I once had a meal with a man who had been a Republican operative. He was lamenting the factionalism within that part)’, and as an example told the story of some Christian evangelicals. They had come to him offering to support his candidate providing the candidate agreed with them on 15 points.
“In politics, you don’t get all 15 points,” he said. “Maybe you get eight of them. You have to be satisfied with that. These people didn’t understand that.” To them, each of the 15 was connected to Truth, and was not negotiable. There was no agreement, and no progress.
In politics, a lot of libertarians act like those evangelicals. Their badge is their purity. Politics, however, is not about demonstrating one’s purity. It is about getting 51% of a group to agree on something. Once in a while you can do that by standing up for purity, but usually not.
Some people don’t care about affecting the outcome of current political battles. They have their eyes on the distant future. But if they want to have an influence now, they have to accept the influence of others on a shared position. Their view is that half a loaf – or a quarter, or a slice – is better than none. And this is the reality of politics.
The utopians picture compromise solutions as sellouts, but it is not necessarily so. The fights over two such positions – Social Security reform and school vouchers – are probably far more important than any purely libertarian issue.
Take vouchers. They were invented by a libertarian, Mil- ton Friedman, and over many years became part of the mainstream conservative program. Vouchers are denounced by utopians because they retain the state as funder of education. Indeed, in a community like mine, where 30% of the kids are in private school, a successful voucher system would probably increase the demand for school money from taxes.
Still, vouchers would create a way to privatize the provision of education. With a voucher system, parents would have to approach their kids’ schooling as customers, just like private-school parents. They would have to search for what they wanted rather than beseeching the government for it, and soon enough they would not bother with the government anymore. Their ideas and expectations would have changed because their institutions had changed.
All of this amounts to a kind of stealth libertarianism, which makes the realist smile. The utopian frowns at the half-wayness of it. He wants to sell people first on the rightness of his ideal. If he can do that, he says, we won’t need a halfway measure like vouchers. The problem is that he cannot make a sale. He needs a 51% solution, and he doesn’t have one of those.
In the state where I live, vouchers have been rejected by the voters, as have charter schools. They are dead, dead, dead. But in other places they are being tried – and that is the key. Whether they prevail will depend not on how many people are convinced to be libertarians, but on how well parents like voucher schools and what the test scores show.
Now consider the proposal for Social Security private accounts. It came out of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that started pushing it more than 25 years ago. It made it into political contention for two reasons. First, Social Security
On civil liberties and the war I have common ground with progressive liberals, but it is common only if we do not discuss it past the first drink.
was going broke. The proposal would not have been considered except for that. Second, it offered an idea that was neither a tax increase nor a benefit cut, and sounded a whole lot better than either one. Thus a libertarian-born idea became, in the late 1990s, doctrine of the Republican Party.
This was more stealth libertarianism. Its inventors wanted a way to prod Americans to take personal responsibility for the 12.6% of wages the government was extracting from every paycheck. It was not politically possible to do this by taking away Social Security benefits and telling them, “Take care of yourself.” But the tax had increased, making Social Security a worse and worse deal. Demographics made inevitable a further tax increase or benefit cut that would push the rate of return below zero for a high-earning worker. Private accounts offered the hope of a richer retirement.
The sales pitch for private accounts was more about money than freedom – and the money issue was not a slam-dunk. High earners would get more benefit from keeping their money than low earners, because the system had favored low earners. Private accounts did offer the chance of much greater returns, but also the chance of small returns. Private accounts shifted risk from the government to individuals. For a halfway competent investor, this risk was well worth taking, but it was real and opponents pointed it out. And the demographic problem – that a higher proportion of the population would be retired and living off a smaller proportion of workers – was only disguised. Demographics would affect private-account holders through the price of assets: more people would be wanting to sell, and fewer would be wanting to buy.
Private accounts also required collective transition costs. In the new system each generation would pay its own retirement rather than its parents’. That was an improvement; it would let workers use the power of compound interest, which is very powerful over a lifetime. But that seemed to suggest that one generation would have to pay twice – once for its parents, who had not paid for themselves, and once for itself. To soften the blow, the system would have to borrow a large sum, perhaps a trillion dollars over 40 years. The Cato people argued that this didn’t matter, but obviously it did.
The Left charged that Social Security privatization was a Wall Street scheme motivated by greed. It was not; Wall Streeters don’t make long-term investments in political ideas. The Cato people had made one, with the goal of promoting liberty; but the politicians who took over the idea sold it only partly for that reason. George W. Bush tried. A different president could have done better, but probably Congress was not ready for it. (Yet how do you get people ready for it? Maybe you try and fail, and try again.)
