On One Hand

January 12, 2007

The Libertarian Problem

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:00 pm
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Every few months I have to devote an entry to Libertarians. To me, they’re one of the most interesting segments of the population, because I so passionately agree with them and disagree with them at the same time. They’re like the obnoxious guy who’s incredibly funny but also an incredibly huge dick to everyone, and you don’t know whether you want to hang around him or get as far away as you can.

Learning to be a little less passionate about my politics, I’ve somewhat revised the positions I once held fast to, taking a more observational position. I’ve talked about my frustration with Libertarians before, but to me it’s more interesting to observe this social phoenomenon than to pass judgment on it.

A friend posted about two possible “Libertarian” Presidential candidates for 2008:

One is Libertarian Ron Paul, who serves as a Republican from Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. Though he has voted pro-hemp (in a vote that would legalize hemp cultivation as different from Marijuana, as it is already legal in Canada, Europe and Austrailia) and against the war in Iraq, he is also anti-abortion (self-describing as pro-life and opting to leave the issue to the states), voted to ban gay adoptions in Washington D.C. Though more Libertarian than any other Republican in congress, he falls more squarely on the Conservative/Economic side of Libertarian politics than the Liberal/Social side.

Another candidate, actor Michael Moriarty, actually lives in Canada, calling himself a “political exile” after recently moving there. He describes himself as a, “Conservative-Libertarian,” but in many ways this just means Conservative. He’s anti-gay and anti-abortion, and rabid critic of Islam in all forms. His politics have a weird relationship with the Catholic Church that I haven’t quite figured out yet. His “Libertarian” credentials come in with his opposition to a progressive tax system and opposition to censorship of violence in media. But we already know that Conservatives are economically Libertarian in theory so his statement as being a “Conservative-Libertarian” is a non-issue. It would be like Ted Kennedy qualifying himself a “Libertarian on social issues,” which we all obviously already know.

Meanwhile, Most of us in this country have never heard of either of these guys.

I don’t think Libertarians realize just how much they’re ignored by both Democrats and Republicans. The GOP thinks it has Libertarian support locked down permanently and doesn’t act in any way to keep it, and Democrats don’t need Libertarians because they’ve gotten where they are entirely without them. The only Libertarians we know of come across as irreverent loudmouths, reeking of “I am right and know my facts and everyone else is stupid, the whole world is bought in a big-government conspiracy except for me.” They quote Ayn Rand incessantly, and as far as modern public figures go, an extremely disproportionate number of known Libertarians seem to be geeky white men with a grudge.

Libertarians are clearly more often associated with Republicans than democrats. But on a scale where Liberarianism on social issues and Libertarianism on economic issues were to be weighted equally, I suspect we’d have an awful lot more Democrats in the Libertarian zone than Republicans. But Most “Libertarian-Libertarians” who associate themseves with the Libertarian Party seem to care about three times as much about economic issues as they do about social ones. That’s why they’d rather have the pro-war, pro-military, anti-gay, anti-sex education, anti-abortion Bush administration than a Pro-social-freedom Kerry candidate who happened to want to raise taxes to pay for healthcare and schools.

Libertarians’ steadfast attachment to economic-issues-only is why the Libertarian Party never picks up serious strength: the fact is, voteswise, there are more self-percieved lower-class people than upper-class people in this country. Lower-class people are not Libertarians. Minorities are not Libertarians. A minimum wage increase has tremendous popular support right now, regardless of arguments for or against it, which I am not going to get into because it is irrelevant to this point I am making. There are far more people working on minimum wage than there are people hiring on minimum wage, and regardless of what argument you can have about a high minimum wage increasing unemployment, to a person making $5.17 an hour, the obvious gratification of a $2 raise is always going to look irresistable. The way for an anti-Labor party to get lower-class votes, which Republicans often manage to do, is to come down on social issues like opposing gay marriage, scare the population about the dangers of Mexican immigrants, and to play up national defense.

Libertarians instead act by ignoring social issues like gay marriage, which doesn’t give them the poor-but-homophobic vote (those people want vocal, outspoken homophobia before they’ll give you their open support), and doesn’t gain them the rich-but-tolerant vote either.

And as I’ve said before, when it comes to economic issues, Libertarians seem to care much more about cutting welfare and education programs they consider unnecessary than they do about cutting defense spending or paying off the National Debt.

