October 4, 2006

Libertarian Dissonance: Who?s Right, the Daily Kos or the Wall Street Journal, and Does It Matter?

Carroll Andrew Morse

This week, "Kos" (Markos Moulitsas), uber-blogger of the left-blogosphere, argued in a Cato Institute's monthly electronic journal that the Democratic party is the natural home for voters who believe in individual liberty...

It was my fealty to the notion of personal liberty that made me a Republican when I came of age in the 1980s. It is my continued fealty to personal liberty that makes me a Democrat today.

The case against the libertarian Republican is so easy to make that I almost feel compelled to stipulate it and move on.

Of course, Kos is wrong. Consider some of the America's biggest domestic challenges, and the potential solutions that maximize personal liberty...
  1. Improving the Quality of Education: Public School choice, charters, and vouchers
  2. Retirement Security: Inidividual retirement accounts
  3. Healthcare: Health-Savings Accounts, Decoupling health insurance from the workplace
  4. Political Participation: Repeal campaign finance limits on free speech.
Is there any doubt which party supports the liberty-maximizing solutions, and which opposes them?

As many commenters to the original article have noted, the centerpiece of Kos' "libertarianism" is increased government regulation of private business, which is not libertarian at all, with some paeans to issues like flag-burning added on. (Combining attitudes on flag burning with campaign finance reform is as enlightening an illustration of mainstream Democratic thinking on individual liberty as there is: the government should leave individuals free to engage in symbolic, isolated acts, but as soon as individuals want to take actions that might influence the larger society, then it's regulate-to-the-max!)

However, Kos' attempt to redefine a political phiosophy as its opposite is not the point. He freely admits he is an activist, not an intellectual. The more interesting point is that as an activist, if he thinks libertarians are worth courting, he must believe there's substantial voting bloc of them out there.

However, a Wall Street Journal editorial that appeared the day after Kos' article hinted (unintentionally) at the opposite. The Journal suggests that the Republican leaders don't believe that there are enough voters in the electorate who believe in individual freedom to make liberty-maximizing solutions to domestic problems political winners...

Social Security reform was never going to be easy, and Mr. Bush's war-driven decline in job approval meant he couldn't move any Democrats. But that still doesn't excuse such prominent Republicans as Tom Davis (Virginia) and Roy Blunt (Missouri) for resisting their President's reform effort behind the scenes. So frightened were they that they never even brought the subject up for a vote.

Perhaps the most puzzling abdication was the GOP failure to do anything at all on health care. The window for saving private health care from government encroachment is closing, and both business and workers are feeling the pinch from rising costs. Yet Republicans failed to make health-care savings accounts more attractive, failed to let business associations offer their own health plans, and failed even to bring to a vote Arizona Congressman John Shadegg's bill to avoid costly state mandates by letting health insurance be marketed across state boundaries.

Add to the Journal's despair the fact that President Bush allowed the No-Child-Left-Behind act to be turned from a potentially-meaningful school choice plan ito an increased layer of centralized regulation and that he signed of campaign finance reform act of 2002, and it's hard to make the case that the Republicans have done their part in advancing an agenda of individual liberty.

Accepting that the WSJ and the KOS are reliable windows into their respective sides? political thought, it seems that an agenda of individual liberty doesn't have a home in either political party right now. America has one party (the Democrats) so committed to an agenda of centralizing government power, it has talked itself into believing that government regulation is freedom! We have the other side (the Republicans) that doesn't believe that many Americans really support individual liberty, and has resigned itself to the inevitable adoption of a collectivist agenda. How will liberty prevail in this environment?

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The juxtaposition to the story above is interesting: one party wants to tap your phone without a warrant, and you ask which is the party of individual liberty.

This is the same party that wants to tell you what you can or cannot do in the bedroom.

You say that "they only want to tap the phones of terrorists." Right. And the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus (no relation) are coming for dinner tomorrow.

The real point is that Libertarianism is internally inconsistent. Take Andrew Sullivan: he's against taxes, yet he was all gung-ho on the war in Iraq. Can't have it both ways, there, can we? Which is it: no taxes, or no military?

