Thursday, March 18, 2004

The trouble with Libertarians*

In my experience, if you ask most college-educated Republicans what their political philosophy is they most likely say they are libertarian. If they are not terribly religious, the chances of them saying this shoots up to about 99%. Libertarians will usually explain that they believe government to be less efficient than competitive free markets and that government should stay out of people’s lives. Further, if you have to have government at all local government beats state government beats federal government. This is all very reasonable and since I agree with both these statements, I guess I should call myself a Libertarian. So why aren’t I a Republican?

It seems to me that the real philosophy underling the Republican strain of libertarianism is the blind belief that markets are always better than government. (To be fair, most run-of-the-mill “Republicans with libertarian tendencies” will make exceptions for things like fire fighters and law enforcement although their libertarian pundits will not.) This is why arguing with Republicans about, for example, universal healthcare is often so frustrating. The driving fact behind liberal support for universal healthcare is that the healthcare markets are so inefficient that even government can do it better. Libertarian Republicans seem to be unable to even ask the question, so presenting them evidence does no good.

(One brutally honest conservative friend of mine once admitted that universal healthcare would be more efficient than the current system, but that the current market could be fixed if we just fixed medical malpractice. I don’t think it’s correct but at least he was willing to look at the evidence.)

Our nation’s two-party political system often makes for strange bedfellows and the line between compromising and selling out is often cut very fine. Libertarians have lately chosen to throw their lot in with the same party as the religious conservatives which, when you reflect on how overregulated 1970’s paleo-Liberalism left America, makes a bit of sense. The religious right was willing to be agnostic on the topic of deregulating things like Social Security and Medicare and the libertarians turned a blind eye to the hard religious right’s fascination with legal moralizing. It is important that we recognize this as a compromise: If you really are a libertarian then you can’t support laws that mandate moral behavior unless such behavior has a specific and detrimental effect on others.

Now, if you are a minority party this kind of big tent coalition can work. Once you get control of congress (and the senate, and the presidency and a better part of the Supreme Court) people start expecting proactive results and this creates conflict. This is why the New-Deal democrats were so remarkable: they maintained cohension for decades after they came to power. A recent facet of this new conflict was on display when the religious right pushed Bush so hard that he had to come out of the closet as being in favor of an anti-Gay-Marriage amendment. Libertarian Republican leaders and pundits who had assumed that they could continue to string the fundamentalists along with promises and dreams were upset. The New York Times didn’t even have a conservative editorialist who could support it.

Although I’m religious and sympathetic with the libertarian respect for working free markets I hope that this becomes a bigger problem for them in the future. There is no virtue when the state mandates personal morals, and there can be no respect for the efficiency of free markets if we fail to recognize and correct inefficient ones.

* This is a really obscure reference to the Hitchcock film “The Trouble with Harry”. In that film the trouble with Harry is that he is dead.


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