

The Democrats have problems too. While things have been looking up for them recently, their ideological coalition has been losing strength for decades, leaving them in danger of long term minority status.

The obvious solution to both sets of problems is for the Democrats to try to pull the libertarian faction out of the Republican party. How large that faction is is hard to judge, but it is clearly a lot larger than the vote of the Libertarian Party would suggest. The current administration's use of pro-market rhetoric suggests that it, at least, believes that a significant fraction of its base cares about such things. The conversion of a mere ten percent of current Republicans into Democrats would strikingly alter the current political balance.

How can the Democrats appeal to libertarian Republicans without alienating their own base? Support for school vouchers would meet the former requirement--but in a party where public school teachers make up one of the most powerful interest groups, it is unfortunately not a viable option.

I think I have an answer. In 2004, Montana went for Bush by a sizable margin. It also voted in medical marijuana, by an even larger margin. Legalizing medical marijuana is a policy popular with libertarians, acceptable to Democrats, and opposed by the current administration.

At the very least, prominent Democrats should come out in favor of the federal government respecting state medical marijuana laws, as it has so far refused to do. Better yet, let them propose a federal medical marijuana law. That will send a signal to a considerable number of voters that, at least on this issue, one of the parties is finally on their side. It would be a beginning.


Anonymous said...

The idea that the democratic party as it exists now can embrace libertarian values is just ridiculous.

They have wandered more and more to the left. They are mostly anti 2nd amendment and in favor of much more government spending in all areas.

They are also quite eager to turn over american sovereignity to institutions such as the UN. So what they really want is a planned economy on a worldwide basis.

Quote hillary clinton: "We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good"

I think the current desolate situation of the democrat party would be a good opportunity for the libertarian party to become more mainstream.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the anonymous comment concerning the unlikelihood of the Democratic Party embracing libertarian values is very narrow in its view of libertarianism.

I think the chances for a true change in foreign policy away from imperialism is more likely within the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. There is always the rhetorical claim that they want to turn over American sovereignty to institutions like the UN. But one can just as easily criticize the willingness of Republicans to turn over American sovereignty to institutions such as the WTO.

Of course the discussion of turning over sovereignty seems to be of questionable libertarian subject, as creating multi-national institutions is no more inherently anti-libertarian than the original creation of a federal republic, the United States of America, out of thirteen original states. Is federalism inherently anti-libertarian? I don't believe so.

The domestic issues that apparently indicate the anti-libertarian nature of the Democratic Party are the 2nd Amendment and increased government spending. I must say that I hope that there's more to libertarianism than just these two issues.

At a time of expanding government powers under the Patriot Act and Supreme Court cases on eminent domain and medical marijuana, civil liberties are under assault. I don't mean to insult the importance of the 2nd Amendment, but there's more at stake here.

I understand that there is a rhetorical belief that Democrats favor much more government spending, but I think it's absurd to make such a statement when you contrast the behavior of President Clinton and President Bush. I'd rather focus on results, not rhetoric.

Ultimately, the question isn't about short term increases in government spending, but the long term desire to reduce the size of government. And when faced with the record of the Bush administration, it's hard to argue that there's any substantial difference between the parties on economic issues overall.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is not just the opposition of the democratic party to the second amendment. But I think that that is just a symptom of the general attitude of the democratic party.

This "we are from the government, and we are here to help" attitude goes much farther than the 2nd amendment. It can be seen on many issues such as eminent domain.

Making a libertarian party out of the democrats is totally impossible, since there are much more progressives (aka socialists) pulling them in the opposite direction.

A libertarian party already exists. It is much easier to make them more mainstream than to fundamentally change a very large party such as the democrats.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that 'more mainstream' won't make the Libertarian party effective. That's why so many Libertarians don't vote Libertarian. Making the Democrats a viable party with some Libertarian platforms seems more possible to me than making the Libertarian party viable.

David Friedman said...

I'm not proposing to "make a libertarian party out of the Democrats," any more than I am suggesting that the Republicans are currently a libertarian party. I am suggesting that the Democrats might find it worth appealing to libertarians on some issues. They don't have to be very libertarian to be more libertarian than the current Republicans.

