Political Competition, Libertarians and Democrats

(In response to my post below about election probabilities, Jay left some thoughtful comments about political competition. I was going to leave some comments of my own in response, but things got out of hand and I decided to turn my comments into the post which you are now reading.)

I am libertarian in most respects but have always thought that the Libertarian Party had an institutional screw loose on foreign and defense issues. For some unfathomable reason the admirable concept of “it’s wrong to initiate force” has been mistranslated into “we must not defend ourselves as a nation until enemy parachutists are landing on the White House lawn” (or whatever the post-9/11 equivalent of this notion is).

Anybody with a sense of history knows that this view is naive in the extreme. Or to rephrase it charitably, this should be seen as a question of tactics rather than principles: is it more effective to fight preemptively or reactively?

By insisting that preemptive-defense doctrines are inherently wrong, the LP types have effectively removed themselves from the national debate. Not only that, some of them have dug themselves deeper into the hole by insisting that we share responsibility for our being attacked. For example, I used to like listening to Harry Browne. Then he came out after Sept. 11 with a “why do they hate us?” column. Now I think he’s a smug fool who completely misses the seriousness of the current situation and the change in national mood. There is no way that I would consider him, or anyone like him, seriously as a national candidate again. (George W. Bush, for all of his flaws, understands these issues well, which helps to explain why he is President and the LP types, as well as many high-level Democrats, remain marginal.)

9/11 made clear to me (it was probably already clear to everyone else) that too many self-described libertarian pols and activists are cranks and malcontents who lack the political skill to be effective. The most politically able libertarian politicians now are Republicans, which leaves the LP populated by ineptizoids.

I wish the Democrats could effectively challenge the Republican Party on issues, but they can’t. The Democrats are still mainly a coalition of unrelated, govt-dependent interest groups and are unable seriously to articulate principles (they can do it falsely and cynically, but everyone sees through it). I think, and have blogged (as have others), that the Democrats could make themselves more broadly attractive by challenging the Republicans on civil liberties grounds.

But it seems unlikely that they will do so in the foreseeable future, and I would be unwilling to support them unless they made such a radical change. Ever since I came of political age, the Democrats have been the party of high taxes, of hostility to the self-employed and small business, of gun bans, and of quotas and racial preferences that penalize Jews and members of other nonpreferred groups. The Republicans are inadequate in many ways, but as a self-employed Jewish gun owner my impression of the Democratic Party is that it considers people like me to be class enemies. The Dems have a tough sell ahead of them if they want my support.

I share Jay’s desire for more political competition. I just don’t know where it’s going to come from.

UPDATE: I should have added, in case it’s not obvious, that a significant part of my antipathy toward the Democratic Party comes from its reflexive (since about 1972) blame-America-first attitude, and its effective repudiation of the use of force in the national interest. Thus many Democrats who are serious about defense became Republicans, in much the same way, though on a bigger scale, as have libertarians who are serious about defense. Democratic candidates, even more than Libertarians (who do not represent a major party), would be much more viable politically if they were robustly pro-defense. So for want of serious alternatives we are left with the Republican Party as the only intellectually dynamic and diverse major political party. Perhaps, as Tom Bridgeland suggests in the comments, it will also be the source of the political alternatives that Jay and I seek.

14 thoughts on “Political Competition, Libertarians and Democrats”

  1. …I share Jay’s desire for more political competition. I just don’t know where it’s going to come from…

    It will come from within the Republiucans themselves, if the Dems don’t come up with anything to threaten them with for a while. The Rs are just slightly more cohesive than the Ds. A few years in power and they will be splitting at the seams.

  2. Yes, you are very right, the left is filled with hatred towards anybody that doesn’t think (if that can be called “thinking”) the way they do. And you are absolutely right, you are an enemy for them. Me too, although as a Mexican living in Mexico I have rather to deal with the same screwballs in a different setting. But for the American left, a Catholic Mexican that would always vote Republican (if I were a citizen there)is BLASPHEMY!. I’m a “house Mexican” for those humanoids, that means, another permanent enemy. What a horrible world is theirs, filled with anger, hatred, frustrations, and the like. Otoh, I don’t think the Republicans will end up as sadly as the leftists there, because they have Faith, Family, Liberty, values that one way or another cement the relationships between the different groups that constitute that tendency. Same here, the conservative party (PAN) is a lot more unified internally that the two left-leaning parties (PRI and PRD). Both of the latter are splitting up badly, over vested interests, fanatical ideas (the PRD wants Mexico to become another Cuba, GOD FORBID!), moral issues and other differences they can’t even hide anymore. Good posting! :)

  3. I’m sympathetic to many libertarian ideas also, Jonathan. But as a conservative, I believe in ordered liberty; that is, while there can be order without liberty, there can be no meaningful liberty without order.