For a while I actually identified as a Libertarian-leaning Democrat, between high school and my first year of college. That was because I liked Libertarian ideas about drug reform and ending coprorate welfare, and thought class inequality would be wiped out if only inheritance were to be abolished, which is something many Libertarian academics claimed would be necessary to establishing a truly Libertarian meritocracy and allowing each to be judged by his ability to work. I thought that gay marriage was unnecssary because marriage should be a purely private affair anyway. I was against the war in Iraq, and Libertarians agreed. I thought race distinctions were more or less unnecessary, and that interracial marriage would eventually eliminate race anyway so that 100 years from now all of our children would be some blended shade of light brown; I didn’t like Affirmative Action. Globalism didn’t scare me; I thought of it as a way to develop poor countries and temper American xenophobia, and that affluent America could afford to take the economic impact. I thought the glass ceiling was something from my grandparents’ generation.

I was wrong about the race issues then. I have seen racism now, firsthand, and know that it exists. I decided there was a distinction between opposing the war in Iraq and opposing interventionism in all forms; it is the moral obligation of a powerful nation to stop genocide when it occurs. And more importantly, I saw how Libertarians somehow seemed to turn their political ideology into an historic critique on science, suggesting that Global Warming or exhaustion of resources did not exist (they call it “neo-malthusianism”) and the best thing to do about pending environmental problems was nothing. I decided to cast my lot not behind the group of people who alligned their views behind one theoretical ideology, but behind the group of people who had the mind to base their policies on science.

When I figured out that Libertarians as a party didn’t match up with Libertarianism as a theory, I saw their numbers as more or less a threat. The Liberal revolution of the 60s got rich white kids to care about the poor and oppressed by baiting them with great sex lives if they joined the movement. What if Libertarians did the same thing with the next generation? Many Libertarians openly advocate “selfishness,” which just might catch on. Gay marriage will surely be a reality someday, and Marijuana will be legal in 30 years. Those things are inevitable, just like the end of slavery was once inevitable, and George W. Bush’s temporary reign would not be able ot stop it. But what if we lose Universal Healthcare and free education to a growing, affluent and anti-government class? What if the future of America is a sprawled, privatized, built-up chaos where pristine mountain landscapes are pocked with mansions and ski resorts, and rising seas covering Bangladesh is “not our problem?” And If Republicans shed religion for a Libertarian conservativsm, there will be no reason for them to care about the poor or downtrodden; I asked myself, What if Christian Morals really are important, after all?

Still, I hated the deficit because it meant that our tax dollars wouldn’t be going to schools and hospitals: they’d be going to pay off some rich Republican who bought a lot of bonds at the turn of the millenium or to some foreign bank, and rich businessmen would ultimately turn a huge profit from our spending blunder. I hated the idea of “big government,” and though I didn’t emphasize cutting spending as the first priority, I saw that there were causes far more important than a war in Iraq to spend money on. I figured that Republicans might handle money OK as long as they used it to run the programs that Democrats demanded. While I digested these things by hoping a efficient-minded Democrat could strike a balance between mad spending and penny-pinching denial, I worried that my peers, who also hate the deficit and “big government,” would turn against the Liberals they support now and someday flock toward the Libertarians.

I hold many Libertarian views myself. In truth I can’t think of any Liberal who doesn’t. But why does the Libertarian party and self-proclaimed “Libertarian” Independents and Conservatives seem so hostile to what I believe in?

It started as a sneaking suspicion, but now I’m sure of it: The reason the Libertarian party seems so one-sided is that Libertarian-leaning people who care more about social issues than economic ones have already found a home with the Democrats. They are the Democrats who are willing to cut taxes realize that cutting them only after the debt is paid off results in less net taxation when the debt is eliminated sooner. They are the Democrats who want to see consumption and land use limited responsibly the same way they want to see the size of government limited. They are the Democrats who don’t care if its a private insurance company or a public program providing health to those who can’t afford it, but for heaven’s sake, somebody has to provide it. Free market is a wonderful and necessary thing, but should exist within a market place, not to expand endlessly without thought or care to what the world will look like 30 years from now. The market is like a fire that heats the world. Do you want that fire controlled in the furnace where it can burn hot for a long time, or to be released into the forrest to consume everything in minutes?

Libertarian Democrats who make it into office rarely go far because Conservatives cite their gay marriage or abortion positions and easily label them “liberal,” a term that Libertarians themselves have greatly helped to darken in the public mind. But those Democrats are still there, forming a major constituency of the Democratic party, especially in the West.