Libertarians would be better off having the parties compete for our votes, giving both an incentive to adopt at least marginally more libertarian policies.

TKC said...

I describe myself as a conservative with some libertarian (small L) leanings. I am also fine with states passing medical marijuana laws and don't like the GOPs opposition to this.
All that said, medical marijuana is not a big issue for me. At least not enough of an issue to go along with all the bagage I'd get with it by voting for Democrats.

I agree that the Democrats would do well to appeal to libertarian conservatives but I am hard pressed for them to find a way to do it without losing the support of one or more of their many special interest groups.

I am more of the opinion that a Democrat implosion would be the means for libertarian conservatives like myself to break away from the GOP and form our own party. Or at least form a faction in the GOP of conservative libertarians and conservative Democrats that was effective at reigning in government. This last option is the one I see as the most plausible.

Anonymous said...

I think it is clear that making either the Republicans or the Democrats into a libertarian party is nearly impossible. And with two major parties, making the Libertarian Party more mainstream seems to be difficult, if not impossible.

Like it or not, the question is how to make one of the two major parties more libertarian than the other and move in the right direction. And right now, with power corrupting as it often does, it's hard to argue that the Republcians have much of an edge over the Democrats.

In fact, as a libertarian Democrat I'd argue that with the two parties nearly equal on economic issues (both aren't that libertarian at all these days) the Democrats win the general race for being more libertarian by still being better on social issues. Neither one is even mostly libertarian, sad as it may seem, but one seems more libertarian and may benefit by playing up this advantage.

John T. Kennedy said...

Aren't there always better ways for libertarians to improve their own lives than by trying to improve the Republican and Democratic parties?

Anonymous said...

If we have to make a choice, why don't we just vote Libertarian? That sends the message to both parties. If we vote Democrat, it might signal to the Republicans not to be more libertarian, but to be more like Democrats. And the Democrats likely won't woo us too heavily, because too many of them are so heavily into supporting big government that libertarian ideals are anathema to them.

I think the Republicans are closer to libertarian positions. So our signal to them should be to move towards libertarianism, not towards the center. Voting Libertarian has the upside of registering our discontent with the Republican Party, while not actually actively helping Democrats get elected. It's win-win!

John T. Kennedy said...


" If we have to make a choice, why don't we just vote Libertarian? That sends the message to both parties."

You only have one vote. How have the parties been doing with your messages so far?

Anonymous said...

I think it's forgotten in this discussion that most elections have primaries and that libertarians should not ignore the power of voting within a primary in order to influence the nominee. A libertarian in Pennsylvania in 2004 could have voted for Toomey in the Republican Primary and would have been under no obligation to vote for Specter. Libertarians can and should do their best to influecne the two parties by voting in the primaries and supporting candidates that move the parties toward libertarianism. Will it work always? Certainly not. But it's worth trying.

Anonymous said...

I can't say it's a good thing that the electoral system is so screwed up. Although I think focusing purely on the election of President is disingenuous. There are local, state, and Congressional elections where the message is a lot stronger than in a Presidential election.

So what do you suggest? I don't think voting is enough, which I why I try to influence my Congressman and run a blog. But if I am going to take the time to vote, even knowing that it only carries a limited effect on anything, I will exercise it in the way I think has the most dramatic effect I can.

If voting seems to you to be this bankrupt, do you vote? If so, why?

Anonymous said...

David is talking about a strategy for democrats, not libertarians.

Along that vein, what have the democrats to lose by simply opposing the war and promising a withdrawal? They won't lose any of the base and they'll probably gain a few votes from the libertarians. I don't know if it will be 10% or not, but I don't see what they have to lose.

John T. Kennedy said...


"I think focusing purely on the election of President is disingenuous. There are local, state, and Congressional elections where the message is a lot stronger than in a Presidential election."

Can you think of any instance when your individual vote affected the result of an election? Any instance where a message you sent with your vote was noticed by a party?

"So what do you suggest?"

That efforts to improve your life more directly in the private sector will always be much better spent.

Do something for yourself.

