Attack of the Dean-Leaners

The Libertarian Case for the Democrats


I think I must have been ill that day. At some point, no one can say precisely when, libertarians apparently swore a feudal oath of fealty to the Republican Party. In response to an American Prospect article on libertarian disenchantment with the Bush administration, Reason's own former editor in chief Virginia Postrel explained that "real Dean voters don't like Jeff Flake. (I do.)"

On the Crossfire view of politics, this makes sense: You pick your team and root for it, come hell or high water. The Platonic Real Dean Voter can't possibly hold any affection for a member of the opposing tribe.

I'll confess I take a somewhat different view. I don't much care whether it's Terry McAuliffe or Ed Gillespie throwing the bigger celebratory shindig come November 2004. I don't even really care whether George W. Bush is, in his heart of hearts, a convinced Rothbardian while Howard Dean sleeps with the Communist Manifesto under his pillow. Because libertarians shouldn't be distracted by what policies the president, deep down, really wants. They should care about what he can get.

As Cato Institute economist William Niskanen observes, government tends to grow more slowly during periods when the executive and legislative branches are controlled by different parties. The mono-party regime of George W. Bush, who delivered a touching encomium to Milton Friedman mere weeks before signing new steel tariffs and a bloated farm bill into law, has increased domestic spending faster than conservative bete noire Bill Clinton. Bush has even beaten the "big government" Clinton's record when it comes to the growth of the regulatory state.

At present, the alliance (such as it is) between libertarians and the GOP seems to consist of the following compromise: we hold our noses and vote for Republican presidential candidates in close elections, while they agree to pay lip service to our cherished ideals of limited government. This seems like a fair enough trade on its face, but as "no new taxes" taught us, the lips of Republican elected officials are typically disconnected from their arms when it comes time to sign legislation. Perhaps it's time for libertarians to stop getting starry-eyed over the candidates who write us the prettiest love poems and begin comparing policy outcomes.

When we look at those outcomes, we find that, as Harvard's Jeffrey Frankel wrote in late 2002, there is a dramatic disconnect between rhetoric and reality: "The pattern is so well established that the generalisation can no longer be denied: The Republicans have become the party of fiscal irresponsibility, trade restriction, big government and bad microeconomics. Surprisingly, Democrat presidents have, relatively speaking, become the proponents of fiscal responsibility, free trade, competitive markets and neoclassical microeconomics."

Howard Dean, like Bill Clinton, may say he wants to dramatically increase government's role in health care. But with fewer vulnerable candidates than in the 2002 midterm elections, it's Republicans who are likely to have the final say on how and whether that happens. And while they've shown they'll happily roll over for Bush, who seems hell bent on delivering a prescription drug benefit, they'll be just as happy to deny President Dean a talking point when he goes stumping at AARP meetings in 2008.

In short Dean (or another Democratic nominee) has vices which are unlikely to translate into real policy. His virtues—opposition to an imperial foreign policy, greater support for gay rights, and even a qualified federalism, evidenced by his stance on gun rights—are more likely to be points on which bipartisan coalition building is possible.

This might be balanced by Bush's tax cutting zeal, if his cuts corresponded to cuts in domestic spending. But as Alex Tabarrok of the Independent Institute has observed, those "cuts" amount to little more than a "tax shift." From a principled libertarian perspective, it's not clear why saddling the next generation with debt (and higher taxes) is any better than facing higher taxes now. One theory, sometimes referred to as the "starve leviathan" model, posits that high deficits now will act as a constraint on future spending. But that kind of fiscal restraint requires presidential leadership—leadership that a president in the Bush mold seems manifestly unwilling to provide.

Of course, it might be objected that the natural candidate for a libertarian to support is, well, the Libertarian. And if one is voting largely for personal satisfaction, that may make a certain amount of sense. Yet people's actual voting behavior indicates that our actual motives in the ballot box are more complex. If you were really going to vote on pure principle, you probably wouldn't vote for any party's candidate, since those candidates are always represent some amount of compromise. Instead, you'd just write in the name of the person you'd most like to see hold the office.

If, on the other hand, you were following a strict Kantian categorical imperative, voting because you believe one ought to act as you would have everyone act… well, you'd do exactly the same thing. In reality, we usually act as quasi-Kantians, imagining ourselves as representatives, not of rational humanity as a whole, but of a cohort of somewhat like-minded folks who aren't going to agree on everything. The individual libertarian voter, then, ought to act according to the maxim that he would have the set of American libertarians obey.

If we take a sufficiently long view, it could be argued that voting Libertarian "sends a message" about the electorate's policy preferences. And that may be. But the message we send is proportioned to the threat we pose. Because of our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all voting system, the reality is that Ds and Rs are going to be the only live contenders for the foreseeable future. When libertarians as a group defect from the GOP to the Democrats (or vice-versa), our threat power is effectively doubled: each of us counts both as a vote lost to one candidate and a vote gained for the other. In close elections, a willingness to coalition jump may make the libertarian swing vote enough of a prize that candidates become, at the least, afraid of alienating us too severely.

One dismissive characterization of libertarians has it that we're merely "Republicans who smoke pot." How long before our erstwhile allies on the right begin to sneer that we're nothing but "Democrats who've taken an econ class"? How long before partisans of both side realize that we're none of the above? We're our own distinct species, and our political power depends on making it clear to both major parties that our support can be taken for granted by neither, can be won, not with pretty speeches, but with sound policies.