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October 13, 2006

Libertarians and Their Admirers

As a general point on all the libertarian talk flying around the lefty blogosphere lately, when did Democrats decide libertarians either had no critique of state intervention in the economy or are no longer attached to it? And could we stop?

During this moment, it's certainly true that Democrats and libertarians are finding a lot to agree on: Terry Schiavo, gay marriage, Iraq, and all the rest. But while many of them may pull the lever for the left in 2006, as soon as Democrats take power, they'll be reminded that Dems favor large social programs and heaping helpings of government regulation. Attracting people who despise the core tenets of your domestic philosophy is probably not the way to a durable majority. My libertarian friends and I uneasily joke about how our amicable bond will disintegrate once Democrats take power again, and we all remember why we hate each other.

Alternately, some Democrats appear to believe that a) libertarians are really just civil libertarians who never really cared about economics, b) political innocents who never considered the idea that state intervention can be useful, or c) people who live in the interior west and don't like Pat Robertson. Now, all these subgroups may be out there, but they're not libertarians, not insofar as the word actually has meaning.

October 13, 2006 | Permalink


The subgroup "people who live in the interior west and don't like Pat Robertson" was who I initially understood Kos's badly-named "libertarian democrat" sales pitch to be aimed at. I still think that's the case, but any talk about getting actual, Reason-reading, Cato-seminar-attending libertarians to vote Democratic on a long-term basis is both futile and silly.

Posted by: Christmas | Oct 13, 2006 4:04:52 PM

I certainly think that's who Kos's pitch is aimed at, and that's fine: A libertarian Democrat isn't a libertarian either. But Schaller and LizardBreath are talking about actual libertarians, and just redefining what those folks believe.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 13, 2006 4:18:27 PM

I think the issue is, a lot of "people who live in the interior west and don't like Pat Robertson" self-identify as Libertarians, as do the "I love markets" crowd, as distinguished from actual libertarians.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Oct 13, 2006 4:28:13 PM

On the other hand, I don't think I've ever seen a poll where a significant portion of the population self id'd as libertarian.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 13, 2006 4:42:43 PM

I still think there's a categorical error going on.

Cato claims there's a constituency that shares some generalized sympathy with their goals. I agree. There are a number of people who care about negative liberties and fiscal restraint, and those people are concentrated in the intermountain West. The people you identify as libertarians are making claims that people in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Arizona and Eastern Washington are libertarians.

Cato believes that since these people share some of their sympathies, they'd endorse the same policies that Cato does. This is roughly the equivalent of a Trotskyite think-tank noting that Californians are concerned with positive liberty and economic justice, then concluding that there's a broad base of support for the total communalization of agriculture. The underlying data is correct; the conclusions are insane.

I agree that there's no way that we're going to consistently get this bloc of voters to vote Democratic -- but I also don't believe that, in the context of electoral politics, running candidates on platforms constructed out of this set of values is either (a) a lost cause or (b) an unacceptable compromise of core Democratic values.

Out here in ID-01, we've got a pro-choice, anti-eavesdropping, anti-Patriot Act candidate who's within six points of his Republican opponent in independent polls. What's the other half of his platform? Immigration reform, a pay-as-you-go government, and effective stewardship of federal land. This is in a district with a 28%/44% Democrat/Republican voter identification spread.

It's not like you have to run like you're running for city council in Galt's Gulch to appeal to this voter bloc -- it's that the populist appeals that work in the South, which combine appeals to economic justice with social conservatism, are exactly the opposite of what these voters want.

-- ACS

Posted by: Andreas | Oct 13, 2006 5:07:42 PM

I'm not sure how far the 'interior west' extends, but the northern counties in California and the east-of-the Cascades counties in Oregon (and Washington state as well, I think) sure have a lot of people that think they are libertarian.

They call their 'country' "Lincoln" (only the gods know why they choose poor Abe as their symbol - maybe just because he isn't Father of the Country George Washington). They don't like government, period, but do luv guns - a lot.

I find it curious or interesting or comment-worthy, that the rural west people Kos thinks are ripe for the Dems are surely the least-impacted folks in the country by government activity (aside from the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forestry Service, and other federal agencies that manage government lands and resources).

