The Case for the Libertarian Democrat

It was my fealty to the notion of personal liberty that made me a Republican when I came of age in the 1980s. It is my continued fealty to personal liberty that makes me a Democrat today.

The case against the libertarian Republican is so easy to make that I almost feel compelled to stipulate it and move on. It is the case for the libertarian Democrat that has created much discussion and not a small amount of controversy when I first introduced the notion in what was, in reality, a throwaway blog post on Daily Kos on a slow news day in early June 2006.

But that post—as coarse, raw, and incomplete as it was—touched a surprising nerve. It generated the predictable criticism from libertarian circles (Reason and several Cato scholars piled on) as well as from conservatives who perhaps recognized their own slipping grasp of libertarian principles but were unwilling to cede any ground to a liberal. But more surprising (and unexpected) to me was the positive reaction: there’s a whole swath of Americans who are uncomfortable with Republican/conservative efforts to erode our civil liberties while intruding into our bedrooms and churches; they don’t like unaccountable corporations invading their privacy, holding undue control over their economic fortunes, and despoiling our natural surroundings; yet they also don’t appreciate the nanny state, the over-regulation of small businesses, the knee-jerk distrust of the free market, or the meddlesome intrusions into mundane personal matters.

Like me, these were people who didn’t instinctively reject the ability of government to protect our personal liberties, who saw government as a good, not an evil, but didn’t necessarily see the government as the source of first resort when seeking solutions to problems facing our country. They also saw the markets as a good, not an evil, but didn’t necessarily see an unregulated market run amok as a positive thing. Some of these were reluctant Republicans, seeking an excuse to abandon a party that has failed them. Others were reluctant Democrats, looking for a reason to fully embrace their party. And still others were stuck in the middle, despairing at their options—despondent at a two-party system in which both parties were committed to Big Government principles.

That blog post on libertarian Democrats, imperfect as it was, struck a chord. But it wasn’t written in a vacuum. It stemmed not from theory or philosophy (I’m neither a theorist, political scientist, nor a philosopher), but from personal experience and from my excitement at the growing ranks of Western Democrats who aren’t just transforming the politics of the Mountain states, but will hopefully lead to the reformation of the Democratic Party and a new embrace of the politics of personal liberty.

Not Your Libertarian’s Libertarianism

The modern libertarian (and conservative) view has been that government is an evil, perhaps necessary, but still a grave threat to personal liberties requiring the utmost vigilance against its instincts for perpetual expansion. The larger government grows, the more it infringes on our personal space, inevitably placing limits on our freedoms. And given government’s police powers, that threat is grave indeed. There’s a reason libertarians view the Second Amendment as an absolute right—its abolition would limit one of the most effective ages-old tools against governmental tyranny.

Hence, there was (and is) a natural tension between liberals who see government as a benign force for good, and those who can point to plenty of history showing otherwise. And as long as government remained the greatest threat to our personal liberties, this tension was fated to remain. Republicans, out-of-power for much of the 20th century, and livid at the Democrats’ expansion of government, spoke of shrinking government and limiting its power. Libertarians, while not exactly perfect allies of the GOP, were likely to get more of what they sought by making common cause with conservatives than liberals.

But that began to change as the power of corporations grew. As the pseudonymous user “hekebolos” wrote in a Daily Kos diary:

Up until even very recently, it was still definitely possible to construe government as [the] largest threat to individual liberty. It wasn’t very long ago that “what was good for GM was good for the USA.” Government regulation of corporations was seen as interfering with the prosperity of the average American. You see, the libertarian/conservative idea behind the primacy of the free market was that there would always be an intersection between what was good for business and what was good for the consumer. But that correlation was far greater in years past than it is today.

The fundamental reason that “libertarian” has become “libertarian democrat” is that corporations are becoming more powerful than governments. This fundamental fact has created a union between those with libertarian tendencies and those who believed all along that government can be a force for good.

