Are Libertarians Really as Useless as a Bucket of Armpits? Or Do They Just Smell That Way?


Over at The Atlantic, Clive Crook reads through Reason's August-September symposium on Where Do Libertarians Belong? and comes to the conclusion that:

Libertarians disagree with progressives about markets and with conservatives about "values", and that is really that. To the extent that they (we) serve any purpose at all, it is to challenge the two dominant strains of thinking, hoping to nudge each in the right direction. For now at least, I cannot see what purpose is served by worrying about which of these unappeasable opponents would make the better partner.

More here.

Reason Contributing Editor Veronique de Rugy responds to Crook's post at National Review's The Corner by linking to Scott Sumner at The Money Illusion, who points out that libertarians have changed liberal minds on many issues ranging from state ownership of industries, price controls, top marginal tax rates, regulatory excess, and more.

She might have added that libertarians (think Milton Friedman) had clear influence on conservatives regarding a military draft, tax policy, and school choice, for starters. In terms of partisan politics, the only self-identified libertarian in the 2008 presidential election, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), not only showed candidates how to use the web for organizing and fundraising, he almost singlehandedly put foreign policy on the table as a serious topic. Virtually all the GOP and Dem candidates (even Obama early on) were essentially status quo when it came to examining Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a pretty freaking huge impact. Going back almost a decade, Republican loyalists started carping about how Libertarians, tiny in number but rich in love, cost the GOP various elections. If you take even the most conservative estimate of a semi-libertarian electorate (say 10 percent) that is consistently in favor of social tolerance and limited government, you've got enough Free Minds and Free Markets folks to swing any election.

I think part of the problem with these sorts of discussions, including Brink Lindsey's liberaltarianism, is that participants are constantly mixing levels of discussions (I know I do). Liberals and conservatives are used interchangeably for Democrats and Republicans, right wing and left wing, etc. While the Dems are reliably more liberal (in a contemporary sense) than Republicans, the overlap isn't perfect and many liberals have libertarian or even conservative sympathies. And while their numbers are small, there are in fact libertarian Democrats along with liberal Republicans. Most importantly, how someone governs is probably less a reflection of ideology than other material concerns (there's the Marxist libertarian in me!).

Think about it: As de Rugy herself showed early and often, conservative Bush and a conservative GOP Congress spent more money in real terms than LBJ and his liberal Democratic Congress. Con vs. Lib Ideology doesn't explain all that much about the massive expansion of government under both parties.

The question isn't whether libertarians are useful, but how they are useful. Let me suggest a couple of things that Matt Welch and I have argued for years (and are expanding into book form):

1. Politics is a lagging indicator in American society. It's the least innovative sector of activity and changes arrive there after sweeping through the rest of the culture. The United States (and most of the world) is vastly more libertian than it ever has been, thanks to economic, technological, and social innovations. We all have more choices than ever, whether we're talking about stuff to buy or lifestyles to live. As important, we're all more comfortable (not perfectly comfortable, but more comfortable) with choices and tolerance for other people's choices.

2. Libertarianism (with a small 'l') is a pre-political, pre-partisan impulse. It informs what sorts of political choices or affiliations you might make (and for a variety of good reasons, as de Rugy notes, those affiliations historically tipped to the Republican Party, at least in the post-war period), but it's prior to partisan politics. Which helps explain why many of the great libertarian policies of the past 40 years came under Democratic presidents (think deregulation of airlines and interstate trucking, both pushed by Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy in the legislative arena).

The real impact of a libertarian sensibility is building a mind-set that privileges autonomy and individual choice, voluntarism, and openness over top-down, coercive systems that force everyone to go along to get along (that sort of single-value system is a hallmark of conservative and liberal thinking, where one calculation of value is forced on everyone, whether we're talking about sexual orientation or health care). it reflects all the best trends in commerce and culture of the past 40 years (think distributed networks, constant innovation, and the rise of glorious aesthetic anarchy). That mind-set has already shaken the world in ways big and small and will continue to do so.

Update: I neglected to mention that Reason's own Brian Doherty blogged the Sumner post a while back, emphasizing the enormous shift in the general zeitgeist over the past 75 or so years from a standard liberal one to a much-more libertarian one.