21 May 2012

Libertarian-Republican flirtation resumes, awkwardly

Everyone else assumes that libertarians and Republican conservatives play for the same team, but many libertarians will die denying it. That's not because they don't think Republican conservatives would make good allies -- the editors of Reason magazine recall that the factions played well together for much of the cold-war era -- but it's one thing for Republicans to defend "freedom" against the International Communist Conspiracy and fellow travelers at home, and another for them to swallow the entire freedom agenda of 21st century libertarians. That becomes freshly apparent as you read Reason's transcripts of debates between its editors, Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, and reputed Republican opinion leaders Jonah Goldberg and Ann Coulter. Goldberg, a columnist frequently quoted here and an editor of National Review, virtually concedes Welch's argument that Republican conservatism grew out of a libertarian tradition rather than vice versa, but is openly contemptuous toward libertarian advocacy of drug legalization.

Goldberg: We can have that argument if you like: Legalizing PCP is a national emergency!

Welch: The technology of independence is a hell of a way to promote the culture of liberty and change the Republican Party. And, I hope to God, change the Democratic Party on issues like the drug war, which for me is not an incidental PCP laugh line. We're still arresting 800,00 people a year for something that should be legal, and we should all feel a sense of shame about that.

Goldberg wants to distinguish between libertarianism and "what i would call libertinism," but it's a distinction many libertarians refuse to recognize or abide by. From the viewpoint of the anti-liberal movement, it is reasonable to demand prioritizing. "Cultural libertarianism is all very interesting and fine and good," Goldberg says condescendingly, "but it seems to me less relevant" than economic libertarianism -- the kind most likely to motivate libertarians to vote Republican. But the persistence of cultural issues as a sharp sticking point between the factions becomes more clear in Gillespie's exchange with Coulter. She's more openly contemptuous than Goldberg toward libertarian "chickenshits" who, when "we've been fighting A ... these chickenshits will come up with: Oh no, I want Z. Let's start talking about Z! No, that's not the fight we're having right now." That's Bipolarchy thinking in a nutshell, from an actual nut. There can only ever be one fight and two sides. But if libertarians are supposed to be on the Republican conservative side, what are they to do when Republican conservative propagandist Coulter goes off on immigration.

Coulter: I'm saying we repeal the 1965 Kennedy Immigration Act that by its intent wanted to change the demographics of America....I don't think any time in the history of the world has a country changed its ethnic composition overnight like this. It was done by design. It was done to help the Democrats, and it did help the Democrats. This is not the country that Ronald Reagan got elected in any more, and a lot of that is because of this family migration....We don't need more people to sweep floors right now and vote for the Democrats and go on welfare....This is the biggest problem facing the country because, if we lose on immigration, both legal and illegal, that's it. That's lights out for America. No Republican will be elected nationally again.

Gillespie: Every economist who looks at this ... has to concede that on balance, illegal immigrants add much more to the economy than they take out. They don't take welfare. Immigrants, legal or illegal, are not a drain on our economy. Immigration is not a problem. Immigration is a problem when it stops happening.

On economic matters libertarians often chide Republicans for not cutting spending enough and for not "changing the conversation" when liberals say (in Welch's words), "Oh my God! If you cut a federal agency, poor people are going to die in the street!" Welch's faith is that poor people won't starve but will become "more free and more prosperous" as they did in the 1970s when Democrats sometimes took the lead in cutting programs. Whether he remembers that decade correctly or whether similar economic conditions really exist isn't the issue for today. The problem libertarians pose for Republicans is that even though libertarians are often to the right of the GOP on economic issues, they remain suspicious of America's cultural right wing. Neither Goldberg nor Coulter does anything to calm their suspicions.

Goldberg: Libertarianism is a universal credo, a universal philosophy....But it's important to remember, and this is a point some conservatives and some libertarians make, is that it grew up in a certain place and time for certain reasons. It grew out of Western Europe, it flourished in the United States, and you cannot have freedom unless you have a people that cherishes freedom. And one of the points of conservatism is to keep that in mind and keep the love of liberty alive in the hearts of people, rather than simply say, 'whatever floats your boat.' Because the habits of the heart are really one of the things that will sustain a liberty-loving people far more than just libertarian public policies.

Coulter: Going back to our Framers, who were smarter than we are, this is the most free society. It does allow the maximum amount of freedom by having so little government at the federal level and allowing people on the local level to make decisions for themselves and so on and so forth. And our Founders did not think you could have a free people under our Constitution without religion, without family, without honesty and integrity. These are values that are transmitted through the family.

The implications of Coulter's statement for libertarians who support gay marriage are obvious. They're consistent with what threatens to be a defining Republican stance that may someday definitively alienate libertarians. What it boils down to is a libertarian belief that you don't have to believe in anything else first to believe in liberty. You don't have to be a product of Western European Protestantism or Christendom in general in order to believe in limited government, economic freedom, personal responsibility, etc. But Republicans appear to insist on some kind of cultural preconditioning without which anyone else's commitment to liberty is suspect. Coulter seems more specific, and more threatening, about this than Goldberg, but libertarians are likely to hear the same message from either messenger. Libertarians like to believe that they don't believe in mandatory cultural conditioning. Whether that self-regard holds up to philosophical scrutiny or not, the opinion is enough to make libertarians potentially hypersensitive and hostile to any Republican assertion of cultural essentialism and the implicit state culture necessary to sustain it. None of this is enough to drive libertarians into the Democratic camp under current conditions, but if Republicans hope that libertarians will give them the edge for one more generation before (as Coulter fears) demographics doom them, they've got to make a better case for the alliance than Coulter and Goldberg have.


Anonymous said...

And as I keep saying, this is what will be the cause of the extinction of conservatism. Their insistence that to be acceptable to them, for them to accept you as an equal, you have to dress like them, speak like them, believe like them, worship like them, love like them . . . in other words, you have to be willing to be a complete conformist to all they desire. That is NOT freedom. That is NOT liberty. If you are NOT free to choose your own lifestyle, you are not free.

The fact that they are too stupid to see the basic inconsistencies in what they preach only proves my point.

Samuel Wilson said...

It doesn't assure the extinction of conservatism as such, but it does doom every particular conservative movement because cultural change is inevitable. Every few generations there'll be a new clique making the same conservative demands of everyone. Not that the libertarian alternative is much better: "Choose your own lifestyle, but don't come crying to us if it doesn't work out for you!"