As hekebolos further noted, defense contractors now have greater say in what weapons systems get built (via their lobbyists, blackmailing elected officials by claiming that jobs will be lost in their states and districts if weapons system X gets axed). The energy industry dominates the executive branch and has reaped record windfall profits. Our public debt is now held increasingly by private hedge funds. Corporations foul our air and water. They plunder our treasury.

This list, I’m sure, could be added to. Oil and oil services companies can even dictate when and how the most powerful nation on earth decides to go to war. A cabal of major corporate industry is, in fact, more powerful than the government of the most powerful nation on earth–and government is the only thing that can stop them from recklessly exploiting the people and destroying their freedom.

That, in essence, is why I am a Democrat, and why my original blog post on libertarian Democrats struck a chord with so many. We cherish freedom, and will embrace any who would protect it. But that necessarily includes, in this day and age, the government.

The Conservative War on Freedom

We can fondly look back to a time when Republicans spoke a good game on libertarian issues. They professed fealty to state rights, spoke of shrinking the government, preserving individual liberty, and embracing fiscal responsibility.

A report by Cato’s director of budget studies Stephen Slivinski highlights the truth about GOP efforts .

President Bush has presided over the largest overall increase in inflation-adjusted federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson. Even after excluding spending on defense and homeland security, Bush is still the biggest-spending president in 30 years. His 2006 budget doesn’t cut enough spending to change his place in history, either.

Total government spending grew by 33 percent during Bush’s first term. The federal budget as a share of the economy grew from 18.5 percent of GDP on Clinton’s last day in office to 20.3 percent by the end of Bush’s first term.

The Republican Congress has enthusiastically assisted the budget bloat. Inflation-adjusted spending on the combined budgets of the 101 largest programs they vowed to eliminate in 1995 has grown by 27 percent.

This spending is all the more remarkable given that Republicans control all three branches of government. We are seeing Republican conservative governance exactly how it is supposed to work.

On social issues, we are seeing a government aggressively seeking to meddle in people’s bedrooms, doctor’s offices, and churches. They want to dictate when life begins, when life ends, and which consenting adults can marry. They want to pass a new Amendment eliminating the non-existent threat posed by flag burning—a serious effort to limit the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. And the long-time Republican dodge on such issues—that it merely wanted to let the states decide such issues—was exposed as hogwash by the Schiavo fiasco. While the Washington Post had no on-the-record source for the following assertion, they didn’t need one. Actions spoke louder than words:

Republicans acknowledged that the intervention was a departure from their usual support for states’ rights. But they said their views about the sanctity of life trumped their views about federalism.

The nation’s current wars have given conservatives yet more excuses to make a mockery of the protections we supposedly enjoy under the Bill of Rights, from the PATRIOT Act, to the NSA spying on American citizens, to violations of habeas corpus. Republicans seem to have even abandoned even more fundamental Constitutional principles, such as “separation of powers.” As chief Bush legal theorist John Yoo wrote in his book, War by Other Means:

We are used to a peacetime system in which Congress enacts the laws, the president enforces them, and the courts interpret them. In wartime, the gravity shifts to the executive branch.

This isn’t a party committed to anyone’s personal freedoms.

Embracing the market

In the waning years of the Clinton Administration, the Justice Department waged a massive anti-trust battle against Microsoft. At the time, Microsoft seemed unstoppable, a monopolistic behemoth who would either swallow or crush anyone that posed even the most minute threat to its business. I cheered the Justice Department on, thinking its efforts would be the only thing to dent the prospects of a Microsoft-dominated world. I was despondent when Microsoft emerged victorious. Innovation seemed dead. But I was dead wrong.

What a difference a few years made. As the Internet came on the scene, first Yahoo then Google transformed the technological landscape leaving Microsoft in their wake. The market shifted, and Microsoft wasn’t able to make the transition. Despite being a dominant player in PCs and office software, no one fears Microsoft anymore. It is a remnant of a different era, reduced to providing commodity products as other companies blaze new trails. The market worked on its own.