"If voting seems to you to be this bankrupt, do you vote? If so, why?"

I don't vote because it would be a waste of my time and it's damned undignified. Last time I was in the booth I pulled the lever for Bob Dole and I still remember thinking "WTF am I doing here?" Shudder.

Anonymous said...

David, I think you misunderestimate how divisive the war is among libertarians. Samizdata.net vs. lewrockwell.com is a demonstration of this phenomenom in cyberspace.

As far as libertarians on my campus go, the pro-war kind (admittedly, myself included) voted Bush, the anti-war kind voted Kerry. It is still the deciding factor as to which party my friends would ally with if the chips were down.

In light of that, I don't think it's possible for the Democrats to attract RINOs. They'd have to pull a 180 concerning the war, and that will not happen.

David Friedman said...

Pete Bessman writes:

"David, I think you misunderestimate how divisive the war is among libertarians. ... "

If the Democrats decide to run on an anti-war platform, you might be right. So far their position has been "we would do a better job," although that seems to be changing.

At the moment, the war dominates political discussion. In another two years, do you think that will still be the case?

Anonymous said...

David --- good point, the Democrats aren't wholly anti-war. They're not exactly pro-war, either. At best, their position can be described as "capricous." But I think the "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" sloganeering of Kerry, along with the output of MoveOn and Michael Moore, have made the Democrats look anti-war, at least when contrasted against the Republicans.

But that was last election season, and I honestly don't dare to venture a guess as to what tune they'll be singing in the future. You've probably read this article from Liberty, titled "How Elections are Won":


I think Cox is on the money when he says "voter identification groups drift restlessly from one party to another, and the two major parties drift eerily across the political, social, and literal landscape, seeking whom they may devour."

When the war is not on the table, I think your analysis is spot on. And in two years, the Iraq War will probably be a done deal. But then there's the question of Iran, or Syria, or... If these become an issue (which is itself questionable), who knows what position the parties will take? Not I.

Given all of the above, my official estimate as to the feasibility of the Democrats attracting libertarians currently in the Republican camp for future elections is a resounding "dunno." I believe that my previous comment will be true as long as Iraq is The Issue, but my crystal ball gets fuzzy after that.

Sorry for the length of this comment. It's long because I lack the time to make it short.

Eric H said...

I think it's funny that the only governors who seem to have come out as even approaching pro-legalization were Arnie, Jessie, and Gary - two Republicans and one pro-market independent. And it was Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman who led (or at least proceeded) them there. Have any Democrats taken a similar public stance?

I'm sympathetic to your idea, but I doubt that Democrats will take the plunge precisely because it allows them to be put back into the pre-Clinton box of being "soft on crime". Only Nixon could go to China, only Republicans can rationalize drug laws.

I think a stronger case could be made for Democrats giving up Roe v Wade and then fighting the state legislative battles to keep abortion legal. This appeals to two liberatarian sentiments: federalism and privacy (or however you want to couch it). It will also leave the Evangelical Right without a national platform, and so deprive them of their power within the party, allowing the other Republicans to move back in a libertarian direction.

... and my beer will be tastier, your underwear won't ride up, my hair will grow back, and teenage girls will fantasize about me.

Anonymous said...

While I wouldn't call them enthusiastic about Libertarian ideas, the Republicans as a rule are far less likely than Democrats to be actively hostile to them, hence the Libertarian tilt in that direction. Also, one of the most tiresome poses I can think of are leftists who think wanting to decriminalize drug use makes them a Libertarian (Bill Maher for example).

Anonymous said...

Mr. Lehman has the right idea looking to electoral politics. Even better would be to start with the detailed Pew Center typography. http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?PageID=949 This shows that while elections are about issues and are therefore volatile, voters are in stable groups. And the Enterprisers group (most libertarian) is at the center of the core of the GOP. No chance of the Dems going libertarian. Their most libertarian group is the former "New Dealers"! This ends your empirical moment. Please return to your regular flights of fancy.

Semi-Employed Theorist said...

