Thursday, August 26, 2010

Crooked Neighbors

Clive Crook writes, re libertarianism, liberaltarianism [which sadly has nothing to do with altars], etc:
Libertarians disagree with progressives about markets and with conservatives about "values", and that is really that.
I think he's dodging the issue by putting "values" in scare quotes -- as if "value" judgments had no overlap with markets -- so I'm going to read the sentence without the quotes. This brings out an obvious inconsistency: if libertarians and conservatives agreed about the probable outcomes of markets (or anything else) and disagreed about how to value those outcomes, they would disagree about policy. Since they agree about policy they must have either common values or inconsistent forecasts -- for instance, some libertarians believe in trickle-down economics whereas conservatives don't really want wealth to trickle down.

The debate about "liberaltarianism" has brought out some of the bizarreness of libertarianism as an "ideology." To set up a contrast, conservatism in the typical, Ross-Douthat sense is a complex of things, based around the notion of a body politic: (a) a belief that people ought to behave in traditional, "normal/natural" ways -- these change over time -- and that such behavior should be encouraged or enforced; (b) a belief in social hierarchies, currently the family, previously the feudal extended family incl. servants that are in some sense "personal," i.e. that are maintained by stronger than commercial bonds (being personal, such bonds are exclusive, hence the xenophobic streak); (c) a sense that most of the existing order is just, and that malcontents are (currently) freeloaders or (formerly) people unhappy with their station or (eternally) Deviants. Populism is quite close to this, but instead of (c) has (d): the body politic is sick because of a cancer (deviant/freakish behavior at the head) or because of invading outsiders. Similarly, classical liberalism is a complex of tendencies based around the notion of the explorer: (e) it values freedom, individuality, and self-fulfillment; (f) it has strong anti-hierarchical tendencies, and is anti-feudal -- it prefers contractual to personal relations; (g) it is xenophilic (the "explorer" strain) and stands for the individual against the mob, even when the mob has a point (e.g., murderers and rapists). In addition, some classical and most modern liberals believe (h): the penalties for failure should be limited; everyone should be guaranteed a decent standard of living. Obviously each of these ideologies comes with a certain class identification -- conservatives with the small businessman who's a "pillar of the community" and liberals with travelers, scholars, and to some extent "The Other" in general.

You can't describe libertarianism in these terms at all. Being a libertarian is more like being a prohibitionist than like being a liberal or a conservative -- it's an agenda without a specific worldview. (Many libertarians dishonestly pretend that getting rid of government will make life better for everybody; this, however, just reinforces my point.) Of course it's possible to be a libertarian conservative -- you might believe (e.g.) that the government is weakening "local communities" -- or a libertarian populist -- if you think the govt. is run by special interests and actively oppresses the poor -- or a libertarian liberal -- if you think the govt. is basically a wiretapping agency. None of these ideologies is about government in any direct way -- rather, they're about desirable and undesirable outcomes. It is admittedly true that the relevant political parties have partly been hijacked by narrow interest groups that have little to do with worldviews per se; libertarians make a perfectly sensible pressure group; but there are excellent reasons why more self-aware pressure groups like AIPAC don't agonize over whether to think of themselves as liberal or conservative.


mw said...

I came away with a similar perspective. Aiming for the middle does not quite cut it. Nor does aiming to shoot the right as Lindsey does, nor aiming to shoot the left as Goldberg does, nor aiming at both as Kibbe does.

From a practical perspective, asking rhetorically "where libertarians belong" is less important than understanding how they can be politically relevant.

One key to political relevance is simple - a predictable centrist libertarian swing vote. This is a variation of your "pressure group" notion, except that it votes as a block. The rub - for a swing vote to be predictable it has to be organized. And nobody yet has figured out how to herd these cats. This is sometimes referred to as the "Hot Tub Libertarian" Problem.
There is an answer. There is a way to herd these cats. Paraphrasing from my post "Curing Libertarian Electile Dysfunction":

Libertarian swing vote organization is going to have to look different than traditional political organization. After all, it is something we will have to accomplish while sitting in the hot-tub. What is needed, is an organizing principle. Ideally, a principle that is so obvious, so logical, and so clear-cut, that no leadership is needed, no parties are needed, no candidates are needed, and no infrastructure is needed. Ideally it is this easy: You think about the principle, and you know how to vote.

That organizing principle exists. It is Divided Government. It is absolutely clear-cut and easy to understand. Divided Government is documented by Niskanen to work in a practical real-world manner to restrain the growth of the state. As a voting strategy it can be implemented immediately. More importantly, it can collectively be implemented individually as we sit in our hot tubs and ponder the sorry state of the world. Whatever the percentage of the electorate that libertarians represent, whether it is 9% or 20%, if they vote as a block for divided government, they immediately become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single most most potent voting block in the country, specifically because they are willing to vote either Democratic or Republican as a block. Specifically because they are not fused to one party or the other.

If the libertarian "divided government vote" is shown to swing elections for two or three cycles, then libertarians will no longer be inchoate, their message no longer be diffused, and their political clout no longer flaccid. As long as the bulk of the electorate remain polarized and balanced, even a small percentage libertarian swing vote organized around divided government will be enough for libertarians to display the biggest swinging political "hammer" in town.

Sarang said...

In practice I think a problem for libertarianism-qua-voting-bloc is that, in addition to being "libertarian," most libertarians have an _actual_ political identity (as liberals, conservatives, populists, or corporatists). Left to their own devices their votes would scatter, absent elites whose views people can parrot and follow. However, libertarianism lacks cultural depth and thus has a hard time finding elites that the base can get behind.

I would argue that the libertarian movement is disproportionately influential (given how few people are libertarians) if you treat it as a voting bloc; however, its influence is more-or-less what you'd expect of a pressure group. Which brings me again to the notion that it would make more sense for the movement to be like the NRA or AIPAC -- hold events to get people interested in the ideology, use endorsements wisely, run attack ads, etc. -- than to try to set up as a political party. Ron Paul has had much less influence on the course of American politics than the Koch brothers.