Arnold Kling  

Libertarians and the Tea Party Movement

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A debate among Brink Lindsey, Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Kibbe. Although it is self-recommending, I have read it. Lindsey says,

prior to the rise of the conservative counter-establishment--think tanks, talk radio, websites, and Fox News--the right's dark side was subject to a critical constraint: To be visible at all in the nation's public debate, conservatism was forced to rely on intellectual champions whose sheer brilliance and sophistication caused the liberal gatekeepers in mass media to deem them suitable for polite company. People such as Buckley, George Will, and Milton Friedman...It gave conservatism a high-quality intellectual leadership that, to some extent at least, was able to curb the movement's baser instincts.

...Notwithstanding the return of libertarian rhetoric, the right today is a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian movement...Far from being anti-statist, it glorifies and romanticizes the agencies of government coercion: the police and the military. It opposes abortion rights. It opposes marriage equality. It panders to creationism. It routinely questions the patriotism of its opponents. It traffics in outlandish conspiracy theories. If you're serious about individual freedom and limited government, you cannot stand with this movement.

...Declaring independence from the right would require big changes. Cooperation with the right on free-market causes would need to be supplemented by an equivalent level of cooperation with the left on personal freedom, civil liberties, and foreign policy issues. .. libertarians should be making the point that their differences with the right are every bit as important as their differences with the left.

Some of my own thoughts.

1. It was Brink who commissioned me to do a book on health care for Cato, Crisis of Abundance. Intellectually, I consider it a triumph. I think it makes a lasting contribution to the health care debate. Published in April of 2006, I thought it would have a relevant shelf life of a decade, and I stand by that. Cato's permanent on-staff scholars continue to do yeoman work on health care policy, as exemplified by Michael Tanner's comprehensive analysis (self-recommending) of this year's bill.

Having said that, I think that as far as providing impetus toward a less statist health care system, the Tea Party movement is vitally important. Without the TPM, Cato would just be spitting into the wind.

2. Brink bemoans the "base instincts" of the right and complains about the inward-looking closed-mindedness one finds there. However, for sheer intellectual bullying, it seems to me that the elite on the left has no peer. I can disagree with conservatives about immigration without getting called nasty names. But among the left--and, I may add, among some in Brink's libertarian crowd--one cannot so much as praise the Constitution without being called a racist and a homophobe.

Jonah may be thinking on similar lines, for he writes,

as a matter of practical politics, Lindsey would have libertarian spokesmen and advocates alienate conservatives in the hope that this would earn credibility with liberals. It seems far more likely that liberals would pocket libertarian attacks on the right--of the sort found in Lindsey's essay--while continuing to ignore libertarian arguments on economics and other key areas of public policy. Left-wing environmentalists will not suddenly embrace property rights because libertarians vilify the Christian Right. But the Christian Right may well stop listening to libertarians if they all started talking the way Lindsey does here.

I would not want to put myself in the position of currying favor with the liberal elite by feeding their need to feel morally superior and helping to delegitimize the TPM. Instead, I would declare intellectual independence by arguing my substantive point of view, which sometimes aligns with the TPM and sometimes does not.

Finally, Kibbe writes,

This massive grassroots revolt against big government is the greatest opportunity that advocates of limited government have seen in generations, yet libertarian intellectuals like Lindsey seem content to sit on the sidelines and nitpick.

I do not think that it is imperative that libertarian intellectuals join the TPM. In fact, I think it is important that we continue to articulate our areas of disagreement with positions that are widely held within the TPM (again, immigration is an example).

Somehow, all this reminds me of an experience I had in the early 1970's. After my sophomore year in college, I had a summer job in a factory, working with various foul-smelling chemicals and unhealthy materials (such as fiberglass) in the southern portion of St. Louis County. That is a very redneck area. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local, to which all of us in the factory belonged, had only recently been integrated. The other workers were a far cry from being college material. They were into cars, beer, and hunting, none of which were my thing. But I still enjoyed their company--I remember joining in their handball games at lunch, where the St. Louis heat was enough to almost make you pass out.

One subsequent fall (it might have been a year or so later), on the first day back at Swarthmore College, we had to attend a two-hour speech on curriculum reform by a professor of religion. If I had to pick between spending the rest of my life listening to that professor and the rest of my life working in the factory, I would choose the latter.

[UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds puts it, "if libertarians are to be as influential as we'd like, getting over BoBo class-solidarity hangups is pretty important."