I'm of the view that libertarians should not be card carrying members of either party. Libertarians should almost always split their ticket. We can best advanced libertarian political ideals by ensuring that the branches of government are divided between the two parties. In this way, they can block each other and prevent each other from doing anything incredibly stupid most of the time. This has been the solution that Doug Bandow, former CATO fellow, has advocated for some time.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to this blog, so perhaps I'm missing something. What I find amazing is that in the entire thread on this topic, I see no reference at all to abortion. Yet it is the Republican party's position against choice that gives President Bush his popularity base of 40%. I would expect Libertarians to be pro-choice.

Anonymous said...

The Democrats do tend to be better on civil liberties and social issues. On economics, certainly the Clinton administration was far better on trade issues, etc. The biggest impediment is probably the social safety net question.

There's a substantial number of conservatives who will insist that they're either libertarian or libertarian-leaning, when what they're actually talking about is gun rights. The GOP has been pretty successful at buying off those people by saying the right thing about guns even while trampling all over the rest of the Constitution.

There's a big demographic issue here, which is that urban areas tend to vote Democrat, and it's urban areas where there are pressures for gun control laws. But still, the fact that a number of reasonably high-profile Democrats from less populated areas, like Harry Reid and Brian Schweitzer and even Howard Dean have come out in favor of gun ownership rights doesn't seem to have made a dent in the public perception of who thinks what.

Anonymous said...

As much as I dislike George Bush, it is my inclination that the terms of the debate are not as anti-libertarian as they were in the Clinton Administration. I just about stopped listening to NPR during the Clinton Administration because every morning seemed to bring a litany of Clinton Administration proposals to micro-manage one aspect of the country or another. (Midnight basketball, anyone? 100,000 cops paid for by the Federal Government? Yes, No Child Left Behind is odious, but that's just one law.) I just don't get that feeling anymore under the Bush Administration. Perhaps that's just because everything now revolves around the Iraq war, but at least national defense is a proper Federal Government activity.

Everytime I try to embrace the Democrats I recall their shameful demogoguery over Social Security reform, and think back to the Bill Lan Lee's and Lani Gunier's (sp?) of the Clinton Administration. I might not like Leon Kass, but he really doesn't have all that much power after all anyway.

Finally, can anyone say anything about economic regulation and EEOC activity under the Bush Administration? Those two issues seem to me to be as important as the overall level of taxation and government spending, but all I've heard of them is Virginia Postrel's mentioning that the growth of the Federal Register is down to Reagan era levels, which is probably a very good thing.

Anonymous said...

A natural coalition between Democrats and Libertarians can be formed around environmental issues such as suburban sprawl, air/water polution, brown field cleanup etc.

So much environmental damage is an has been done by so called "free market" oriented business. Polution is trespass. Libertarian property rights arguments allign nicely with traditionally "green" Democratic ones.

David Nieporent said...


I just don't see how the Democratic Party could pull libertarians away from the Republican side of the aisle.

Can Democrats embrace medical marijuana? Well, they're gutless so they probably won't, but they could, consistent with their philosophy, yes. But that surely isn't all it takes.

Republicans are awful, libertarianly speaking; they talk a good game about reducing government, but never get close to doing it. But Democrats don't even talk a good game. Republicans don't follow through because politicians by their nature put re-election over principle. An out-of-power Republican might honestly want to slash government, but once he gets into office, he finds it safer not to try. But Democrats? They don't want to slash government.

Comparing the Clinton record to the Bush record is not evidence that Democrats are better than Republicans; it's evidence that divided government is better than one-party control. (Remember what Clinton tried to do first: government takeover of health care.)

Anonymous said...

This can't happen, because the Democrats are the party of the left, and libertarianism is an inherently non-left philosophy.

Libertarianism is one of several competing non-left philosophies, and the other non-left philosophies are currently ascendant in the Republican party.

The only way to promote Libertarianism is to get the Republican party to be more libertarian.

Anonymous said...

David Brin argued at the Libertarian convention in 2002 that the Democrats were probably closer to libertarian beliefs than the Repubs.

