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Libertarian Democrats?

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There is a great deal of talk lately about "Libertarian Democrats."  My colleague, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, over at Daily Kos proclaimed himself a Libertarian Democrat some time ago, and seems to be guiding his hugely successful website in that direction. 

Now we have TNR publishing more of this nonsense from Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute according to an article by Chris Suellentrop in December 5th edition of The New York Times Times Select section (which unfortunately we cannot show you, but will quote).

... Lindsey writes in TNR. He writes:
A refashioned liberalism that incorporated key libertarian concerns and insights could make possible a truly progressive politics once again - not progressive in the sense of hewing to a particular set of preexisting left-wing commitments, but rather in the sense of attuning itself to the objective dynamics of U.S. social development. In other words, a politics that joins together under one banner the causes of both cultural and economic progress.

Conservative fusionism, the defining ideology of the American right for a half-century, was premised on the idea that libertarian policies and traditional values are complementary goods. That idea still retains at least an intermittent plausibility - for example, in the case for school choice as providing a refuge for socially conservative families. But an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era - the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration - were championed by the political left.

Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear that capitalism's relentless dynamism and wealth-creation - the institutional safeguarding of which lies at the heart of libertarian concerns - have been pushing U.S. society in a decidedly progressive direction. The civil rights movement was made possible by the mechanization of agriculture, which pushed blacks off the farm and out of the South with immense consequences. Likewise, feminism was encouraged by the mechanization of housework. Greater sexual openness, as well as heightened interest in the natural environment, are among the luxury goods that mass affluence has purchased. So, too, are secularization and the general decline in reverence for authority, as rising education levels (prompted by the economy's growing demand for knowledge workers) have promoted increasing independence of mind.

Yet progressives remain stubbornly resistant to embracing capitalism, their great natural ally. In particular, they are unable to make their peace with the more competitive, more entrepreneurial, more globalized U.S. economy that emerged out of the stagflationary mess of the 1970s. Knee-jerk antipathy to markets and the creative destruction they bring continues to be widespread, and bitter denunciations of the unfairness of the system, mixed with nostalgia for the good old days of the Big Government/Big Labor/Big Business triumvirate, too often substitute for clear thinking about realistic policy options. Hence today's reactionary politics.

Let's be clear about this.  Libertarianism is fundamentally predicated on a distrust of government action; instead, it prefers the "unseen hand" of Adam Smith's market to regulate the large-scale progress of human affairs.  For example, New York City just banned the use of trans fats in restaurants.  A Libertarian would have preferred that, given the information about the harmful effects on human hearts and vascular systems, two things would have "naturally" occurred: one, some restaurants would have voluntarily eliminated trans fats from their cooking, and two, customers would have flocked to those "early-adopter" restaurants, teaching all other restaurants that voluntarily eliminating trans fats is the thing to do to stay in business.  A Liberal properly recognizes that restaurants in New York serve very limited markets and so the possibility of the "unseen hand(s)" of the market operating to control trans fats would, at the very best, have taken centuries to have any effect and more likely would never have had the desired outcome, so as a matter of public health and the common good Liberals use the auspices of government to achieve good ends.

On two accounts, to generalize, Liberatarianism is incompatible with Liberalism and the Liberal Democratic Party.  Libertarianism turns away from government programs as an ideology. American Liberalism has since the founding fathers recognized the ethical limitations of people in government and, accordingly, puts trust in the rule of law, but, importantly, as overseen by the general public through a free and uncorrupted press. 

Trusting to an "unseen hand" of the market is the pursuit of a fantasy.  There is no such thing as a perfect market where reason, where economic and social progress are anything but accidental epiphenomena of selfish greed.  Moreover, the granularity of business is either too small or too large to have timely and desired effects. Moreover, the combined actions of industrial and corporate leaders are very visible and very predictable.  In our times, if not Adam Smith's, a few players generally control the markets to their own selfish aims.

Markos thinks he can find people who will avoid the trap of corporatist hegemony over public affairs and the market, but he is dreaming.  In fact, the current love affair with Libertarians is simply a symptom of the state of American government today.  The ugly fact is that the Congress is corrupt and has been unwilling to do anything to correct itself.  The election results in November were clearly an attempt by the electorate to jostle the Congress into action.  It is no wonder then in the meantime that some people look to some other form of management theory of human affairs and put their hopes in "market forces," as if they were incorruptible.  Sorry!  They are run by people even farther from a consensus ethic than Congress.

This is an unfortunate time for young people who do not understand politics and ideology.  Barack Obama, as I will report in an essay soon, also does not understand the real importance of ideology.  We can forgive Markos because he is basically just a vocal amateur in these matters; he expresses a sincere frustration with corrupt politics, but his answer is chimerical and for that reason ultimately wrongheaded.

Here's the thing.  To have ethical government you have to have eternally vigilant citizens, not lazy, can't-be-bothered, ignorant, poorly tutored, badly informed whiners.  It takes a good citizenry to make good government.  It takes serious education in public schools and an uncorrupted press to support our system.  Both are wanting now, and as Congress repairs itself, it must recognize that the press must be brought back to its senses through competition and government regulation of ownership.  At the same time, we have to stop leaving children behind in their civics lessons.  Education must be free, public, and true to the facts (sordid and otherwise) of our history and our hopes and dreams.

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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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