    That’s why conservatives object to judicial fiat; not just that the rulings are anti-conservative, but disordered. One has no sense that a court will rule on the actual law at hand and it all becomes a judicial Lottery. When words don’t have meanings, then our right and even capacity to govern ourselves is stolen.

    Our two-party system is pretty frustrating…but I think we’d find a parlimentary system just as bad, though in different ways. Direct democracy sounds appealing sometimes (and sometimes not!), but huge chunks of the Constitution would have to be repealed. And it would require a bullet-proof National ID.

  4. Noel,

    There’s a lot of overlap between “conservatism” and “libertarianism” today. On the margins conservatives are more inclined to use government to regulate and/or subsidize private activities than are libertarians. But on the big issues of war and peace, and on the desirability of social order, I don’t see any necessary contradictions between libertarianism and conservatism. (I mean American conservatism, not the English kind, which is somewhat different.)

    OTOH both conservatives and libertarians oppose the Left’s destructive revolutionary doctrines and social experimentation.

    I think the choice of the term “libertarian” in the U.S. political context may be unfortunate. It might have been better to make an effort to use the term “classical liberal” instead, because it’s reminiscent of the connection between modern libertarianism and the brilliant and humane tradition of European liberal thought on which this country was founded. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term, “classical liberal” I think of Jefferson, Adam Smith and Locke, while the word “libertarian” makes me think of a room full of dorky fat guys in black turtlenecks who like to smoke dope and play computer games. This is an inaccurate stereotype, but I suspect that a lot of Americans share it and it does libertarians no good politically.

  5. Well, to fit the stereotype it looks like I’d need to make some wardrobe changes and acquire a couple of bad habits … ;)

    I should admit that my identification with the LP is still quite strong; one doesn’t spend years at a time in state-level leadership and serve on the national platform committee, among other things, without feeling a sense of ownership. Even today, I have no substantial disagreement with my state party’s platform, and I expect to request a Libertarian ballot in the August primary and vote for state-level LP candidates in November.

    Isolationism, however, is just nuts. My top two questions for candidates seeking Federal office are: What are you going to do about Saudi Arabia? What are you going to do about Pakistan? Rumor has it that we may act on the second question this spring, but recall the Heinleinian dictum that there are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous men. The value of (say) seizing the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, important as it may be, is lower than that of doing just about anything to contain Saudi promotion of the destruction of the West.

    No Libertarian presidential candidate listed at Politics1.com even remotely addresses national security concerns. Most offer almost no substantive information. Some have posted lengthy pieces about their beliefs and motivations, but with little indication of concrete policy. Of the vice-presidential candidates, only my fellow Missourian and acquaintance Tamara Millay seeks the support of “Americans who want to see the perpetrators of 9/11 pursued and destroyed,” but not before blaming “the failed foreign policies which made those attacks inevitable,” and her under-construction issues page is already over 1,100 words, probably a third of which is about the virtues of noninterventionism. Having said that, I give her points for opening with: “Like it or not — and I know that it makes many Libertarians uncomfortable — foreign policy issues will take center stage in next year’s presidential election.”

    So I don’t know where real political competition is going to come from, either. To be blunt, the LP’s presidential candidates, and all but one or two of its VP candidates, are nothing but cranks. I suspect — sometimes I fear — that this is a test of the value of blogging. I have read literally hundreds of bloggers and commenters say that they’re libertarian but can’t stand the LP’s foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. What if they got out from behind their keyboards and did something about it? A couple of dozen motivated people in each state (more in some, even fewer in others) could easily be running the LP by 2008. Unless the Wahhabi threat has been contained well before then, we’ll find out exactly how much small-l libertarians think acting on their beliefs is worth. I’m afraid that they’ll decide to put up with spineless Democrats and Republicans instead.

  6. Actually, the Bush doctrine is not preemptive, it is preventive. Preemption is when you know someone will strike you, and hit them first. The Israelis are the masters at this.

    Prevention precedes preemption. You don’t wait for the enemy to be ready to strike you, because it will be either too late, or more expensive then. While it sound ideal, the risks are significant. And the legal and moral issues a bigger minefield most of us imagine.

    According to this definition, I don’t think most Dems – except the lunatic fringe – are against preemption. I would define their current beef as being sold preemption and it turned out to be prevention. Or so they claim, at least.

    Regardless of electoral political spin, it is an interesting issue.

  7. Sylvain: Point taken on preventive vs. preemptive. Let us be preventive.

    Jay: Small-L libertarians who don’t want to invest their time in rebuilding the LP may be rationally evaluating the alternatives and deciding that the odds of even an improved LP getting anywhere aren’t good. Or they may think they’ll get more accomplished by working within the Republican Party, which at least has effective grass-roots infrastructure and a history of getting candidates elected, despite the lameness of many Republican office holders. To be successful, a political party has to have something to offer to the people who work for it. I don’t think ideological satisfaction is enough of a motivator for most people.

