October 2006
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Day October 12, 2006

Why libertarians and “modern liberals” don’t make a stable alliance

I’ve been following the Moulitsas thread about “libertarian democrats” over at Cato Unbound and elsewhere (this Catallarchy post has an excellent challenge that I’m working on a response to, for example). Today, Kevin Drum considers the question and comes to the same conclusion I do: modern New Deal liberals and libertarians are not a stable political alliance. He’s correct to identify the mismatch on economic and tax policy as the deal-killer here.

But Kevin goes on to wonder why social issues are less important to libertarians than economic policy:

Now, I don’t quite know why it is that libertarians care so much more about economic libertarianism than they do about social libertarianism. Maybe they believe that Republicans talk a good game about their scary social agenda but aren’t really serious about imposing it. Or maybe they figure that although Democrats are theoretically more socially libertarian than Republicans, in reality they don’t do much about it. And those are pretty reasonable propositions. How many Democrats are in favor of any kind of serious drug decriminalization, after all?

The answer, I believe, lies in the key role that the “minimalist” or “night watchman” state — a state shorn of its regulatory and redistributionist powers, charged only with enforcing common law and providing for the common defense — plays in libertarian thought. Most libertarians I know are deeply concerned about social issues and personal liberties, but remain convinced that there isn’t much difference between “liberals” and “conservatives” on these issues because both appear committed to large, “interventionist” governments. For committed libertarians, influenced by writers like Nozick or Rothbard, civil liberties and social freedoms are best guaranteed by minarchism — restricting the role of the state to its “night watchman” role and keeping it out of social and economic regulatory realms altogether.

Thus, the priority given by most libertarians to “economic” over social alliances is pure strategy, of the “starve the beast” variety also championed by Grover Norquist. It isn’t that social liberties aren’t important, but many libertarians see achievement of the economic libertarian agenda as the means for accomplishing guarantees of social freedom along dimensions that both modern liberals and conservatives still favor regulation (e.g., drug policy).

Basic differences over the role of government and the acceptability of “regulation” as a means of achieving common liberal ends is the real reason why committed libertarians and modern New Deal liberals (Democrats) make strange bedfellows, and why libertarians have occasionally found the Republicans a better electoral option. That electoral alliance does seem strained by the obvious lack of “small government” focus by the current Congress and Administration, but the fact that one electoral alliance is breaking down doesn’t mean that Democrats have much of a chance of forging a new alliance. We may pick up a few libertarian votes in 2006, purely to create the gridlock of divided government which features so prominently in economic libertarian political tactics, but given a Democratic majority anytime soon, we should expect libertarians to either switch their voting patterns back to Republicans or focus on third-party candidates in 2008.