Political Hay

The Liberaltarian Delusion

Given how liberals govern, there was no way any marriage with libertarians could last.

By 10.17.07

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Last December, the New Republic hosted the unlikely marriage of liberalism and libertarianism. Cato Institute scholar Brink Lindsey presided over the "liberaltarian" wedding, a union rooted in "philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value."

It would be easy to dismiss Lindsey's article as the ideological equivalent of a midlife crisis, but it appeared in the context of a larger "Libertarian Democrat" meme embraced by some libertarians and liberals alike. The idea was that liberalism would provide a happier home to freedom-lovers and that Democrats could actually behave in ways that enhance liberty.

How is the happy couple faring? A month after Lindsey's piece appeared, the honeymoon was already over. The liberal-led Democratic Congress quickly rescinded its promises of fiscal responsibility, outspending the Bush administration by $20 billion even on the Iraq war supplemental. In violation of free-market principles, Democrats boosted the federal minimum wage by 70 cents. And to cover the bill of greater government spending, their budget blueprints authorized a $721 billion tax increase over the next five years.

Congressional Democrats have continued their advocacy of government dependency. Most notably, they passed a $35 billion comprehensive expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Fund into a full-fledged, permanent program. Benchmarks of eligibility were relaxed to cover anyone within 350 percent of the poverty line, with waivers for those earning up to 400 percent.

At the state level, things are just as bad. Lindsey's own Cato Institute rates gives low grades to Western governors hyped as "libertarian Democrats." New Mexico's Bill Richardson scores best with a C. Montana's Brian Schweitzer and Wyoming's Dave Freudenthal both receive F's.

Nowhere do we see greater flexibility toward free markets or new openness toward smaller government. Once entrusted with political power, liberals are more likely to swell budgets and issue regulations than fight perceived infringements on civil liberties.

The Democratic presidential candidates don't promise to be any more liberaltarian than their colleagues already in office. They all pledge to roll back the Bush tax cuts and enlarge the federal government's role in healthcare. And their rhetoric is decidedly anti-free-market.

On her campaign website, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton complains: "Corporate profits are up. CEO pay is up. Wages are lagging. Household debt is soaring. At the same time, health care, energy, and education costs are rising." In other words, the free market has failed. And for all these problems, there is a government solution.

John Edwards promises "a specific plan for truly universal health care that will take on the insurance and drug companies, cover every man, woman, and child in America, and get better care at lower cost." Bill Richardson calls for an "energy and climate revolution," which includes state-controlled efforts to cut demand for oil, reduce greenhouse emissions, and support "mandatory world-wide limits on global warming pollution." Meanwhile, Barack Obama pledges to further increase the minimum wage, subsidize transitional jobs, and pour more money into education.

Even on the most fundamental libertarian issue -- free trade -- the Democrats are exactly wrong. Gone is the enthusiasm for NAFTA and GATT that characterized Bill Clinton's administration. Instead, Edwards has vowed "smarter trade that puts workers first." And the whole pageant has become an echo chamber of globalization's lament.

The new protectionism is based on the idea that it takes a village to promote economic growth, rather than the free movement of goods and people. Hillary Clinton has announced, "The unfettered free market has been the most radically destructive force in American life in the last generation."

Regrettably, conflicts over healthcare, social security, and trade are not incidental or passing. They are calculated expressions of two distinct worldviews. The liberal view, bemoaning market outcomes, resorts to government. The libertarian view, skeptical of state power, endorses markets.

The recent Republican spending binge, accompanied by disagreements over war and civil liberties, may account for the libertarian's wandering eye. But far from being an improvement over the conservative-libertarian fusionist alliance, the liberaltarian marriage is already on the rocks. But already in the first few months of their new marriage, it must be clear that libertarianism and liberalism are having irreconcilable differences.

Garin K Hovannisian is a student at Columbia University's School of Journalism and blogs at LuckyFrown.com.

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