For a long time, I have been skeptical about the libertarian Democrat argument in all of its incarnations, but lately I can see the case for it if you differentiate between theory and practice, between intellectual conservatism/liberalism and the Republican/Democratic Parties as they actually exist today. In his column this morning, John T. does an excellent job explaining why Brink Lindsey’s desire for a “movement that, at the philosophical level, seeks some kind of reconciliation between Hayek and Rawls” is impossible. At the philosophical level, libertarianism is diametrically opposed to liberalism. Libertarians believe that the function of the government should be limited to protecting individual freedom; liberals believe that government should be used as a means to help alleviate suffering, even if it means encroaching on individual freedoms (i.e. more taxes, regulations, etc.). To libertarians, capitalism is not only the most efficient economic system, but the most moral one. Liberals may acknowledge that it’s the most efficient, but find the income inequality it produces immoral, and believe in a government that actively reins in capitalism to make it more equitable. At the ideological level, libertarianism is still more compatible with conservatism, which also holds that government should be limited to protecting individual freedom. The difference is that conservatives also believe that the existence of certain cultural values is crucial to maintaining a free and prosperous society (this has caused a greater gulf between libertarians and conservatives in recent years). That brings us to what the Republican and Democratic Parties are actually like in practice.
If you divide political issues into three main categories (economic, social, and foreign policy) it’s pretty easy to understand why libertarians may now be more comfortable with Democrats. Since Republicans have proved themselves at least as dedicated to big government as the Democrats, the economic category has become a wash. While in the past Republicans used social issues symbolically, during the Bush years (faith-based initiatives, stem cells, gay marriage, Terry Schiavo, etc.) they began to translate more often into actual policy. Of course, the War on Terror is the dominant issue of our time and will be for the foreseeable future. And as John points out, dovish libertarians find themselves in much more agreement with liberals on WOT-related matters.
The bottom line: Lindsey’s idea of a “real intellectual movement” fusing liberalism and libertarianism is pure fantasy, but based on what the political parties are actually like today, it makes sense that dovish libertarians will remain more comfortable with Democrats. And given that in my view, we’ll be fighting the WOT for a very long time, that alliance of convenience between liberals and libertarians may be here to stay.
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