There is still hope for Social Security private accounts. When the Democrats come to solving this problem they will offer a tax increase. They will have to. The Republicans will reach for an alternative, and what can they find that is better than private accounts?
Those two proposals – school vouchers and Social Security private accounts – are libertarian ideas. It was conservatives who tried to implement them. It was also conservatives who pushed time limits on welfare. That measure was signed by Bill Clinton over the opposition of left-liberals. It was a conservative project passed with mostly Republican votes. In a decade it has cut the federal welfare rolls about in half.
Still another bit of stealth libertarianism: medical savings accounts. These were invented by a free-market conservative, J. Patrick Roone)!, then CEO of the Golden Rule Insurance Co., as an alternative to low-deductible medical insurance. The tax-deductibility of these accounts was passed into law by the Republican Congress under George W. Bush. Like school vouchers, they exist at the margins. The versions available are not always ideal, but they are better than nothing. Also like vouchers, they are aimed at one of the really big, expensive things the modem welfare state does – in this case, medicine, the one big part of the American economy in which the state is trying to supplant private industry. I have my doubts whether Americans will cotton to medical savings accounts, because everyone I know who has full coverage prefers it. But in the fight for private medicine this is the best new idea on the shelf.
Four ideas: vouchers, Social Security private accounts, welfare time limits, and medical savings accounts. All are gradualist but powerful ideas to increase individual choice and responsibility. All strengthen an individualist culture. All are projects of conservatives.
But libertarians have long been uneasy with conservatives, especially since 9/11, when the conservatives raised the banner of soldiers, spies, prosecutors, and cops. I understand the feeling about that. If I want to be agreeable in a group of progressive liberals, which most of my neighbors are, I grumble about civil liberties and the war. There I have common ground with them, but it is common only if we do not discuss it past the first drink.
The left-liberal idea of foreign policy is internationalism – that the United States shall refrain from global assertiveness without permission of the United Nations, or at least of NATO. Modern liberals are not against war, if it’s dressed in humanitarian garb. They still revere Woodrow Wilson, who got us into World War I, and they brook no criticism of Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman. Most of them applauded when Clinton ordered the bombing of Serbia, a country that obviously posed no threat to the United States. Most of them want the American military to go into Darfur. Their principal criticism of the Bush foreign policy is not that it kills people but that it has alienated our allies, meaning particularly the Canadians, Germans, and French.
The libertarian’s idea of foreign policy is more about America minding its own business. The libertarian who objects to the Bush foreign policy will probably not object to the “lone cowboy” aspect. Probably he likes that part. Maybe it reminds him of Robert Heinlein. A libertarian cowboy will be more respectful of other people than a neocon cowboy but he will not want to be permanently assigned to a posse of humanitarians.
Domestically, the left-liberal believes in freedom, or believes he believes in it. But it is an abridged freedom. He may have a government like the one in my city which tells me I have to have a license to cut down a tree of more than six inches in diameter, or to have a cat in my house, or a business. If it is a business, the sign can be only eight inches square and have nothing on it but my name. I violate the law if I burn scrap lumber in my back yard or put one sheet of paper in my garbage can. Or one plastic bottle. Or one glass bottle. I am forbidden to ride a bicycle without a helmet or a car without a seatbelt, or decline to pay union dues if some stranger has signed a labor contract that demands I pay them. I cannot smoke in a cafe or bar or buy a medical insurance policy that doesn’t cover naturopath)!, a craft I consider quackery. My public school district wants to assign kids to my neighborhood high school based on race, even though the state constitution specifically forbids it, and the matter is about to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. I pay taxes for a baseball stadium named for an insurance company, a football stadium named for a telephone company, and a basketball stadium named for a bank. I pay taxes for a stadium that was blown up by the government. I pay taxes for the new city hall, which has a grass roof.
To the liberal, freedom concerns none of these things. Apart from freedom of expression, the liberal’s idea of freedom is mainly about privacy. It is about a place for whoopee, and for not being held to account or morally judged afterward. In many ways his idea of freedom is the 15-year-old’s: Stay out of my room. Show me respect. And he)y when’s dinner?
The liberal says, “I’m for choice.” The libertarian wants to know which one: School choice? Social Security choice? Drug choice? Union-membership choice? Alas, the liberal is “pro-choice” only to avoid being labeled “pro-abortion.” He is not pro-choice. He is pro-privacy. (And legally the right of abortion rests on an argument for marital privacy.)
