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A marriage of convenience

[This a cross post from my blog Divided We Stand United We Fall, written in response to Kos' essay at Cato Unbound. I was debating whether to post this here, but since it was the first Kos post on the subject of "Libertarian Dems" that brought me here, I thought it belonged. So, WTF - it's below the fold.]  

"Is this a trick question?" That was my first reaction to Cato Unbound's "big-picture" topic of the month: "Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?"

Forget the essays for a moment. Let's just look at the question, which is either incomplete or meaningless. To be fair, this provocative headline  is intended to stimulate discussion, and is not intended as a rigorous inquiry.  Still, there are ways to pose the question so it can be answered meaningfully. I submit for your consideration, a few examples along with the correct answers:

1) Should libertarians become Democrats?
2) Should libertarians vote Democrat in the 2006 midterms?
3) Should libertarians only vote for the Libertarian party?

These questions can be answered with  more rigor and certainty, and the short answers are: No, Yes, No.

Longer answers follow, accompanied by rambling comments on the CATO essays in progress.

I love posing political arguments to libertarians. If you frame the argument correctly, validate your assumptions, construct it logically, present and document your facts, you can occasionally get a libertarian to actually change their position, and agree with you. This is very different than my  experience with partisan Republicans or Democrats, who, if the argument has merit and they don't like the conclusion, will generally perceive it as an attack to be crushed by any means necessary, including invective and obfuscation (see Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Sean Hannity,  Al Franken, etc.).

Markos Moulitsas lead essay "The Case for the Libertarian Democrat"
is an attempt to answer the "trick" question in the headline, and is consequently a muddle.  I read it as answering question number one (1) in the affirmative ( i.e. it is a recruitment pitch for the Democratic party) and along the way, also making the correct argument for question number two (2).  I suspect that he would be perfectly happy to just get agreement there.

As he mentions, this is his second attempt to invoke the concept of a "Libertarian Democrat". The first was a June 7 post on his blog titled "The Libetarian Dem".  In the Cato essay, Moulitsas takes pain to distance himself from that first effort, calling it "a throwaway blog post"and "coarse, raw, and incomplete".  I enjoyed the first post. It prompted me to join DailyKos in order to post the very last (and widely unread) of 900 comments with a subject line "practical libertarians and tactical voting". This quote is from that comment.  In it I outline the  primary problem I found with the original  post, which  is just as applicable to his latest.

"Invoking the bogeyman of large corporations as an evil that restricts freedom is simply not going to play with libertarians. Reason: There is a fundamental difference between governments restricting individual freedom, and corporations restricting individual freedoms...  Government is sanctioned to use force (guns, jails, police, military, courts) to restrict individual freedom for the objective of common defense and domestic tranquility.  The relationship between individuals and corporations is theoretically voluntary.  Individuals can choose to be employed or not by a corporation, and to buy or not buy their products."

Moulitsas was wrong then, and is wrong now, when he endorses a statement that "corporations are becoming more powerful than governments." The statement is nonsense on the face of it.  There is no real need to belabor the point as several responses to his essay takes Moulitsas to task on this very point, including: Michael Hampton at Homeland Stupidity, Mona at Inactivist,  and Andrew at Obsidian Wings. Trent McBride at Catallarchy takes it a step further with this offer:

"Persuade me that corporate (coercive) power, to the extent that it exists, does not rest on governmental power at its foundation. I've never really seen anyone try, though that certainly could be my own fault for not having seen it. The most promising candidate in the comments (or in email) will be awarded a guest post to expound on this issue, along with a used (old but good condition) copy of The Machinery of Freedom."

Trent's  book is safe.  Although I find this dead horse to be sufficiently beaten by the above bloggers, I am compelled to add a kick or two. This is the exactly wrong argument to make with Libertarians. Consider  the examples that Moulitsas offers in support of the argument:

"... defense contractors now have greater say in what weapons systems get built (via their lobbyists, blackmailing elected officials by claiming that jobs will be lost in their states and districts if weapons system X gets axed). The energy industry dominates the executive branch and has reaped record windfall profits. Our public debt is now held increasingly by private hedge funds. Corporations foul our air and water. They plunder our treasury."

