The Corner

Libertarianism & America

There is a great deal of truth in what Matt Yglesias has to say about the political prospects of libertarianism in America. Quite often, on the left and right, libertarianism means “the government shouldn’t be involved in the things I don’t want it to be involved in” and little more. This is why, for example, a weak-tea socialist like Bill Maher thinks he can call himself a libertarian. He knows nothing about libertarianism as an intellectual tradition, I’d wager. What he is is a libertine, which means he thinks the government should be silent about drugs and his sex life –  but that it’s censorship when a network cancels his TV show and it’s the height of enlightenment when the government imposes an egalitarian vision on the economy.

The trick for liberals and conservatives as well as Democrats and Republicans, is to win over the people who want to limit the government in ways consistent with their larger agendas. The trick for libertarians is to explain to these various would be co-optors why they should think more broadly about where and how to limit government. But the idea that a major political party in this country can be built on serious libertarianism is just fanciful nonsense.

Anyway, an excerpt from Yglesias :

Meanwhile, I don’t see any reason to believe it would be smart for a major political party to deliberately aim at the votes of some libertarian constituency. The reason is that, to a decent first approximation, about zero percent of the electorate is primarily motivated by a principled opposition to state coercion. We’re not literally talking about zero people, I know some of them, and some write blogs, but it’s genuinely a rounding error in the scheme of things. You do have some people who adhere to the Economist-style center-right politics of the American elite consensus, and this view has some similarities with libertarianism, but this genuinely is an elite consensus voting bloc rather than a libertarian one. It’s also not seriously accessible to the Democrats over the long-run because a core element of the consensus is a fairly deep-seated loathing of progressive activism and progressive activists. It’s worth understanding that, at the end of the day, there’s much less libertarianism in American society than people sometimes think.

For one thing, a lot of the views liberals tend to think of us libertarian-ish liberal positions aren’t actually especially libertarian at the end of the day. For example, liberals, like libertarians, don’t think the coercive authority of the state should be deployed to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Unlike libertarians, however, liberals generally think the coercive authority of the state should be deployed to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians. We think that landlords shouldn’t be allowed to refuse to rent houses to gay men, that bartenders shouldn’t be allowed to refuse to serve them, that employers shouldn’t be allowed to fire them, etc. Liberals believe in a certain notion of human liberation from entrenched dogma, prejudice, and tradition, but this isn’t the same as hostility to state action, even in the sex-and-gender sphere.

Similarly, it’s often said that the interior west manifests a libertarian or proto-libertarian politics. I see, however, very little support for this view. We’re talking about a portion of the country that derives its economic viability largely from huge levels of subsidy from the rest of the country. From the Universal Service Fee that makes telephones in the rural west cheap, to the way highway money disproportionately flows to sparsely-populated states, to agricultural subsidies and protectionism, to cheap exploitation of natural resources (lumber, coal, metals, grazing) on federally-owned land, these are people who very much enjoy sucking on the federal teat. A principled libertarianism would sell horribly in Montana.