Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Coming Era of Liberaltarianism.

Lately there has been a lot of controversy over the liberaltarian moniker. It is not a term I use, nor is it one I find useful. I think I understand the reason it exists—to draw attention to the vast areas of common ground between classical liberals and progressive liberals. But when it comes to the libertarian label I just prefer using libertarian to say the same thing.

A libertarian is someone who believes in liberty and this broadly translates into three areas: civil liberties and social freedom, economic freedom and property rights, free trade and a non-interventionist foreign policy. It behooves libertarians to emphasize all three areas as they are interlinked.

Some libertarians, however, pander to the bigots on the Right in the hopes of attracting funding, or winning votes. So they truncate liberty: they amputate freedom by ignoring, or downplaying, civil liberties. Some actively try to appeal to the xenophobes by belittling immigrants and calling for measures that appeal to Tea Party types.

If a libertarian only spoke about social issues and foreign policy he would be doing a disservice to libertarianism by giving the impression that it is nothing but another version of left-wing ideology. Similarly if a libertarian ignores those issues to focus exclusively on areas of agreement with the Right he too does a disservice by giving the impression that libertarianism is just another version of right-wing ideology. Both commit the same crime.

Due to the rise of authoritarian socialism in the last century many classical liberals found themselves in alliance with conservatives. Conservatives, true to their nature of clinging to the traditional were, at that time, clinging to a tradition that was fundamentally classical liberal. So an alliance between libertarians and conservatives, in opposition to autocratic socialism made sense.

But things have changed. Both the Left and the Right have changed. The Left in most the world no longer has the same slavish dedication to dirigism that they once had. The political Left, to a large degree has shifted politically toward the center. The communist empire that attracted so many of them collapsed and so did the ideological assumptions of many on the Left. You now have former socialists like New Zealand’s Michael Moore, the former prime minister, writing in defense of globalization and free trade. This isn’t the Left of fifty years ago anymore. It isn’t even the “New Left” of the 1960s, which was just a more obnoxious version of the old Left.

Similarly the Right has changed as well. But where the Left got better the Right got worse. Gone are the Goldwater-Reagan types and what we have instead is a mishmash of theocratically inclined bigots of one type or another. Witness the Glenn Beck revival meeting appealing to Americans to return to God as one example. The Tea Partiers seemed more concerned about Mexicans than Big Government.

The Right got ugly. Goldwater and Reagan both had strong classical liberal sentiments. And these days there are a lot of people on the Left who should be bringing flowers to Ronnie’s grave. While he made some awful appointments in the judiciary he also made some brilliant ones. Judge Walker, who ruled against Proposition 8, was originally a Reagan appointee. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, who authored the decision overturning sodomy laws, was another Reagan man.

The Right of the 1980s was not obsessed with bigotry. What did happen, however, is that the Christian fundamentalists abandoned the Democratic Party. Until the 80s the fundamentalists were Democrats, since Southern Democrats were the most consistently hatefully, bigoted politicians around. But when the national Democratic Party adopted the civil rights movement white fundamentalists abandoned their natural home for the GOP. Unfortunately they brought with them the stilted, bigoted views that they always held. They eventually, for the most part, came to accept black people as their legal equals but they still harbor a natural tendency to find scapegoats to hate. At the moment their favorite targets are gay people and immigrants.

The reasons for the old libertarian-conservative alliance simply don’t hold true anymore. Sure, the Right is attempting to revive that alliance by inflating the “Islamofascist” threat. But the Right is always searching for bogeymen with which to terrify people into supporting them. Given that the political Left is the natural home of libertarians, given that the modern Left is today more libertarian than their fathers were, given that the threat of authoritarian communism is gone, given that the Right has adopted a policy of hateful theocracy, it makes senses that libertarians would return to their first political alliance: one with the Left.

