The Cato Institute daily e-mail newsletter highlights an article published in the New Republic by its vice president for research, Brink Lindsey, arguing that “[t]he old formulation [supporting a ‘fusionist’ alliance between Republican traditionalists and libertarians] defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government.”
Libertarian socialists will likely consider their capitalist counterparts rather slow in reaching this conclusion. George Bush ran on this platform and has been in power for just under six years. There is only one major issue on which the Bush administration and libertarian capitalists have agreed: global warming, which the Cato Institute continues to attribute to natural rather than man-made causes on the rare occasions its even willing to admit that it is happening. Libertarians, whether socialist or capitalist, have largely disapproved the Iraq war, the destruction of civil liberties, and the imposition of the evangelical Protestant social agenda.
Conservatism itself has changed markedly in recent years, forsaking the old fusionist synthesis in favor of a new and altogether unattractive species of populism. The old formulation defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government. Just look at the causes that have been generating the real energy in the conservative movement of late: building walls to keep out immigrants, amending the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, and imposing sectarian beliefs on medical researchers and families struggling with end-of-life decisions.
The problem with libertarian capitalists is that they embrace economic authoritarianism; their idea of freedom is for wealthy property-owners to be able to do what they want with their money and their property at the expense of social and environmental interests.
To date, Democrats have made inroads with libertarian voters primarily by default. Yes, it’s true that Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos fame caused something of a stir by proposing the term “Libertarian Democrat” to describe his favored breed of progressive. And the most prominent examples of his would-be movement–first-term Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, fellow Montanan Tester, and Virginia Senator-elect Jim Webb–have sounded some libertarian themes by being simultaneously pro-choice and pro-gun rights. At the same time, however, their anti-NAFTA, Wal-Mart-bashing economic populism is anathema to free-market supporters.
But Lindsey also points to common ground:
Both generally support a more open immigration policy. Both reject the religious right’s homophobia and blastocystophilia. Both are open to rethinking the country’s draconian drug policies. Both seek to protect the United States from terrorism without gratuitous encroachments on civil liberties or extensions of executive power. And underlying all these policy positions is a shared philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value. . . .
The basic outlines of a viable compromise are clear enough. On the one hand, restrictions on competition and burdens on private initiative would be lifted to encourage vigorous economic growth and development. At the same time, some of the resulting wealth-creation would be used to improve safety-net policies that help those at the bottom and ameliorate the hardships inflicted by economic change. . . . Shift taxes away from things we want more of and onto things we want less of. Specifically, cut taxes on savings and investment, cut payroll taxes on labor, and make up the shortfall with increased taxation of consumption. Go ahead, tax the rich, but don’t do it when they’re being productive. Tax them instead when they’re splurging–by capping the deductibility of home-mortgage interest and tax incentives for purchasing health insurance. And tax everybody’s energy consumption. All taxes impose costs on the economy, but at least energy taxes carry the silver lining of encouraging conservation–plus, because such taxes exert downward pressure on world oil prices, foreign oil monopolies would wind up getting stuck with part of the bill.
Of course those safety-net policies could only be implemented through larger government. Lindsey answers that “[w]ith millions already dependent on the current programs, and with baby boomers beginning to retire in just a couple of years, libertarians’ dreams of dramatically shrinking federal spending are flatly unrealizable for many years to come.” But with costs set to explode, he argues that liberals will have no choice but to rethink current programs.
Perhaps so. But libertarian capitalists have a simple-minded faith in an economic system that can only enhance elite privilege at the expense of everyone else. The only real growth in employment in recent years, especially as “free trade” policies have been implemented, has been in low wage, abusive jobs. Capitalism has no answer for this other than a false claim that it hasn’t been tried, a claim which ignores the history of industrialization in the late 19th Century and ignores more recent history with an increasing gap between rich and poor. A highest capitalist value of return on investment requires the exploitation of everything and everyone possible; it cannot be reconciled with any concept of social justice.
But Democrats, barely distinguishable from Republicans, will hardly care. While Lindsey points to progressive views as obstacles to a new “fusion,” he ignores the fact that Democrats pay only lip service to progressivism. Libertarians, I think, will find a deal easy to make, should they choose to make it.