And Libertarians simply will not ever succeed at cutting government to a total hands-off, Wild West free-for-all. Americans, as much as they loathe socialism and hate “big government,” see some of it as positive. They like libraries, hospitals and schools. They see these things as good. Economists see government doing its job as good for business, too. And when a hurricane swamped New Orleans in water, and thousands of people died, Americans got royally pissed at the government for not helping.

These may be things that even small-government Libertarians agree with, those issues seem to have caused some shift in opinion since then toward the idea that some liberal ideas are OK. Just two years after the final blow of a Republican surge that swept the nation from 2000 to 2004, public opinion has demanded the increase in minnimum wage by strong margains even in the Moderate-Conservative states of Colorado and Nevada. Americans weren’t buying economically Conservative arguments against minimum wage anymore. Libertarians, who advocate “selfishness” as the best way for individuals to run a society, got their just desserts – more “selfish” voters will benefit from a wage increase than “selfish” businessmen will suffer, and though more money may lie on the production end, every person gets one vote. So minimum wage in Colorado and Nevada passed, and the new Democratic congress will wide the wave to see it happen nationwide.

Polls are now indicating that Americans want better healthcare and better education, and want government to have a role in that. They did not, however, support President Bush’s attempted privatization of Social Security. It turns out that the GOP was winning because of fear of terrorism and hope for Iraq, while Americans don’t mind the Democrats’ desired spending on domestic projects they care about.

There are still some pro-Libertarian ideas out there that are good. And those are the first ideas that get sold out, by each major political party, in order to beat the other.

Republicans, who claim to be for limited government, win votes by appeasing Evangelicals and Nationalists, expanding government to “crack down on crime,” imprisoning a higher proportion of the population than any other developed country, to limit marriage and families to a homogenous model, and to protect our drug and oil companies from the free-market compeitition they claim to support. Republicans lower taxes without lowering spending, and have done so many times, driving up an enourmous deficit for a future Democratic administration to solve. That’s a sell-out stance.

Democrats, who claim to be for a socially and scientifically responsible policy, still side with traditional, emotional sentiments when it comes to legalizing marijuana and other drugs, which they generally oppose because to do otherwise would be political sucide. Meanwhile, marijuana has been shown by medical doctors and sociologists alike to not have a significant negative impact on society, has been shown to improve the lives of cancer patients, and costs billions of dollars to suppress. Democratics have sold out gays and lesbians with wishy-washy positions on gay rights, like Clinton’s support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Kerry’s confusion over gay marriage, and John Edwards “not sure” position on civil unions.

But Libertarians actually sell thsemselves out in their one-sided alliance with Conservatives. In liberal urban centers, where both Libertarians and Liberals are more promienent, they could ally with Democrats to move on drug prohibition and crime policies. On a national level they could ally with Democrats to shift the gears of our foreign policy from military defence to deplomacy and respect for other nations’ economic autonomy – in effect, isolationism.

I can credit Libertarians with a bold position on drug reform, and on their ability to speak out on whatever issue they choose since they have nothing to lose for it. I forsee the first major Libertarian-Democrat alliance in about 20 years when the legalization of Marijuana, or at the very least, commercial hemp, becomes an actual possibility – and if Libertarians make it a big enough issue, they might take over one or two otherwise Democratic seats in congress with young, progressive and anti-authoritarian voters.

An ironic problem facing Libertarians is this: the most significantly Libertarian-leaning populations in the country occur in the West, in states like California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington, Alaska, and right here in Colorado. If you’re ever going to see Libertarian congressmen or senators in Washington, they’re going to come from the West. Support for Labor, characteristic of the Midwest, is weakest here in the West, and populist ideas rarely take on the force they do in the South. Opposition to guns and drugs is lowest here, and xenophobia is weak here too. But these Western states also have significant environmental constituencies. For a Conservative candidate to drop Evangelical voters, who are present in moderate numbers here, by refusing to oppose abortion or gay marriage or come down hard on crime and drug use, he or she will need to pick up those who care about the environment. There are plenty of ideas out there that integrate free-market philosophies with environmentalism, like greenhouse gas credits that can be bought and sold, but Libertarians haven’t even admitted that greenhouse gasses are any kind of problem in the first place.

It’s no skin off my back if Libertarians can’t get legitimate attention. I have some Libertarian ideas myself but I see future Democrats as willing to take them on. But if that constituency of the American population ever wants to turn some heads, it’s going to have to re-think its alliances.

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1 Comment »

  1. I love you too 🙂

    Comment by jdhenchman — January 12, 2007 @ 10:55 pm | Reply


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