Real world libertarianism isn’t much like the Cato version
Michael Lind has an excellent piece at Salon debunking the myth of the “fiscal conservative”. The fact that “fiscal conservatives” only come out of the woodwork when they fear that a single red cent will be spent to improve human life instead of subsidize the corporate takeover of America or start new and exciting wars shows that it’s a myth, I’d say, but he goes in to more detail than that. I just want to pull one thing he said out as inspiration for this post. I’m probably nitpicking, but so be it. This is a blog.
Democrats who call themselves “fiscal conservatives” generally give two reasons for their chosen self-description. Some favor a political ideology that combines social liberalism with economic conservatism. They appear to be unaware that such an ideology already exists. It is called libertarianism, and it is represented by the Cato Institute, Reason magazine and the Libertarian Party.
I get the general gist of what he’s saying, but I have to say that Democrats who actually feel this way are smart not to go to libertarianism, since the kind he’s describing—the Cato and Reason kind—is largely a myth that only seems to exist because it’s well-funded. I think if you live in a large coastal city, it’s easy I think to start believing that most self-described libertarians are social liberals, but that’s because the rare unicorn-like social liberal/economic conservative is usually paid handsomely to come to D.C. or New York and write a lot to create the impression that there’s more of them than there are.
In most of the country, and probably even to a large degree in the big coastal cities, most people tend to use the word “libertarian” to mean “really fucking right wing”, or “right wing with a side of extra kookiness”. They’re more like Rand Paul than anyone at Reason—anti-sex, pro-police state. They object to spending on human beings strictly in cases where it improves their lives, but you will rarely hear them criticize the prison-industrial complex, even though prisoners are dependent on the state to an extent far beyond even someone who qualifies for every imaginable welfare program. Sure, a handful, particularly when they’re young, might pick up some civil libertarian cause to rant about over drinks, but they usually get over it and spend exactly none of their political efforts and doing something like legalizing pot. But maybe they smoke it! So that’s something.
In most of the country, libertarianism is far more influenced by Christian Reconstructionism than anything written by the Cato Institute. Which isn’t to say that most self-described libertarians are Christian Reconstructionists or would even know the word. But the basic argument that winds social conservatism, religion, and hostility towards any kind of social spending is rooted in this philosophy. The argument is that God intended for certain social hierarchies to be in place, and the social safety net undermines them. They’re particularly upset at the possibility that federal spending might make women less dependent on men, since they believe that a woman’s place is to be dependent and submissive to her husband. This gets secularized to a degree in right wing arguments about how “doctrinaire” feminists are suckling the government teat because we’re out to
emasculate men by depriving them of their little fiefdoms destroy the nuclear family. Never mind that feminists fully support any woman who wants to be married and have kids. We just don’t want it to be mandatory.
Anyway, the point is that most libertarianism is actually tied strongly to culture war issues. Arguments about federal overreach are only popular because they give cover to what are essentially arguments against protecting basic human rights. When Rand Paul says he’s against the Civil Rights Act, that resonates with a lot of his supporters not because they want a rationalization for their prejudices, full stop. As soon as “states rights” stops being a cover story for supporting bigotry, it’s abandoned with haste. At best, most libertarians who are more socially liberal while economically conservative are basically signaling that fighting anti-racism is more important to them than fighting feminism.
Places like Reason and the Cato Institute exist strictly to whitewash the realities of libertarianism as actually practiced in the real world. By putting forward a handful of libertarians who aren’t overly priggish and know how to order a cocktail, the funders of these places can create the illusion that libertarianism isn’t so bad. And that gets paid forward in articles like Lind’s, where he suggests that socially liberal/economically conservative is a politically viable stance in the United States.
I would argue also that Democrats that are economically conservative but socially liberal might also be something of a myth. Not completely, of course. I’m sure you guys can think of many. Erskine Bowles is mentioned in the article, for obvious reasons, and he’s socially liberal, but his record indicates that he’s not as economically conservative as this article would have led me to believe. Libertarians of either the Cato Institute types or the majority socially conservative types wouldn’t support, as he has, providing health insurance for the unemployed or extending the Family Medical Leave Act. Meanwhile, Democrats like Ben Nelson who have all these “fiscal conservative” objections to things like health care reform are also more likely to be anti-choice, which is pretty much the barometer issue for social conservatism.
Obviously, it can get quite complicated, and I’m not saying it’s not. But I am suggesting that the major battle in our country is not over some principled views of tax policy and federal powers, but over social hierarchies and privilege. There are people who are authoritarians who believe in strong social hierarchies of rich over poor, men over women, and whites over everyone else. And there are people who are egalitarians who believe that these structures are oppressive and need to be brought down. And then there are people who are attracted at different times to different arguments, of course. But the more conservative you are in terms of social spending, odds are pretty damn high that you’re more conservative in terms of social control. It makes sense, of course—live and let live types are also just going to be less emotionally invested in score-keeping resentment against someone for getting government-subsidized health care, for instance. We shouldn’t forget that when we’re having these debates.