Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Libertarian Democrats?

Well, it depends what you mean by a libertarian. Arguably Bill Clinton moved his party in a libertarian direction in the following ways: He largely reconciled it to the free market. He strengthened its adherence to the pro-choice positions on matters of morality and culture. He embraced the libertarian or "designer" position on the goodness of the unlimited progress of technology and biotechnology. He kept his party on the side of activist Court that would strike down state laws on the basis of an evolving conception of the "liberty" protected by the 14th Amendment. Of course, of course Clinton is no perfect libertarian, and I would add that an excessively liberationist Court or conception of designer biotechnology would surely end up bringing us unprecedented "statism" or tyranny. Still, if I were a libertarian, I might conclude that President Bush is further from my key principles than President Clinton.

Discussions - 14 Comments

I was hoping to drag you into this.

Arguably Bill Clinton moved his party in a libertarian direction in the following ways: He largely reconciled it to the free market.

Yeah, he gave us a Supreme Court who ruled that Big Business interests (ie., increased tax coffers) trump private property rights via the eminent domian clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Are you, Mr. Lawler, a fascist pig, masquerading as a libertarian, like Bubba and his buddies?

Clinton was tuned to/moved by larger trends, although genuinely ahead of the pack as far as political packaging goes. For some time now, since some point in the 90s, I have felt that most persons on the left are essentially libertarian. If you consider what’s "left" of 60s glory days ideology, it’s all the more libertarian stuff, whereas all the Marxisant stuff that hasn’t been reworked into sex, free-’speech’, dignity, race, environment, lifestyle, etc., makes less and less impact. Makes guys like Thomas Frank very frustrated, despite all their efforts to get people excited about unions.

What now separates our "Left" from real libertarians (besides generally knowing less about economics, and the American political tradition) seems to be simply a sort of pessimism, even cynicism, about modernity and its capitalism. That is, they’re resigned (after plenty of failed experimentation with its ’alternatives’) to market economics as what is least harmful, and as what best fosters lifestyle freedom, a state of affairs they find uninspiring. But, more significantly, they have regular flashes of thinking that it will bring us all down in the end--destroy the enviroment, entrench corporate oligarchy, lead us into wars, benumb our souls--what-have-you. But they know they have no comprehensive vision anymore to pose against it.

In their frustration, they lash out against things like the Iraq war way more than it makes sense to(even if you think it was a massive mistake), to the extent that they let themselves be rhetorically led by Chomsky types, and then politically led by Kos types. In this mode they are simply reactionaries, stunted Ahabs who desperately need their Great White W. to give meaning to their politics. They do not oppose Clintonomics, do not seriously push for a reform of Welfare Reform, etc.; they’d rather go after the Clintonian foreign-policy guy, Lieberman. All of us are becoming less and less conversant in economics because the "left" no longer seriously presses its case on the economic plane.

Thus, if they only had the optimism held by the techno-libertarian, or the deep love of modern liberty held by the more theoretical libertarian, most of our leftists would be libertarians. We might well give up the term "Leftist" (except for the Thomas Frank guys)and replace it with the term Cynical Libertarian. Real libertarians could then affectionately call themselves "OLs," for Original Libertarians. Let me know what y’all think.

Peter,

Good for you for taking this on.

Clinton attempted to expand government drastically in 1993-94 -- how easily we forget. He got his butt beat in the ’94 election, but used statist rhetoric and prejudices and lies and the "government shutdown" to vilify and quash the only serious attempt to cut government since the first years of the Reagan administration -- and perhaps the last we’ll see for a long time. I could go on and on, but perhaps this is enough. Clinton a "libertarian"? That makes about as much sense as Barbara Boxer calling herself a "Jeffersonian Democrat" because she favors what she calls the separation of church and state.

Really, this post is unworthy of NLT.

President Bush and Bill Clinton are probably equally libertarian(but neither of them are.) But I would argue that apart from rhetoric very little seperates Clinton and Bush. Bush’s compassionate conservatism equals Clinton’s New Democrat...I even think they are quite similar on foreign policy/nation building...they are quite similar on immigration...they are quite similar on NAFTA...The interesting thing is this...as a "token" Libertarian...perhaps this means something: I like Bush more when I hear him attacked by Liberals and I like Clinton more when I hear him attacked by Conservatives. If Bush was the man liberals make him out to be I would be happy. If Clinton was the man Dr. Lawler makes him out to be then ditto. In any case Clinton is my favorite Democrat...and I prefer Clinton to McCain...but if Clinton was a republican and McCain was a democrat I am sure I would prefer McCain. In any case it is all a matter of who is throwing the mud and what they call said mud. In truth both men(to include McCain) are idealistic yet pragmatic/southern democrat types. That the idealism they spit towards the base varies in degrees and type...does not change the central nature and realities of politics. In any case eventhough I am libertarian (but favor the ACU over the ACLU 7 times out of 10) I don’t think that being a libertarian(or having such a reputation) is pertinent to being a good commander in chief. I cannot conceive the possibility of a libertarian president. Presidents should always be pragmatic, but the paradox is that in order to be pragmatic they must from time to time kiss the right babies, that is they must appear ideological. Am I the only one to collapse in fits of Hobessian laughter, when I hear Republicans denounce Clinton for being Machiavellian, and then turn around and praise Machiavelli and Mansfield?

All I know is that I don’t have the capability to be a better president than Clinton or Bush...and I know this because I know that hindsight is supposedly 20/20, but the present never is.

In other words all I see is parts and pieces, and I know I lack the capability to integrate on that level.

I also know that bad results aren’t always the consequence of bad decision making...but mostly the result of the best decision given limited and biased information, that requires a painful amount of time to decipher and interpret.

