Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


The WaPo’s Sebastian Mallaby describes Brink Lindsey’s TNR proposal (unfortunately behind a subscription firewall) that libertarians migrate to the Democratic Party. Here’s a part of SM’s summary:

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, there’s 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 they’re both characteristic of the South (everyone’s favorite whipping region, even if they’re 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. I’d 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 don’t 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?

For what it’s worth, I’ve discussed other things Lindsey has said here and here.

Update: Here’s Lindsey’s 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 capitalism’s 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 he’d addressing the party that can’t 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 isn’t 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.

Discussions - 20 Comments

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 isn’t the product of the "autonomous individual," as if, somehow, we produce our own character.

Joe, that’s a fine point you make. I wish most libertarians had your commonsense and humility in the face of this fact. Well said, and well noted.

I have found the fusion of libertarians with the Democratic Party to be more sociological than ideological. Most libertarians are part of what sociologist Peter L. Berger and others calls the "New Class," as opposed to the older Business Class. They are composed of teachers, social workers, media types, computer and software company heads or geeks, and various other counter cultural types who do not identify with the older Business Class. My bet is that nearly none of them golf for example (and nearly ALL libertarians are men -- 2/3’s Jewish heritage). I believe a more fruitful way to understand this seemingly oxymoronic fusion of libertarians with the Left comes from sociology than from any political ideologies.

Ah. This is the more kindly and carefully put distinction between types of libertarians that I characterize as those who are principled and those who seem to have emerged from under a rock. Those of the former class have character and are very principled people. Those of the latter have only self-interest as principle (if it can be called that) and I have not met those with the jobs that wayne cites, but his counter-cultural types, yes, from those on college campuses to many from the streets who wish legal restrictions on their illegal trades removed for practical purposes.

I wonder if there might be the potential for a kind of Scandinavian-style left-libertarianism, especially for our techie class who are relatively wealthy and might be willing to trade off a relatively small percentage of their income in return for a social/political climate that maximizes their "autonomy." I mean, think of Andrew Stuttaford over at NRO, who often evinces a kind of admiration for the left-libertarian countries of northern Europe. Though, as he often points out, they are also all too often paragons of the "nanny state," which might be the rock upon which all of this founders. Could the libertarians really get into bed with folks who really want to regulate everything in sight? Color me doubtful.

I think the Democrats and Republicans will slowly unite into the party that favors controling people’s lives in all aspects. Republicans want to control the market too, just different aspects of it, and for different reasons. Republicans also want govt programs to help the poor, much for the same reasons as the early 20th century progressives (Christian compassion). I think elements of the Democrat and Republican parties that are repulsed by govt control will unite.

I for one really get tired of the old "government controlling people’s lives" rhetoric. Authority is part and parcel of social order, and our government has some minimal obligations in this regard. The truth is, conservatives want a balance of individual freedom and collective responsibility, whereas the Left wants a totalitarian-style social order than allows them to remold society. The only reason they are hawkish about SOME civil liberties is because it erodes the ’bad old order’. Give all power, I doubt the Left would sanction gay pride parades, polygamy, drugging out, and gun ownership. Libertarians need to wake up to this fact...the Left really doesn’t believe in individual rights at all.

My economics professor taught me that Libertarianism was the most "consistent" philosophy, but I lost my respect for it when it seemed to be more about pot, port & prostitution in reality than principles. I think there was always a tendency to broaden the appeal to lefties through libertinism so this liberaltarianism idea is nothing new. Their natural base is too busy with their precious pleasures to become any sort of movement.


Rawls wrote that libertarianism is only adopted when socieities cannot agree on how to rank and prioritize moral values. This is probably true, so it is not surprising that libertarianism does not have a lot to say, other than leave me alone.

Someday I hope to meet that libertarian social worker. Maybe there’s one. Somewhere. Maybe even in this country.

Steve, I disagreed with so much of the little Rawls I have read, that I never knew that he said that about libertarianism. But if Rawls said that then call me Rawlsian. Libertarian theory is of necessity de-ontological. In point of fact I would consider John Stuart Mill and David Hume to be the intellectual fathers of libertarian thought...In essense the greatest argument for a libertarian social order is epistemic uncertainty regarding how moral values should be ranked and prioritized. Libertarianism isn’t so much about pot, port and it is a question of comming to grips over what is in all seriousness truely rational and who should decide what is rational (be it the state or society via adherence to a particular ontology/religion.)

Libertarianism ends up saying that the individual in owning his own life should be the the decider. In this sense then Libertarianism is the result of a revolt against not only the state, but society, the church and the ivory tower as well. The true libertarian is the enlightenment philosopher, or he who takes the burden of Sapere Aude upon himself(or he who challanges the epistemic metaphysical and historical premises of all ontological structures.)

