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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reason debate: Where do libertarians belong?

During the Liberty Summer Seminar this past weekend, our associate editor Terrence Watson and Shotgun blogger Mike Brock challenged former Fraser TV chief Leah Costello (who is currently working on a documentary of talented communicators for liberty) over the issue of whether or not libertarians belong in the broader conservative movement.

Mike's concern, echoed by Terrence, can be summarized like this: in the alliance, it has always been the case that libertarians have had to compromise, while conservatives did not. The two camps agree on fiscal issues -- lower taxes, smaller government, less spending -- but often disagree on civil liberty and social issues -- war on drugs, police powers (illustrated powerfully in the debate that was sparked by Brock's post here on the WS following the G20), role of the state in foreign policy.

Watson, meanwhile, took issue with the fact that conservatives often add insult to injury by publicly denouncing libertarians -- like prime minister Stephen Harper did at the Manning Centre -- only to turn around and grumble about a lack of support from libertarians on issues like the census.

Reason magazine has spent some time discussing whether or not a wedge exists between libertarians and conservatives, and have posted the video of the July 12 debate at reason headquarters between "liberaltarian" Brink Lindsay of the Cato Institute, fusionist Jonah Goldberg of National Review, and FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe. Their description:

Should libertarians forge alliances and risk being compromised, or preserve their purity and risk irrelevance? Which political groups are worth rooting for, collaborating with, or just sprinting away from?

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on July 28, 2010 in Libertarianism | Permalink


Leah seemed genuinely surprised by the proposal that there were libertarians who view themselves decisively outside the "conservative movement".

That fact made me question whether or not Leah truly understood what the libertarian mindset was, to be honest.

Libertarian isn't just another word for fiscal conservative.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2010-07-28 9:52:15 AM

I consider myself a libertarian , this conservative party , is not for me.

Posted by: don b | 2010-07-28 10:04:35 AM

I agree with the view that libertarians will always be a small group in Canada. Most Canadians are very comfortable with being told what to do by experts and government. Canadian taxpayers only rebel for short periods when taxes become dangerously close to exceeding living expenses.

Conservatives are not libertarians but at least they have some understanding of the benefits of smaller government (in theory, if not in practice).

Posted by: LC Bennett | 2010-07-28 11:05:40 AM

If the goal is political power and if you are in Canada, it is a moot point as the number of libertarians is minuscule and irrelevant and where even structural "conservatism" is low. Its a much more interesting point in the US where the number of libertarians, socially liberal fiscal conservatives (independents) and social conservative numbers are significant and where libertarian name recognition is significant. Conservative power (leviathan care-taking) in Canada derives from a significantly fractured "left" whereas Democrat/fascist/statist power in the US is a product resulting from the fractured "right". Republicans (deservedly) couldn't sufficiently attract support from those three political elements and in the future it is apparent that if they want to be back in power they will have to do so. As to whether libertarians should compromise, the answer is subjective and presupposes whether or not they have any interest in being associated with or driving, even marginally, political power. Did anyone ask those Reason staffers that voted for Obama, how's that working for them? They sure showed McCain! Until libertarians have reached a pivotal threshold level of support where their principles are stolen by real political machines, the choice is to observe, blog and continue conversions at a glacial pace or play the frustration game that goes with political compromise.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-07-28 11:30:04 AM

Sacrificing principles for power will only give rise to unprincipled libertarians. Fuck that.

I say that we commend any party when they do something right, and condemn them even more when they trounce on freedom. Since all Canadian parties have a varied mixture of the two, it is irresponsible for libertarians to ally with any of them.

Personally, I spoil my ballot if there is no libertarian to vote for. The way I see it, a ballot is a permission slip to act on my behalf, and it is rare that I find a candidate that I am willing to give this permission to.

Remember, a vote for the lesser of evils is still a vote for evil.

Posted by: Paul R. Welke | 2010-07-28 11:35:56 AM

The United States is not the place Canadian libertarians should be looking for inspiration on this issue. Their political dynamic is much different. Moreover, regularly looking to them for inspiration makes us look like little more than an outpost of the American movement -- a troublesome image in a country with a natural scepticism of the United States.

The American dynamic is heavily conservative. Canada, by contrast, has a stronger left and so the conservatives are more desperate for allies. In Ontario, your main experience of late is with the federal Tories who have been abusive of us so it makes sense to see the American libertarian allergy as reasonable. It makes the growing American libertarian interest to work with social democrats seem cool and cutting edge -- for us, it's not. Since the right in the U.S. is stronger, it is the social democrats that are more desperate for allies than the conservatives. Hence, for the same reason it makes sense for American libertarians to seek out social democrats as allies, it makes sense for Canadian libertarians to seek out conservatives as allies.

