"...there's a whole swath of Americans who are uncomfortable with Republican/conservative efforts to erode our civil liberties while intruding into our bedrooms and churches; they don't like unaccountable corporations invading their privacy, holding undue control over their economic fortunes, and despoiling our natural surroundings; yet they also don't appreciate the nanny state, the over-regulation of small businesses, the knee-jerk distrust of the free market, or the meddlesome intrusions into mundane personal matters."
-- Markos Moulitsas, The Case for the Libertarian Democrat
Dear Libertarian Democrats,
Thank you for your recent overture. Libertarians are not very good at accepting overtures. We tend to be purists, and there is much in your essay that violates my ideas of libertarianism. Nonetheless, I would like to offer a constructive response. What I would propose is that we adopt a pragmatic, experimental approach toward working together.
I am ready to acknowledge that Republicans have not served libertarians well the past six years. In fact, I recently made a controversial Case for Staying Home this November, because I am fed up with Republicans' focus on power politics and "big-government conservatism."
My guess is that the Democratic Party is not going to suddenly convert en masse to libertarianism. But I can see the possibility of at least a temporary alliance between libertarians and Democrats, provided that both are willing to experiment.
Agreeing to an Experiment
What I propose is that Democrats promise to support one major libertarian experiment. In exchange for Democrats agreeing to support this experiment, libertarians would agree to vote for Democrats.
The experiment that I have in mind is school choice. If Democrats would instead prefer an experiment with voluntary investment accounts substituting for Social Security, that is an acceptable alternative. But for now, let us work with school choice.
The experiment that I propose is that in four or five diverse states, all tax revenues that ordinarily would go to schools would for a period of 15 years go to parents as school vouchers. Proponents of school choice will propose specific indicators that will be measured to assess whether the experiment achieves desired goals, such as improved school quality, lower cost, and greater parent satisfaction. Opponents of school choice also will propose specific indicators that will be measured to assess whether the experiment leads to greater inequality in schooling or other adverse results. After fifteen years, voters will have useful information to determine whether the experiment with school choice should be expanded or ended.
Traditional Democrats may say, "If we are willing to give libertarians an experiment, what do we get in return? Do we get a chance to experiment with our policies?"
I would welcome experiments with socialist policies, provided that they are only experiments. That is, the policies must be evaluated, and if they are found to have failed, they must be abandoned.
For example, I would welcome an experiment in which four or five diverse states adopt single-payer health care. My guess is that if people were to experience single-payer health care for ten or fifteen years, that would provide powerful evidence that it is a bad idea for the United States.
Suppose that the single-payer experiment started on October 1st of 2007. As of that date, all residents of the single-payer states and all children subsequently born in those states would be enrolled in the single-payer program. All residents of other states would continue in traditional programs. People who change states would stay with their existing health programs -- you could not change health programs after October 1st by changing states.
As with the school-choice experiment, the single-payer experiment would require indicators of success. Proponents and opponents should identify cost, coverage, and quality indicators that will be measured, so that voters can decide how well the experiment fared.
Experimentalism is the philosophy of trying political ideas in clear, finite, measurable experiments. It is an alternative to the futile ideological head-banging that is turning off more and more voters every day.
Experimentalism has the potential to be a new political philosophy that transcends partisanship. My guess is that more Americans could be comfortable with experimentalism than with traditional Democratic or Republican dogma.
In fact, there is good reason to suspect that support for the traditional two parties is at an all-time low. The major parties are leaving huge gaps in the political center as well as other parts of the political spectrum. In this essay, I argued that the future political battle pits incumbent politicians against the "long tail."
As a libertarian, I would prefer that people adopt my ideas right now, based on their clear logic and intuitive appeal. Since that is not likely to happen, the next best thing would be experimentalism, which would allow libertarian ideas to be tried along with other ideas. Perhaps over time the best ideas would win out.
So that is my response to libertarian Democrats. I will forgive what I see as the flaws in your libertarianism, if you will make a serious commitment to experiment, with something like school choice.
Arnold Kling is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and the author of Crisis of Abundance: Re-thinking How We Pay for Health Care.