Ironically I maintain that some of the greatest libertarians are folks like Dain and Carol...Dain because of his resilliance in filtering information by his lights, and carol in doing likewise to the bland pronouncements of her economics profesor.

Ultimately the libertarian principle is what David Hume considered wisdom, namely the very difficult individual quest to find a proper ballance or bridge between moral judgements and an understanding of pertinent factors. This doesn’t mean that I agree with Dain or Carol, but that respect is granted to those who know what they believe and why they believe it...

Sadly very few "libertarians" care about ideas...and in being blind to ontological structures, they make poor libertarians and even poorer epicurians, even if they are unaware of this fact. Scandinavian style left libertarianism is in theory good and self-aware libertarian epicurianism...albeit one would have to wonder if the masses under such a regime would have the requisite self-awareness, and discipline for what is in truth a very hard path.(note that neither libertarianism nor epicurism denies the virtue of living wisely, honorably and justly...epicurians simply hold that living a pleasant life is an invaluable aid in doing so...and libertarians maintain that the mind must remain active in determining what "is" wise, honorable, and just for the sake of living a good life.)

It is also very interesting that louie wishes to meet a libertarian social worker...his post betrays his ontological commitments...most libertarians are crude or "un-enlightened" or "unconscious" epicurians...albeit in making their own ontological determinations they are free to find reasons to reject pre-Hobbesian atomism...So I suppose that many a social worker exists who is in fact more or less libertarian, but one would have to be open to the question of whether or not this was an argument for or against libertarianism.

Choke...gasp...wheeze...he...called me...a...libertarian. Aghhhhhhhhhhhhhh...........

So, the only thing required to be a libertarian is a head-strong belief in oneself as the final arbiter of reality? Au contraire, monsieur. A conservative would say that every man has the right to discover wisdom, but that wisdom exists independently of human cognition. Essentially, wisdom is seeing the world for what it is, and seeing man for what he is, and acting accordingly. The difference of course is that conservatives think collective experience over time is the best manifestation of that wisdom, so there is a strong bias in conservativism against the individual adjudication of right and wrong and in favor of institutional conformity (rightful authority, prudently balanced). None of this Enlightenment claptrap for Burkeans, my man!


The problem with Burke’s philosophy is that it offers little substantive guidance. I do not believe he could oppose the current state of things in England (socialism lite) because it progressed over an extend period of time, and there was little violence in reaching that state. It would seem he would think that reform would have to be slow, no sudden breaks.

Here is an interesting question, would Burke have disapproved of Reagan? It seems to me Reagan was quite radical from the perspective of the times[I suppose he still is], he did big things in a short period of time. Would Burke disapprove of such quick change?

I think one could argue that Burke was an enlightenment thinker. In any case...I doubt that the number of true Burkean conservatives is incredibly great...which would seem to indicate that for some reason or another the collective wisdom or "Universal Spirit" has over time selected against them. If conservatives favor institutional conformity then to my way of thinking this means that they favor whatever ontology is currently dominant...this would seem to contradict the view that conservatives favor rightfull authority prudentially ballanced...since the question of what is actually rightfull is theoretical vs. what is currently held to be rightfull. What sort of appeals can one make if one disagrees with the Zeitgeist(the dominant ontological structure of the day)? Burke in challanging the emerging age of the sophist, rationalists, economists and philosophes was in fact being a true friend, that is he was trying to direct history instead of just going along for the ride. In similar fashion a good libertarian is someone who takes control over his of whom it cannot be said that they were ever simply a child of the 60’s... or 80’s for that matter. Rest assured Dain, I don’t really think you are libertarian.

Wow great discussion. Conservatives need to have more of this kind of conversation. What is the nature and meaning of conservatism instead of how can we tweak this or that program.

Some have criticized Kirk for relying too heavily on Burke. I tend to agree. There is not much evidence that the American Founders were that influenced by Burke. You could argue, and I largely agree, that American conservatism is Burkean in nature even if Kirk in ’53 was the one drawing that conclusion, not the Founders in 1776 or 87 or whenever. Perhaps Kirk liked Burke because Kirk was largely a Burkean by temperament. The go slow, resist progress esp. radical change, but then accept it once it is here definitely characterized the life of Kirk and the history of the conservative movement as a whole.

Paul Gottfried has said that Kirk was fundamentally wrong to label what he was describing as conservative. What he was really describing and defending was bourgeois (classical) liberalism. By misnaming what he was describing, he allowed all the later interlopers to come in and claim the conservative mantle even though they were demonstrably not conservative. Perhaps there is some truth to that, but I don’t think the main problem was nomenclature.