The libertarian believes in proper~ and that gets him most of the same privacy the liberal wants. It also gets him standing ground to do bigger things than the liberal would allow, and collectively provides the private sector with a place
Politics is not about demonstrating one’s purity. It is about getting 51% of a group to agree on something.
to resist the state. The liberal thinks all this talk of resisting the therapeutic state is antisocial and right-wing. His conception allows for a state of German dimensions, a state that takes half his income and controls his land, buildings, investments, business, job, and labor representation. His state may socially engineer him into public schools, public transit, public housing, public employment, public clinics, and public pensions. All this is acceptable provided only that he can vote and fornicate; the cops do not rifle his desk; and no one, private or public, “discriminates” against him.
Consider the two sides, liberal and conservative, as represented in the current Democratic and Republican party platforms in my state. There is an important caveat: in each case,
The libertarian believes in property, and that gets him most of the same privacy the liberal wants.
the platforms are more radical than any of the party’s senior elected officials. Still, they display what the core of each party believes.
Here are the Democrats: “Our platform rests on the principles that there should be security for all citizens; education, jobs and economic opportunity for all; accessible and affordable health care for all Americans; a rebuilding of our reputation in the world as a cooperative and just country; a reversal of the erosion of civil liberties in our country; a recognition that diversity strengthens our nation; [and] a recognition that we are responsible for our ethical, economic, environmental and educational legacy.”
Now the Republicans: “Republicans believe that good government is based on the individual and family, that each person’s ability, digni~ freedom and responsibility must be honored and recognized. Our basic freedom, the value that makes our country unique in the world is rooted in Free Enterprise and the basic right to Private Property. The role of Government is to preserve and defend our ability to live in a free and peaceful society.”
The Democrats are for “security for all citizens,” and by this they do not mean physical security. They go on to say, “We believe … food, shelter, medical care, education and jobs are basic human rights.” They are for a single-payer, nonprofit “healthcare” system.
The Republicans say, “Health care” – two words for them – “is a personal issue, and informed individuals can make better decisions about their own care than government.”
The Republicans are for “providing the highest quality education through offering a broad selection of choices, whether public, private, charter or home school; appropriate funding of public schools, and tax credits and vouchers for other choices; [and] the right of parents to direct the education of their children.”
The Democrats are for public schools, period. They are opposed to charter schools and vouchers, and say nothing about the rights of parents. Regarding corporations, the Democrats oppose”corporation rights as persons under our constitution and their associated constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to make political contributions in the corporate capacity.” They say, “We believe multinational corporations are not legal persons entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. constitution.”
The Republicans have nothing like this.
Regarding the news media, the Democrats say: “We believe the public owns the broadcast airwaves and the Internet, which should be managed to serve the public interest. We support using diversity of ownership as the centermost principle of broadcast licensing; strengthening media ownership regulations to avoid corporate domination of our airwaves; encouraging minority and community media ownership; ensuring that media license holders provide diverse programming; increased funding for public broadcasting including documentary films and noncommercial news programs; establishing a system for community-level, non-profit, and non- commercial radio and TV nationwide.”
For all their complaints about the liberal media, the Republicans make no proposals to regulate it or supplant it. They are for”campaign finance law that in no way prohibits free expression.” The Democrats want political campaigns to be financed by the government. They would also force broadcasters to provide air time free to political candidates.
Regarding race, the Democrats are for”diversity” and the Republicans are against “the use of quotas or preferences to favor one person or group over another.” Regarding religion, neither platform says much. The Democrats are for the separation of church and state, and the Republicans say “Individuals’ first amendment right of religious expression in our public schools does not conflict with the Establishment Clause.” The Republicans are also for “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The two platforms use language differently. Each uses the word “responsibility” about the same number of times. Eash uses the word “responsibility” about the same number of times. The Republicans mostly use it to mean the responsibility of individuals or families. The Democrats mostly use it to mean the responsibility of business, government, or society. An exception is when the Democrats speak of a woman’s responsibility for her reproductive choices.
In all these things the Republicans are pretty close to libertarians. In some other ways they are not. They are dead-set against abortion and gay marriage. They say “We are at war, and we support President Bush in all aspects of this War on Terrorism, including the government’s responsibility to monitor the communications of terrorists and their allies.” They are for restrictions on immigration, which some libertarians
In many ways the liberal’s idea of freedom is the 15-year-old’s: Stay out of my room. Show me respect. And hey, when’s dinner?
are for and some not. (The only part of the Republican platform that made the local newspapers was its statement that the 14th Amendment was not meant to grant citizenship “to the babies of illegal aliens.”)