We are used to the cliché that "Democrats favor freedom in the bedroom while Republicans favor freedom in the boardroom." But look over the last 30 years. How many industries have been deregulated to a degree that's more than cosmetic? I count trucking, banking, real estate, telecommunications, airlines and parcel post. And the 'industry' of the Welfare Program. Now ask, how many or these major steps were taken as Republican initiatives and how many Democratic?

Anonymous said...

I just completed a paper on populists and libertarians using National Election Studies data. Libertarians loosely defined as people who are liberal on social issues and conservative on economic issues are about 10% of the population. I found that in the 1970s, these people were united behind the Republicans. Today, they are evenly divided. I can send you the paper if you wish.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous offered to send me a paper. Since he is anonymous, I am answering here. If you have it in machinen readable form, email it to me--I would be interested.

Or web it and send the email as a comment here. Why should I be the only one to see it?

Ivan Janssens said...

And what about the Democrats and social security?

Anonymous said...

I think the drug policy should be even bolder. Why not legalize, and let the government be the sole dealer? Make some major cash, fight the war on terror, let adults make their own decisions, ect.

Anonymous said...

The solution is to change our antiquated voting system that has led to the living example of Duverger's Law. There's no technological barrier for implementing a voting system that would actually give third or fourth parties a legitimate chance.

"The system's broke, Hank. The election baby has peed in
the bath water. You got to throw 'em both out." --Dale Gribble

Nitin said...

I wrote a post responding to this blog post.
Libertarianism and Democrats
My friend sent me this link with suggestions for Democrats to attract more libertarians into their camp. I liked the post a lot. But the author's suggestions for the democrats are pretty poor ones.

"The obvious solution to both sets of problems is for the Democrats to try to pull the libertarian faction out of the Republican party..."

Agreed strongly....

"How can the Democrats appeal to libertarian Republicans without alienating their own base? Support for school vouchers would meet the former requirement--but in a party where public school teachers make up one of the most powerful interest groups, it is unfortunately not a viable option."

The problem is that libertarianism is inherently opposed to many ideas from the democratic base. The base - public sector unions, minorities, protectionists - is against free trade, supports more workplace regulations, supports affirmative actions, strongly against market-based solutions for education, social security, or health care. Libertarians would disagree with all these things.

His final advice is similarly off beat:

"Legalizing medical marijuana is a policy popular with libertarians, acceptable to Democrats, and opposed by the current administration."

Unfortunately for Democrats, many libertarians are already pro-choice, and a pro-medical marijuana is another step towards social liberalism that is politically suicidal. Democrats have sizable support from social conservatives, and strongly supporting the legalization of marijuana would alienate even more of these people.

I think the best way for Democrats to appeal to libertarians would be to move more towards Clinton, and away from protectionism on trade issues. John Edwards as the VP candidate did not help this cause. They should strongly support balanced budgets by making their own suggestions for spending cuts. Kerry began to do this, supporting balanced budgets, but not making any suggestions for where to cut spending.

I also believe that this post's original idea of Democrats embracing school vouchers would be an amazing solution. Remember that Libertarian-extraordinaire, Milton Friedman, is the father of the school-choice movement, and has dedicated his career to furthering this cause. School-choice has massive appeal to social conservatives because they would want to spend more of their education dollars on religious schools. Finally, school choice, if implemented properly, can ultimately become a pro-education position, in line with democrat's historical strength on education issues.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TheVidra said...

Anonymous, you expect libertarians to be pro-choice. This brings up an interesting concept. The basic libertarian tenet is loosely that one is free to do as one wishes as long as he does not directly infringe on another's freedom to do the same. Those are divine or natural rights or what not (hence the libertarian messianic approach to the doctrine). Anyway, when it comes to abortion, we have two rights: the right of a human (the baby) to life; as well as the right of a human (the mother) to its body. On one hand, a libertarian would be opposed to killing a human being (or something in the process of becoming human) - it would infringe on its right to life. On the other hand, a libertarian could not force a mother to feed the fetus and provide it shelter. Hopefully one day technology will make this dilemma obsolete (whereas the mother will not have to be forced to either kill the baby or be its slave and nurture/house it), but the philosophical reference of a libertarian is not as clear cut as you suggest, certainly not dogmatically pro-choice.