Any American conservatism is going to have elements of liberalism. We did rebel against the King, but it is a mistake to overlook the truly conservative elements of the American Founding, one of those primary elements being our overt, devout religiosity. America today by European standards is made up of a bunch of Bible thumping fundamentalist. Barak Obama is a Bible thumping fundamentalist by European standards. It is our religiosity more than anything else that has protected us from becoming like post-Christian Europe.

I am not saying that Kirk and Burke were not conservatives. They surely were. But I do think it is fair, and possibly heretical, to ask if their style of conservatism and rhetoric were up to the task of defending America from the unrelenting liberal assault it has always been under.

Mr. Sparks asks if Burke would have supported Reagan or was he too radical. A better question, IMO, is why was Reagan not considered a flaming Socialist by conservatives. (He ducks. Let me explain.) Kirk lists in the Politics of Prudence several historical events that he sees as great things for conservatives. One is the enacting of the Constitution. (I disagree that this was a conservative victory as it was a radical step in the direction of centralization from the Articles, but that argument is for another day/thread.) Another was the election of Ronald Reagan. Well if the Constitution was a good thing to be celebrated and I presume conserved, why was Reagan not supposed to enforce it? If we are honest, we must admit that a huge percentage (80%, 90%?) of the money spent by the federal government is nowhere authorized by the Constitution. (SS, Medicare, WIC, none of it.) In fact it would be easier to list the few programs that are authorized instead of all the ones that are not. So why was the conservative standard for Reagan not to veto every piece of legislation that crossed his desk that contained unauthorized spending?

Another example. If in 1913 conservatives were unanimous in their opposition to the Fed, the Income Tax, and the direct election of Senators, why is opposition to those things not required of conservatives today? If William Jennings Bryan was considered a dangerous populist liberal because he advocated the free coinage of silver, how is it now conservative to want the Fed to be a little tighter with its monetary policy? See my point?

It is the prudence part that I have a beef with. Modern conservatism is awash in prudence. What it lacks is a firm anchor point. The bar is always moving leftward. Reagan, instead of being a radical was really already leagues to the left of Barry Goldwater who ran only 16 years before. Was Reagan calling for the roll back of Johnson’s Great Society programs such as Medicare?

Kirk would have been better off in my opinion relying on Filmer and some of the French Counter Revolutionaries for example, rather than Burke, who was after all a Whig.

I have thoughts on whether libertarianism is of the left or of the right as well, but I’ll let y’all digest the above first.

Lots to say, but no time to do it in. Let me just say that Burke probably WOULD criticize modern Europe, and he would do so because the current situation there hasn’t had time for the "winnowing out." Indeed, the nanny state seems to be killing evolutionary/organic terms, those societies simply aren’t sustainable. I’ve talked about this before. Burke’s beef (and mine) would be how politics has bullied and pushed out other institutions.

Alright Dain...but complaining about how the nanny state is killing Europe seems a decidely "libertarian" point. Also if Kirk was defending Classical liberalism then that is more or less "libertarian"... That is to say that Classical Liberalism=John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill...that is classical liberalism. Classical Liberalism equals scottish and british enlightenment. In fact I prefer to be called a classical liberal. Hayek saw conservatives as defenders classical liberals. Classical Liberalism is in fact the most consistent philosophy with reference to economics(maybe...) Carol’s proffesor wasn’t all wrong. All of Dan Phillips points seem to suggest that he favors a "principled" conservatism...and when he talks about the evolution of what it means to be conservative he is conceeding my objection to conservatism being defined as collective wisdom over time...since collective wisdom over time tends to be harsh to old ways of seeing things and basically leaves you saying that whatever is currently accepted should be currently accepted. In fact it is rather ammusing that Lindsey says, "the ambition of realistic libertarians is not to shrink government but to contain it." So even "libertarians" are to be slaves to the collective wisdom...So a realistic libertarian is just a non-socially conservative conservative.... Lets put it this way... and this is Dain’s critique: there are no realistic libertarians. But wait a second... perhaps a realistic libertarian is simply another name for an economist.

Mr. Lewis, good points. When I tell people my political philosophy they often say, "Oh, you must be a libertarian." But I am not, certainly not at the philosophical level. But a principled (or purist vs. pragmatic) conservatism (we should only spend money on things specifically authorized by the Constitution, for example) will end up espousing things that are much more libertarian than will some pragmatic policy guy at CATO, for example. Look at the positions of Michael Paroutka, for example. He wanted to abolish just about everything, and he was accused of wanting a Theocracy. When was the last time you heard someone from CATO say they want to abolish an entitlement program?

