Monday, December 04, 2006


Why Democrats don't need libertarians in their coalition

Brink Lindsey writes (also found here) that liberals should look to libertarians to form a coalition. Liberals and libertarians will be able to work together from time to time-- maybe more now than ever due to Republican lawbreaking on civil liberties issues, and abandoning of any pretense of restraint or rationality on spending.

But it would be a mistake for liberals and libertarians to try to form a coalition. Happily, it will never happen. Here's why:

(1) We have different beliefs. Exhibit A: the minimum wage. We want to raise it; libertarians want to abolish it. Same with Social Security and antitrust laws, which we want to fortify, and libertarians want to destroy. We also, unlike libertarians, support the continued existence of fire codes and zoning laws.

Democrats and libertarians take vastly different lessons from the voters' frustration with the catastrophically expensive, confusing prescription drug benefit. That the Republicans have heightened frustrations of inefficient governance with their incompetence doesn't mean that voters or Democrats share the libertarian view that government is always the problem.

(2) I'd be surprised if more than 5% of voters consistently vote libertarian. They're fine for collaboration on certain issues, but not ripe for coalition-forming. Even folks like Bill Maher and Glenn Reynolds, who claim to be libertarians because the word has more syllables and fewer connotations than "Republican" or "Democrat," will rationalize their party-line voting by any means necessary, however implausible.

If libertarians want to be a major part of a coalition, they have to convince more people of their views.

Most Americans want the government to do good and to prevent bad. The two parties have different views on which things are good and which are bad. Even the supposedly libertarian business interests favoring the GOP have really been seeking handouts from GOP-led DC, not getting it off their backs.

(3) I'm still holding out hope that once libertarians turn 25, or treat their OCD, or read the scholarship of Mancur Olson, they'll realize that the correct answer to every question isn't "no."

Lindsey's plaintive cry for "a new politics" at least recognizes that the current politics are bad.

But the answer isn't to form different unweidly coalitions than the one currently blowing up on the GOP. It's to deal with issues honestly, one by one. It's to de-emphasize party allegiance as an aspect of people's identity on par with religion or sexual orientation.

Lindsey makes a few peripheral distortions worth addressing. Jim Crow wasn't a "great libertarian breakthrough," in terms of who did the breaking through. It was liberals, using the machinery of the federal government, who dismantled longstanding public and private discrimination against blacks. It is revisionist history to claim LBJ-era successes as a triumph of libertarian political organization.

He also wrote that "progressives remain stubbornly resistant to embracing capitalism." He provides no examples of this, of course, because beyond perhaps an odd copy editor at the Nation, Democrats don't think that. An awareness the fact of the collective action problem and of multiple equilibria, and a humble, historically grounded view of the role the government can play in addressing them, does not amount to "resistance to embracing capitalism."

Andrew Sullivan writes of Lindsey's piece, "can the Democrats really find a place for lovers of liberty?" I think he meant "fetishizers of the term liberty" at the expense of empirical analysis. Libertarians will like what Democrats do more than what Republicans have been up to of late, and they can help Democrats along on many issues. But we shouldn't, and we won't, yoke ourselves together.

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