If you look beyond Ontario -- which is a very tough sell for libertarians because its residents relatively values order more and liberty less than other parts of Canada -- to Alberta, you'll see that Canadian conservatives can be quite good allies. Danielle Smith, a libertarian, is now leading a party that is an alliance of social conservatives and libertarians and quite popular. And both so-cons and libertarians have had to compromise. (Interestingly, in Alberta there are huge numbers of libertarians among the younger generation, not just 'libertarians' among the younger conservatives like in Ontario -- but all young people.)

Also, don't place your cultural aversion to conservative lifestyle values ahead of your commitment to liberty. Establishing a free society with people who support a strong institution of marriage and a generally moderate lifestyle matters more than defending social liberalism -- once, given our political dynamic, we admit we may have to choose one or the other. Anyway, as biology is showing, conservative values on most of these issues is right anyway -- just for the wrong (i.e. theological) reasons.

And I'll add this caveat to what I wrote above about the U.S.: the Tea Party movement in the U.S. is a mix of libertarians and social conservatives that seems to be a successful political force. Half of Tea Partiers identify with Ron Paul and half with Sarah Palin. Even in the U.S. it seems libertarians, despite their cultural aversion to the conservative lifestyle, do best allied with conservatives.

Posted by: Michael Cust | 2010-07-28 12:29:34 PM

Chittick's analysis of libertarians in Canada is dated.

Posted by: Michael Cust | 2010-07-28 2:13:00 PM

BTW Of course, we need to look at and work with American libertarians... just be careful in how we do so because of the American scepticism possessed by Canadians.

Posted by: Michael Cust | 2010-07-28 2:59:39 PM

Oh and Lindsay's stat that 50 some percent of Tea Partiers supporters are favourable to Bush is unconvincing. That means 40 some percent aren't. That's a lot libertarians given the number of Tea Partiers.

Posted by: Michael Cust | 2010-07-28 3:03:46 PM

I think we need to work with both left and right where opportunities present themselves.

Marc Emery has successfully worked with the left. Danielle has successfully worked with the right. They used their circumstances to liberty's advantage.

Peter, I was wrong in telling you not to work with conservatives. I think my aversion was that you Ontario guys were a little too friendly to partisan Conservatism -- which is never a good idea. But you're work with Ontario conservatives has brought on a lot of libertarian converts. You've done good work.

If you think you can profit from working with the left, go for it. But I think we should be open to whoever on the left or right will listen. We shouldn't ally with one to the exclusion of others.

Posted by: Michael Cust | 2010-07-28 3:16:57 PM

"Chittick's analysis of libertarians in Canada is dated."

Posted by: Michael Cust | 2010-07-28 2:13:00 PM

I said, that in Canada..."the number of libertarians is minuscule and irrelevant ...."

According to the official election results in the last federal election, Libertarians garnered 0.1% of the vote. IOW, for every libertarian vote, there were: 67 Green, 100 Bloc, 2 Christian Heritage, 377 Conservative, 263 Liberal, 1 Marxist-Leninist, 182 NPD and 6 Independent votes. Even assuming that for every Libertarian vote there was a libertarian voting for another Party, libertarians as of 2008, were out numbered 500 to 1 in Canada. Unless there has been a huge surge in libertarian support in the last 20 months, I would still call that minuscule and irrelevant.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-07-28 4:39:39 PM

How many libertarians do you know that vote or if they do vote Libertarian?

That Wildrose has exploded with many young libertarian supporters shows me that those numbers are irrelevant.

Posted by: Michael Cust | 2010-07-28 4:54:10 PM

If you say so Michael, I would be pleasantly surprised if WRA became the next Alberta government AND held onto libertarian principles in doing so. Seeing the Alberta Red Tories in opposition to libertarians by another name would be wonderful. I just wonder why a burgeoning libertarian movement feel they have to be part of another alliance. As the Alliance gets closer to power the pressure will mount to jettison policies that deter the mushy middle from climbing on board. I would love to be wrong on that!

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-07-28 6:28:05 PM

I find it difficult to believe that people who would compromise their own values enough to join a party - any party, even one that calls itself a 'Libertarian' party, are truly libertarians...

Those who truly value individual liberties don't do well when joining organizations, even like-minded ones, because you can never find an organization which embodies all your values.