One could argue that maintaining BoBo class solidarity is necessary, because they are never going to be dislodged from power. In any case, I like Reynolds' way of posing the issue]

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
stephen writes:

It seems rational for libertarians who want to form a coalition, and are therefore willing to make compromises, to compromise on immigration first. Low income, low IQ, immigrants are net-tax consumers, and anything but libertarian. The quicker this place starts to look like South/Central America, the more it is going to behave as such.

Of course, institutional and demographic trends are stochastic so no outcome is guaranteed, but a libertarian future with today’s immigration trend has an even lower probability then it otherwise would.

David N. Welton writes:

Personal freedom is "nitpicking"? Sorry, I don't buy it.

fundamentalist writes:

Nice position on the TPM. Personally, I think its importance is overblown, but we will find out in November. Rallies don't impress me; voting does. Rallies don't change anything; voting does. And if you dig deeper, I think you'll find the TPM is not nearly as free market as we think. The right often is as anti-big business as the left. That's populism for you. Just let the price of gasoline climb a little and listen to the right squeal about "big oil" and the need to regulate them. Listen to Sarah Palin talk about taming "big oil" while she was governor.

And Lindsey is correct about the right in that "it glorifies and romanticizes the agencies of government coercion: the police and the military."

Libertarians are too small in number to have any impact on either side. We should stay above the fight. But I refuse to call either side "liberal." Neither the right nor the left are liberal. The left is socialist and the right is socialist-lite. In fact, if you draw a continuum with totalitarianism on the left and anarchy on the right, libertarians are far to the right of the "right" and the "right" and "left" of today look more like fraternal twins.

eccdogg writes:

The most Libertarian government tends to come from divided government and competitive pressures between the two dominant parties. Thus to me a Libertarian must always side with the party out of power.

To Lindseys individual points

Far from being anti-statist, it glorifies and romanticizes the agencies of government coercion: the police and the military.

True, but I am not sure the Left is a lot better.

It opposes abortion rights.

I do not view there to be a single libertarian position on this issue. The key question is when is a fetus a person with rights. I think both sides get this wrong.

It opposes marriage equality.

Definitely true. Not sure the left embraces marriage equality either. Seems to me equality would involve the government staying out of marriage and I don't see any advocates of that on the left. The left is pro homosexual not pro equality.

It panders to creationism.

Who cares? Is there a libertarian position on evolution?

It routinely questions the patriotism of its opponents.

Agreed, and this bothers me about the right.

It traffics in outlandish conspiracy theories.

You mean like claiming that Bush was responsible for 9/11? Conspiracy theories are on both sides.

If you're serious about individual freedom and limited government, you cannot stand with this movement.

At this point, given the current distribution of power I can't think of a better group to stand with if you are going to stand with anyone.

John V writes:

I dunno. I found Lindsey's tirade somewhat a useless self-affirming kind of way. Seeing libertarians thumb the collective eye of the Right always generates a bigger smile than when it's done to the Left for the simple reason that it isn't done nearly enough. Is it an enjoyable read to see libertarians bash the Right? Most definitely. Does it serve as a useful springboard to a stronger libertarian movement? Not really.

The one part of Brink's article that may or may not be useful is about redefining the center in a more libertarian light and staying away from the extreme self-gratifying nihilism that we see from many libertarians. Yes, I can see where they are coming from but it's not helpful in the public at large.

And like you, Arnold, I have had a lot of contact with the sort of people you spent time with in the factory (whom I consider the REAL Right). They are anything but libertarian, have a lot of really primal and confused views and hardly people I have a lot of true agreement with...and, yes, they make for much better company than stuffy elites.

That being said, I watch the TPM with cool indifference. There's much more to limited government and a free society than lower taxes and less spending.

tom writes:

I think Arnold talking about the same thing here that Bryan is talking about below in his response to Tyler's advice that libertarians shut up about less-accepted and more novel beliefs.

Cowen, Linsdsey, and others are lining up (or staying lined up) with the liberal-left. (Tyler never opposed the health care bill, and only mused about it a little, and his main advice for libertarians is to act in a way that won't cause liberal commentators to be upset.) I think they have decided that libertarians like Hanson, Kling, Caplan, and conservatives like NR's Ponnuru, Goldberg, et al, are not the winning bet and that they are more fearful of being ostracized from the bigger liberal group than the smaller conservative-libertarian groups.

Dave Weigel's firing from the Post is an example; he claimed to be a libertarian but was actually angry about opposition to the health care bill. Other small examples on the self-proclaimed conservative side: Frum, Reihan S (to some extent) and Ross Douthat. These guys are dominated by the liberal peers who they enjoy as friends and a network, and every one of their arguments are mainly addressed to those liberal peers.