Do their anti-government feelings follow from the their choice of a living in largely unpopulated area, or do their go-it-alone political convictions lead them to living well apart from 'society'?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Oct 13, 2006 5:24:12 PM

The important thing to do is just treat this as a rhetorical move to try and shave some voters away from the Republican party by identifying those areas that people with so-called "libertarian" tendencies agree with the Democrats.

It's just rebranding, which is a good thing. Actual libertarians are abundantly clear about the nature of their assholistic political beliefs, and I doubt that Kos is looking to convert any of them.

Outside of DC, there's lots of people who think of themselves as libertarian-ish on a lot of issues, especially in the West. Most of them belong to the GOP, but they don't drink all the Kool-aid. And we've got a way better chance to get these folks to vote for Democrats than we do the Culture Warriors of the Confederate States of America.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 13, 2006 5:32:13 PM

I find it curious or interesting or comment-worthy, that the rural west people Kos thinks are ripe for the Dems are surely the least-impacted folks in the country by government activity (aside from the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forestry Service, and other federal agencies that manage government lands and resources).

This is exactly why these libertarian-lite folks could be swayed toward certain Democratic candidates. Most of these folks want the land preserved pretty much the way it is, because that's how they make their livelihood. To them, "corporation" means developers and logging companies who want to tear up their forests and grazing lands.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 13, 2006 5:36:27 PM

The number of actual libertarian could fit in my apartment. There are like a thousand of them, and they all run for Senate or work at thinktanks. I've heard Andrew Sullivan describe himself as a libertarian but his hawkishness runs counters to libetarian beliefs.

Sure, everyone is libertarian in spirit. As Ronnie Van Zandt famously sang, "I just want to be left alone."
But the unwritten lyric is, "But you best not touch my social secuirty or weaken OSHA cause I work in a mine and do CEOs really have to make so goddamn much?"

Posted by: david mizner | Oct 13, 2006 5:51:50 PM

I find it curious or interesting or comment-worthy, that the rural west people Kos thinks are ripe for the Dems are surely the least-impacted folks in the country by government activity (aside from the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forestry Service, and other federal agencies that manage government lands and resources).

I think you've nailed something important. Because of the historical lack of advocacy for issues that rural Westerners care about, and the inapplicability of a lot of federal programs to the day-to-day lives of a lot of intermountain Westerners.

One thing that doesn't get stressed enough is that the Intermountain West has (after the Australian Outback) the lowest population density in the first world. The word "rural" is meaningful in an entirely different context in the West than it is in, for instance, rural Pennsylvania. This means that programs designed to work inside cohesive communities are non-functional*, programs designed to assist poor and middle-class people are inaccessable, and positive rural programs (for instance, rural development loans and grants) are underutilized.

The only way in which a lot of rural Westerners interact with the government is either intrusive (the county assessor comes to your ranch to assess property taxes; the EPA tells you you can't build a hog farm, passive (the interstate is just there; you don't think about it overmuch), or mediated by corporations in such a way that the voters don't think about it as an issue of government (the government subsidizes the silver mine you work at).

To a certain extent, those libertarian sympathies are understandable, because, despite the fact that more money is being put into these states than taken out, the active intervention of the government, when it operates in ways that voters understand as being influenced by their votes, is frequently either useless or irritating.

-- ACS

(1) For instance: rates of homelessness in Idaho are similar to those in major metropolitan areas. There is, quite literally, a north-south stretch in Idaho 500 miles long that lacks a single program or facility providing emergency shelter.

Posted by: Andreas Schou | Oct 13, 2006 6:03:40 PM

"I find it curious or interesting or comment-worthy, that the rural west people Kos thinks are ripe for the Dems are surely the least-impacted folks in the country by government activity (aside from the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forestry Service, and other federal agencies that manage government lands and resources)."

Erm...I don't know about that. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point, but I'd say that people in the interior West rely more on the federal government for their livelihood and lifestyle than anyone else in the country. Basically, people only live between Missouri and California because, going back to the 19th century, the federal government decided to enable them with massive subsidies and infrastructure. That's the irony in all of this.