When classical liberalism arose it was the opposition to the conservatives of the day. But classical liberalism scared people and a synthesis arose, which combined the desire for liberal ends with the use of the means of conservatives, state power. That new movement was the progressive or socialist Left. They shared the goals of classical liberals but wanted to use the state power that the conservatives had held for centuries. Classical liberals and socialists worked together to end the state/church alliance, reform property rights, and enlarge the franchise. But with the rise of the Soviet Union and its totalitarian/imperialistic form of socialism that alliance ended. The conservatives of that era were now clinging to the recent classical liberal past so an alliance made sense. It no longer makes sense today.

American critics of the “liberaltarian” agenda have argued that it is an illusion and can’t exist. This is the viewpoint of conservatives who fear that libertarians would desert them for sure. But this is not the case at all. There are many examples of working political parties that have this sort of emphasis.

The Democratic Alliance in South Africa was run for years by the libertarian-leaning Tony Leon, who inherited Helen Suzman’s Houghton seat when she retired. Helen herself was rather libertarian. The Free Democrats in Germany have a gay man as their leader, are pro-market, want to reduce the size of the state, reform welfare, and pursue a pro-peace foreign policy. They are in government today. In New Zealand an atheist libertarian, Rodney Hide, leads the ACT Party. ACT MPs helped put civil unions into effect for gay couples and voted for the bill that legalized brothels. They are in government today.

The current UK government is a hybrid of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. But the Tories are different from Tories of the past. They fully embrace equality for gay people and aren’t pushing some sort of Anglican theocratic agenda. It is not far off to call the current UK government a liberaltarian one. Alex Massie, at The Spectator, makes another important point about liberaltarianism. He says that any of the indexes of economic freedom show “there’s little to no necessary contradiction between social liberalism and economic freedom.”

He notes this is especially true if you get outside of America’s polarized politics. The Heritage Foundation’s Economic Liberty Index shows that various socially liberal nations are today considered more free market than the United States. He writes:
Heritage hammers Denmark and Sweden for high levels of government spending but both countries are ranked "freer" than the US in matters as non-trivial as business, trade and investment freedoms. Indeed, Sweden and Denmark each score better than the United States in seven of the ten areas measured. (Britain comes out 5-4 ahead of the US with the property rights fixture ending in a draw. Germany is tied 5-5 with the Americans. Canada, Australia and New Zealand also do better than America.)
Massie also points to the Free Democrats in Germany and the Lib Dems in England. He acknowledges that many hard-core libertarians would find plenty to complain about but says these groups “are much, much closer and friendlier to what I’d term real liberalism than anything on offer from either party in the US or from any of the alternatives in the UK and Germany.” I concur.

I would go so far as to argue that there have been strong cultural shifts in America toward libertarianism. The political process, however, is not showing that shift. The political process is going to be the last place where this shift will be noticed, at least in the US where bureaucratic inertia will keep the statists in power for a long time. The double-blow of hardcore authoritarians like Bush and Obama, one from the Right, the other from the Left, will hurt freedom. But the shift, at the ground level, has already taken place.

Here are the facts. Most Americans don’t like high taxes and heavy regulation. And today, most Americans want some form of legal recognition for gay couples. The hard-core statists have sifted themselves: those on the Left are Democrats while those on the Right are Republicans. But the largest group of voters say a pox on both houses and see themselves as independents. They tend to be relatively libertarian.

Long term I’m optimistic, the short term is a bitch however. Long term even the Republicans will eventually embrace social liberalism. The libertarian middle is gaining ground. The middle ground of American politics is libertarian, perhaps not consistently so, but libertarian nonetheless. Only the political system itself, which entrenches the two statist parties, hides this shift from public view. For the time being the libertarian middle shifts from Democratic to Republican. In the last election they abandoned the GOP because of Bush. This year they will flee to the Republicans in opposition to Obama. At some point one of the two major parties will discover that the libertarian middle can be attracted if they make some major concessions to freedom. They will discover that the few rabid statists they lose at the ballot box are more than compensated for and that it is worth making the change toward a freer society. The first of the two big parties that discovers that will have a long-term majority in office.

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