#Winning: Progressive Think Tank Demos Targets "Libertarian Right"


Was it only yesterday that I suggested that a country ravaged for the past dozen-plus years by Big Government on steroids (plus whatever else A-Rod's been shooting) was on the cusp of a glorious "Libertarian Era"?

As part of my case I pointed to recent fulminations across the political spectrum aimed at libertarians.

Long derided as inevitably male, pasty-faced, bitter-clingers to their Ayn Rands and their slide rules, libertarians for decades have been written off as a subset of all-powerful and oh-so-serious conservatives, as Republicans who smoke pot or have gay friends, and less. (Read "5 Myths About Libertarians," my recent piece in the Washington Post, for some perspective.)

But now, in the words of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, libertarians are not just irrelevant but downright "dangerous"—and infecting both major parties. You know, because libertarians actually seem to give a rat's ass about civil liberties, mindless military adventuring, and actually cutting government spending (which Christie has not done since taking office).

If Christie voices right-wing anxiety about libertarians' rising prestige and influence on politics and culture, the think-tank Demos articulates the left-wing version. The group has just announced its "Gordon Gamm Initiative," which is explicitly geared to roll back the tide of laissez-faire it feels has swamped a nation the 

…we find ourselves…facing the disastrous consequences of 30 years of economic policies far too heavily influenced by free market fundamentalism—a libertarian lens consisting of deregulation, laissez-faire corporate policy, tax cuts for the wealthy, and an attack on government as the enemy. This go-it-alone, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may approach to organizing society threatens our systems of social supports and regulatory safeguards, and contributes to our economic crises—record inequality, an eroded middle class, and stalled mobility for the next generation….

We envision a world in which democracy writes the rules for capitalism, not the other way around. Through the Gordon Gamm Initiative, we're focusing on countering libertarian myths, and arguing for new, higher expectations for a more socially responsible role for business in society, and for strong government action to advance the common good….

In confronting its impact on regulation, taxation, financial oversight, income supports, and other policies, we will treat both the theoretical and practical implications of the troubling policies championed by the perspective. Contributors to the Initiative may not agree on all details. But we will display an energetic commitment to counter the myths and distortions that can only set our country back.  Welcome to the Gordon Gamm Initiative at Demos.

Read more about the Gamm Initiative (and the man it's named after), here.

I think there are two immediate takeaways here to consider.

First, the Gamm Initiative is indeed yet one more indication that libertarianism and its ideas about what Reason calls "free minds and free markets" are indeed and unmistakably on the rise. Those of us who toil in the vineyards of libertarian ideas and activism should take a half-second to pat ourselves on the back and to thank our predecessors upon whose shoulders we stand.

As detailed in my Reason colleague Brian Doherty's essential history of the modern libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism, our ideas not only have a long and inspiring genealogy, but they have also uquestionably picked up steam over the last 40 years or so. Traditional right-wing conservatism and conventional big-government liberalism (even when rebranded as "progressivism") are exhausted ideologies that have gotten more than enough shots at running the country's economic, cultural, and political institutions. Libertarianism—broadly defined as pushing for limited government while promoting social tolerance—is ascendant in large part because the two major ideologies of the post-war era have been tried and found wanting. That many of the best economic, cultural, and political developments of the same era (e.g., opening up trade, ending de jure discrimination and loosening up lifestyle choices, ending the draft) derive from libertarian impulses is also true and is precisely the message that we need to articulate, refine, and circulate (for more on this, see Matt Welch's and my The Declaration of Independents). There's a reason why, as I noted in my piece yesterday, majorities of Americans feel the government is trying to do too much stuff that should be left to individuals and businesses. The reason is that we've been living with failed intervention after failed intervention. Now more than ever, people are ready to try something new. And that new thing is strikingly like libertarianism.

Second, we should welcome the engagement from Demos and other progressives. It will help sharpen our own thinking, policy ideas, and attempts to change the world. We have reached the moment described in F.A. Hayek's "Why I Am Not a Conservative" where those on the left have finally realized that their actual opponents are not revanchist members of the Old Guard, those folks who want to stand astride history yelling Stop! (or at least, "slow down!"). It's those of us who spring from the classical liberal tradition that is wary of concentrated power and politically instituted privilege, and who want a world that is filled not with a single god or ruler we're all forced to worship, revere, and tithe to but a chance at live on our own terms. As I wrote 15 years ago, in what seems now like a very different country:

To use a computer-age metaphor, libertarianism is best understood as an operating system that allows an infinite number of applications to be launched. In a truly libertarian society, we could rightly expect all sorts of communities, of every possible creed and philosophy. Libertarianism doesn't demand that converts forsake their old religions, so to speak. Rather, it replaces conversion by the sword with conversion by the word, by example, and by moral suasion. In doing so, libertarianism provides the necessary backdrop to letting all sorts of individuals and groups pursue the lives they want to live while minimizing the conflicts that true diversity brings to any human society.

There are many unfairnesses in the world and there's no question in my mind that, in terms of politics and policy at the very least, the 21st century has so far been a clusterfuck of almost unimaginable proportions. I think that the folks at Demos, whose hopes for a better society I share to the utmost, are almost entirely wrong when they blame libertarianism for all the ills of the world. To state the obvious, it isn't libertarians who bailed out the banks and doubled defense spending and foisted ever-more-expensive, jail-like K-12 schools on kids and taxpayers alike. It isn't libertarians who are deporting immigrants in record numbers and filling the nation's prisons with drug users. Or defending presidential kill lists and drone attacks, the prosecution of whistle-blowers, the infinite extension of Mickey Mouse's copyright, banning gay marriage, and forcing young, relatively poor Americans to pay for the health of old, relatively rich ones.

No, it's libertarians that oppose that sort of stuff (and so much more) and have actual workable ideas and policies to address many of those precise problems. I suspect that I'm hardly alone when I say that I'm a libertarian because I want to live in a world that is just, fair, prosperous, peaceful, and endlessly innovative and inclusive, not in spite of those hopes. And we should all be looking forward not just to showing Demos and other progressives where they are simply wrong about libertarian ideas and the best way forward, but to showing conservatives the errors of their ways too.

Related (8/20): "Can We Start Talking About the 'Libertarian Era' Already?"