Would libertarians be more comfortable in the company of Democrats? On moral questions -- abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research -- clearly they would. But on economic issues, the answer is less obvious. For just as Republicans want government to restore traditional values, so Democrats want government to bring back the economic order that existed before globalization. As Lindsey puts it in his New Republic essay, Republicans want to go home to the United States of the 1950s while Democrats want to work there.
If Democrats can get over this nostalgia, theres a chance that liberaltarianism could work. For the time has passed when libertarians could seriously hope to cut government: Much of what could be deregulated has been, and the combination of demographics, defense costs and medical inflation leaves no scope for tax cuts. As Lindsey himself says, the ambition of realistic libertarians is not to shrink government but to contain it: to cut senseless spending such as the farm program and oil subsidies to make room for the inevitable expansion in areas such as health.
If this is right, then the libertarians have two problems with the Republicans--social conservatism and corporate welfarism. Mallaby (and I guess Lindsey) want to claim that theyre both characteristic of the South (everyones favorite whipping region, even if theyre a little less nasty than, say, Jane Smiley was after the 2004 election). But let me note a few things. First, to the extent that the South has an "appetite" for government programs, that taste was developed when Democrats ruled the region. Second, many of the current clients for government subsidies that head southward are poor folk, who, unfortunately, still exist in relatively large numbers south of the Mason-Dixon line. Id wager that many of those poor folk vote Democratic, just like their northern cousins. Third, many southern Republicans were once northern Republicans (Newt Gingrich was from Pennsylvania, John Linder from Minnesota, and Tom Price from Michigan, to name three current and former members of Congress from the Atlanta area). Again, I dont see any of them as great supporters of needless government spending.
While I might correct myself when I actually have the opportunity to read the article, I suspect that the real reason Lindsey and his fellow libertarians are making eyes at the Democrats is that they care more about the social issues with which Republicans are identified than they actually do about small government. The Democratic liberationist agenda (which includes liberating science, for example) will mandate bigger government to free us from all social and natural constraints, and then to deal with the inevitable fall-out of that freedom from constraint.
Where will the libertarians go then?
Update: Heres Lindseys piece, in toto (thanks to Jonah Goldberg for the pointer). It is, as I thought, a version of big government libertarianism: the promotion of individual autonomy will require some big-time expenses, and the cost of doing business with Democrats will be quite substantial:
We can have true social insurance while maintaining fiscal soundness and economic vibrancy: We can fund the Earned Income Tax Credit and other programs for the poor; we can fund unemployment insurance and other programs for people dislocated by capitalisms creative destruction; we can fund public pensions for the indigent elderly; we can fund public health care for the poor and those faced with catastrophic expenses.
The remainder of the paragraph departs from realism inasmuch as it seems to forget that hed addressing the party that cant resist demagoguing on social security and Medicare:
What we cannot do is continue to fund universal entitlement programs that slosh money from one section of the middle class (people of working age) to another (the elderly)--not when most Americans are fully capable of saving for their own retirement needs. Instead, we need to move from the current pay-as-you-go approach to a system in which private savings would provide primary funding for the costs of old age.
Where were the libertarians like Lindsey when GWB was spending his 2004 "mandate" on social security reform...resisted tooth and nail, of course, by the Democrats?
One last point: Lindsey seems to have forgotten, as have most of his libertarian colleagues, that self-reliance requires character, and that character has to be cultivated. It isnt the product of the "autonomous individual," as if, somehow, we produce our own character. It comes from a community that recognizes and upholds limits and responsibilities. Autonomous individuals who think of nothing but autonomy (modern libertarians, apparently, unlike their predecessors who may well have respected the need for certain socially-enforced limits, and hence could make common cause in a conservative fusion) are as likely to be (nay, more likely to be) subjects of a gentle despotism as they are to be genuinely "rugged" individuals.
By the way, Jonah G. is
promising to write about this.