My libertarian tendencies have always found a welcome home in the Silicon Valley culture (and in all of the nation’s great technology centers). It is a place where hard work and good ideas trump pedigree, money, the color of one’s skin, nationality, sex, or any of the artificial barriers to entry in most of the rest of the world. It is a techno-utopia that, while oft-criticized for a streak of self-important narcissism, still today produces the greatest innovations in technology in the world. Where else could such a motley collection of school dropouts, nerds, brown people (mostly Indian), and non-Native English speakers (mostly Chinese), not just rise to the top of their game, but dominate it? This is free market activity seemingly at its best, and it works precisely because these individuals are able to take risks and be judged by the results of their work, rather than be judged by who they are, where they’ve been, or who they know.

But there are other reasons why this outpost of libertarianism works. The government has put in an infrastructure to support the region including, among many other things, roads, the Internet, government research grants, and the most important ingredient of all: education, from the lowliest kindergarten to the highest post-doc program. Such spending, while requiring a government bureaucracy that makes a traditional libertarian shudder, actually provides the tools that individuals need to succeed in today’s world. If our goal is to promote and champion individual liberty and the free market, we need government to help provide those tools to all Americans, not just a privileged few. This isn’t a question of equality, it’s one of opportunity. Some people will take advantage of those opportunities, and others will not. That will be up to each individual. But without opportunity, there is no freedom.

There is also no individual freedom if corporations aren’t forced to provide the kind of accountability necessary to ensure we make proper purchasing or investment decisions. For example, public corporations are regulated to ensure that investors have accurate data upon which to base their trading decisions. If investors can’t trust the information given by corporations, the stock markets couldn’t function. If the stock markets couldn’t function, our current market system would collapse. Matters such as deceptive advertising, labeling, and some safety regulations are also important. Does anyone doubt that requiring food companies to label ingredients and nutritional data doesn’t enhance our liberties by giving us the information we need to make informed decisions?

On the flip side, much of what’s known as “corporate welfare” is not designed to protect personal liberties. Rather it rewards inefficiencies in the market and the politically connected. Intellectual property law protections, constantly extended at the behest of Walt Disney in service to its perpetual Mickey copyright, have created a corporate stranglehold over information in an era where information is currency. Patent law allows companies like Amazon to patent simple and obvious “business processes” like “one-click shopping,” which they protect with armies of lawyers and deep pockets. In the non-virtual sphere, cities use eminent domain to strip property owners of their rights on behalf of private developers.

So a “free” market needs rules (“regulation”) in order to function. And such rules should be welcome so long as they are designed to enhance and protect our personal liberties.

The Rise of the Libertarian Democrat

In the fierce battle in this year’s Montana Senate race, an attack ad by incumbent Republican Senator Conrad Burns against his Democratic challenger Jon Tester reminded me why I’m excited about the rise of the libertarian Democrat.

The ad accuses Jon Tester of voting against a bill limiting pornography at public libraries. Turns out that Tester voted against the bill because 1) public libraries already had solved the problem, and 2) the state law would have merely duplicated already-existing federal standards. So Tester did what any sensible person should do: vote against an unnecessary and duplicative law.

While we can discuss what the ad says about Burns—that he is politically cynical and has betrayed small-government principles—I’d prefer to focus on what it said about Tester. Casting a “yes” vote was as easy as pressing the “yes” button at his desk, but Tester wasn’t going to grow state government without a compelling reason, even if it could have scored him cheap political points. A Tester spokesperson responded to the charges, “Jon Tester believes in less government regulation, not more, and he believes in local control.” At a debate, Burns charged that Tester would “weaken the Patriot Act”. Tester fired back, ”I don’t want to weaken the Patriot Act. I want to repeal it.” This is the future face of the Democratic Party.