Posted by: snowdensofyesteryear | Oct 13, 2006 6:08:04 PM

Libertarians revere Ayn Rand and revile the New Deal, including Social Security. New Dealers revere FDR and think Ayn Rand is bat-shit crazy. That being said I consider myself a New Deal Libertarian, because Libertarians get the Big Sky things right. But when things get a little closer to the ground Libertarians get all starry-eyed about the Invisible Hand to the point that they just miss the Iron Glove of Corporate Pricing Power concealed within.

So by all means let Democrats and Libertarians soar in the heady air of Freedom for All! But recognize that you are not going to get a working coaliton on social justice going. I was a full blown Objectivist. I read the whole canon. Then I turned 17 and realized that to my fellow Objectivists my widowed grandmother's Social Security check was the first step on the Road to Serfdom. And I woke up.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Oct 14, 2006 9:30:57 AM

There aren't that many libertarians to begin with, and most of them are irritating, bloggers, or both.

Posted by: Max. | Oct 14, 2006 10:29:18 AM

The segments of the Democratic party that "favor large social programs and heaping helpings of government regulation" aren't large enough to form a majority on their own and, absent some major economic disruption like the Great Depression, won't be forming any majorities for the foreseeable future. Progressives (which is not identical with the word "Democrats") are going to have to grow the Democratic party by forming coalitions with people who disagree with them on a range of issues.

I consider myself mostly a libertarian, but I care far more about my personal freedoms than I care about whether the government is a little bigger than I would like. I also believe in a certain amount of government regulation for libertarian reasons. Just as complete absence of government regulation in civil life would mean loss of civil liberty, as strongmen come to dominate, so do I believe that absence of government regulation in economic life leads to loss of economic liberties for the same reasons.

If you can't form a coalition with people like me (I've been a solid D for 30+ years), you're doomed. Maybe you won't get all the social programs you want, if you depend on me for your majority. However, you surely won't get what you want if you are permanently in the minority.

In short, freedom and liberty are not the exclusive property of the right wing. They are in fact a different dimension of politics entirely from the left-right axis. There are "libertarians" on the left as well as the right, and as the right becomes increasingly authoritarian, more and more libertarians are going to be "in play". Democrats snub them at their peril.

I don't want to get into a purist semantic debate about what is a "libertarian". A 100% pure dogmatic libertarian couldn't possibly vote for either party. You are dealing with ranges of libertarianism, and where in the range the libertarian puts his emphasis.

Posted by: shargash | Oct 14, 2006 12:56:36 PM


You're absolutely right about real hard-core libertarians, but as you've said, there are incredibly few of them -- your poker buddies from Cato aren't a voting bloc. My point, ill-expressed as it was, was that there are a whole lot of voters out there who identify with libertarianism, despite the fact that they really don't support the libertarian economic program. But the 'libertarian-ish' framework means that they associate a vaguely defined lower-taxes-less-government idea which they don't necessarily think about in detail with the principle of individual liberty. They think they're voting for Republicans because (undefined) 'smaller government' is going to make them 'freer'.

These voters really aren't libertarians. Most of them think Social Security is a pretty good idea. I've talked to a Republican who describes himself as a 'libertarian Republican' who's in favor of universal single payer health insurance. So we aren't talking about the Cato Institute here. But the word 'libertarian' means, to them, 'the economic policies that have individual freedom as their goal', and that's powerfully attractive. All I'm saying is that by using the word 'libertarian' as loosely as many Republican voters use it now (that is, pretty darn loosely), I think we can communicate that we are equally concerned with individual liberties in all areas of life (UHC means the liberty to start your own business without fear of being uninsured. That sort of thing.)

We're not disagreeing much about the substance -- I just think that a voter who calls himself a libertarian probably doesn't have much affiliation with genuine libertarian policies, and that by using the words that already appeal to him, we've got a shot of reaching him.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Oct 14, 2006 2:14:07 PM

New Deal, Raw Deal, whatever your opinions are about these social programs that exist, I admire the bulk of Washington libertarian (assholistic - that's a good one) ideas that these things should be ONLY for the poor, not for the rich and the able.

