Democrats, Liberals, and Libertarians

Markos Moulitsas has, as usual, made an important contribution to our political discourse with his essay on Democratic libertarianism—or, more fundamentally, libertarianism for the real world. In the real world, and more particularly in 21st-century America, encroachments on privacy, personal security, and the environment are as likely, if not more likely, to come from business as they are from the state, and these are threats that require state regulation if they’re to be mitigated or dispelled. In the real world, as Markos points out, Silicon Valley is where it is in part because of the public education and university system that Democratic Governor Pat Brown built in California nearly a half-century ago, and because of the defense-aerospace industry that the federal government planted and sustained in California ever since 1941 (which is why David Packard and Bill Hewlett found a ready, in-state clientele). And in the real world, the Republican Party has become a dangerous advocate, and enforcer, of executive branch autocracy, as promulgated by George Bush and Dick Cheney, defended by John Yoo, and likely to be upheld by such ostensibly conservative jurists as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito.

Classic libertarians are as appalled by this last development as any Democratic congressman is. But they ignore Markos’ other cautionary notes—and ignoring Markos’ cautionary notes is part and parcel of classic libertarianism—at their own peril. Libertarianism will always be present in American politics, inasmuch as freedom in America has always meant “freedom from” as much as “freedom to.” But it will be present as an ideological tendency—one of many—to be found in both parties’ core beliefs, many of which are in conflict with libertarianism’s tenets. (No one searching for ideological consistency should look to America’s major parties. Like Whitman, they contradict themselves.) As for pure libertarianism, by denying a role for the state and dismissing the threat to liberties increasingly posed by the dominant corporate sector, it is about as germane to the American future as Trotskyism.

But, writing from the perspectives of a more New Dealish American liberal and an avowed social democrat (the latter tendency, I need not be reminded, being one that has fewer avowed adherents in America than libertarianism, though more than Trotskyism), I want to make a couple of points that Markos doesn’t touch on. First, I want to point out the areas of overlap between libertarianism—or, at least, the preservation of personal liberties—and New Deal democracy, and even social democracy. Second, I want to look again at some of the new libertarianism Markos documents within the Democratic Party—not just where it extends, but where it can’t extend, and why it can’t.

First, we need to begin by acknowledging that the defense of such individual rights as freedom of speech and sexual behavior have long been more characteristic of the left than the right. Back in the ‘60s, when I was a teenager, the conventional wisdom on social democratic Sweden was that it was a socialist society that suppressed individual liberty and that it was a libertine nation (anyone remember the film I Am Curious Yellow?) where sexual freedom ran amok. I have not trusted the conventional wisdom since.

The compatibility of social democracy and Democratic liberalism with individual freedoms extends beyond the sexual realm, of course. The European Union, for instance, has enacted stringent privacy regulations that protect consumers from having their banks, phone companies and other businesses that have data on them from sharing those data with one another. No comparably binding legislation exists on the federal level in the United States. On the state level, in our mega-state, California, a liberal Democratic state senator, Jackie Spier, got a bill protecting consumers from a number of such practices through the heavily Democratic legislature, only to see it vetoed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose sometime libertarianism was trumped by his more-than-sometime fealty to big business. (That’s the default position, of course, of modern Republicanism.)

This is hardly to argue that all European regulation protects individual freedoms or maximizes social outcomes. It is to point out that regulation is often the only way to protect encroachments on individual freedoms. To argue, as a classic libertarian might, that a consumer is as free to switch banks as a bank is to sell its data neglects to note that a bank that doesn’t sell its data is at a competitive disadvantage with one that does, and a consumer who can’t find a privacy-protecting bank is simply out of luck. In short, the free play of markets can be a threat to individual freedom, unless individual freedom is a term that applies only to businesses and not to their consumers or employees or the people who must breathe their pollutants. This is something that New Deal liberals and social democrats have long understood and sought to redress. Indeed, the central insight of 20th century liberalism 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 worker’s freedom to find a decent job or form a union, or a citizen’s freedom to have an equal voice in the legislative process. And that to establish some parity of freedoms, the state had to take a hand.

