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Defining libertarianism down

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 4, 2003

It's looking increasingly likely that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to take a pass on the opportunity to become the California Republican Party's savior. Aides have told reporters that he is currently leaning against jumping into the race for governor, a bid that could make him the leading candidate should the recall against embattled incumbent Gray Davis prevail, and they don't anticipate anything changing his mind.

So the Golden State GOP is going to have to look elsewhere for a candidate who might actually be able to carry the first question recalling Davis and then win the replacement round on question two – possibly settling on former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan or his onetime primary nemesis Bill Simon, the 2002 gubernatorial nominee. And another celebrity faux libertarian appears likely to pass from the political scene.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund has dubbed the Terminator a "compassionate libertarian." Reason editor Nick Gillespie is less enthusiastic on the libertarian score, but he had hoped Schwarzenegger would be a candidate who could get help get lifestyle issues – such as drugs, homosexuality and politicians' purely personal peccadilloes – out of politics.

The extent Arnold's libertarianism is that he supports legal abortion and gay adoption, introduced a 1991 video issue of Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose in which he proclaimed American individualism good/European socialism bad, and widely reported drug use (he has been called the Timothy Leary of steroids and he toked up onscreen in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron). Yet he also supports his state's assault weapons ban, championed a ballot initiative requiring taxpayers to dish out $550 million per year for before-and-after school programs and has otherwise seems to have conventional views on size-of-government issues. (To be fair, Fund reports that Schwarzenegger made a number of low-key overtures to economic conservatives while pondering the race, including hints that he would restore a state spending limit that was abandoned in 1990). Gillespie says this political outlook "mirrors a contemporary consensus that generally wants a slightly smaller, more efficient government that nonetheless delivers a large number of public services" – something that practically everyone wants, but is probably impossible to indefinitely deliver.

At best, Schwarzenegger represented lifestyle libertarianism. He is not the first celebrity to do so. Comedian Bill Maher famously described himself as a "libertarian" while hosting "Politically Incorrect," despite his support for gun control, the Department of Education (his support of government schools is so strong he referred to one private alternative, home-schooling, as "the social version of inbreeding") and the big-government Kyoto accord. What makes him a libertarian? His support for legalized drugs, prostitution and abortion – and Libertarians for Life would argue that not all libertarians agree with the last. A 2001 Salon piece by Dann Halem quoted conservative chatroom denizens describing Maher as "a tax and spend politically correct liberal who's a-okay with the Leviathan state as long as he gets his Hustler, his hookers and his hash."

Another celebrity who became a successful politician, former professional wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, also has been described as a libertarian because of similar positions. Although he was less of a statist than Maher, he too staked out some unlibertarian positions: he supported McCain-style campaign finance reforms and subsidies for lightrail while opposing some tax cuts on fiscal-responsibility grounds (rather than endorsing reduced spending) and school choice.

You don't have to be famous to be a pol who passes of liberalism as libertarianism. During his ill-fated 1996 Republican presidential bid, veteran Sen. Arlen Specter described himself as "a fiscal-economic conservative and a social libertarian." There is just one problem with this: He was neither. In some years, the National Journal has rated his economic voting record as majority liberal and he has been more supportive of regulations and spending and less supportive of tax and budget cuts than many of his GOP colleagues. On social issues involving abortion and sexual orientation, he goes beyond the libertarian position by endorsing active government intervention through subsidy and regulation.

Another example is former Massachusetts governor William Weld. In his first gubernatorial race in 1990, his Democratic opponent was a New Dealer who was conservative on some social issues. This allowed the anti-tax, pro-choice and pro-gun Weld to position himself as a strikingly libertarian alternative, a different kind of Republican. During his first term, he was a breath of fresh air to all who had felt stifled by the growth of government under Michael Dukakis. His first state budget actually spent less than in the previous year and he pressed forward with efforts to lower taxes and clear away red tape that helped revive the Bay State's moribund business climate.

Safely reelected to a second term with 71 percent of the vote (one of those votes being mine), he began to cozy up to the Democratic legislature he had railed against four years before. Weld signed a 55 percent legislative pay raise, began to tolerate increasingly large state budget increases and took the traditional regulatory approach to environmental issues. Along the way he came out for racial preferences, dropped his support for Second Amendment rights and became a staunch gun-controller. Although Weld supported medical marijuana and his drug enforcement laxity was Jesse Helms' pretense for denying him an ambassadorship to Mexico (proffered by that great libertarian Bill Clinton), he often bragged in speeches about his drug warrior credentials from his service in the Reagan Justice Department. If Bill Weld is a libertarian, then Billy Graham is a Zen Buddhist.

As David Frum pointed out in his 1994 book Dead Right, even Weld's social permissiveness was not always libertarian. His gay rights positions did not simply get government out of people's bedrooms – they often enlarged the state government's regulatory power over local governments and the private sector. Whatever one's opinion of such policies, they are not libertarian.

Whether libertarians are bothered by the conflation of social liberalism and libertarianism tends to vary based on their priorities. Libertarians who believe that lifestyle and privacy issues represent the gravest threat to our liberties tend to welcome help from the Schwarzeneggers, Venturas and Welds despite the ideological inconsistencies. Others who emphasize economic freedom and believe our private property and free exchange rights are most at risk are more likely to criticize self-styled libertarians who in fact favor bigger government. So, considering that I am no libertarian purist myself, what does it matter? Why do I care?

There are two reasons. Allowing people who essentially want free lifestyle choices paid for by other people through the welfare state to represent themselves as defenders of individual liberty hurts that cause. It helps people confuse liberty with license and irresponsibility. It is not uncommon to hear people inaccurately describe libertarianism as a political movement of people who want to be free to take drugs while the rest of us pay for it – is this how libertarians want people to understand their ideology?

But more importantly, given conservatism's recent drift toward increased statism, anything that hurts libertarians and reduces their influence hurts the cause of smaller government. Serious conservatives cannot hope to revive constitutionalism and shrink government, particularly at the federal level, without libertarian help. Big government conservatism cannot be brought to heel without resurgent libertarian thought on the right. This will not happen if Bill Maher and the moderate-to-liberal wing of the Republican Party are seen as more representative of libertarianism than F.A. Hayek or Milton Friedman.

There are plenty of people who confuse libertarians and contemporary liberals already. Many seem stumped by the similarity between the words' first syllables alone. People generally think of civil libertarians, like the ACLU, as being on the left. On top of that, libertarianism is descended from the political philosophy originally known as liberal. Some true believers prefer to call themselves "classical liberals" or "market liberals," hoping to take this name back from the social democrats who have captured it. This seems like a losing battle.

Ed Clarke, the most successful Libertarian Party presidential candidate up to this point in history, often sold his party's philosophy as "low-tax liberalism." As we approach a presidential election in which many libertarians appear poised to support the candidacy of Howard Dean, who has proposed effective tax increases to pay for a new national health care program, one waits for the day an enterprising politico runs for office promising oxymoronic "high-tax libertarianism." Stranger things have happened.

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

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