Furthermore, if you think these social programs should be installed regardless of cost and waste, yet you freak out at the slightest corporate abuse, than you have lost your compass.

I see no problem in asking the government to be transparent (except in rare cases of national security).

Bruce Guthrie has pledged to end corporate subsidies and RETAIN social Security to keep our promise to veterans and the elderly.

Maria Cantwell, on the other hand, gets a cut of these corporate monies. AND she also will get quite the retirement payback when she is voted out of office (which will be when the aztec calander ends).

98% of incumbents are reelected.

I have ne problem voting for the candidate that actually reflects my libertarian'ish views.

Limiting the powers of government, or at least keeping it clean.

Some of you act like if Guthrie, or any libertarian, were elected they would start sliting the throats of any social programs and go for the jugular left and left.

This is simply untrue, Bruce has pledged to improve and streamline these programs as a social safety net. Nor would he, nor a handful of Libertarians have such instant power.

But you appear to be holding Bruce to the quotes of some other uber-libertarians while completely forgiving Cantwell of her actual culpability in her actual voting record.

I would not say it if it were not true. Bruce has a better campain platform than Cantwell, though he does not have the lobby/corporate millions that Cantwell draws on.

I like Bruce's take on the environment. I like his take on ending corporate welfare (which he would actually introduce legislation unlike Cantwell). I like his pledge to support marriage equality, balancing the budget, restoring the Constitution, reducing the size and waste of D.C. (You are aware that the U.S. government is the LARGEST polluter on the planet? Am I correct in ASSuming You want it to be bigger?).

Vote how you want.

Don't expect me to step in line with a candidate that does not reflect my values.

Also, I don't vote for a candidate because they will win just as I don't listen to music because it is on the Billboard top 40.

You can have Justin Timberlake (I just checked, he was on top as of this posting). I am content with Floater (www.floatermusic.com).

How about actually going to Guthrie for Senate's web site and review his take on things? If you are to hold 'libertarian' ideals against him, you should hold HIS libertarian ideals against him. Not the ideals of those in the past.

This is the same idea that keeps me from going into the past and holding against the (D)'s the fact that slavery once divided the Democratic Party.



Posted by: scott lindsley | Oct 14, 2006 2:18:00 PM

High Plains folks are a different breed. I lived in North Dakota for Several years and used to joke that the one sure way to get a North Dakotan to do something was to tell hime he couldn't. I recall the legislature tried several times to pass a helmet law (to avoid losing Federal highway funds) and each time the citizens would call a referendum and vote it down. So the "leave me alone" element is pretty strong.

In part, folks who want to be left alone choose to move to (or stay) in the high plains/upper west. Also, the enviroment requires "self sufficiency".

Posted by: DonRobbie | Oct 14, 2006 7:15:26 PM

I think the "democratic libertarian" move is rhetorical sophistry, and why not engage in it? If nothing else, this discussion shows us just how inchoate the concept of a 'libertarian' is. Any effort to describe what a libertarian really is seems outside the scope. We're not doing analytic philosophy, we're doing political strategy.

What is significant from a strategic point of view is that "libertarian" is an appealing way for people to identify themselves. It signifies independence from pure partisanship. It taps into nebulous freedom-loving and scorn for tyranny. It allies one's self with very general principles that are attractive to get behind. In short, for most, it is more form than substance.

Because "libertarianism" can be conceived of so generally, it is vulnerable to sophistry. You can insert substantive, concrete particular policy positions and present them in such a way that interlocks with vague, general libertarian principles. There are ways of constructing justifications for even the New Deal welfare state from libertarian starting assumptions.

The key insight, I think, of appealing to a "libertarian" sensibility is that what is most important to self-identifying libertarians are not particular policy choices. It's the identity that is powerful. And it's a few broad and indeterminate principles that are powerful. This should be obvious to anyone who has watched self-styled libertarians stand at attention for a monarchical administration.

