Arnold Kling  

Group Identity and Fiscal Conservatism

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Will Wilkinson analyzes the generation gap.


I suspect that the more strongly certain libertarian ideas and tendencies are associated with the cultural politics of Baby Boomer conservative Republicans, the more strongly young people with libertarian inclinations will tend to identify with the Democratic Party and take on cultural assumptions and characteristics common to liberals. Here's my bottom line. Democratic-leaning libertarian young adults are the primary "liberaltarian" constituency. They are to my mind who liberaltarianism is intended for. Liberaltarianism or libertarian-liberal fusionism is not about some ridiculous practical political coalition between Larry Kudlow and Bill Galston. It is about building a coherent, appealing, practical ideological identity for all those libertarian-ish young folks who don't want a damn thing to do with the party of old, angry religious white people.

Read the whole post, which has data to back up his view of the generation gap. My sense is that in 2008, the young people Wilkinson is talking about voted overwhelmingly for Obama, knowing that they were sacrificing fiscal conservatism in order to express their group identity. Perhaps they will continue to fear "angry, religious white people" (the way that some Jews fear Christians), and so they will vote their group identity rather than their fiscal conservatism. That's too bad, because I read the Tea Party movement as very focused on fiscal conservatism, rather than on the issues that frighten Wilkinson.


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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Adam Ozimek writes:

"young people Wilkinson is talking about voted overwhelmingly for Obama, knowing that they were sacrificing fiscal conservatism in order to express their group identity"

Of course, as an angry, old, white person, you would see the motives of libertarians who want global warming policy and immigration reform not driven by nativist fear as fundamentally shallow.

Allan Walstad writes:

The Republicans lost libertarians with their war-mongering, not to mention their wild spending and new entitlement-imposing. Obama's continuation of the former and raising of the latter onto stilts gives the Republicans an opportunity for massive political recovery, but only by repudiating the Bush-Cheney legacy.

All this age-cohort analysis leaves me cold. The point is to persuade, not pander. The older conservative libertarianism of Ron Paul has attracted lots of young people, thank you.

What libertarians could do is form a political organization, not like the LP which puts up its own slate of candidates, but more like the NRA, which rates candidates and supports or opposes them on an ideological rather than party basis.

Yancey Ward writes:

Most young libertarians fail to understand that one cannot compromise one set of freedoms (or principles) in order to retain another.

Tom West writes:

Most young libertarians fail to understand that one cannot compromise one set of freedoms (or principles) in order to retain another.

You mean they shouldn't vote?

*Any* vote is, by its very nature, a compromise of what you'd like to see versus what's available.

wd40 writes:

The tea party is not a movement, but just a bunch Sarah Palin followers upset about Obama winning the election. See the Quinnipiac poll that shows that only 10% of those aligned with the tea party voted for Obama, while 84% voted for McCain, 70% of the those aligned with the tea party view Sarah Palin favorably, and 88% of them are white non-hispanic.

Sean A writes:

liberal libertarian? What does this even mean? Sounds like complete nonsense. People get to caught up in the semantics and forget about the actual ideas. Does this mean they are for "some" welfare policies but not others? Or does it simply involve voting democrat even though they don't agree with the policies (if they are "libertarian"). Sounds like another word is on the brink of being hijacked by political punditry.

Yancey Ward writes:

Tom West,

Perhaps they shouldn't vote, but what I mean is that young libertarians actually believe they can trade economic rights for civil rights (and a completely bastardized version of those). Older libertarians are those that always understood that you cannot have one without the other, or learned it the hard way. I suspect that most simply compromised themselves out of being libertarians altogether, and this is why there are so few actual libertarians today.

david writes:

@ Sean A

Most libertarians swing Republican; they compromise their libertarian social values to support libertarian economic values (allegedly, anyway. Bush spent a lot). So "liberaltarian" in this context means libertarians who compromise their economic values to back social values - libertarians who party with liberals rather than with conservatives.