These assertions are either factually inaccurate, misleading or miss the real target. If a  corporation is engaged in criminal behavior (blackmailing, bribery) it is the legitimate role of government to prosecute and regulate their activity, If corporations endanger life and health by polluting air and water,  It is the legitimate course of government through the courts or law enforcment to remedy, prosecute, or arbitrate. But to mix these examples  in with  oil company profits and hedge funds trading government bonds for profit as if they are all of one cloth, is incoherent at best. As I said - a muddle.

On the other hand. there is the kernel of an idea here that could appeal to libertarians in 2006. I thought Moulitsas abandoned one of his more salient points from the  June 7 post in this most recent article. Then, he made a distinction between between what he calls "traditional" libertarians and "practical libertarians".

"Traditional "libertarianism" holds that government is evil and thus must be minimized. Any and all government intrusion is bad. While practical libertarians (as opposed to those who waste their votes on the Libertarian Party) have traditionally aligned themselves with the Republicans, it's clear that the modern GOP has no qualms about trampling on personal liberties."

I'll amplify this point, as I think Moulitsas could and should have. The purist or "traditional" libertarians and "practical" libertarians both subscribe to the same political philosophy. However, when that philosophy is taken to its extreme logical conclusion, it brings you to a fictional place inhabited only by the New Libertarian Man. It is a place that has never actually existed outside of an Ayn Rand novel -  A utopian ideal that has exactly as many real world historical examples as there are examples of the utopian communist ideal populated by the New Soviet Man. Which is to say zero, none, nada, zip. There is simply no evidence that a "pure" libertarian society can or would work. Inspired by Trent McBride, I will offer my (slightly used)  first edition and autographed of copy of Barbara Branden's  "The Passion of Ayn Rand", to anyone who can document a historical example of a "pure" Libertarian society.

However, there is plenty of evidence that, to the degree that a flawed real world society guarantees and nurtures both individual civil and economic freedoms, to that degree a society prospers. The practical libertarian recognizes this, and will make decisions, support policy, and vote for leaders that will incrementally increase freedom in our inevitably compromised political society. Or perhaps more accurately, vote against the greater threats to freedom.

There is fertile ground here, if you want to harvest  libertarians to vote democratic, It requires persuading "practical" libertarians accustomed to voting Republican, that by voting Democratic in 2006, they are voting to slow the growth of the state. To make that case, one need look no further than the sidebar of the CATO Unbound home page under the "RELATED @ CATO" heading. Slivinski's "Grand Old Spending Party", Healy and Lynch's "Power Surge" unambiguously document that the greater threat to our Freedom is found in this crop of Republicans holding the reigns of power in Washington. Niskanen's article "Give Divided Government a Chance" documents the only course of action available to practical libertarians in the 2006 midterms. Bruce Reed's reaction essay is essentially limited to this theme, but with a more partisan bent.  Harold Meyerson's reply adds little to the discussion. It is interesting only in that he stakes out the "Traditional Democrat" position vs. the Moulitsas "libertarian democrat" in an almost perfect analog of the "Traditional Libertarian" vs. the practical libertarian dynamic discussed here. In the Best of the Blogs reaction, Jane Galt  at Asymetrical Information and Ilya Solmin at the Volokh Conspiracy reach the same (and correct) conclusion:


"The Democrats will, I expect, get a fair number of libertarian votes this election, including mine. But it will be a vote of protest against the various sins of the Republican party, not a conversion to the notion that sexual freedoms are the only ones that really matter."

"I agree with the libertarian Democrats enough to believe that a limited Democratic victory in the 2006 elections will be good for libertarian values on balance. This is not because I have any confidence in the Democrats per se, however, but because I believe that divided government can limit the growth of the state (as it did in the 80s and 90s) and that a Democratic victory is necessary to punish Republicans for their many errors and sins."

In short, in 2006 we have made a match, and will consummate a marriage of convenience between democrats and libertarians.  It may be little more than a fling, a star-crossed union that is destined to fall apart in a year or two. But, it'll have plenty of fireworks, and be fun and exciting while it lasts.