I suspect your target audience would agree with Andrew on both of these points.

And a real Libertarian would support both gay marriage (how can the gov't tell me whom not to marry?) and legalization of marijuana, and possibly higher-level drugs (what I do in my spare time is my business).

I wait with baited breath for posts supporting both gay marriage and legalization of drugs here on the pages of Anchorrising.

Posted by: klaus at October 4, 2006 8:10 PM

"And a real Libertarian would support both gay marriage (how can the gov't tell me whom not to marry?) and legalization of marijuana, and possibly higher-level drugs (what I do in my spare time is my business)."

Amen, Klaus! I'm an actual real libertarian and I support both.

Posted by: Greg at October 4, 2006 9:03 PM


You’re missing an important point. Libertarians can be for individual freedom, but still hold viable boundaries and values.

Everyone (I think) agrees murder is not a liberty issue. However, some libertarians accept abortion, others don’t. Some take the “Pascal’s Wager” mentality and believe unknown questions (such as when life begins) is best answered with the worst-case scenario evaluation.

If life DOES NOT start at conception, but we DO NOT allow abortions, the worst case may result in more children in poverty or womens' careers disturbed.

If life DOES start at conception, but we DO allow abortion, then we are killing 1.3MM per year. I endorse liberty, but protect life.

Furthermore, Libertarians can usually agree that government doesn’t have a place in the bedroom, but endorsing gay marriage, something that (I feel) does not promote our culture/society and (at least as seen in EU) results in children being raised in less-than-optimal conditions (single parent families), can be opposed.

After all, tax deductions (to name one advantage to marriage) or social costs related to increased SPF's are paid for by all. So if I have to pay for it, I can have an opinion on it.

Like welfare. You have a right to be a bum or a promiscuous teen, but if you ask me to pay for it, then I can impart my values. At that point, you have lost your liberty by including my values (and I have that right as the one paying for it).

Posted by: W Thrash at October 4, 2006 9:26 PM

>>Accepting that the WSJ and the KOS are reliable windows into their respective sides’ political thought, it seems that an agenda of individual liberty doesn’t have a home in either political party right now. America has one party (the Democrats) so committed to an agenda of centralizing government power, it has talked itself into believing that government regulation is freedom! We have the other side (the Republicans) that doesn’t believe that many Americans really support individual liberty, and has resigned itself to the inevitable adoption of a collectivist agenda. How will liberty prevail in this environment?

As usual, well said Mr. Morse.

It's a dilemma. On the electoral front, I’ve concluded that one “baby” step is not to “loyally” support a particular political party, voting for its candidates to be “part of the team.” Rather - while remaining somewhat flexible because won’t can’t reasonable expect “perfection” in each candidate – vote only for those candidates who reflect my values.

From a “macro” level, it’s become increasingly difficult to avoid cynicism and resignation. Woodrow Wilson commenced the process of tearing away at the fabric of the U.S. Constitution, and FDR commenced the process of shredding it. As “interpreted” today, the Founding Fathers would hardly recognize it. Both political parties are complicit.

Social Security and Medicare having turned “senior citizens” into welfare recipients, and thus reliable votes for Democrat-collectivists, and ever-expanding classifications of citizens also becoming government-dependents (in the end, what philosophical distinction is there between corporate welfare, agricultural welfare, social welfare or “earmarks” – all involve “rent seekers” using the political process / coercive power of government to take wealth from other citizens for their own aggrandizement).

This “redistribution” is now considered to be “Constitutional.” Is this not Alexis De Toqueville’s “tyranny of the majority?”

Economist Herbert Stein once said that “if something can’t continue, it won’t.” I’m afraid that before real change can occur we’ll have to have some economic collapse that will force politicians into reality.