There are, of course, libertarians who refuse to compromise on either; they're called "people who have no impact on the political landscape and thereby cease to matter".

Will Wilkinson writes:

Arnold, You Say:

"I read the Tea Party movement as very focused on fiscal conservatism, rather than on the issues that frighten Wilkinson."

Sure you do! My analysis predicts this, right?

"The issues that frighten Wilkinson," all the cultural assumptions that antagonize liberals, don't much bother libertarians your age. What's a little populist paranoia, casual racism and hyperventilating rhetoric about the holy Founding Document? All this apparently drops into the background for you, and you see a focus on fiscal conservatism. I see the repugnant hyperbolic cultural politics of Glenn Beck all mixed up with rhetoric about fiscal conservatism.

Lord writes:

"I read the Tea Party movement as very focused on fiscal conservatism"

Sure, as long as it has nothing to say about what they want their money spent on. Not that their aren't the Ron Pauls, just don't confuse them with the rank and file.

Sean A writes:

@David,
What you just wrote is so ambiguous it has little meaning. Libertarians cannot compromise "social values" for "economic values"; to do so would remove any meaningful distinction from the other political parties. The libertarian belief is that real social values can only be accomplished through economic freedom. For example, if a man is prohibited by threat of violence from using drugs, is it really a moral value that guides his decision? Libertarians believe that the ends, which are ultimately aimed at by all political parties, are best achieved through economic freedom; And as for the "people who have no impact on the political landscape and thereby cease to matter".--If political compromise into values which are thoroughly incompatible with your ideas is the only way to achieve success, then perhaps the political sphere within its current structure is not the proper means to achieve one's ideas. Such compromises explain America's current political situation, with ultimately little to discriminate between the neocon/progressive policies, other than the rhetoric which guides it.

Allan Walstd writes:

"What's a little populist paranoia, casual racism and hyperventilating rhetoric about the holy Founding Document?"

What's a little innuendo, eh?

Jay Thomas writes:

Robin Hanson has started a similar discussion on his Overcoming Bias blog, around the old chestnut

"If a man is not a socialist in his youth, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 30 he has no head."

I always thought that this obnoxious quote is meant to be prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Its really about the consensus on age appropriate behavior. Society as a whole likes college professors to wear tweed jackets and likes students to wear college letterhead sweatshirts and rucksacks. So by and large that is exactly what you see.

Similarly society collectively likes to see young people ‘getting involved’, embracing politics and good causes and attending demonstrations. Its a kind of rite of passage that is almost expected. More form than substance. The exact issues aren't really the relevant thing here.

I have always felt that a lot of the kids who attended Anti-Bush demonstrations were doing so because they vaguely felt that going on demonstrations was part of the college experience. They are following cultural conventions.

Ostentatious displays of political engagement are a status marker for young people. Signaling your caring and compassion to the world is easier with left-wing political causes than with right wing ones.

Weirdly I think that older people also want and expect young people to be more left wing than themselves.

There is a cultural script that says young people SHOULD be idealistic go on lots of demonstrations and embrace good causes.

Mature adults get far less status mileage out of these kinds of activities than the young do.

Both old and young people prefer demonstrators and political activists to be young.

BS writes:

What's a little populist paranoia, casual racism and hyperventilating rhetoric about the holy Founding Document?

It's amazing how little shame Wilkinson has in parroting the racism accusation while not blinking an eye at labeling something "the party of old, angry religious white people."

Who is the racist here?

Les writes:

Wilkinson wrote: "It is about building a coherent, appealing, practical ideological identity for all those libertarian-ish young folks who don't want a damn thing to do with the party of old, angry religious white people."

One does not need to be old, angry, religious, or white to be a libertarian. All that it takes is a little intelligence.

Kurbla writes:

I'm with david (in most cases.) If free market is seen as the most important part of the "liberty", then libertarians will strongly lean toward right, even toward fascism.

