Sunday, June 11, 2006

Liberty vs. lawlessness

I missed this when I was out of town, but Ezra Klein at the American Prospect recently took issue with Markos Moulitsas' (of DailyKos fame) description of his political philosophy as "libertarian democrat." Kos points to Brian Schweitzer and John Tester (politicians alongside whom Larry Grant would fit well) as examples of democrats with a libertarian streak who take a deeper approach to maximizing liberty than simply minimizing laws. I lean in and out of this category myself, so I was interested to see Klein's criticism. Klein says:
Indeed, "Libertarian Democrat" strikes me as confusing framing -- Kos is describing nothing so much as a socially laissez-faire populist with a patina of New Democrat market affection. A synthesis of current tendencies, rather than a new approach.
Klein seems to be unwittingly demonstrating my point here - when asked for a description of their political philosophy, is a person more likely to respond "socially laissez-faire populist with a patina of New Democrat market affectation," or simply "libertarian democrat?" Sure, you could replace some of the terms in Klein's description with more complimentary ones, but I think it would be fair to go for a two-word description instead of an eleven-word one, especially if they mean roughly the same thing. Klein goes on:
As it is, "libertarianism" already has a meaning -- it's a philosophy of individualism, and that's not the direction progressivism tends to point towards.
Klein is right to mention that there's a huge sticking point in that most people - especially those who would today call themselves libertarians - don't think of affirmative action or universal health care as compatible with libertarian ideals. This, however, is more a problem with the shallowness of strict libertarianism than it is with the coherence of liberal libertarianism.

First, I think it's entirely wrong to say that progressivism conflicts with individualism. Self-reliance and the freedom to choose the way one lives their life are essentially American values that liberals will sometimes opt toward communal solutions to further. That is, universal health care would go a long way toward allowing people to marry whomever they wish and work wherever they wish and pursue whatever other happiness they desire. It conflicts with the strictly libertarian notion that these lifestyle choices can be made without the aid of universal health care, but that's a pipe dream anyway. A rational free market cannot emerge out of a system where people are attempting the impossible task of rationally deciding whether to buy food or medicine.

A libertarian democrat has a bigger picture of what makes for freedom than a strict libertarian does. A libertarian democrat can see that freedom is not at hand for people exploited by their employers and wives exploited by their husbands and blacks exploited by whites. A libertarian democrat doesn't want his or her government to waste its time with regulating issues of morality and behavior that don't impinge on the freedoms of others. A libertarian democrat can see that sometimes the interference of government and beauraucracy will bring liberty to each individual, instead of letting liberty be stolen by the few from the many in an unregulated, clasically libertarian system. A libertarian democrat pursues real liberty and not just lawlessness.

Whether anyone will swallow this idea of real liberty as the central pursuit of the libertarian democrat only time will tell. (Side note: a good Democratic Party slogan would be "Real liberty for all Americans.") Then again, people still seem to think that Republicans are the party of small government, personal responsibility, and individual freedoms, so stranger things have happened. Klein is right when he says that Kos and any of these Western Democrats isn't pushing anything new here, but I don't think that it's a new idea that we need, exactly. The policies pursued by Democrats generally have the support of the American people, even if the Democrats don't. This is a problem of framing, of description, and of sales. Democrats need to differentiate themselves from Republicans in such a way that they show their unique embrace of American values. With elections less than five months away, it's time to take hold of something, and the changes in Montana in other areas of American politics show that this approach can work. It's time to harness it and develop it into something bigger - June is no time to be sitting on our hands.
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