In RI it may come when the public-sector retirement benefit(s) unfunded liabilities collides with the ever escalating demands of the welfare industry (and its ongoing importation of poverty from Central America) which collides with the impossibility of extracting more revenue from the hapless taxpayers. Similar collisions are destined to occur in other states, particularly in the Northeast and California (i.e., states like RI with powerful public-sector unions, expansive welfare and substantial importation of poverty from Central America).

On the national level, this may come from similar collisions, such as when Social Security joins Medicare as being “cash flow” negative (about 6-10 years from now)? Last summer a gentleman named Kotlikoff published an article titled “Is The United States Bankrupt?” – it concluded that with the entitlement promises already made - that can’t be kept - that technically the U.S. already qualifies for bankruptcy. The kicker: the article was published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis!

All of these state and federal collision(s) may well result in a “Great Depression” type of collapse. Think New Orleans post-Katrina, when a substantial number of government-dependent people all of the sudden confronted a situation in which the government was not there for them, and they (often for the first time) had to fend for themselves … and couldn’t or wouldn’t.

The big question becomes, if this happens, will the country careen back to the principles underlying it’s founding – individual liberty, which by definition requires self-sufficiency and individual responsibility – or will it, as it did under FDR, careen even farther left into being an official (and not just an increasingly de facto) collectivist state.

My fear is that with so many already dependent upon government, and the now generations-bred conventional wisdom that redistribution of wealth is a legitimate function of government (such that most don’t even question it, it “just is”), that the official collectivist state may be inevitable.

That said, there remains hope that the (seemingly inevitable) collapse of the welfare state MAY precipitate a sufficiently widespread disillusionment with government solutions / dependence, and recognition of the folly of government “compassion,” that we do in fact restore government compliant with the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution.

Posted by: Tom W at October 5, 2006 11:24 AM

Klaus, no one (at least not in govenment) wants to tap your phone without a warrant. Unless you are making or receiving calls from Al Qaida.

The NSA has no interest in what you have to say to your wife, your mom, your psychiatrist, or your bookie for that matter. I know from personal experience that they are just too busy for that.

I am a big fan of spying, when it helps us stay free and defeat our enemies. Intercepting your fantasy football trades is not in the national security game plan, despite what the blame-america crowd may have convinced you.

Let me ask you: What do you gain if the government is unable to listen in on telephone convesations between terrorists abroad and their accomplices in the U.S. ?

Posted by: George at October 5, 2006 1:06 PM


1. The NSA warrantless wiretap program is not a profound legal problem. It is a simple question of definition. Suppose you’re playing in a ballgame. The ball lands on the line. Is the ball considered in bounds or out of bounds?

If it’s basketball, it’s out of bounds. If its baseball, it’s in bounds. Does this mean that the rules of basketball are right and the rules of baseball are wrong, or vice-versa?

Same thing with the NSA program. Are we going to treat a phone call where one end is domestic and one end is foreign according to rules governing domestic surveillance or foreign surveillance? If you believe that the United States has the right to conduct foreign intelligence operations (maybe you don’t), then it’s legitimate to treat the call either way.

We should actually be deciding this question in the political system, and not leaving it up to a court.

2. Libertarianism is only internally inconsistent if you accept the postulate that government action is superior to any other individual or institutional action, so however much government is taking now, it is always justified in taking more more more, so it can do more good. Most people don’t accept that postulate.

3. Beware of the pinched idea of liberty that has become ingrained in modern liberalism: people can have a small private space for themselves in which to do anything they want, but outside of that space (the metaphorical “bedroom”), all interactions between individuals must be tightly controlled by the government.

4. Not just libertarians, but a number of high-profile conservatives, like William F. Buckley, are pro-drug legalization in one form or another.

5. But the big question, given the worldview you’ve expressed (in this post an others), is why isn’t Kos the target of your dissatisfaction here? He’s the one (not me) saying that the Democratic party is the truly libertarian party. You should be chastising him for trying to turn away from the Democratic party thinking in a direction that’s different from its dominant socialism.

Posted by: Andrew at October 5, 2006 4:26 PM

So many comments, so little time. I ought to get a commission for sparking interest here.