So, to join any party and run for office as anything other than an independent, a libertarian necessarily must compromise her values - and who would vote for a compromised libertarian?

Posted by: Xanthippa | 2010-07-28 6:32:10 PM

Politically, the U.S. is considerably more conservative than Canada(particularly socially). To be competitive, a U.S. libertarian candidate must take this into account. In 2010, Gallup polling has Americans self-described as 42% conservative, only 20% liberal, and 35% moderate. Strangely enough, 15%-20% of Democrats described themselves as conservative(particularly socially conservative). Each year, the Battleground poll does a yearly study of Americans actual ideological breakdown between conservative and liberal(they ask moderates in which direction they lean). In 2009, the polls showed that conservatives outnumbered liberals by 63%-33%. Polling also showed that Americans considered themselves social conservatives by a 53%-39% margin(this was based on their positions on abortion and homosexuality). However, the pollsters didn't include questions about school prayer, bible readings in school, or 10 commandment displays which are all positions where Americans lean heavily in support of(which probably would have increased the social conservative advantage). The truth is that Americans are concerned about both social and economic issues and they have to be addressed.

Everyone seems to forget that in 2006 and 2008 that the Democrats won elections in swing districts by running candidates who claimed that they were center-right. In 2006, the Democrats ran in swing districts large numbers of candidates who leaned right socially(pro-death penalty, pro-2nd amendment, many claimed to be pro-life, opposed to gay marriage) and opposed the Bush administration(many talked of cutting the deficit and being pro-business). Other pro-abortion Democrat candidates in the crucial swing districts were told to avoid all talk of the abortion topic. The Democrats repeated this strategy in most of the districts they won in 2008. In Arkansas, Democrat Senator Mark Pryor ran as a pro-life, pro-2nd amendment who had daily bible readings at his family table. This ruse was only realized when Pryor and most of these so-called pro-lifers voted for Obama's healthcare bill and its "unofficial public abortion funding".

Libertarians have to realize that the Mike Brock principle of economic libertarianism with social liberalism(except for gun owner rights) doesn't fly in most areas of America! 70% of Americans support the death penalty. Most Americans now lean pro-life(either 47%-45% or 48%-45%) and polling shows that they find abortion morally wrong by a 50%-38% margin(Canadians morally approve of abortion by about 66%-25% according to Macleans). Polling also shows that only 25% want abortion on demand allowed after the 1st trimester. In fact, most polling seems to show that a majority of Americans support limiting abortions to just instances of preserving the life of the mother, rape, and incest. Another poll showed that by 68%-25% Americans supported not allowing abortions after 7 weeks when the baby's nervous system first develops. While currently not as big an issue as abortion, religion's role in the public arena also is relatively popular. Americans support mandatory prayer in schools by 2 to 1. They support 10 commandment displays in government buildings by between 75%-80%. Finally, they support a lot of security policies tha the libertarians on this site have largely opposed. Did you know that Americans now oppose closing Guantanamo by more than 2 to 1? Polling also shows that most Americans currently approve of the Patriot Act! Why do you think that almost no Tea Party supported candidates have come out against the majority of Americans on these issues(exception is Ron Paul's son. However, Ron Paul's son is also running both as an unabashed pro-lifer and takes more of a hawkish position on the war on terror than his father). The truth is that most of the country leans right both socially and economically and candidates have to reflect this fact(Heck, even the Tea Party backed candidate for governor of Maine is a strong social conservative). Social liberalism may help candidates in certain states like California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, and the six New England states(though not Maine this year). However, there are 38 more states that hold 72% of the population where a mix of economic libertarianism and social conservatism dominate!

Posted by: Jacob | 2010-07-28 7:43:14 PM

If we're talking strategy, libertarians ought to concentrate their efforts more at defending decentralized federalism than working for economic liberties. At the federal level we will never matter. The only way we will make a difference in this country is by helping to create a climate where diversity can exist - where you can have a Quebec and an Alberta each running their own provinces in their own way. The greatest threat to liberty in this country isn't social conservatism or socialism - it's centralism. It's centralism which stops free market innovation in health care, and centralism alone which can keep libertarians in a permanent and powerless minority. So what I'm saying is libertarians should side with whoever is the greatest advocate for getting the federal government out of our lives regardless of that party's ideology.

Posted by: Robert Jago | 2010-07-28 8:40:13 PM

The "purity" that some libertarians insist on retaining is, in practice, unachievable. Nobody agrees on everything, so to write off the Tories, or the Greens, or any political party simply because they don't agree with libertarians on every hot-button issue is hasty and foolish.

