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National Review: A Lib-Lib Romance

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By John - Posted on 26 December 2006

by Jonah Goldberg

"Libertarian" has become something of a feel-good
word lately. Markos Moulitsas, the guru behind the
Daily Kos, penned an essay not too long ago making the case for the “libertarian Democrat.” His analysis is thin gruel, but what’s interesting is that arguably the most partisan left-wing Democrat in America is eager to claim the libertarian label for his side. At the same time, mainstream liberals
have been proclaiming that they always loved and respected those supposedly libertarian conservatives of yesteryear, like Reagan and Goldwater.Meanwhile, on the right, many conservatives
eager to distinguish themselves
from the messiness of the Bush administration
and the unrepentant jobbery of the
congressional GOP now use the word “libertarian”
like an alibi: “Hey man, I didn’t
do it. I’m a libertarian.”

Perhaps sensing an opportunity here,
professional libertarians are flexing their
muscle. The Cato Institute put out a paper
holding that some 15 percent of voters are
libertarian and that, more important, they
are the much-coveted “swing voters” who
decide elections. And in a number of very
close elections in November, many libertarians
seemed almost giddy that they
might have been responsible for the defeat
of Republicans.

In its most basic form, the libertarian
complaint should be familiar by now:
From Terri Schiavo to diarrheic spending,
the GOP has betrayed its commitment to
limited government. So, the libertarians
reason, why not “experiment” with the
Democrats a bit? They expand government
too, but at least they’re more libertyloving
when it comes to drugs, sex,
abortion, etc.

The problem here is that “libertarian” is
a shmoo-like word but libertarians are not
shmoo-like people (shmoos being the
magical creatures from Lil’ Abner who
could take any form and be anything).
Everyone likes to think he’s in favor of
maximizing freedom. But in reality most
folks want to maximize only the freedoms
they like. I often ask self-described libertarians
if they support government censorship
of hardcore pornography on
Saturday-morning broadcast television. If
they say yes, then they aren’t really pure
libertarians. If they say no, I congratulate
them on their consistency and tell them
why their political ambitions are doomed.
“Libertarian-leaning” people are often
quite severe about which “freedoms” they
want liberalized and which they don’t.
Indeed, they’re often single-issue voters.
Just ask the folks at Libertarians for Life.

Meanwhile, some doctrinaire libertarians
are fixated on legalizing drugs, others on
gay marriage, and some, amazingly
enough, on defending the moral legitimacy
of the Confederacy. A bloc of centrist
swing voters this ain’t. The point is
that most of the talk about “libertarians”
switching sides has been exactly that, talk.
Until now. Brink Lindsey, a vice president
at the Cato Institute and one of the
sharpest libertarian wonks in Washington,
upped the ante from flirtatious jibberjabber
to genuine philosophical wooing.
In a recent issue of The New Republic,
Lindsey restates the familiar libertarian
gripes, but goes on to argue that the fusionist
project launched by Frank Meyer in
these pages five decades ago has essentially
run its course. “Fusionism” was the
label (coined by L. Brent Bozell) to describe
Meyer’s view that the ends of traditional
morality could be reached only by
libertarian means: Virtue not freely chosen
cannot be virtuous, he argued.

Lindsey goes further still. He argues
that, empirically speaking, fusionism was
a mistake for libertarians from the get-go.
An “honest survey of the past half-century
shows a much better match between libertarian
means and progressive ends.” He
proposes “a refashioned liberalism that
incorporate[s] key libertarian concerns
and insights” and “make[s] possible a truly
progressive politics once again.” This politics,
as he envisions it, is “not progressive
in the sense of hewing to a particular set of
preexisting left-wing commitments, but . . . joins together under one banner the
causes of both cultural and economic

What makes Lindsey’s overture significant
is that he comes from the branch of
libertarianism that actually matters: economics.
Economic libertarians, under the
leadership of Friedrich Hayek and Milton
Friedman, have been so successful in the
conservative movement—and the conservative
movement has been so successful
because of them—that “economic conservative”
and “libertarian” have long been
synonyms. But here’s Lindsey, an economic
libertarian par excellence, trying to
convince liberals that free markets are
“progressive.” He wants liberals to accept
the fact that libertarian means achieve liberal
cultural ends. Rich societies become
more tolerant of sexual freedom and civil
rights, and invest more in education and
the environment—and societies become
rich by following the advice of the
Friedmans and Hayeks. Lindsey proposes
finding common ground with liberals on
issues from agriculture subsidies (which
are bad for the environment) to tax reform.
His policy proposals would warm the
cockles of any NR editor’s heart, and we
should wish him luck.