First, I never mentioned abortion. I had things like sodomy laws in mind when I was talking about the gov't in the bedroom.

Second, I'm seriously disappointed that no one addressed the issue of taxes and the military. Wars, even splendid little wars like the one Mr Bush thought he starte, cost LOTS of money. Where's it going to come from? The War Fairy?

And "all interacts tightly regulated by the gov't"? I must have slept through that one. Didn't realize that liberals were proposing such a thing. Maybe because they're not, except in the minds of...well, the same people who were so convinced that Hillary was going to run in 2004. I have no idea where that came from, or to what it refers. The fact that liberals want to teach REAL science in school? How awful.

Third, I thought that conservatives were the hard-headed ones, and liberals were all squishy in trusting others. Power tends to corrupt--ever hear that one? You really are trusting souls if you think the gov't will restrain itself to wiretapping terrorists. How do you know someone's a terrorist before the fact? Answer, you don't. So, go ahead, trust your gov't with absolute faith.

As for Kos, I never go there. He's too doctrinaire for me. Besides, I don't find liberals dangerous in the same way that I find conservatives to be. Liberal policies tend towards anarchy, while conservatives are more of a threat to individual liberties. As in warrantless wiretapping, broad definition of enemy combatant, the equation of dissent with disloyalty....etc.

As for gay marriage, sorry guys. Don't buy your 'arguments.' It's the moral issue you object to, which is the sort of regulation of values that Libertarians would oppose. I've read too many posts, and too many comments here that pretty much advocate the legislation of morals, which is as anti-Libertarian as you can get. Can't be both Libertarian and part of the religious right.

There's more, but I have to run. Toodles.

Posted by: klaus at October 5, 2006 7:39 PM

PS. If you want to read about who is threatening individual liberty, go over to kmareka.com and read the story about the guy who got arrested because he told Cheney that he didn't agree with the admin's policies.

Freedom of speech? Only the approved sort.

Posted by: klaus at October 5, 2006 7:43 PM

Actually, Libertarian philosophy is quite internally consistent. It’s just that it does not fit into either the traditional Republican or Democratic camps, and also not in to the liberal or conservative labels.

Libertarians believe, in essence, that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.

What this means, for example, on sexuality or gender issues, are these stands: support for repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and state laws and amendments defining marriage; opposition to any new laws or Constitutional amendments defining terms for personal, private relationships; repeal of any state or federal law assigning special benefits to people based on marital status, family structure, sexual orientation or gender identification; repeal of any state or federal laws denying same-sex partners rights enjoyed by others, such as adoption of children and spousal immigration; end of the Defense Department practice of discharging armed forces personnel for sexual orientation with upgrade of all less-than-honorable discharges previously assigned solely for such reasons to honorable status, and delete related information from military personnel files; and repeal of all laws discriminating by gender, such as protective labor laws and marriage, divorce, and custody laws which deny the full rights of each individual.

Or, you can go ahead and marry your same-sex partner, and I can refuse you a job or a seat in my restaurant because you went ahead and married your same sex-partner.

Now, isn’t that wonderfully internally consistent….?

Posted by: Daniel S. Harrop, M.D. at October 5, 2006 9:46 PM

Dr. H,

I differ with the opinion that libertarianism doesn’t have an established home somewhere on the American political spectrum. What’s known as American conservatism is actually a mixture of traditionalist conservatism with a strong libertarian element. The Republican party, in turn has traditionally been an alliance of conservatism with the business class.

However, with the business-oriented Republicans in ascendancy in the national Republican party (see immigration reform for an example), I’d agree that the libertarians are getting the short shrift.


If contemporary liberalism doesn’t favor strong limitations on the individual choices individuals are allowed to make, then how else do you explain these liberal positions...

  1. Why are school vouchers/school choice a bad thing?
  2. Why are health-savings accounts a bad thing?
  3. Why would converting Social Security to personal retirement accounts be a bad thing?
  4. Why is strict regulation of political speech through campaign finance reform a good thing?

Posted by: Andrew at October 6, 2006 2:22 PM