Libertarian Democrats or Liberalism Reborn

Markos Moulitsas has brought his discussion of libertarian Democrats to Cato Unbound. In doing so, Kos is transforming from a blogger purely interested in strategy while ignoring ideology to one who has some points to make on political principles, even if the arguments do become awkward at times. Kos’s version of libertarianism does vary from conventional libertarian beliefs (as sites such as QandO, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of, Homeland Stupidity, and Zen Politics discuss). However it must also not be forgotten that Republican policies differ widely from their rhetoric favoring freedom, limited government, and the free market.

If the question was one of pure libertarianism, there would be no controversy that Kos’s version of libertarianism would include aspects which most libertarians would object to. However, when looking at the choices offered by the two major political parties, Kos makes some important points. On civil liberties, social issues, and the war, most have already realized that Democrats are much closer to libertarians than Republicans. The significance of Kos posting at a libertarian site is to point out how much closer Democrats are to libertarians than many realized.

While Republicans try to label themselves as the party in support of capitalism while trying to compare Democrats to socialists, in reality neither party fits these stereotypes. The Republicans have given up capitalism and small government in favor of corporate welfare and big government conservativism. As the New Deal coalition has collapsed, Democrats have received an influx of those of us who support capitalism but see the Democrats as the best alternative in a two party system to oppose the Republican social policies and the war. Despite all their rhetoric opposing socialism, the Republicans, with their support of corporate welfare, have joined the socialists as opponents of capitalism, while many Democrats are increasingly falling on the libertarian end of the spectrum on economic, as well as social issues, even if there still remains a wide gap between Democrats on libertarians.

Kos makes a flawed argument that Democrats are libertarians as there are real areas of difference. What Kos is really doing is helping restore liberal to its original meaning which included support of capitalism. The era in which conservatives were more libertarian on economic issues with liberals more libertarian on social issues has ended. We are seeing a realignment where conservatives are on the authoritarian/big government end on both social and economic issues, while liberals are on the side of liberty and the free market, with libertarians further on this spectrum beyond liberals.

Further discussion at Max Speak, Shakespeare’s Sister, Monkey in Chief, The Club for Growth, Never Yet Melted, and Right Wing News.

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6 Comments

  1. 1
    beachmom says:

    Ron,

    I read his essay, too, and although Markos is not a “big thinker”, I think he made some valid points. The deafening silence from the Republicans when the Detainee Bill passed tells you everything you need to know about the death of Libertarianism in the GOP party. It’s up to the Democrats to take advantage of this power vaccuum and reclaim it, albeit in a less rigid way as the real Libertarians, and capture those votes.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Kos definately made some valid points. He opened himself to easy rebuttal from those who simply want to make the case that Democrats are not libertarians. While that is true, those who dismiss Kos’s entire article based upon this are also missing more important points regarding the differences between Democrats and Republicans in their support of liberty (both on social and economic issues).

  3. 3
    Jon says:

    “Kos’s version of libertarianism does vary from conventional libertarian beliefs…[h]owever it must also not be forgotten that Republican policies differ widely from their rhetoric favoring freedom, limited government, and the free market.”

    Huh?:

    1) How many versions of one political theory can coexist coherently?

    2) Is Republican ideological self-contradiction a good thing? No? Then why should libertarianism accept self-contradiction as Kos is clearly suggesting?

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Political beliefs fall along a spectrum. There are already variations among libertarians with some considering that any government action is coercion, while others are more pragmatic (ignoring the fact that some like David Friedman might argue that anarchism is the most pragmatic economic system).

    Similarly there is a wide variation among liberals. There are liberals who are more concerned with social welfare programs, and these obviously would not have much in common with any type of libertarian. There are also liberals who are more interested in civil liberties and social issues who would have more in common with some libertarians.

    A problem with labels is that they lump some people together who have quite different beliefs, and separate others who may be close in many areas, Kos is right in flinding that there are some liberals and some libertarians who wind up close to each other. I’m differing a bit in consider such people closer to classical liberalism than libertarians, but the labels which are used is not the important factor.

    I don’t see Kos as suggesting that libertarians accept self-contradiction as much as he is pushing Democrats in a more libertarian direction (even if not totally libertarian).

    This is just another variation on the idea of Starbucks Republicans voting Democratic, or Southpark Refugees which I have written about in other posts. There’s a growing number of voters who are liberal on social issues while conservative on many economic issues. As we’ve discussed above, Kos is not a “big thinker.” The way in which he expresses this leaves him open ot easy criticism, but the overall trend I mentioned is of significance.

  5. 5
    Jon says:

    First, I don’t think of political theory as being somehow custom-tailored according to a spectrum measurement – I take your point that, within different ideological frameworks, there are both degrees of strength and substantive disagreements on policy and on philosophy. But I think Kos betrays a rather common misunderstanding of what libertarians think. He suggests at one point that free speech is no more a right than a free education and a highly regulated work force “and healthcare and so on.” Libertarians disagree all the time among themselves about how much the state should provide in the way of education and healthcare. But calling it a right argues what the philosopher James Sterba argued, which is that libertarians are fundamentally clueless about what the theory entails. Again, that doesn’t offer a “version of libertarianism” at all.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    I agree Kos’s understanding of libertarianism is flawed. He’s also not really writing about philosophy as much as he is writing on positions to be taken by a political party. I don’t know how much you follow Kos, but he is primarily interested in politics and has not shown himself to be a “big thinker” on ideological matters. For Kos just going in this direction is a big improvement.

    I wouldn’t expect Kos’s posts on this to be of much interest to libertarians in terms of adopting his viewpoints. His posts are more meaningful (although still flawed) in terms of moving Democrats in a more libertarian direction.

    As you note there remains a vast difference between true libertarianism and what Kos envisions which is why I would prefer to call this a varient of liberalism closer to classical liberalism as opposed to calling it libertariansism. Of course over the years I’ve seen so many viewpoints which have been called libertarian I wouldn’t worry too much about the labels.

    From my perspective, the Democrats at the moment are the only major party alternative to Bush and the current GOP leadership. At the moment restoring the checks and balances of a two party system is top priority. From there we have the question of whether Democrats will continue with showing interest in civil liberties, opposition to the war, and opposition to the religious right, and a more fiscally conservative outlook as opposed to more big government liberalism. While Kos’s article certainly has many flaws, if it helps push Democrats in a more libertarian direction I see that as a good thing.

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