Should Libertarians Leave The GOP ?
Writing today in the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby. relying largely on a non-linkable essay in The New Republic by Cato’s Brin Lindsay, asks whether libertarians should give up on the Republican Party to form alliances with liberals.
There has always been a tension between Republican libertarians, who believe that individual choices should be unconstrained by received wisdom, and Republican traditionalists, who believe pretty much the opposite. In their history of the conservative movement, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge recall that Barry Goldwater believed Jerry Falwell deserved “a swift kick in the ass;” and Goldwater’s wife, Peggy, helped to found Planned Parenthood in Arizona. But for a long time the two wings of the party could paper over these differences. Christian conservatives and libertarians agreed that misconceived government programs were harming traditional values. Schools forced sex education on children. The tax system and the welfare system penalized marriage.
Conservatives have grown less able to bridge these divisions because of their success. Welfare has been reformed, and the tax system now supports families with the expanded child tax credit. Having ticked off the first things on their to-do list, Christian conservatives now press for affirmative state action on behalf of traditional values: amendments to the constitution to bar gay marriage, government efforts to teach abstinence, federal payments to faith-based groups. All these policies appall libertarians.
The tensions between conservative and libertarian Republicans has been discussed here before, as have the numerous problems with the way the GOP has governed over the past twelve years, so I won’t go into that issue again. The question really is, would liberty benefit at all from an alliance with the left ? Mallaby says yes:
Would libertarians be more comfortable in the company of Democrats? On moral questions — abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research — clearly they would. But on economic issues, the answer is less obvious. For just as Republicans want government to restore traditional values, so Democrats want government to bring back the economic order that existed before globalization. As Lindsey puts it in his New Republic essay, Republicans want to go home to the United States of the 1950s while Democrats want to work there.
If Democrats can get over this nostalgia, there’s a chance that liberaltarianism could work. For the time has passed when libertarians could seriously hope to cut government: Much of what could be deregulated has been, and the combination of demographics, defense costs and medical inflation leaves no scope for tax cuts. As Lindsey himself says, the ambition of realistic libertarians is not to shrink government but to contain it: to cut senseless spending such as the farm program and oil subsidies to make room for the inevitable expansion in areas such as health.
In other words, Mallaby argues, libertarians need to grow up, realize that they’re never really going to win and just join up with the Democrats already to fight the evil social conservatives.
While I’m as realistic as the next person in admitting that reducing the size of government is a difficult job, I’m not willing to give up on it the way Mallaby suggests Lindsay is (since I haven’t read the article Mallaby references, I won’t criticize it directly). It’s true that there are some issues where libertarians and liberals can find common ground, there is far more that they disagree on. More importantly, though, allying with liberals seems to me to be the making the mistake as blindly aligning with the right was — in doing so, libertarians allow themselves to be co-opted and concede the basic point that government must, inevitably, grow.
Speaking just for myself, I’m not ready to give up just yet.