For example, idea that "economic freedom leads to political freedom" is crypto fascist idea. Crypto, because it doesn't look so on the first sight. But, one who accepts that idea will prefer guys like Pinochet not only over Bolsheviks, but over any leftist party, for example, social-democrats, even if they strongly advocate political and individual freedoms. Well, social-democrats are on the "road to serfdom" and Pinochet is bit rough, but hey, he's defender of economic freedom and hence, of political freedom as well.

Of course, some libertarians would never support such thinking, and they are still in libertarian movement. How is that these two group are lumped together? There are few reasons, but the most important one is that US is not real multi-party system. In multi party systems, ideas are separated under pressure from potential coalition. For example, social-democrats offer coalition, and result of such coalition might be legalization of homosexuality. But, reduction of economic freedom as well. In such situation you see how people tick. Until such situation happen, everyone can speak about liberty, and emotions are not on the table ...

Chris Koresko writes:

@Arnold: I haven't read the whole Wilkinson article, but I find the paragraph you quote completely puzzling. How can (non-classical, Democratic) Liberalism ever be reconciled with Libertarianism? The two seem to be polar opposites: while Libertarianism views individuals as essentially competent and with a strong right to self-determination in almost all details of their lives, Liberalism argues that in today's complex society most individuals will be victimized if they are allowed to attempt to run their own lives, or will commit such disastrous errors that society in general will have to bail them out, and that addressing this issue requires pervasive intervention by a wise government.

The classic example (in my mind, at least) comes from the proposal to privatize Social Security. When this was proposed (W. Bush, 2004? Not sure) Conservatives argued that people should be free to choose how some small percentage of their SS account (20%?) is invested, and Liberals countered that people had no ability to make such decisions and would likely end up impoverishing themselves in retirement.

The common characterization of social conservatives as being just as eager as Liberals to interfere in people's lives, but only in different ways, is mostly bunk. It is entirely consistent (and common, I think) for a social conservative to view, say, the practice of homosexuality as deeply immoral while at the same time rejecting the idea that government should attempt to coerce people into avoiding it. In fact, the conservative will typically view such an act as a deliberate choice by a free individual -- that view is the basis for his willingness to condemn the act, if he does -- and reject government interference on individual sovereignty grounds.

By contrast, a Liberal tends to see the same act as the inevitable consequence of an animalistic drive and to deny that it can be immoral because no real choice is involved. Thus the Liberal reduces the individual to little more than an animal who is incapable taking care of his own affairs or even of accepting responsibility for his most intimate acts. This approach appears impossible to reconcile with Libertarianism: if individuals are incompetent and lacking in even the possibility of genuine virtue, then implementing Libertarian policies that liberate them must be a road to chaos.

For a conservative, there is a strong reluctance to permit government to intervene in people's private lives when private behavior doesn't adversely affect the uninvolved. I believe this would be the Libertarian position also, although Libertarians would tend to err even more on the side of non-intervention by government.

Sean A writes:

@Kurbla;
You sight the "road to serfdom" but the implications of your comment seem to imply you didn't read or understand it. Socialism cannot be achieved without some form of Fascism to impose it. Hitler and Stalin were equally fascist; and as for claiming Pinochet as some sort of free market dictator, imposing by force political freedom[?], have you been reading Krugman?

Chris Koresko writes:

@Kurbla: "If free market is seen as the most important part of the "liberty", then libertarians will strongly lean toward right, even toward fascism."

I think this is confused in two ways.

First, if I understand Libertarian thinking correctly, their claim is not that the free market is the most important part of liberty, but rather that economic liberty can be seen as the foundation for (all?) other liberties. After all, if someone can arbitrarily claim your property, they can do almost anything to you. An extreme case would be Stalin's "man-made famine".

Second, Fascism is not "right". It is one of two extremist branches of Progressivism. Imagine a line starting from American Liberalism (strong Federal government, strong social safety net, lots of intervention in the private economy, strong gun control, government-controlled medicine, less activist foreign policy) through American Conservatism (devolution of Federal power toward the states, smaller social safety net, less intervention in the private economy, less gun control, less government intervention in medicine, more activist foreign policy) and extrapolate it rightward. What you end up with is not like Fascism (very strong central government, very strong social safety net, very strong government intervention in the private economy, very strong gun control, government-provided medicine, militarily aggressive foreign policy). Instead, you get something like Libertarianism with a more interventionist foreign policy.