Markos quotes an entry that a reader posted on his Daily Kos blog in which the reader cites his realization that “corporations are becoming more powerful than governments” as the key to his switch to a neo-libertarianism concerned with regulating corporations. But surely, concern over disproportionate corporate power has been a main concern, if not the main concern, of populism, progressivism, and liberalism dating back at least to the 1890s. Americans railed against the railroads and the oil trusts and Wall Street long before they railed against government regulations, for the simple reason that government regulations didn’t seriously begin to curtail the abuses of the rails, of oil and of Wall Street until the New Deal. If libertarians see their mission as defending freedom, liberals, seeing freedoms in conflict, have defined theirs as balancing those freedoms, and regulating their excesses, in the cause of a greater social good. The moral calculus that liberals have used in weighing one freedom against another, to be sure, has often been at odds with the moral calculus of conservatives and the conceptual calculus of libertarians. Liberals, for instance, insisted that the right of a black person to equal access exceeded that of a property owner to discriminate on racial grounds, which upset racist traditionalists, as well as libertarians such as Barry Goldwater, who privileged the property owner’s right above the black person’s.

But Markos raises a second point I want to address: that a new libertarian strain is emerging among Democrats of the Mountain West and elsewhere in the party. He’s right, and it’s a development I welcome, partly for principled and partly for pragmatic reasons. On principled grounds, I’m excited that a Montana Democrat like Jon Tester has the guts to come out against the Patriot Act, to be a tribune for Americans concerned about the unaccountability of the administration and the power grab of the executive branch. On political grounds, I’m quite comfortable with Mountain State Democrats defending the Second Amendment, just as I’m comfortable with Harold Ford, the Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee, affirming traditional religious values. If the Democrats are ever going to move beyond their coastal, upper-Midwest blue state base, their local candidates will have to affirm the cultural values of the states they seek to represent. If that means we need to have a crazy-quilt of laws regulating guns on a state-by-state basis—happy hunting in Montana, no handguns allowed in New York City—that’s fine by me.

But there are some basic Democratic principles that are not libertarian, and that even Markos’ Mountain State mavericks still affirm. None of them have called for privatizing Social Security. None of them have called for abolishing Medicare. They may be civil libertarians and to some degree social libertarians, but they’re not economic libertarians. And for good reason: Economic libertarianism has never been more preposterous.

For the dominant social fact in America today is this: The corporate safety net is fast disappearing. Risk has been transferred to the individual—a decision in which individuals, as such, haven’t had a say (though their apprehensions about privatizing Social Security did nip that idea in the bud). Corporate pensions are vanishing and 401(k)s don’t provide equivalent retirement security. Fewer and fewer companies are offering medical benefits, even though corporate profits are at a 50-year high as a percentage of GDP. Companies that persist in offering such benefits are placed at a disadvantage when their competitors don’t. And consumers clearly can’t afford those benefits, either. As some recent surveys have made clear, precious few Americans can afford to buy medical insurance on their own or to utilize the Health Savings Accounts that the president is peddling.

In short, as the balance of forces in capitalism shifts entirely towards investors and executives and away from employees, the need for a state that takes the burden of economic and health security off employers who won’t pick it up and employees who can’t pick it up is increasingly urgent. It’s hard to predict what exactly the tipping point will be as our private-sector welfare state continues to contract. But at some point, the Democrats will embrace a decisively larger role for the state in these matters because the public will demand it—not because the public will suddenly identify itself as liberal, but because there will be nowhere else to turn. And at that moment, I think even the Mountain State neo-libertarians will go along. After all, the New Deal didn’t arise because Americans suddenly awakened and proclaimed themselves progressive. It arose because the unchecked power and unregulated practices of major corporations and banks and the market itself led to an economic disaster.

In sum, the Democrats’ embrace of individual liberties in many spheres is actually an old story. But the new growth of selective libertarianism in the Democratic ranks is hardly going to be the main source of controversy in coming party debates. More likely, that debate will pit those who think retraining is the answer to our more layoff-prone society (that’s the Bob Rubin solution) against those who think that retraining needs to be supplemented by, for instance, publicly funded alternative energy programs that would generate millions of jobs (that’s the solution of a number of union leaders, and one that I favor as well). The latter position is clearly more in the New Deal liberal mode, but Rubin’s is hardly libertarian. 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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kicking off this month’s discussion, “Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?”, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, proprietor of, argues that the libertarian Democrat’s time has come. Moulitsas says that GOP dominance has been a disaster for limited government and civil liberties, and that growing corporate power poses a grave threat to individual liberty and necessitates government action. “[W]e’ve seen that [the Republican Party] is now committed to subverting individual freedoms,” writes Moulitsas, “while the [Democratic Party] 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.”

Response Essays

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.”