TCS Daily


Saving the Marriage (Cont.)

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - March 23, 2005 12:00 AM

In response to my column "Saving the Marriage: Conservatism and Libertarianism", two-time Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne has written this article denouncing any effort to reconcile libertarians and conservatives in general, and libertarians and the Republican Party in the particular, as utterly fruitless. Additionally, Browne attacks my argument that the creation of the Libertarian Party has prevented libertarians from actually exercising any real influence over policy.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, Browne is passionate, but he does not persuade. Let's discuss why.

Browne starts out by attacking my notion of a political alliance between libertarians and Republicans:

        "Of course, if we're to put aside our differences to save the marriage, 
        it means that we Libertarians must give up our foolish notions and adopt 
        Republican positions. The Republican Party isn't about to let its scrawny 
        little spouse dictate policy."

Nowhere does Browne give any reason libertarians -- whether large-L or small-l -- "must give up [their] foolish notions and adopt Republican positions." I advocated no such thing in my article and what's more, that's not how political coalitions work. In the real world, if libertarians decide to throw their support to Republicans, they would do so on a quid pro quo basis -- as would just about any constituency seeking to be part of a governing coalition, or a coalition that hopes to achieve governing status. Libertarians would offer their support to Republicans in exchange for having the Republican Party adopt more libertarian positions on a variety of issues. Browne seeks to eviscerate this fundamental fact about governing coalitions -- again, with no reason or evidence whatsoever to back up his claim -- and then, based on this false premise, construct his arguments. To say the least, it is not a promising start for Browne, and indeed, readers can be forgiven for thinking that at the very moment he typed his false premise, Browne's arguments were effectively dead in the water.

Browne issues a lengthy commentary on the various policy differences between libertarians and Republicans. But note that Browne does not actually address policy differences -- or similarities -- between libertarians and conservatives. By failing to do so, and by using "Republicans" as the target of his rhetorical attacks (remember that the Republican Party does contain a significant number of non-conservatives and non-libertarians, after all), Browne seeks to elide the fact that there may exist a confluence between the libertarian and conservative philosophies on a number of issues, and that this confluence can be used to create a political coalition within the Republican Party to ensure that it is truer to the small government principles that both conservatives and libertarians espouse. One searches Browne's piece in vain for any argument that libertarians and conservatives cannot cooperate in shaping the principles of the Republican Party -- an argument that is a major part of my article.

In response to my citation to Ronald Reagan -- who said that "the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism" -- Browne caustically remarks that in his opinion, Reagan did not do a good job of living up to conservative and libertarian principles while President. But Browne's rejoinder is, in fact, a non sequitur. Even if one assumes arguendo that Reagan did not do a good job of living up to conservative and libertarian principles, that does not translate into a valid argument against a finding that libertarianism and conservatism have a great deal in common as sociopolitical philosophies. Browne's argument is akin to telling a friend who extols the health benefits of exercise that because that friend only exercises two days out of a week, his claims about the benefits of exercise are undercut. It's a logical fallacy that weakens Browne's already shaky argument.

Further weakening that argument is Browne's enthusiastic endorsement of the tired Libertarian Party philosophy of cutting off one's political nose to spite one's political face. Browne cannot deny the fact that the Libertarian Party hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire at the ballot box. On the contrary; when it comes to elections, the Libertarian Party is at best a marginal contender. Compelled to make a virtue out of necessity, Browne informs us that the Libertarian Party is (despite all that you have heard and seen to the contrary) an effective political force. Why? Because elections provide Libertarians with the ability "to appear on radio and TV to inform Americans that we don't have to have a country in which government continually gets bigger, nosier, and more oppressive."

Color me naïve, but I always thought that the purpose of elections was to win. And by winning, one can have the chance to govern and to implement one's policies with the backing the electorate. Getting on radio and TV is fine and good, but in elections, media appearances are a means to an end, not the end itself. To be sure, elections are good megaphones for candidates and ideas, but if those candidates and ideas are to be taken seriously, they have to win every once in a while. The candidates of the Libertarian Party do not win, which means that the very libertarian principles Browne advocates will fall by the wayside when it comes to policymaking.

Browne also argues that libertarians might just as easily find a home in the Democratic Party as I argue they would in the Republican Party. If so, then Browne has hit upon a tremendously useful tool by which to augment the influence of libertarians in public policy; invite Democrats and Republicans to bid for libertarian support with policy concessions to libertarians in exchange for libertarian votes. That way, libertarians could influence policy and serve as kingmakers for whichever party did the best job of attracting libertarian support on substantive policy issues.

But it is noteworthy that Browne doesn't even advocate this approach for his fellow libertarians. Instead, he continues to urge libertarians to traverse the lonely path towards political irrelevance. Indeed, it would appear that any time Harry Browne is given a tool by which he could augment libertarian influence in public affairs he takes care to throw away that tool with both hands.

It doesn't have to be this way. Libertarians can work to influence politics and policy in a manner that is both noble and effective. As I noted in my article last week, I have long believed that the Blogosphere can help bring conservatives and libertarians together into a political cyber-coalition. We are seeing more evidence of that with posts like this one which serve to define alternative libertarian pathways, and the often friendly and sympathetic interaction between conservatives and libertarians in the Blogosphere is working to create the very kind of political alliances Harry Browne assures us are impossible to create. Nothing is set in stone and success in this project is not inevitable, but right now, the cooperation between libertarian and conservative bloggers is doing more to get libertarian ideas out into the realm of public discourse than any radio or TV appearance by a losing Libertarian candidate ever could. Just imagine what could happen if this level of cooperation wasn't limited to cyberspace.

Harry Browne's argument against libertarian participation in coalition politics is not much of an argument at all. Rather, it is a collection of false premises, rationalizations for electoral failure that don't pass the laugh test and a continued advocacy for political oblivion. It would be tempting to say that if libertarians followed this game plan they would deserve whatever political failures they suffer. But as a libertarian-conservative who writes regularly for a publication that makes a habit of marrying libertarian and conservative ideas in effective fashion, I'll close by saying that I think libertarians deserve better. Here's hoping they -- we -- get it.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor

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