Allan Walstad writes:

@Chris Koresko: "First, if I understand Libertarian thinking correctly, their claim is not that the free market is the most important part of liberty, but rather that economic liberty can be seen as the foundation for (all?) other liberties."

Libertarians rather consistently support individual liberty. Hard-core socialists would like to support personal liberty while eliminating private property. What libertarians point out is the implausibility of freedom of the press if the government owns the presses, freedom of religion if the government owns the churches, etc.

More generally, economic liberty is subversive of authoritarianism because once people find that they can make their own decisions and take charge of their lives with respect to earning a living, they will be less tolerant of political interference in other areas.

Finally, in my book anyway, there is no clear dividing line between the economic and the personal. The basis of sound economic reasoning is the fact that individuals make choices in the pursuit of their individually chosen goals and purposes. If people ought to be able to choose freely and interact on the basis of "win-win or do deal" in one area, the same reasoning applies across the board.

GU writes:

The Republicans could easily scoop up most of the libertarian cohort, young or old, by being actual fiscal conservatives. This doesn't mean cutting taxes no matter what; it would involve serious, sustainable spending cuts, entitlement reform (the same thing really), and (ideally) fundamental tax reform, which would lead to lower taxes for some, but not all.

No party is likely to offer these in the near future, and I fear, in my lifetime. Welcome to dirigisme, hope you're either well-connected with political power-players or not planning on doing productive work.

ps my analysis in the preceding paragraph would have been the same a few years ago, this isn't some anti-Obama rant.

exLibertarian writes:

Libertarian used to mean you read Ayn Rand, were an Objectivist, and could articulate a coherent thought.

Now it means you watch Glenn Beck, are a pissed off white reactionary, and what you say is reviewed by producers of The Daily Show as source material for its inanity.

Nick C. writes:

Speaking from the under-30 crowd, your post makes sense to me. I was still in grad school in '08, and some of my libertarian-leaning friends tried to persuade me to support Obama because his platform was more friendly in regards to individual liberties. They viewed Democrats as more socially permissive, in other words. By far those of us that leaned libertarian either voted for Obama or a third party candidate. The McCain supporters tended to be socially conservative almost to the point of favoring socially restrictive policies, so they didn't win over much libertarian-leaning support.

Regarding the politics of young people, keep in mind that in general we just haven't thought through these issues very much, and we don't have much life experience to draw from anyway. We have much more exposure to the consequences of social policy than fiscal policy, so if it comes down to a choice between an economically restrictive Democrat that wants to legalize pot or an economically permissive Republican that wants to ban gay marriage, then the Democrat often wins--especially if the Republican can't even deliver on his promises of fiscal conservatism.

I don't see many libertarian-leaning 20-somethings as being actively opposed to fiscal conservatism; they just seem to struggle with understanding how it's relevant to their lives or their developing ideology. I think so long as the Tea Party folk push fiscal conservatism while keeping social issues on the back burner, then many in the under-30 crowd will be slow to catch on.

MikeP writes:

I've read Wilkinson's post a and his comments here a couple of times now, and I really don't see what his point is other than that he's upset that his political views are shared mostly by middle-class white folks and he wishes the cool kids would come around to his point of view.

Some libertarians have been trying to win over the left since at least the 1960s and Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess. That has worked out really well so far.

Chris Koresko writes:

@Allan Walstad: That was a very nice explanation. Thank you.

azmyth writes:

I think I am exactly the type of person you mention - young libertarian, and I did indeed vote for Obama. I realized his economic policies were crap, but the injustice of the Iraq war and the Patriot Act could not go unanswered.

MikeP writes:

Well, at least we are out of Iraq and have repealed the Patriot Act.

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