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Conservative-Libertarian split: Liberals get it, conservatives don't

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 13, 2003

The truth is out of the bag: U.S. conservatives have conceded defeat in the battle for limited government and constitutionalism and have decided to change the subject. But the American right's flagging commitment to containing the state's ambitions comes at a price. It will be paid in lost liberty, smothered wealth creation and possibly irreversible changes in what it means to be a modern American conservative and what the project of conservatism can hope to accomplish.

Libertarians have primarily identified themselves as operationally members of the political right since the end of World War II. Today this broad coalition is in serious trouble, as many who think of themselves as libertarian do not identify with conservatives at all and growing numbers of them are finding much to identify with on the left. They are not just deserting conservative Republicans for the Libertarian Party. Some libertarians in good standing are actually thinking of voting Democratic.

Noah Shatchman is the latest pundit to point all this out. In a piece that appeared in the web edition of The American Prospect on October 7, the noted commentator on defense, politics and technology introduced readers to libertarians who are growing increasingly restive within the Republican Party. Some of them, like 25-year-old blogger and Institute for Humane Studies staff member Alina Stefanescu, could once legitimately be described as right-wingers. Today, they are steeling themselves for their 2004 presidential vote. The candidate who looks most attractive to them is not President George W. Bush – it's none other than the former Vermont governor who has energized the most antiwar and anti-Bush elements of the left and invited comparisons to George McGovern, Howard Dean.

Why? Because instead of smaller government, free market economics and fidelity to the Constitution, these libertarians associate conservatives and Bush's Republican Party with an invade-and-democratize foreign policy, modest tax cuts accompanied by large-scale deficit spending, a growing welfare state and civil liberties threats in the name of national security. Libertarians believe in minimal government and maximum individual freedom. For them, their association with the GOP and the broader right was a means to an end. If the right and the Republicans change in ways less conducive to their goals, the means no longer serve the end.

One weakness of Shatchman's otherwise solid piece is that while he does cite some of the election results that bolster his point about conservative Republicans having to worry about libertarian defections (to the Libertarian Party, at least), he draws a fairly inside-baseball crowd of movement libertarians for his quotes. The fact that the majority Shatchman's sources are friends has elicited criticism from such big establishment libertarian names as Glenn Harlan "Instapundit" Reynolds and former Reason editor Virginia Postrel. Blogger Will Wilkinson quipped, "If all libertarians are blogging, Dean-leaning, Washington, DC libertarians, who at one point or another were Koch Fellows and/or have worked at the Cato Institute, then that might really throw a wrench in an election."

Fair enough. But are libertarian outlets, ranging from the Washington state-based Liberty magazine to science fiction writer L. Neil Smith's Libertarian Enterprise webzine, that aren't part of the young DC libertarian social circle any less anti-Bush (and increasingly anti-Republican)? Postrel herself at one point rooted for the Democrats to retain the Senate during the 2002 election.

More significant than Shatchman's piece is where it ran. The American Prospect was more or less founded to revive liberalism as a fighting faith. The left is becoming aware of the emerging conservative-libertarian schism while the right for the most part remains in denial. On those rare occasions that conservatives pay attention to libertarian discontent at all, the following reactions are common. Many rank-and-file conservatives profess to be happy to be rid of all those "drug addicts." John J. Miller urged libertarians to get over themselves and vote Republican in an op-ed piece following the midterm elections, ignoring the fact more would if Republicans more reliably championed the types of policies he said votes for Libertarians in close races were endangering. Michael Medved and other commentators ridiculed them as "losertarians."

Any reaction will do except an acknowledgement that conservatives have to some extent lost their way. Now, I think libertarians will come to regret it if they go too far in making common cause with the left. I think Colby Cosh is right that the nanny statist impulses on the grassroots left today are greater than any corresponding authoritarian urges among non-Beltway conservatives. In terms of practical politics, presidential coattails may not be what they used to be, but they still exist. Given this fact, it may be tempting fate to vote in a Democratic president and hope for divided government. It is even more clearly playing with fire to assume that a more ideological Democrat like Howard Dean fresh from an upset victory would behave the same in that environment as the more malleable Bill Clinton, who faced off against an energized GOP and had a compelling interest in rescuing his presidency from the debacle of 1994.