The bedrock of any workable political force is consensus. Consensus requires compromise. Those who cannot or will not compromise will never wield measurable political power save as a dictator. And let's face it: If you end up going that route, you've already long shed any vestiges of libertarianism.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-07-29 6:39:42 AM

Some people can't see anything outside the false dichotomy of the grammar-school political spectrum. Capitalist doesn't equal Conservative.

Conservatism is not an ideology, but a series of prejudices against Freedom and Progress. The Ayatollah in Iran is Conservative. Osama bin Laden is Conservative. Its just a tendency to despise progress.

At least they addressed that Conservatives use our theories for their dark purposes.

Posted by: Phil M | 2010-07-29 2:08:52 PM

    Conservatism is not an ideology, but a series of prejudices against Freedom and Progress. The Ayatollah in Iran is Conservative. Osama bin Laden is Conservative. Its just a tendency to despise progress.

No, it's a tendency to proceed cautiously. Progressivism is a tendency to proceed recklessly, often for the sake of proceeding recklessly, because the "progressive" is bored, or something equally inane. All old ideas were once new. They became old ideas because they were good enough to last. Until a new idea proves its worth, skepticism is warranted.

By the way, neither the Ayatollah or bin Laden are conservatives in the way you use the term. They don't want things to stay the same; they want them to change. The Ayatollah upended a reasonably modern Iran and remade it according to his ideals. And bin Laden would not be waging a war against the West if the status quo was acceptable to him.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-07-29 2:52:55 PM

@Shane Matthews:

Regarding your explanation of 'conservatism' - well put.

Regarding the necessity to compromise one's views in order to join a political movement - again, I fully agree.

However, I cannot 'square' the whole willingness to compromise one's principles in order to weild political power (throung joining an existing political party or even by forming one of their own) with the roots of libertarianism. It seems to me that once a person chooses to abandon 'first principles' (for lack of a better term) and is willing to compromise on matters of liberty simply in order to fit in with the 'movement', they stop being 'a libertarian' - by definition.

I think the term 'Libertarian Party' is an oxymoron....

Yes, not practical for 'weilding' political power.


But then again, I see the role of libertarians more as 'opposing' the unreasonable imposition of too much government, not as actively taking part in it!

Posted by: Xanthippa | 2010-07-29 4:47:02 PM

My impressions of the debate: Aiming for the middle does not quite cut it. Nor does aiming to shoot the right as Lindsey does, nor aiming to shoot the left as Goldberg does, nor aiming at both as Kibbe does.

From a practical perspective, asking rhetorically "where libertarians belong" is less important than understanding how they can be politically relevant.

One key to political relevance is simple - a predictable centrist libertarian swing vote. The rub - for a swing vote to be predictable it has to be organized. And nobody yet has figured out how to herd these cats. This is sometimes referred to as the "Hot Tub Libertarian" Problem. There is an answer. There is a way to herd these cats. Paraphrasing from my post "Curing Libertarian Electile Dysfunction":

Libertarian swing vote organization is going to have to look different than traditional political organization. After all, it is something we will have to accomplish while sitting in the hot-tub. What is needed, is an organizing principle. Ideally, a principle that is so obvious, so logical, and so clear-cut, that no leadership is needed, no parties are needed, no candidates are needed, and no infrastructure is needed. Ideally it is this easy: You think about the principle, and you know how to vote.

That organizing principle exists. It is Divided Government. It is absolutely clear-cut and easy to understand. Divided Government is documented by Niskanen et.al. to work in a practical real-world manner to restrain the growth of the state. As a voting strategy it can be implemented immediately. More importantly, it can collectively be implemented individually as we sit in our hot tubs and ponder the sorry state of the world. Whatever the percentage of the electorate that libertarians represent, whether it is 9% or 20%, if they vote as a block for divided government, they immediately become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single most most potent voting block in the country, specifically because they are willing to vote either Democratic or Republican as a block. Specifically because they are not fused to one party or the other.

If the libertarian "divided government vote" is shown to swing elections for two or three cycles, then libertarians will no longer be inchoate, their message no longer be diffused, and their political clout no longer flaccid. As long as the bulk of the electorate remain polarized and balanced, even a small percentage libertarian swing vote organized around divided government will be enough for libertarians to display the biggest swinging political "hammer" in town.

This works in the US, not sure if it would in Canada's parliamentary system.

Posted by: mw | 2010-09-02 11:40:45 AM

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