Returning to the questions asked in the Cato Unbound title and introductory paragraph:

"Of course, the fact that libertarians have been so badly abused by conservatives doesn't necessarily imply they will find a more welcoming home among liberals. Is the Democratic tent big enough to include small-government free marketeers? Perhaps libertarians have something to gain by supporting to Democrats, but does the Democratic party have anything to gain by courting libertarians?"

We need to check some assumptions in that paragraph. In addition to sloppy punctuation and grammar, there is some sloppy thinking here. Voting for Democrats in 2006 clearly does not imply "finding a home among liberals." And the rhetorical question of whether Democratic Party has anything to gain by courting libertarians is just silly. Of course they do. It is the same thing that the Republican Party has to gain by courting libertarians. Votes. In a polarized partisan environment, a small voting block can have influence far out of proportion to their actual numbers.  Here is the a better question: Can practical libertarians organize sufficiently as a voting block to influence the positions, platforms and policies of both major political parties?

I outlined such a strategy when responding to the Ryan Sager post, "Hot-Tub Libertarians".  The conclusion is reprised here:

As pointed out in Ryan's article, libertarian organization is going to have to look different than traditional politics, after all, it is something we will have to be able 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 et.al. 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 become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single 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.

This means, libertarians must ignore what the politicians say and look at what they actually do. It means ignoring spurious invitations to fuse with a big tent party that no longer stands for anything meaningful. It means voting straight Democratic in 2006, and (if successful in establishing divided government with a Democratic Congress) voting Republican for President in 2008. It means the difference between libertarians being a completely impotent political force, and libertarians having the biggest swinging political "hammer" in town.

And it can be done from the hot tub.

And we can start this year.

Originally posted to DWSUWF on Tue Oct 10, 2006 at 10:59 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  tip jar ... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LoganFerree, michael1104, ztn, gkn

    Believe it or not.

    I have low expectations.

    "The maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where it's true form is, 'divided we stand, united we fall." - Thomas Jefferson

    by DWSUWF on Tue Oct 10, 2006 at 11:01:05 PM PDT

  •  Sweet! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DWSUWF

    Nice piece.

    Did you used to post by this nick over at FR?

    •  no - not me. (0+ / 0-)

      I thought I made this acronym up (at least as a nick). You sent me scurrying to google to find FR and that DWSUWF. Looks like I was scooped by at least five years.

      Judging from the old posts google found, that DWSUWF is quite a bit to the right of me. I might have sounded like him in the 2002 timeframe.  I bought into the WMD story and was quite supportive of the war on another board under another nick. By 2004 I was posting for Kerry and divided government. Looks like the DWSUWF FR was staying the course. Can't find anything recent for him, so I guess its mine now. Plus I bought all the domains.

      "The maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where it's true form is, 'divided we stand, united we fall." - Thomas Jefferson

      by DWSUWF on Wed Oct 11, 2006 at 06:04:23 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Small govt. free marketeers (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DWSUWF

    and I'll add socially liberal with prudent views about foreign policy. That's me.

    It's tough being one of those and involves a lot of cognitive dissonance when aligned with a party. Which why I'm independent.

    It's a shame. I've written many diaries advocating the infusion of such ideals into Dem campaigning and into the general mindset of the Dem party.

    The Dems would stand to gain so much and loose so little if they adopted such means to ends.

    I'm voting dem for congressional district, probably dem for Senate and probably republican for governor.
    Not sure about the local elections.

    (-0.75 econ., -4.72 social) Democratic Freedom Caucus-a better way.

    by ztn on Wed Oct 11, 2006 at 08:12:07 AM PDT

  •  we're on the same page. (0+ / 0-)

    I have  not found the same research and documentary support for divided government at the state level as federal, but suspect it is just as valid.

    Went back to read your diary on the Kos essay. I was on a fishing trip last week, so missed it. Good stuff, but I am apparently too late to recommend.

    "The maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where it's true form is, 'divided we stand, united we fall." - Thomas Jefferson

    by DWSUWF on Wed Oct 11, 2006 at 08:53:53 AM PDT

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