[FoRK] Cato Unbound: The Case for the Libertarian Democrat
Jeff Bone <
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Mon Oct 2 11:50:25 PDT 2006
The Case for the Libertarian Democrat
By Markos Moulitsas
October 2nd, 2006
It was my fealty to the notion of personal liberty that made me a
Republican when I came of age in the 1980s. It is my continued fealty
to personal liberty that makes me a Democrat today.
The case against the libertarian Republican is so easy to make that I
almost feel compelled to stipulate it and move on. It is the case for
the libertarian Democrat that has created much discussion and not a
small amount of controversy when I first introduced the notion in
what was, in reality,  a throwaway blog post on Daily Kos on a
slow news day in early June 2006.
But that post—as coarse, raw, and incomplete as it was—touched a
surprising nerve. It generated the predictable criticism from
libertarian circles ( Reason and  several  Cato  scholars
 piled on) as well as from conservatives who perhaps recognized
their own slipping grasp of libertarian principles but were unwilling
to cede any ground to a liberal. But more surprising (and unexpected)
to me was the positive reaction: there’s a whole swath of Americans
who are uncomfortable with Republican/conservative efforts to erode
our civil liberties while intruding into our bedrooms and churches;
they don’t like unaccountable corporations invading their privacy,
holding undue control over their economic fortunes, and despoiling
our natural surroundings; yet they also don’t appreciate the nanny
state, the over-regulation of small businesses, the knee-jerk
distrust of the free market, or the meddlesome intrusions into
mundane personal matters.
Like me, these were people who didn’t instinctively reject the
ability of government to protect our personal liberties, who saw
government as a good, not an evil, but didn’t necessarily see the
government as the source of first resort when seeking solutions to
problems facing our country. They also saw the markets as a good, not
an evil, but didn’t necessarily see an unregulated market run amok as
a positive thing. Some of these were reluctant Republicans, seeking
an excuse to abandon a party that has failed them. Others were
reluctant Democrats, looking for a reason to fully embrace their
party. And still others were stuck in the middle, despairing at their
options—despondent at a two-party system in which both parties were
committed to Big Government principles.
That blog post on libertarian Democrats, imperfect as it was, struck
a chord. But it wasn’t written in a vacuum. It stemmed not from
theory or philosophy (I’m neither a theorist, political scientist,
nor a philosopher), but from personal experience and from my
excitement at the growing ranks of Western Democrats who aren’t just
transforming the politics of the Mountain states, but will hopefully
lead to the reformation of the Democratic Party and a new embrace of
the politics of personal liberty.
Not Your Libertarian’s Libertarianism
The modern libertarian (and conservative) view has been that
government is an evil, perhaps necessary, but still a grave threat to
personal liberties requiring the utmost vigilance against its
instincts for perpetual expansion. The larger government grows, the
more it infringes on our personal space, inevitably placing limits on
our freedoms. And given government’s police powers, that threat is
grave indeed. There’s a reason libertarians view the Second Amendment
as an absolute right—its abolition would limit one of the most
effective ages-old tools against governmental tyranny.
Hence, there was (and is) a natural tension between liberals who see
government as a benign force for good, and those who can point to
plenty of history showing otherwise. And as long as government
remained the greatest threat to our personal liberties, this tension
was fated to remain. Republicans, out-of-power for much of the 20th
century, and livid at the Democrats’ expansion of government, spoke
of shrinking government and limiting its power. Libertarians, while
not exactly perfect allies of the GOP, where likely to get more of
what they sought by making common cause with conservatives than
But that began to change as the power of corporations grew. As the
pseudonymous user “hekebolos” wrote in a Daily Kos diary:
Up until even very recently, it was still definitely possible to
construe government as [the] largest threat to individual liberty. It
wasn't very long ago that "what was good for GM was good for the
USA." Government regulation of corporations was seen as interfering
with the prosperity of the average American. You see, the libertarian/
conservative idea behind the primacy of the free market was that
there would always be an intersection between what was good for
business and what was good for the consumer. But that correlation was
far greater in years past than it is today.
The fundamental reason that "libertarian" has become "libertarian
democrat" is that corporations are becoming more powerful than
governments. This fundamental fact has created a union between those
with libertarian tendencies and those with those who believed all
along that government can be a force for good.
As hekebolos further noted, defense contractors now have greater say
in what weapons systems get built (via their lobbyists, blackmailing
elected officials by claiming that jobs will be lost in their states
and districts if weapons system X gets axed). The energy industry
dominates the executive branch and has reaped record windfall
profits. Our public debt is now held increasingly by private hedge
funds. Corporations foul our air and water. They plunder our treasury.
This list, I'm sure, could be added to. Oil and oil services
companies can even dictate when and how the most powerful nation on
earth decides to go to war. A cabal of major corporate industry is,
in fact, more powerful than the government of the most powerful
nation on earth–and government is the only thing that can stop them
from recklessly exploiting the people and destroying their freedom.
That, in essence, is why I am a Democrat, and why my original blog
post on libertarian Democrats struck a chord with so many. We cherish
freedom, and will embrace any who would protect it. But that
necessarily includes, in this day and age, the government.