    There are no good choices for libertarians, but some choices are less bad than others.

  8. You haven’t heard ‘chicken in every pot’ rhetoric because it has been decades since the US has really had to worry about such things. Prosperity has let us worry about other things.

  9. I am in the camp of those who don’t believe that we should initiate force. However, beyond that philisophical stances lie the practical considerations of protecting America from outside threats. This level of protection should be reserved for elements that represent immenent national security threats to the populace of this country. Before investing human lives and fiscal resources into any protective effort, it should be validated against the question “Does this protect our national security interests?” I don’t believe that our efforts in Iraq did this at all. I DO believe that our efforts in Afganistan did protect our interests, although I don’t think our continuing efforts in regards to nation building there help with these efforts. It is one thing to be hunting down the threat presented by al-Queda, but it is another thing to be toppling governments and building nations in order to supposedly fight terrorism.

    Yes, I am a military (not an economic) isolationist. Our intervention should be seen as responding to either a well defined national security threat or as a last line of defense against unspeakable human cruelty. There are tremendous social and economic consequences for doing otherwise. Let the people of the world handle their own backyards for a change.

    I’ll never buy into the argument that “they” hate us for being us, and thus terrorism can only be stopped by brute force. Pull all of our troops out of all countries. Stop giving money to everyone, including Israel and Egypt and Pakistan. Let ’em all duke it out.

  10. I’ve given up on trying to decide if I’m a Libertarian, or a classic liberal or a Socialist Democrat. Screw all that. The fact is, most folks in US and Euro politics have an above-average IQ and a decent education. A lot of them have some ideas that I think are worth listening to.

    Just this morning I was speaking to a Child-of-1968 who couldn’t stand Bush, but even he had an interesting point.

    He said “I believe there is an organic process that occurs within a culture, something that builds from humanity’s foundations. England did it, and so did the USA once we severed our ties from England. We can’t force our structure on other nations, they must do it themselves.”

    Of course, he used that as an excuse to say we should not have invaded Iraq, which I disagreed with, but it’s still an interesting point – and an excellent political discussion. And it definately came from the Left. [By the way, I think the “organic process” analogy is a great way to visualize the creation of a civil society, and I think the current Administration could do worse than use it.]

    There are many political spectra in America and other nations that respect free speech. Most of the somewhat main-stream ones, even if they never win office, still have some interesting things to say.

    Be that as it may, I am a registered Republican because they are effective in getting elected. That means if you don’t participate in their primary process, someone else is electing your leaders for you. However, I can still listen to the Dems and the LP and even the crazy Lefties in the school lounge. You never know where you can find a good idea.

    The debate comes from everywhere. The choices however, seem to be coming only from within the Republicans. There’s a subtle difference.

  11. Jonathan,

    I agree with you regarding the foreign policy frustrations. A lot of Libertarians don’t have much experience or knowledge regarding our treaty and military obligations, or know much about how the international trading system holds together. As a result they ask for cake while they’re eating it. We want free trade, but don’t want to ensure that the shipping lanes stay open or that strategic points in the global trade routes aren’t taken over by some group that starts charging protection taxes. We hate restrictions on migration, but can’t keep Progressives from using excess migration as an excuse to increase statist government services. We distrust internationalism, but aren’t able to come up with a viable alternative that’ll fill the vacuum if we pull back. &etc.

    Jay… you’ll understand if I call it a case of political Ockham’s Razor. It’s easy to point out the flaws, but it devilishly hard to come up with something that works better. In cases where there’s no serious or realistic Libertarian policy, we’re obliged to conceed to the best reasoned or executed of another Party.

    Jay… I think the reason we’re seeing so little activism on the part of more Libertarians this year is because a lot of us are in fields or policy areas that the Conservatives are cooperating with us on generally. So in the courts, we ride along as Federalist Society participants (although most of us would take an Anti-Federalist position). In economics and social policy we’re seen by the GOP as the “loyal opposition”, as so get a policy explaination that’s more serious than they feed the Democrats. In corporate corruption, the GOP moved very quickly on that legislation. In “terrorism” they’ve restrained themselves despite having RICO authority to snoop. In fact, if it weren’t for a hic-up on tariffs and corp welfare, excessive deficit spending, and a second term-itis with regard to useless federal social spending… and a dubious rhetorical gimmick to shake out the Saudi’s and Iraq… I’d say Bush hasn’t been as bad for us as Clinton was. At least he hasn’t tried to equivocate about the meaning of “to be”.

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