The hardcore libertarians do not want to be with either Republicans or Democrats. They are their own church, and a small church it is: their presidential candidate gets half of 10/0 of the vote. The party has been raising money and fighting ballot-access battles for 35 years. A huge amount of effort has been expended and no territory taken.
Before he died, Liberty editor Bill Bradford told me that the Libertarian Party was mainly a business to raise money to employ libertarians. It was not a political party really. A
Libertarians are different from religious conservatives and militaristic nationalists, but they should accept that in the larger culture they are part of the Right.
political party is an organization to elect its members to office, and apart from a handful of state legislators, the Libertarians had never elected anyone who even began to matter. Not one capital-L Libertarian, running as the candidate of that part)!, has been elected to Congress or ever will be.
There are, however, small-L libertarians in Congress. All of them are Republicans. The official label has been pasted on only one, Ron Paul of Texas, who once ran for president as a Libertarian. The Republican Liberty Caucus, run by economics professor Clifford Thies, says it has been tougher to find Republicans who are strong on personal liberty since 9/11, but he names five congressmen as pro-economic-liberty and pro- personal-liberty: Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dana Rohrabacher of California, John Duncan of Tennessee, John Shadegg of Ari- zona, and Ron Paul of Texas. Some others almost make the cut: Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Chuck Otter of Idaho, Tom Feeny of Florida, Ed Royce of California, and Scott Garrett of New Jersey.
The list is arguable; I note that only two of the five who are labeled libertarian, Duncan and Paul, voted in October 2002 against the Iraq war. To me that is a defining vote. The Republican majority leader, Dick Armey of Texas, a former economics professor, almost voted against the war. In the summer of 2002 he came out against the war, but by October Dick Cheney had snookered him into it. Maybe I am sniffing gasoline here, but if there had been 15 or 20 other Republicans standing with Duncan and Paul, ready to back up Armey, maybe the majority leader would have held his ground. That would have been noticed.
As much as I hate the war, I’m not one of those who says that no supporter of it can be a libertarian. To me, a libertarian is a person whose most important value is liberty. We can argue about the details, including the war. But if someone’s most important value is liberty, he’s on my side, and I’m not going to cast him out.
In fact, there are politicians whose most important value is liberty (somewhat narrowly defined), and the ones I know of are Republicans. In my state, the legislative district in a high- tech suburb sends to the legislature a man who years ago in another state ran as a Libertarian and, of course, lost. Having won here as a Republican, he has done several good things – among them, an objection to his fellow legislators’ declaring emergencies more than 100 times a year, in order to sidestep part of the state constitution.* He has not ended this practice, but he has helped to embarrass them into limiting it.
Considering state-level politics also clarifies the argument I am making here. At the state level the Republicans cannot do anything about war and foreign polic~ or much about abortion. There is much jawing about gay marriage, and I don’t share the abhorrence of it. But mainly the battles in my state are about money. Every year the Democrats want to spend more and the Republicans less. That pattern is consistent and predictable: Democrats more, Republicans less.
Over the years, the cumulative outcome of these battles determines whether you will live in a high-tax state or a low- tax state, a high-regulation state or a low-regulation state. And that will make a difference to you of several thousand dollars a year and whether you can smoke in a tavern or burn some pizza boxes in your backyard.
Want to affect the outcome of that? You have to take sides. Libertarians are different from religious conservatives and militaristic nationalists, but they should accept that in the larger culture they are part of the Right, as Economist correspondents John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge documented in “The Right Nation” (2004). “The American Right exhibits a far deeper hostility toward the state than any other modern conservative party” they wrote. “How many European conservatives would display bumper stickers saying, ‘I love my country but I hate my government’? How many would argue that we need to make government so small that it can be drowned in a bathtub?”
It was Grover Norquist who said that last remark – the conservative who describes his allies as the “leave-us-alone coalition.” Libertarians are part of that coalition. How could they not be a part of it?
The core value of libertarians is self-reliance. Their core objective is to constrain the state. Historically the small state demanded strong families, strong companies, and strong fraternal and civic organizations, including strong churches. All these are celebrated by conservatives. Liberalism has tended to drain them, leaving the field to the therapeutic and administrative state, with its tax eaters and permit czars and behavior facilitators, and the individual with his private room. I like that private room, but it is not enough.