The Conservative War on Freedom
We can fondly look back to a time when Republicans spoke a good game
on libertarian issues. They professed fealty to state rights, spoke
of shrinking the government, preserving individual liberty, and
embracing fiscal responsibility.
A  report by Cato’s director of budget studies Stephen Slivinski
highlights the truth about GOP efforts .
President Bush has presided over the largest overall increase in
inflation-adjusted federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson. Even
after excluding spending on defense and homeland security, Bush is
still the biggest-spending president in 30 years. His 2006 budget
doesn’t cut enough spending to change his place in history, either.
Total government spending grew by 33 percent during Bush’s first
term. The federal budget as a share of the economy grew from 18.5
percent of GDP on Clinton’s last day in office to 20.3 percent by the
end of Bush’s first term.
The Republican Congress has enthusiastically assisted the budget
bloat. Inflation-adjusted spending on the combined budgets of the 101
largest programs they vowed to eliminate in 1995 has grown by 27
This spending is all the more remarkable given that Republicans
control all three branches of government. We are seeing Republican
conservative governance exactly how it is supposed to work.
On social issues, we are seeing a government aggressively seeking to
meddle in people’s bedrooms, doctor’s offices, and churches. They
want to dictate when life begins, when life ends, and which
consenting adults can marry. They want to pass a new Amendment
eliminating the non-existent threat posed by flag burning—a serious
effort to limit the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. And
the long-time Republican dodge on such issues—that it merely wanted
to let the states decide such issues—was exposed as hogwash by the
Schiavo fiasco. While the Washington Post had no on-the-record source
for the following assertion, they didn’t need one. Actions spoke
louder than words:
Republicans acknowledged that the intervention was a departure from
their usual support for states' rights. But they said their views
about the sanctity of life trumped their views about federalism.
The nation’s current wars have given conservatives yet more excuses
to make a mockery of the protections we supposedly enjoy under the
Bill of Rights, from the PATRIOT Act, to the NSA spying on American
citizens, to violations of habeas corpus. Republicans seem to have
even abandoned even more fundamental Constitutional principles, such
as “separation of powers.” As chief Bush legal theorist John Yoo
wrote in his book, War by Other Means:
We are used to a peacetime system in which Congress enacts the laws,
the president enforces them, and the courts interpret them. In
wartime, the gravity shifts to the executive branch.
This isn’t a party committed to anyone’s personal freedoms.
Embracing the market
In the waning years of the Clinton Administration, the Justice
Department waged a massive anti-trust battle against Microsoft. At
the time, Microsoft seemed unstoppable, a monopolistic behemoth who
would either swallow or crush anyone that posed even the most minute
threat to its business. I cheered the Justice Department on, thinking
its efforts would be the only thing to dent the prospects of a
Microsoft-dominated world. I was despondent when Microsoft emerged
victorious. Innovation seemed dead. But I was dead wrong.
What a difference a few years made. As the Internet came on the
scene, first Yahoo then Google transformed the technological
landscape leaving Microsoft in their wake. The market shifted, and
Microsoft wasn’t able to make the transition. Despite being a
dominant player in PCs and office software, no one fears Microsoft
anymore. It is a remnant of a different era, reduced to providing
commodity products as other companies blaze new trails. The market
worked on its own.
My libertarian tendencies have always found a welcome home in the
Silicon Valley culture (and in all of the nation’s great technology
centers). It is a place where hard work and good ideas trump
pedigree, money, the color of one’s skin, nationality, sex, or any of
the artificial barriers to entry in most of the rest of the world. It
is a techno-utopia that, while oft-criticized for a streak of self-
important narcissism, still today produces the greatest innovations
in technology in the world. Where else could such a motley collection
of school dropouts, nerds, brown people (mostly Indian), and non-
Native English speakers (mostly Chinese), not just rise to the top of
their game, but dominate it? This is free market activity seemingly
at its best, and it works precisely because these individuals are
able to take risks and be judged by the results of their work, rather
than be judged by who they are, where they’ve been, or who they know.
But there are other reasons why this outpost of libertarianism works.
The government has put in an infrastructure to support the region
including, among many other things, roads, the Internet, government
research grants, and the most important ingredient of all: education,
from the lowliest kindergarten to the highest post-doc program. Such
spending, while requiring a government bureaucracy that makes a
traditional libertarian shudder, actually provides the tools that
individuals need to succeed in today’s world. If our goal is to
promote and champion individual liberty and the free market, we need
government to help provide those tools to all Americans, not just a
privileged few. This isn’t a question of equality, it’s one of
opportunity. Some people will take advantage of those opportunities,
and others will not. That will be up to each individual. But without
opportunity, there is no freedom.
There is also no individual freedom if corporations aren’t forced to
provide the kind of accountability necessary to ensure we make proper
purchasing or investment decisions. For example, public corporations
are regulated to ensure that investors have accurate data upon which
to base their trading decisions. If investors can’t trust the
information given by corporations, the stock markets couldn’t
function. If the stock markets couldn’t function, our current market
system would collapse. Matters such as deceptive advertising,
labeling, and some safety regulations are also important. Does anyone
doubt that requiring food companies to label ingredients and
nutritional data doesn’t enhance our liberties by giving us the
information we need to make informed decisions?