And on Lindsey, it's a funny kind of libertarianism that is more upset about the possibility that each of the 50 states might set its own abortion laws and marriage laws than it is upset about the federal government creating a system that is designed to become federal government-controlled and provided health care for all.

Lord writes:

We could use an alternative to the left. Too bad one does not exist. TPM is just a parade with a bunch of politicians jumping in front trying to use it for their purposes, usually incompetent and always statist.

bjk writes:

It's funny, but during the Iraq war debate Lindsey told the war critics that not only were they wrong, they were irrelevant, and they should jump on the war party train because it was leaving the station and they would get left behind and be the poor pathetic losers out in the rain holding signs during the glorious victory parade. And now the rest of us are the jingoists? It's not that he disagrees with the TPM, it's that he's embarrassed by them.

Troy Camplin writes:

I would say that the Left is far less friendly to libertarianism than American conservatives. The Left are arrogant, thinking they can control everything and everyone. Conservatives at least have some humility -- before God, if nothing else, and that's quite a bit, if you understand it and think about it. Even when the Left understand something -- I am thinking of Krugman with his book The Self-Organizing Economy -- they then turn around and reject it because it doesn't give the results they think it should. That's pure arrogance -- and you can't deal with someone who is absolutely certain they are right about everything. Aligning with the Left is suicide for the Libertarian. The Left hate everything about liberty, and they use the rhetoric of classical liberalism only to gain power to take away your liberty. They are the enemy. Unless we understand that, we cannot win. They will, in the end, take over this country and destroy it utterly.

At least there's New Zealand. For now.

david writes:

Mr. Lindsey states that the right "traffics in outlandish conspiracy theories."

Oh dear.

I am libertarian-inclined but I think that charge could probably be levelled just as legitmately at libertarians as at the right (and obviously the Left, oy!). In addition, lots of our probably accurate conspiracy theories certainly look outlandish to others who dismiss them without a close look. We may also be guilty of that same offhand approach.

Libertarians inhabit glass houses on that issue, I am afraid.

agnostic writes:

It all comes down to what you value more -- signaling your Enlightenment values or helping, even sacrificing, to make the world a freer place to live in. The latter is obviously more dependent on cutting down on the welfare state and liberating ourselves from debt rather than lesbians and some gays being allowed to marry.

Forget achieving both -- that may be a single coherent view for libertarians, but in the real world most people view these as competing programs. This is an external constraint on libertarian activism: they might like to push for both programs, but because they involve courting such different constituencies, aligning with such different voting blocs or politicians, etc., they are effectively competitor programs for libertarians too. Hence all this debate among them about which to focus on more.

So make it a forced choice thought experiment, to reflect reality: would you rather live in a world where abortion was mostly illegal, only heterosexual marriage was legally recognized, and immigrants were screened by some measure of IQ / education / work ethic instead of free borders -- but where there was no nexus between Wall St. and Washington, far smaller sizes for the major social welfare programs, and curtailed roles for the major regulatory agencies like the FDA? Or in the reversed society?

Too many libertarians fantasize that we're still living in a society where most people are slaves or indentured servants, where women can't vote or own property, etc. Most of the gains to personal freedom have already been made in these areas; all that's left are lifestyle issues. Not so for the ones listed above -- still lots of room left to go.

bjk writes:

The libertarians have to make the case for freedom even when people don't see its value. They are for it in theory but not in practice. The liberaltarians are under the illusion that you can argue for libertarian policies without making the case for liberty. Social security privatization is a perfect example of liberaltarian lifestyle policies that don't really increase freedom. Having a choice of 5 different government administered retirement plans is not the same as the money in your pocket to blow on liquor and slots.

Lori writes:

Fox News? Counter-establishment???

Lori writes:

The relentlessness with which libertarians catapult the hackneyed 'liberal elites' meme is reason enough for me to regard libertarianism (in the American sense) as a proper subset of the conservative movement. This is compounded, of course, by their actually-elitist rhetoric which includes egalitarianism-bashing, discrimination/exclusion apologetics, etc.

david writes:


Very well said.

david writes:

Further to the confusion between libertarian and progressive positions:

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

I've noticed recently that libertarianism actually seems to be something that a growing number of fiscal/social conservatives aspire to. For these individuals, perhaps libertarianism represents a certain appeal to open mindedness that does not resonate the same way for the progressive.

Noah Yetter writes:
I can disagree with conservatives about immigration without getting called nasty names.
My own experience makes me doubt that very much.

Even if it is true, try disagreeing with them about war or military-worship and see what kind of reaction you get.

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