[FoRK] Cato Unbound: The Case for the Libertarian Democrat

Jeff Bone < jbone at place.org > on > Mon Oct 2 11:50:25 PDT 2006


The Case for the Libertarian Democrat

By Markos Moulitsas
October 2nd, 2006
Lead Essay

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, [1] 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 ([2] Reason and [3] several [4] Cato [5] scholars  
[6] 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 [7] 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 [8]  
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:

[1] a throwaway blog post: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/ 
[2] Reason: http://www.reason.com/hitandrun/2006/06/ 
[3] several: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2006/06/07/libertarian- 
[4] Cato: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2006/06/07/show-me-the- 
[5] scholars: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2006/06/08/ 
[6] piled on: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2006/07/10/belated- 
[7] report: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=3750
[8] Survey USA’s September 50 State poll: http://www.surveyusa.com/ 

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