Libertarians and the Left
The possibilities and limitations of building an alliance
In my one and only brief foray into electoral politics, I spent the summer of 2008 volunteering for Darcy Burner, who was running for Congress as a Democrat. Because of the party structure, this also entailed going door-to-door for then-presidential candidate Obama and the rest of the Democratic ticket. It was an odd situation; I was interested in politics and had started to self-identify as a libertarian, but Ron Paul unsurprisingly didn’t win the Republican Party nomination. I liked Burner’s strong anti-war stance, and managed to convince myself that Obama was at least marginally better than McCain.
Today, hearing about a libertarian supporting, much less working for, the Democratic Party would be unheard of. But it was more common in 2008 than you might think. I was not the only person with libertarian leanings on that campaign, and a number of self-identified libertarians cautiously favored Obama over McCain.
Even if we didn’t agree with him on a lot of issues, there was a lot to like about Obama in 2008. He was the candidate calling for an end to crony capitalism, promising that corporate special interests would no longer rule the political process. He stood as an advocate against torture, extraordinary rendition, and endless detention. He claimed he would put an end to the boundless executive power of the Bush years.
Four years later, I don’t know a single libertarian that is pledged to Obama. This isn’t to say that we’re all voting Republican this round—although some of us will probably hold our noses and vote for Romney, probably as a reaction to the Affordable Care Act. In 2008, there were legitimate reasons for libertarians to choose Obama, but most of them have evaporated during his first term.
In his first term, Obama has continued the Bush legacy of enhanced executive power, favors to special interests, and continued to trample on our civil liberties. His administration has deported illegal immigrants at a far higher rate than Bush ever did. The person he chose to help implement the Affordable Care Act was a former lobbyist at the health insurance giant Wellpoint. Whistleblowers have been prosecuted and Dick Cheney has applauded Obama for continuing his dirty work into what might as well be Bush’s third term.
It’s unfortunate, because I think that libertarianism is closer to the Left than the Right, even if most libertarians themselves are aligned with the Republican Party. People tend to see libertarians as an offshoot of the conservative movement and a sect of the Republican Party, probably because of the libertarian-conservative “fusionist” alliance during the Cold War. For most of the twentieth century, libertarians saw communism as the main threat to individual liberty. The looming threat of the loss of a market society forced libertarians into an alliance with conservatives, who shared many of their views on economics. But the Cold War is over, and there are new threats to liberty.
Still, many prominent libertarian-leaning thinkers such as Will Wilkinson, Matt Zwolinski, and other writers at a blog called “Bleed- ing Heart Libertarians” have been arguing that modern libertarians and liberals share more values and goals, even if they disagree on how to get there. After all, the great thinkers that in- spired the libertarian tradition—Smith, Mises, Hayek, and Friedman—were called classical liberals, not conservatives.
For what it’s worth, the lack of a stronger left-libertarian alliance is partly the fault of libertarians. Too many libertarians have failed to recognize that concentration of power happens in corporations as well as in government. Too many libertarians offer only lip service to efforts to help the poor, believing that conced- ing the need to help the poor means conceding the argument over free markets. We care more about a tiny percentage point increase in the highest tax bracket than we do about corporations hijacking regulatory policy to benefit their bottom lines.
At the same time, if a left-libertarian alliance is to work, libertarians are going to need more from liberals. They can start by being stronger on the issues that we both care about, and by being more critical of representative public figures who fail to live up to the values of the progressive movement. For the past few years, progressives who called for Bush’s impeachment have been far too mute about President Obama doing much of the same.
To be fair, many liberals (such as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald) have been wonderfully consistent on these issues, but we need more of them. If libertarians can’t take liberals seriously on the most important issues, such as our civil liberties, how can we ever hope to work together? I understand the impulse to play for “your side”; after all, if the Democrats don’t win, it’s not like the Republicans will be any better on those issues. I get that there are team loyalties and short-term election concerns, and I’m not going to try to tell anyone how to work their party’s internal politics.
I just want to remind liberals that politics may be a team sport, but it doesn’t have to be. Your real loyalties should be to your principles and your values, not the D or R next to someone’s name.
Editor’s note: Preston is president of Hoyas for Liberty.