Mountain West Democrats are leading the charge. At the vanguard is Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who won his governorship the same day George Bush was winning Montana 58 to 38 percent. While the theme of Republican corruption played a big role in Schweitzer’s victory, he also ran on a decidedly libertarian Democrat message and is now the second most popular governor in the country according to Survey USA’s September 50 State poll. In Wyoming, Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal won in 2002 in this ridiculously conservative state by decrying policies allowing energy companies to violate landowner rights by setting up smelly, noisy, dirty machinery in their property to extract sub-surface minerals. Republicans were content to let their energy industry benefactors discard even the most basic property rights. This year, tech-industry Democrat Gary Trauner is making Republicans sweat the state’s lone House seat (once held by Dick Cheney) that should be, by all rights, a cakewalk. In eastern Washington, which has more in common with Idaho than with western Washington, Democrat Peter Goldmark is a serious threat. Not to be outdone, just across the state line in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, Democrat Larry Grant is seriously contesting a seat in which Bush won with 70 percent of the vote.

And it’s not just the Mountain West, either. In Ohio, Paul Hackett narrowly lost a 2005 special election in the Ohio 2nd Congressional District, which Bush won with 63 percent of the vote in 2004, after standing against government meddling in people’s private lives. In Virginia, impressive Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb, a “Reagan Democrat” in the literal sense—he served as Ronald Reagan’s Navy Secretary—is similarly pushing a message of personal liberties. Incumbent Virginia Senator George Allen thought he’d be campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Instead, he’s in a fight for his life.

It is no coincidence that most of these transformative candidates are emerging in conservative areas. The Mountain West, in particular, has a individualistic libertarian streak that has been utterly betrayed by the governing Republicans. State legislatures in Alaska and Montana proudly voted to defy the PATRIOT Act. But even in places like Ohio and Virginia, many traditionally Republican voters simply want to live their lives in peace, without undue meddling from unaccountable multinationals or the government.

For too long, Republicans promised smaller government and less intrusion in people’s lives. Yet with a government dominated top to bottom by Republicans, we’ve seen the exact opposite. No one will ever mistake a Democrat of just about any stripe for a doctrinaire libertarian. But we’ve seen that one party is now committed to subverting individual freedoms, while the other is growing increasingly comfortable with moving in a new direction, one in which restrained government, fiscal responsibility, and—most important of all—individual freedoms are paramount.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Governing Well Is the Best Revenge by Bruce Reed

    In his reply to Moulitsas, Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, does not try to claim the libertarian mantle: “[I]f you’re looking for government to close up shop, don’t vote Democratic,” Reed recommends. But, Reed argues, there are reasons for more moderate libertarians to support Democrats. “Which party can provide smaller, more efficient government?” Reed asks. “Which party takes the responsibilities of government and limited government seriously enough to actually deliver it? Which party believes in competition enough to wean the country from its dangerous addiction to corporate welfare and make free enterprise work?” Reed’s answer: The Democratic Party.

  • Democrats, Liberals, and Libertarians by Harold Meyerson

    Washington Post columnist and The American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson argues that Democratic overlap with libertarianism in matters of civil liberties cannot extend to the economic domain. “The central insight of 20th century liberalism,” Meyerson writes, “was that freedoms conflict, that a company’s freedom to dominate the marketplace was often in conflict with a consumer’s freedom to find a product at a fair price, or a workers’ freedom to find a decent job or form a union, or a citizen’s freedom to have an equal voice in the legislative process.” Today, Meyerson argues an increase in economic insecurity demands an increased role for the state. “Ultimately, the Democrats aren’t going to proceed very far down the libertarian road, for one simple reason that’s far more pragmatic than philosophic: It doesn’t lead anywhere.”

  • Libertarian Democrats: The Titillating Myth by Nick Gillespie

    Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason, likes the idea of libertarian Democrats, and notes that there are a few, but “when it comes to their own party, they feel sort of like Trotsky during his Mexico City days.” Commenting on the previous essays, Gillespie writes that “even as Moulitsas is ostensibly trying to woo libertarians to vote for Democrats, he spends a good chunk of his essay lecturing his audience like a Hyde Park autodidact about the need for publicly financed roads and education, and railing against that great abstraction of ‘unaccountable corporations’ that lead us into war, make us breathe dirty air, and steal our retirement savings.” Gillespie finds Reed “even less engaging,” while Meyerson’s “uncomplicated nostalgia for the New Deal suggests he thinks he’s living in 1936 rather than 2006.”

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