On the flip side, much of what’s known as “corporate welfare” is not
designed to protect personal liberties. Rather it rewards
inefficiencies in the market and the politically connected.
Intellectual property law protections, constantly extended at the
behest of Walt Disney in service to its perpetual Mickey copyright,
have created a corporate stranglehold over information in an era
where information is currency. Patent law allows companies like
Amazon to patent simple and obvious “business processes” like “one-
click shopping,” which they protect with armies of lawyers and deep
pockets. In the non-virtual sphere, cities use eminent domain to
strip property owners of their rights on behalf of private developers.
So a “free” market needs rules (“regulation”) in order to function.
And such rules should be welcome so long as they are designed to
enhance and protect our personal liberties.
The Rise of the Libertarian Democrat
In the fierce battle in this year’s Montana Senate race, an attack ad
by incumbent Republican Senator Conrad Burns against his Democratic
challenger Jon Tester reminded me why I’m excited about the rise of
the libertarian Democrat.
The ad accuses Jon Tester of voting against a bill limiting
pornography at public libraries. Turns out that Tester voted against
the bill because 1) public libraries already had solved the problem,
and 2) the state law would have merely duplicated already-existing
federal standards. So Tester did what any sensible person should do:
vote against an unnecessary and duplicative law.
While we can discuss what the ad says about Burns—that he is
politically cynical and has betrayed small-government principles—I’d
prefer to focus on what it said about Tester. Casting a “yes” vote
was as easy as pressing the “yes” button at his desk, but Tester
wasn’t going to grow state government without a compelling reason,
even if it could have scored him cheap political points. A Tester
spokesperson responded to the charges, “Jon Tester believes in less
government regulation, not more, and he believes in local control.”
At a debate, Burns charged that Tester would “weaken the Patriot
Act”. Tester fired back, ”I don't want to weaken the Patriot Act. I
want to repeal it." This is the future face of the Democratic Party.
Mountain West Democrats are leading the charge. At the vanguard is
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who won his governorship the same
day George Bush was winning Montana 58 to 38 percent. While the theme
of Republican corruption played a big role in Schweitzer's victory,
he also ran on a decidedly libertarian Democrat message and is now
the second most popular governor in the country according to 
Survey USA’s September 50 State poll. In Wyoming, Democratic Governor
Dave Freudenthal won in 2002 in this ridiculously conservative state
by decrying policies allowing energy companies to violate landowner
rights by setting up smelly, noisy, dirty machinery in their property
to extract sub-surface minerals. Republicans were content to let
their energy industry benefactors discard even the most basic
property rights. This year, tech-industry Democrat Gary Trauner is
making Republicans sweat the state’s lone House seat (once held by
Dick Cheney) that should be, by all rights, a cakewalk. In eastern
Washington, which has more in common with Idaho than with western
Washington, Democrat Peter Goldmark is a serious threat. Not to be
outdone, just across the state line in Idaho’s 1st Congressional
District, Democrat Larry Grant is seriously contesting a seat in
which Bush won with 70 percent of the vote.
And it’s not just the Mountain West, either. In Ohio, Paul Hackett
narrowly lost a 2005 special election in the Ohio 2nd Congressional
District, which Bush won with 63 percent of the vote in 2004, after
standing against government meddling in people’s private lives. In
Virginia, impressive Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb, a “Reagan
Democrat” in the literal sense—he served as Ronald Reagan’s Navy
Secretary—is similarly pushing a message of personal liberties.
Incumbent Virginia Senator George Allen thought he’d be campaigning
in Iowa and New Hampshire for the 2008 Republican presidential
nomination. Instead, he’s in a fight for his life.
It is no coincidence that most of these transformative candidates are
emerging in conservative areas. The Mountain West, in particular, has
a individualistic libertarian streak that has been utterly betrayed
by the governing Republicans. State legislatures in Alaska and
Montana proudly voted to defy the PATRIOT Act. But even in places
like Ohio and Virginia, many traditionally Republican voters simply
want to live their lives in peace, without undue meddling from
unaccountable multinationals or the government.
For too long, Republicans promised smaller government and less
intrusion in people’s lives. Yet with a government dominated top to
bottom by Republicans, we’ve seen the exact opposite. No one will
ever mistake a Democrat of just about any stripe for a doctrinaire
libertarian. But we’ve seen that one party is now committed to
subverting individual freedoms, while the other is growing
increasingly comfortable with moving in a new direction, one in which
restrained government, fiscal responsibility and—most important of all
—individual freedoms are paramount.
Article printed from Cato Unbound: http://www.cato-unbound.org
URL to article: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2006/10/02/markos-
URLs in this post:
 a throwaway blog post: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/
 Reason: http://www.reason.com/hitandrun/2006/06/
 several: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2006/06/07/libertarian-
 Cato: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2006/06/07/show-me-the-
 scholars: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2006/06/08/
 piled on: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2006/07/10/belated-
 report: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=3750
 Survey USA’s September 50 State poll: http://www.surveyusa.com/
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