I see no reason to define ourselves out of a possible engagement with an influential set of principles. Libertarianism is so general as to be logically indeterminate. At that point, the question to ask is: is it easier to convince a person that their vague, libertarian principles are compatible with our particular policies, or should we try to "convert" them wholesale by asking them to repudiate their identities?

It's analogous to the choice between arguing for a particular progressive interpretation of broad Constitutional language, or arguing for a Constitutional amendment. Why not appeal to a text that has the power of national tradition and abstract consensus rather than define that text in such a way that you must necessarily oppose yourself to it?

Posted by: StJoe | Oct 14, 2006 8:01:46 PM

I wanted to add just one more example. The concept of a "corporate subsidy" is appealing because its approbation flows in a seemingly natural way from concepts of fairness, favoritism, and bias. But just about anything the government does can be characterized as subsidizing some at the expense of others.

Rather than convince the entire populace that post-modern-style political analysis is correct and everything is a subsidy and a redistribution of wealth, and then convince them that a policy of redistribution towards corporations rather than towards least well off is unjust, it might be better just to least those assumptions in place at the level of politics and call something a "corporate subsidy" and benefit from its automatic, reflexive sanction.

Posted by: StJoe | Oct 14, 2006 8:21:44 PM

"Libertarians revere Ayn Rand and revile the New Deal, including Social Security."

Hell, I almost linked him last night. I consider myself a libertarian, in that freedom is the ultimate value, and I revere Bakunin, Emma Goldman, and Pierre-Joseph "Property is Theft" Proudhon.

Stateless Socialism ...Mikhail Bakunin

Good god, the discourse has become so fucking dumb in this country.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 14, 2006 9:56:46 PM

Bruce Webb sebb, I mean said: "Libertarians revere Ayn Rand and revile the New Deal, including Social Security. New Dealers revere FDR and think Ayn Rand is bat-shit crazy."

For every one of those pecksniffian citified Libertarians, there are fifty libertarians with a small 'l' who have never heard of Ayn Rand, and whose only remembered contact with the government is the tax bill that goes up a a couple hundred every year. Those dollars just seem to disappear into some hole, but the government *still* won't repave the damned road. That's where the votes are.

Posted by: episty | Oct 15, 2006 11:49:52 AM

A friend pointed out to me yesterday that there are people who classify themselves as "Green Libertarians." I think it has something to do with being environmentalists who think the best ways to solve environmental problems are private and market solutions.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 15, 2006 2:10:43 PM

Well, to be fair, an awful lot of the people I am attracted to would call themselves Anarchists. There are myriad types of anarchism, including Eco-Anarchism, and in especially in America, anarcho-capitalism. Now all Libertarians are not minarchists, preferring to have just enough gov't to protect their property. But almost all anarchists are Libertarian Socialists. Or is it the other way around.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 15, 2006 2:58:44 PM

Bob, do you look upon anarchism as just an ideal, or do you see it as a practical approach? One practical problem with loose, small or ad hoc government is that it's less able to sustain the powerful military and economic machines needed to keep more aggressive people (like us) from just taking over.

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 15, 2006 3:51:05 PM

"...anarchism as just an ideal, or do you see it as a practical approach?"

"Three important principles of syndicalism are workers' solidarity, direct action (such as general strikes and workplace recuperations), and workers' self-management."

As a practical current approach:bottom-up organizing of groups without direct political participation,i.e., labor unions, NARAL, Sierra Club, whatever...distinctly opposed to Political party activity or attempts to directly influence the higher process. Direct action:marches, sit-ins, etc. Self-management:grabbing as much local independence as possible, California and emission standards, municipal minimum wage laws, local gay rights ordinances, whatever can be gotten away with.
Long term I think the nation-state is in decadence and can no longer provide the services that justify its existence. Including defending its land and population. Iraq is an example and a paradigm.

The US cannot really defend us against China, but China no longer has the means to attack us. Or whatever means are available will cost much more than they are worth.
War is over, except for insane nostalgic reactionaries.
Aww, long story. But as the nation-state dissolves, we will not revert to feudalistic city-states. Too much technology. We will essentially end geography, in the sense that Europe is making geography irrelevant.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 15, 2006 4:47:41 PM

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