Libertarians and the Republican Party

Will Wilkinson is debating conservatives again, this time responding to those who think libertarians should stick with the Republicans. Ross Douthat wrote:

What could happen … is a bigger-tent liberalism – somewhat chastened, perhaps, by some big-government failures in the Obama era – that makes libertarian intellectuals feel welcome, engages them in conversations about smarter regulations and more efficient tax policy, and generally woos them away from their culturally-dissonant alliance with people who attend megachurches and Sarah Palin rallies. This would make for a smarter left-of-center in the short run, but I think in the long run it would be pernicious. It would further the Democratic Party’s transformation into a closed circle of brainy meritocrats, and push the Republican Party in a yet more anti-intellectual direction. And it would produce an elite consensus more impervious to structural critiques, and a right-wing populism more incapable of providing them. The Democratic Party would hold power more often, and become more sclerotic as a result; the GOP would take office less often, and behave more recklessly on those rare occasions when it did manage to seize the reins of state.

Bigger tent liberalism is what we already have as we now have liberals, moderates, rational conservatives, and some types of libertarians in opposition to the extremist sort of conservatives now dominating the GOP. Will Wilkinson responded:

I think he’s right to imply that a GOP with a weakened libertarian influence would become a more “right-wing populist” party. Which I think helps me make my point. Why would an intellectual libertarian want to keep company with a group of flag-waving moral reactionaries? Masochism? Now, if I interpret this as an argument aimed at people like me, it’s an exceedingly odd one. Ross seems to say that a more liberaltarian Democratic party would both produce better regulatory and tax policy and win more elections.

Why shouldn’t I, an incrementalist classical liberal, think that’s an awesome result? Because on the rare occasion the GOP manages to govern they’ll wreck the country? And so thinky libertarian types should remain the redheaded stepchild of old fusionism so that right-populists don’t actually indulge their terrifying instincts?

Wilkinson quotes further from Douthat’s post and then really points out the problems with staying in the GOP for anyone with libertarian or classical liberal views:

I’m glad that Ross sees that the American Right is increasingly anti-intellectual. But I don’t think that’s best combatted by sticking it out and raising the intellectual tone of an increasingly hostile group of egghead haters. As I think Ross agrees, the balance of elite opinion matters. And I think intellectual capital flight from the right really does threaten the GOPs future success. If Republicans keep bleeding young intellectual talent because increasingly socially liberal twenty-somethings simply can’t stand hanging around a bunch of superstitious fag-bashers, then the GOP powers-that-be might start to panic and realize that, once the last cohort of John Birchers die, they’ve got no choice but to move libertarian on social issues. Maybe. I like to imagine.

But Ross’s crystal ball is no better than mine. So I think my best bet is just to go ahead and try to come up with a more coherent and effective version of practical market-friendly liberalism. I’d like to think that would be attractive to the tens of millions of Americans who think conservatives are vile, that conventional liberals are too deep in the pocket of the Democratic Party to actually promote prosperity and opportunity, and that libertarians are dogmatic, weird, and irrelevant.

Douthat does have a point that the Republican Party would be better if libertarian intellectuals had more influence on the party, but the GOP has become so dominated by the religious right, anti-intellectualism, and the neocons that I’m not sure if any rational influences can change them. Although generally an independent, and still not able to identify fully with the Democrats, I gave up hope of any chance of rational policies coming from the Republicans during the Bush years and fully understand why any rational person other who is not a masochist would not want to bother with them.

What is important is the policies coming from government, not the letter after people’s name. At present libertarians are not likely to be able to alter the authoritarian and anti-intellectual mind set dominating the conservative movement. Libertarians can be of value in keeping the Democratic Party moving more in a direction towards greater social liberalism and support for civil liberties, while reducing emphasis on big government solutions to problems.

If any sane people want to stick it out and attempt to bring the Republican Party back from the extremes I wish them luck, but am not very optimistic as to their success in the short run.

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3 Comments

  1. 1
    Helmut O' Hooligan says:

    ” Why would an intellectual libertarian want to keep company with a group of flag-waving moral reactionaries?”

    A succinct and powerful argument.  Good for Will.  I say allow the GOP to destroy itself and see what happens next.  I’ve been very impressed with Wilkinson’s stuff lately, and I think I’ll be visiting his blog regularly.

  2. 2
    Jim Z. says:

    A generally good article.  But I object to the undertone that seems to imply/assume that of the various groups being described and dissected, only the libertarians have any intellectual content to offer the mix (the others being too based on interest politics, stupidity, etc.).  Sorry, but many of my libertarian friends are as frozen in their rigid worldview as anyone else.  And they seek to impose a frame on reality that usually just doesn’t fit.  I love my relative who’s autistic, but I don’t take his advice on much of anything.

    That’s not to say that libertarians don’t have a lot to offer.  But it’s just one tool in what needs to be a lot more comprehensive tool kit.

    A prominent self-described libertarian columnist in my metro.  newspaper ALWAYS ends up siding with the GOP on any issue that he writes about, foreign or domestic.  It seems to expose him for where he’s really coming from.  He wants to seem principled, but in the end is just as political as he claims his adversaries to be.

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    “I object to the undertone that seems to imply/assume that of the various groups being described and dissected, only the libertarians have any intellectual content to offer the mix.”

    I am not saying that at all. I’ve also noted many times that many libertarians are barely distinguishable from conservative Republicans. There’s a wide variety of people using the label.

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