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Big government conservatism alienates libertarians

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 23, 2003

The growing tension between conservatives and libertarians, noted in "The Conservative-Libertarian Clash: Values and the Free Society," continues to threaten the fusionist consensus that has characterized the postwar political right. Libertarians are increasingly giving up on mainstream conservatives and looking elsewhere for allies in the fight for liberty.

Case in point is Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey, who has written an article announcing his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. FOXNews.com columnist Radley Balko, a libertarian who normally votes Republican, responded by saying he may follow and noting his own recent "slide leftward" in an entry on his blog: "I'm about 90 percent certain now that I won't be voting for President Bush in 2004."

One of the talking points the elder George Bush used to demonstrate that his 1988 opponent Michael Dukakis was to the left of the American mainstream involved castigating him as "a card-carrying member of the ACLU." The journalist Jeremy Lott once described the ACLU's agenda as neither civil nor libertarian but libertine socialism. Now some libertarians see the ACLU as a better friend to the Bill of Rights than the right. As Tim Cavanaugh posted over at Reason's Hit and Run blog, they're not just for Dukakis anymore.

Several years ago, conservatives began to notice that Republicans were losing close elections in part due to votes cast for Libertarian Party candidates. This occasioned complaints that by inadvertently helping Democrats get elected, libertarians were objectively voting against the enactment of their own small-government agenda. In a New York Times op-ed piece after the 2002 elections -- in which Libertarian candidates arguably cost Republicans up to four Senate seats -- National Review's John J. Miller wrote, "Yet Libertarians are now serving, in effect, as Democratic Party operatives. The next time they wonder why the Bush tax cuts aren't permanent, why Social Security isn't personalized and why there aren't more school-choice pilot programs for low-income kids, all they have to do is look in the mirror."

But the sad fact is that Republicans have in recent years been awful on size-of-government issues. Worse, the conservative movement seems to have lost interest in the subject. The major conservative periodicals no longer devote as much space to the need to shrink government as they once did. Conservative policy wonks don't seriously urge Republicans to scale back the scope of federal authority. David Frum, in his excellent book Dead Right, detailed how leading conservative intellectuals and politicians have been AWOL in the pursuit of smaller government and explained that the welfare state is a major cause of the right's main economic and cultural concerns. Since returning to conservative journalism after leaving the Bush administration, he has mostly focused on other topics.

George W. Bush, while in many respects more conservative than his father, was never partial to the kind of anti-statist rhetoric used by Ronald Reagan. The substance of his policies has not been much different. He deserves credit for pushing tax cuts through a recalcitrant Congress, lowering marginal income tax rates twice, but he has done little to restrain federal spending even after accounting for increases in defense and legitimately homeland security-related outlays. As the Cato Institute's Veronique de Rugy has written, the current data shows federal spending rising 13.5 percent in the first three years of the Bush administration, with non-defense discretionary spending going up 18 percent. These are bigger spending boosts than during Bill Clinton's first three years in office.

Rather than eliminate any major federal agency, we have added a new Cabinet-level department. The education bill formulated with Ted Kennedy's help increases rather than decreases the federal role in education. Foreign aid spending is up. Bush approved new tariffs on steel and softwood lumber, and signed a bloated farm bill that recklessly increases the subsidies paid by taxpayers and has negative trade consequences. He also signed the McCain-Feingold restrictions on political speech into law. The addition of a new prescription drug benefit to the already struggling Medicare program may be the next policy move to enlarge the distance between libertarians and Bush Republicans into a yawning chasm.

Yet the greatest reason for libertarian disenchantment with the Bush administration -- and their preference for alliances with groups like the ACLU rather than conservative organizations - may turn out to revolve around civil liberties. As Balko put it on his blog, "I'm as convinced as ever now that the greatest threat to our liberty is not the welfare state, the tax code, or Social Security -- though those are all valid concerns. The greatest threat, I think, is directed at our civil liberties, and comes under the guise of national security." U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has become as unpopular with libertarians as his controversial Democratic predecessor. Yet had Clinton and Janet Reno proposed the USA PATRIOT Act, congressional Republicans would have resisted. Introduced by Bush and Ashcroft in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Republican members of Congress overwhelmingly supported it.

The PATRIOT Act moved to increase federal surveillance powers in the aftermath of the attacks, but it was hastily conceived and enacted. It was not the product of a public review how best to enhance security against future attacks. Many libertarians argued that the best approach would be for the federal government to make better use of the powers it has rather than assume new ones. "The success of the 9/11 hijackers," James Bovard wrote in The American Conservative, "was due far more to a lack of government competence than to a shortfall in government power." There is even greater concern about the details that have emerged about a possible Domestic Security Enhancement Act, frequently called PATRIOT II, on Bill of Rights grounds.

Combined with the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program, this legislation has concerned civil libertarians. The ACLU drafted a letter to Congress, signed by 67 organizations across the political spectrum, suggesting that PATRIOT II entails "new and sweeping law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers, many of which are not related to terrorism, that would severely dilute, if not undermine, basic constitutional rights."

While congressmen like libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) have futilely opposed government growth, most of the Republican-controlled Congress has gone along with it. Republicans who desire to demonstrate their strength on the war on terror and law and order seek to federalize criminal laws that would properly be state prerogatives under the Constitution. On fiscal policy, even many tax-cutting economics conservatives have little interest in cutting spending. The Independent Institute's Alexander Tabarrok suggests that in reality we have a choice between the "Tax and Spenders and No-Tax and Spenders," or really borrow and spenders. Some of the most visible Republican spokesmen for limited government and free-market economics -- such as Dick Armey, Phil Gramm and even Bob Barr - are no longer in Congress. Republican governors all over the country are raising taxes or increasing spending.

But this big-government conservatism doesn't just rile organized libertarians. It irritates grassroots rank-and-file conservatives as well. This has helped groups that are interested in small-government core principles, ranging from the supply-side and anti-tax outfits like the Club for Growth and Grover Norquist's various outfits to the more overtly libertarian Republican Liberty Caucus grow, backing like-minded candidates against establishment Republicans.

This is not only true with respect to economic issues, but also civil liberties issues less commonly identified as conservative concerns. The Knight Ridder/Tribune news service has reported that Republicans, not just small-l libertarians, have been joining the ACLU in droves since 9/11. The group has signed Republicans like Armey and Barr on as consultants, while groups like the American Conservative Union, Gun Owners of America and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum have joined it in expressing concern about PATRIOT II and other legislation. Despite establishment Republican flaws, the rank-and-file right may still prove to be the best friends libertarians have.

This is not to minimize the fact that there have always been areas of disagreement between traditionalists and libertarians on the right. Many of these types of issues -- notably, gay marriage, abortion and cloning - will dominate public debate in the coming months, possibly exacerbating the tendency among libertarians to break with the right and seek alliances with the left. Already some signs of this are evident. During the 2002 elections, Virginia Postrel was rooting for a Democratic Senate on the grounds that pro-life Republicans would work for tougher restrictions on cloning. Libertarian bloggers like Julian Sanchez have been particularly tough on conservatives Stanley Kurtz and John Derbyshire's arguments against gay marriage. But conservative Republican politicians are, with few exceptions, as reluctant to debate social issues as they are to confront the federal Leviathan. It says a lot about the sorry state of fusionism today that conservative politicians try to hold the right together by paying lip service to both libertarians and traditionalists, hoping to offend neither.

Nevertheless, the problem may yet turn out to be less the result of longstanding divisions than the abandonment of smaller government as a major conservative objective. If conservatives do not reclaim their legacy of limited government, the right will continue to lose libertarian support -- and will not deserve it.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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