TCS Daily

GOP = Goldwater's Old Party?

By W. James Antle - August 26, 2003 12:00 AM

The political coalition that has comprised the American right for half a century is showing signs of breaking up as conservatives and libertarians go their separate ways. While conservatives seem to be making peace with government growth, libertarians are increasingly forging a separate identity outside the right that often includes strategic alliances with the left.

The writer and frequent TCS contributor Ronald Bailey has written in an
article posted on the libertarian Reason magazine's website about joining the ACLU, an old nemesis of the right. And TCS contributor Radley Balko has stated on his blog that "the right now poses a greater threat to freedom than the left." In the September/October issue of Liberty magazine, editor R.W. Bradford called for a libertarian-conservative divorce.

As someone who has long seen the utility of the conservative-libertarian alliance, these developments are distressing but not entirely surprising. Some of this tension is an inevitable result of so many issues that divide conservatives and libertarians being debated right now. Both the Lawrence vs. Texas decision overturning the criminalization of consensual gay sex and an upcoming Massachusetts state supreme judicial court ruling have added new urgency to the gay marriage debate. Conservatives are adamantly opposed to the permitting same-sex marriage, while libertarians mostly either favor it or prefer
abolishing government-sanctioned marriage altogether. The abortion issue remains on the front lines of the culture war, with congressional Republicans voting for incremental restrictions and President Bush nominating judges critical of Roe v. Wade. While not all libertarians are pro-choice, most are. Human cloning has only enlarged the gap between libertarians and pro-life conservatives. The author and former editor of Reason Virginia Postrel rooted for the Democrats to retain the Senate in 2002 on the basis of cloning alone.

The right has also seen discord over how to conduct the war on terror. While topics like preemptive war have become the subject of heated debate among both conservatives and libertarians as well as between them, the Iraq war pitted a majority of libertarians against a majority of conservatives. The divide has been even more pronounced on the question of civil liberties. Attorney General John Ashcroft is on a publicity tour to promote the USA Patriot Act, legislation libertarians warn places America in danger of becoming a police state.

But it goes even deeper than this: The commitment to limited government and constitutionalism that animated Barry Goldwater is conspicuously missing from today's Republican Party and, worse, the conservative movement. Fred Barnes recently
wrote approvingly of "big government conservatism," arguing that efforts to shrink government should be abandoned because "people like government so long as it's not a huge drag on the economy." And Irving Kristol described a "neoconservative persuasion" that Arnold Kling recognized to be in conflict with libertarian principles.

The end result of all this is that many libertarians see no compelling reason to support the Republican right they identify with John Ashcroft and Sen. Rick Santorum. By default this means that they often end up working with the left. They've joined with the ACLU and other traditionally liberal civil libertarian organizations to oppose Patriot Act-style legislation (although some prominent conservatives joined them in opposition). Antiwar libertarian bloggers and Internet columnists often link to left-of-center websites like Indymedia, Common Dreams, and CounterPunch in making their arguments.

Such ad hoc cooperation on particular issues of common concern makes some sense from the libertarian perspective. What seems less feasible is taking practical political collaboration through jointly supporting candidates for office. Left-libertarian political alliances have been attempted before, such as during the movement against the Vietnam War and when 1980 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ed Clarke described his philosophy as "low-tax liberalism." But such alliances have been short-lived. Will they work any better this time?

Take for example the
libertarians who are considering voting for Democratic candidate Howard Dean. He is, like many of them, strongly opposed to the war in Iraq and staunchly critical of the current administration. He was less liberal on fiscal policy while governor of Vermont than is generally assumed, and was generally opposed to gun control. Even running nationwide, his relatively federalist position on guns is more flexible than most Democrats. He signed his state's civil unions bill into law and is hardly a social conservative. Perhaps most importantly for libertarians fed up with the right, he is not George W. Bush.

Yet Dean also is running on a platform advocating the repeal of all of Bush's tax cuts. Even if one objects to cutting taxes while increasing federal spending, this amounts to an across-the-board tax increase on all Americans who pay income tax. He has credited raising taxes in 1993 with the '90s economic growth.


And Dean by contrast would pair this tax increase with greater federal spending. The centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda is a national health care plan. Thus, a libertarian's vote for Dean is also a vote for higher taxes and a bigger federal government.

Other libertarians demonstrated enthusiasm for Arnold Schwarzenegger before it was clear where he stood on taxes and government spending, largely on the basis of his perceived tolerance on lifestyle issues and the possibility that his candidacy might cause people to take politicians
less seriously. But what if his views on tax policy had turned out to be less George Schultz or Milton Friedman and more Warren Buffet?

Of course, free-market economics is generally what has yoked libertarians to the right -- and often led to their support of Republican candidates who don't always deliver. Emphasizing other areas may seem like a critical part of any libertarian declaration of independence from the conservative movement. It's also important to note that the most prominent advocates of a libertarian breakaway from the right don't counsel an uncritical acceptance of the left, much less incorporation of libertarianism into the left. But there are risks inherent in downplaying free markets in order to distinguish libertarians from their erstwhile conservative allies. They already struggle with a parody of their movement, one perhaps best represented by comedian Bill Maher, who was famously described in a quote in Salon 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." Could the ideological oxymoron of "high-tax libertarianism" become a political reality?

Problematic as a libertarian alliance with the left is, it is yet another regrettable consequence of conservatism's abandonment of smaller government as a priority. The end result is a lack of any consistent defense of individual liberty that is politically viable. It would be unfortunate to see the right torn apart because of this, but the implications for our Founding Fathers' vision of limited government could end up being the greater tragedy.


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