It's also worth noting the following irony. Small-l libertarians who could not bring themselves to vote Republican in 1996 or 2000 had Harry Browne, the big-l Libertarian Party presidential candidate, as an alternative. He offered voters the great deal of trading in their favorite federal program in exchange for never having to pay income tax again. Dean's policy gambit is practically the opposite. He promises that he can give the American people nationalized health care in exchange for them paying Clinton-era marginal income tax rates. This is an acceptable libertarian alternative?

But conservatives have a lot to lose as well by jettisoning their small-government principles, and it isn't just a few close Senate and gubernatorial races with pesky third-party candidates on the ballot. Big government conservatism is folly. It promises to achieve meaningful conservative reforms without getting bogged down in politically disastrous attempts to cut popular government programs, but it ultimately cannot deliver.

The welfare state directly undermines the family and civil society by competing for its resources and usurping its functions. This is not just true of harmful entitlements aimed at the poor that in some cases reward bad behavior. Even such popular entitlements that benefit the middle class as Social Security have had their impact on the family. David Frum asked in Dead Right if it were realistic to expect the family to survive in its pre-Social Security form in a post-Social Security world. It is even less so to expect the same once a more advanced form of welfare statism has taken hold. Has the welfare state produced the kind of society conservatives want in France, the Netherlands, Sweden or even Great Britain?

Nor does big government conservatism make economic, or even basic arithmetic, sense. Supply-side theory is far more nuanced than many of its latter-day political practitioners make it out to be. Yes, lower marginal tax rates increase economic growth by enhancing incentives to produce while reducing incentives to conceal income from the tax collector. The latter can partially or wholly offset revenue losses from the tax cut depending on the circumstances, while the former inevitably leads to greater revenues over time. But this is not the same as saying every tax cut, or even every cut in marginal tax rates, will necessarily increase government revenues, much less increase them enough to keep up with rapid government expansion. Even the Laffer curve assumes a certain point at which lower tax rates reduce revenues – it is irrational to base economic policy on approaching this point while continuing to increase government spending.

Government spending has to be paid for somehow. If it won't be paid for by taxation, it will be paid for through borrowing (which itself can amount to nothing more than deferred taxation) or inflation. Both of these methods take resources from the economy in their own way just as surely as taxes.

Even the political justification isn't entirely accurate. If ever the political and economic conditions were right for big government conservatism, it was during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Marginal tax rates were further out on the Laffer curve. The economy was being strangled by price controls, regulations, tax rates and inflation. The Reagan tax cuts helped grow the economy, and revenues continued to increase even as tax rates fell while GDP expanded. But government spending remained out of control, rising even faster than revenues, resulting in deficits. And Reagan was less of a big spender than either Bush.

The public liked big government plus low taxes while it lasted. But when they were ready to deal with the deficit – and when they could associate deficits, albeit largely erroneously, with the 1990-91 recession – one of those had to give. With two big-spending parties but only one party (partially) committed to avoiding tax increases, it was the marginal tax rates that gave. On the bright side, they have not yet returned to their pre-Reagan levels. The downside is that the most conservative president since Reagan has been unable to reduce them to their pre-1990 levels. Without spending restraint, politics dictated that taxes be increased.

Cutting spending is tough when government lavishes tax dollars on so many things that Americans like. But giving up on limited government will require conservatives to give up on a lot of other things they want to accomplish as well. Libertarians are already beginning to give up on conservatives. Will the general American right as we knew it for decades simply give up at its moment of opportunity? Whether the conservative-libertarian split can be resolved will go a long way toward answering that question.

Even some liberals are starting to get this. How come some conservatives don't?

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

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Big government conservatism alienates libertarians by W. James Antle III (June 23, 2003)
    W. James Antle III says the long-time alliance between libertarians and the Republican Party may be at an end. The cause? The Republican failure to oppose the growth of government and civil rights intrusions
  • The Conservative-Libertarian clash: Values and the free society by W. James Antle III (May 12, 2003)
    The war between conservatism and liberalism continues unabated but what interests W. James Antle III is the other war: the one that occasionally flares up between conservatives and libertarians
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