Nonetheless, the tension between conservatives
and libertarians is not as onesided
as he and others would have us
believe. Libertarianism was once primarily
concerned with negative liberty—i.e.
delineating a zone free of government
intrusion. Meyer’s libertarianism was primarily
concerned with the ability of the
individual to find the virtuous path within
“an objective moral order based on ontological
foundations” best expressed in
Western civilization. As such, fusionism
was less a coalitional doctrine than a
metaphysical imperative. But these days,
phrases like “objective moral order” will
get you knocked off Cato’s Kwanzaa-card
list. Liberty’s virtue is no longer that it
supports the virtuous. Rather, according
to today’s leading libertarians, economic
freedom’s virtue lies in its ability to provide
everybody the custom-made lifestyle
of his choice.

Virginia Postrel, the former editor of
Reason, wrote an engaging ode to consumerism
in The Substance of Style. In The
Future and Its Enemies
, she made a
compelling case for change and cultural
evolution without heed to tradition. Her successor at Reason, Nick Gillespie, has
moved the magazine even more sharply
toward cultural libertarianism. There’s still
reverence for the free market, but mostly
for its creative destruction of tradition. My
close friend (and Reason’s science correspondent)
Ronald Bailey has thrown his
eggs into the basket of biotechnology, celebrating
its potential for individualized
eugenic betterment as “liberation
biology.” Cato’s Will Wilkinson seeks
to graft liberal philosopher John Rawls
onto Hayek to form something called
“Rawlsekianism.” And Lindsey’s next
book certainly doesn’t sound like it shares
Meyer’s preoccupation with philosophical
imperatives. It’s called The Age of Abundance:
How Prosperity Transformed
America’s Politics and Culture

This emphasis on the liberating power
of technology and wealth—i.e., materialism
and positive liberty—represents an
enormous philosophical transformation
within libertarianism that echoes, albeit
faintly, elements of the economic liberalism
of John Dewey and FDR. It also
shows that today’s libertarians have a different
view of the 1960s than their forefathers,
such as Meyer. Evaluating the ideas
within this burgeoning enterprise would
require another essay, and a very long one.
But three preliminary points are worth
mentioning. First, a new left-leaning
fusionism is a long way off. The flaws in
Lindsey’s dream are Aesopian: The scorpion
had to sting the frog because that is
what scorpions do; liberals have to engage
in economic social engineering because
that is what they do. Second, sure, lib-lib
tactical alliances are possible, but conservatives
would be idiotic to whine excessively
about them. After all, the true sign
of your movement’s success is when your
opponents start copying you.

Lastly, if the conservative-libertarian
union is in trouble, it’s not solely because
conservatives have strayed from their
vows. Marriages tend to dissolve when
both parties “grow apart,” and libertarians
have been doing quite a bit of growing
themselves. “You’ve changed” is a fair
accusation from both sides, though “I
don’t even know you anymore” is surely
an exaggeration. Perhaps the real lesson
here is that conservatives and libertarians
need to recommit themselves to the
fusionist project. In other words: Let’s
seek counseling.

Islamaphobe's picture

I think one has to make a basic distinction between libertarians who are Christians, like Doug Bandow, and those who are not. I tend to put most libertarians into the latter category. Goldberg is fundamentally correct in his scorpion-frog analogy. The great conservative Christian thinker Herbert Schlossberg put it very well in Idols for Destruction, when he suggested that libertarians who insist that men should be able to do as they please will always be outnumbered by those who want to use the agency of government to enforce their notions on society. "If it is lawful for the individual do do as he pleases," asked Schossberg, "why should it not be lawful for the commissar to do as he pleases? If there is nothing to restrain the one lawfully, then there is nothing to restrain the other." Schlossberg also offered this comment: "Those who see all our troubles in the modern state and think they will be solved by a libertarian solution . . . place the blame for social malfunction everywhere but where it belongs: on man himself."

John S. Evans

Virgil's picture

Well said John - I really a looking forward to the day when Cristians will understand the value of the true freedom the way libertarians do.

To be honest with you I would much rather pair up with the seculars in the libertarian party than the extremist Christians who see the government as having the sole role of legalizing morality.

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