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Progressives and Libertarians: An alliance long brewing

It’s taken a long time but this linkage is slowly emerging. It looks on the surface like a really weird one but it’s not. It’s a natural. The left-leaning Progressive wing of the Democratic Party is finding a comfy bed to cuddle with the right-tilting Libertarians of the GOP. A quick summary of some of the latest collaborations can be found here.

Highlights include (the number in parentheses is the number of Republicans who bolted their party’s long-standing refusal to ever cooperate with Democrats):

a. An agreement that would ban any company that uses offshore banking havens to avoid paying taxes from receiving Federal grants (34)

b. A bill barring the Feds from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries (49)

c. A bill funding background checks for gun purchases (76)

d. A bill to allow the use of Federal funds for abortions for Peace Corps women who became pregnant through rape (no vote yet — just came out of committee)

There are several other pieces of legislation brewing that may (or not) ever hit the floor of Congress or be passed and signed into law but these details aren’t the point. The point is that there’s something important going on here and it shouldn’t be seen as surprising. It’s a natural alliance that’s been shoved off stage by partisan bickering and blind hatred.

The key is appreciating that there are two elements to Libertarianism. One is economic. It argues for laissez faire economics, free-markets and depends on the classic Austrian School’s theoretical models. The other is a social Libertarianism. It values personal freedom and emphasizes the role of choice and free will.

These two intellectual threads share a common core. Outside agencies, public organizations and, in particular, governments should be limited in scope and influence and stay out of the lives of individuals and the businesses and organizations they create.

The first focus, the financial/economic theme is dead in the water. It doesn’t work. The Austrians like Hayek and Mises and their more recent adherents like Friedman and Greenspan lost the argument. There are lots of reasons why this is true — some of which can be found in an earlier blog.

But the other one, the social libertarian theme is right in the Progressive wheelhouse.[1] Honest, consistent Libertarians are pro-choice, pro-birth control, back immigration reforms, are pro-gay rights, back the legalization of marijuana, favor gambling, poker and sport betting, support decriminalizing sex acts and prostitution and disagree vigorously with government’s “war on drugs.” I, as an unabashed Progressive, am in agreement with all.

There are points in the Libertarian’s social code that I have trouble with, the most prominent being gun control. There are also elements of a kind of closeted racism that can be seen in Libertarians who feel uncomfortable with civil rights laws that make discrimination on the basis of race or gender illegal. But keep in mind that the committed Libertarian finds support, not in race, but in property rights principles. That is, if I own a restaurant I should have the right to exclude anyone I want just because I own the restaurant. Rand Paul has taken this stance in the past and it will come back to haunt him if he ends up contending for the Presidency. It is an extension of Libertarianism that is ugly and based on almost embarrassingly shallow understanding of basic principles of social psychology.

In the real political world many Republicans with supposedly Libertarian stripes don’t look very consistent. Even Rand Paul, probably the most consistent member of Congress, backs off when it comes to abortion and others find their Libertarianism getting wobbly when things like drugs, sex, legal sports betting, online poker are the topics — not necessarily because their beliefs are shaky but because their political base is shaky.

One deep problem the Republicans have here is that they pulled in all those Tea Baggers who think they’re Libertarians because they hate big government. But the Tea Party folks don’t understand the sophisticated political theory that underlies Libertarianism. Libertarians don’t “hate” big government in some blind devotional way. The issues turn on whether government compromises individual choice, whether regulatory agencies interfere with economic decision-making, whether collectivist ideals suppress individualism. And when the specific topics under the microscope are appropriate, Progressives and Libertarians should be in agreement and working together to reform matters.

So, nuts to the idiots in the wacky wing of the GOP. There’s a common ground here and it just might be possible to get some good things done.


[1] Libertarians also tend to be isolationist in foreign affairs but that perspective is actually independent of the theory. One can be isolationist for any number of reasons.

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