Because we live in the information age we should do well to not forget that sometimes more information makes a distinction and thus a decision harder to make.

Carl, Once again you’ve provided the nuances that could further real discussion on this issue. But does that mean that we need to distinguish between Clinton himself and the typical Democratic leftists? And let me add that I’m neither a fascist big nor a libertarian. Nor am I really a southerner, I just play one on blogs. I grew up in the rootless and alienated DC suburbs.

Perhaps it would be better to think of Clinton et. al. as "liberationist" rather than libertarian? They share some goals with libertarians, in that they seek to loose the fetters of social convention (especially those surrounding sex). But they part ways with the CATO folks in that they see a positive role for the state in providing resources to people to make that "liberation" real.

Peter, well the weird thing is that there are a lot of Dems, many of whom openly refer to themselves as "the Left" or as "progressives," who strongly denounce Clinton’s general moderation (or if J. Lewis is right, his electoral Machiavellian pragmatism), but who don’t really do it terms of economics and social welfare programs. They’re reduced to being economically liberal simply on the pet problem of the season, such as Enron, gas-tax, etc., which is pretty different, I think, from the sweeping economic vision the liberals held out from the 30s through the 80s. Right now, this simultaneous embrace/hatred of Clinton by the Left is covered up by the fact that the political issue is the war. It will be interesting to see what the Dem candidates for ’08 are willing to promise regarding tax law, health care, minimum wage, education, union law, etc.

I think the difference is that Clinton really was a New Dem deep down, despite all his waverings and Dick Morrisism/Machiavellianism. The era of big government wasn’t over, but for Clinton the era of calling for more of it really ought to be. Like Jonathan Rauch’s brilliant books Demosclerosis and Government’s End, Clinton felt that before you could get a big program, you had to cut others, or at least "grow the economy." "Don’t Stop Believing" in collective solutions, but lots of wonkery and pro-business restraint to prepare the way for those solutions. Clinton was an optimist about America and its liberal instincts, but within a kind of steady-state vision of what’s possible for the economy and govt. He also had a Robert Reich kind of optimism about the creation of a large investor class. He was about confining the liberal economic vision within a smaller sphere of expectations, and wedding it to the spirit of libertarian/technocratic "entrepreneurs." (Nobody in the 90s liked to talk about boring old "businessmen," for some reason.)

The difference is that the "left," my "cynical libertarians," have never let themselves really admit that Clinton was more right than they were/are about the economics, as opposed to being right about how to win elections. That is, they know their expectations are confined within these Clintonian limits, but they don’t really know why, and they still resent these limits. They have no comprehensive vision for getting beyond those limits, only an instinct for reactive indignation at various capitalist uglinesses. Thus, the bobo entreprenuer who fights theocracy, promotes diversity, denounces neo-con foreign policy, and who gives lots of money to the Dems, winds up being their defacto leader. Economic liberalism becomes a sort of memory lodged in the "Left’s" psyche someplace, giving them a strong sense of the evil that is consevatism, but little else.

I think Carl Scott’s assessment is spot on. I wonder how much this has to do with campaign finance reform, which has made running for high office a virtual impossibility for anyone but the very wealthy. No wonder, then, that the party has fallen into the hands of "bobo entrepreneurs."

On the other hand, this has clearly been the direction of the Democratic Party since the 1960s, when it became less the party of small farmers and union workers than the party of personal liberation--acid, amnesty, abortion (and eventually affirmative action).

I agree with Carl Scott. Also if there is such a thing as a libertarian center then naturally democrats and republicans will reflect it. If Clinton seems libertarian it is because he wanted to tap this demographic for the democrats...In my opinion politicians in general are not X. They appear to be X, or distance themselves from X because a certain percentage of people with ideas X represent a certain amount of votes. Clinton is libertarian and Clinton is southern baptist, and Clinton is a good ol’boy and he is the first black president, Clinton "is" what Clinton wants to be seen as. And to peg Clinton is really to ask for a definition of "is". When Clinton talks to democrats he says that he had a lot of great ideas that republicans prevented him from realizing...when Clinton talks to republicans or a mixed group he says that the era of big gov’ment is over and emphasizes his fiscal conservatism. The problem is that this kind of triangulation can backfire...You have to appeal to the roots, or to those who want to believe that your party has certain bedrock principles.

Bush has the same sort of problems...all politicians have this problem. People want to know what you "really" are. So we have discussions about whether or not Hillary Clinton is "really" religious (probably not) or Bush (probably). But both Bill and GW are "somewhat" libertarian...but if the question isn’t "really" but "somewhat" then all politicians are "somewhat" everything, except for whatever will "really" hurt them at the polls even if they "really" are. The only time politicians take a hit for something that they "really" are is when the expected dammage from being "really" something is compensated for by the freshness of not being one of those guys who is "somewhat" for everything. In other words they take a negative hit for a positive spread effect.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is all there is to politics but...simply to concede to Dain that Libertarianism is more in the realm of ideas than practice...In point of fact how many republicans are "really" conservative? How many democrats are "really" progressives? It is a question of somewhat...and it depends how you spin it.

John M. makes an excellent factual point on the change in the Democratic Party. Its trend since the 1960s has been to become more the party of personal liberation AND less the party of government-sponsored reditribution (which also means more a party of the free market and globalization). That means, of course, it has become MUCH LESS the party of unions, big families, and small farmers. It has, in fact, become the party of bobo entrepreneurs more than anything else, and they are, in a limited and incoherent but very real way, libertarians. I agree with Carl that Clinton’s optimism and fiscal responsibility (based on limited positive government--the view of genuine New Democrats) has not transformed much of his party, but I do think he made a difference in a generally libertarian direction.

Is this">this">http://volokh.com/posts/1160278238.shtml">this a fair statement of you guys are talking about?

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