Since I am a paleo, and I have a lot of respect for Kirk, and I run in circles of Kirk admirers, I frequently have this debate in house. (Mine is the minority position.) Kirk and Burke were not advocating the mindless embrace of the status quo. But Kirk was arguing that conservatism is more a state of mind or disposition than it is a specific program or set of political principles. I largely agree. But you can’t totally divorce conservatism from a specific period in time or specific set of principles/policies/circumstances that help define it. In other words, you must have some idea what it is you are trying to conserve.

The general trend in America and in the West since the end of the "Dark Ages" has been "progress" toward the left. As one of the Southern Agrarians pointed out, in America we worship "progress." It is an unmitigated good. But it has not always been so, and it is not so everywhere. The East for example has always placed much more emphasis on tradition. Example - extended families, ancestor veneration, skeptical of outsiders, codes of chivalry, etc. Japan was more or less a medieval country just 2 or 3 generations before WWII.

The one thing that has saved America is our relative religious orthodoxy and that bastion of tradition keeping in the South and historically those areas of the West and Midwest settled by Southerners.

I am not advocating that we should all be Ludites. I have little problem with most technological progress. I don’t want to give up penicillin. But in America we lack discernment. All progress is good. All resistance to progress is bad. In the process we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Now are the Entitlement programs and huge amounts of unconstitutional spending a fait accompli? Are they here to stay? Probably (until they eventually bankrupt us). Most conservatives are realists. By the standards of many in my circle, I am a windmill joisting idealist. So a conservative could recognize a program as here to stay (SS, Medicare) but they should never concede its legitimacy. But what I think they can not do without forfeiting the right to call themselves a conservative is embrace the program. They can certainly not celebrate it. And most of all, they can not use the fact that they support it as evidence that they are not one of "those types" of conservatives. This happens all the time, and it drives me nuts. Neocons half define themselves by the fact that they think FDR and the New Deal and the Great Society are all great things.

If that is what they believe, fine, but please respect the English language and don’t call yourself a conservative neo, mainstream, or otherwise. And do not hold it against conservatives who aren’t sheepishly going along with the program for being too sufficiently what you say you are.

He climbs down off his soap box.

Sorry for all the errors, I suppose they are typical of my train of consciousness posts. Personally and largely for the same reasons that Dan Phillips points out...I don’t think Libertarians should be comfortable with either the republicans or the democrats. An interesting question would be if conservatives should be comfortable with the any case I agree with Rogue-Economist Levitt’s arguement that voting is largely uneconomical. Levitt says that most economists do not bother voting...I always wonder if most libertarians bother voting...I actually doubt it. I do think that a sizeable portion of the populace is libertarian. I agree that there is a libertarian center. I also think that all of this is playing pretty loose... In the same loose spirit one could argue that both parties have libertarian aspects...I don’t suppose this counts as an arguement for true libertarians...but I do suppose that true libertarians are as rare as true conservatives. In other words this is all kind of a ghost...In order for this all to be taken seriously you would have to immagine that a greater portion of america was libertarian than is actually the case...then again if you want to play loose there are probably 100 million libertarians out there...but this doesn’t mean that for this group this is the dominant or active ontological structure.

I posted 18 before I read 17... good comments...nay great ones! I agree that your position on Government spending probably puts you to the extreme of all libertarians...who aren’t really objectivists. I haven’t read Kirk so I can’t comment on his project...but I think being libertarian is also more of a state of mind. But that state of mind or disposition is probably that of being intractable. FYI no one respects the english David Hume points out we can’t even be certain that we mean the same thing by the same terms(that is because playing with words is an easy way to attain power temporarily) In fact I think that being libertarian follows from a mind that essentially agrees with Locke and David Hume on epistemology, the refinement of tastes and in general questions having to do with Ontology (the ranking and prioritizing of moral values, and the act of defining them). Scepticism is thus the defining mindset of a libertarian.

In this sense then we should turn to a discussion of progress... just because someone labels something progress...or because a product is "new"(if you think improved every time you hear are a victim) doesn’t mean it is. All progress is in fact good...but not everything that is called progress is progress. Progress in what way is the question... Propecia helps regrow hair...but it can cause impotence...vice versa with Viagra. There are side effects and unintended consequences to just about everything...and discernment is needed. In fact Libertarians are essentially so because they appreciate the difficulties inherent in discernment on all levels.

I strongly disagree that Burke or conservativism are rudderless. Burke believed in a human nature, and he viewed that as the selection agent separating new-fangled failures from tried-and-true successes. Just so, does anyone doubt that this is a policy guide? Political initiatives that weaken the family, laws that push religion from the public square, worldviews that encourage us to lie down before our enemies -- we have inherited Burke’s proscriptions against such things -- are these not anchors and policy directives? He wrote at the time of the Enlightenment, but he was clearly standing athwart the Zeitgeist. You boys need to go back to the library.

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