Liberaltarian Fissures

Jonathan Chait has a belated but quite amusing critique of the recent “Liberaltarian” boomlet about a supposed natural libertarian-liberal axis. Two key passages get at the heart of it:

But, as Newt Gingrich learned to his dismay, support for smaller government as an abstract proposition almost never translates into opposition to government as it actually exists. The vast bulk of the federal budget is consumed by Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and defense–all of which enjoy solid public support.

This is quite right. Now, I’m an advocate of privatized retirement, medical savings accounts, and elimination of a lot of weapons programs. Unlike many libertarians, though, I understand that those are minority positions, at least insofar as they’re coupled with elimination of their popular adjuncts.

Which brings us to the second conceptual problem with Lindsey’s political strategy: It presupposes that any new libertarian voters the Democrats attracted could simply be added to their preexisting base. In reality, it would cost them support.

Boaz and Kirby inadvertently demonstrate this very point. They stress that President Bush’s share of the libertarian vote dropped precipitously between 2000 and 2004. But, during that time, Bush’s total share of the vote rose by almost 3 percent. So, however many voters were turned off by the prescription-drug bill or the Patriot Act, many more were turned on. This demonstrates the obvious (to nonlibertarians, anyway) point that wooing a small bloc with unpopular views is not a sound political strategy. Likewise, if Democrats were to denounce psychiatry and quote endlessly from the works of L. Ron Hubbard, they could jack up their share of the Scientologist vote, but it probably wouldn’t help their overall popularity.

Probably not, although I’m hoping they’ll give it a shot in ’08. But, yes, as a general rule, changing one’s message to appeal to a group currently outside your coalition will almost certainly alienate some current members. If done out of genuine principled reflection, or even cynical calculation that those lost will be outnumbered by those gained, it might make sense. But assuming that there are no negative consequences is foolish.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Man it would be a lot easier to respond to Chait’s argument if it weren’t hidden behind a subscribers-only firewall.

    That said, as a libertarian (small-l only), I can honestly say that I see no real prospect of any real alliance with modern liberals who reject pretty much everything we believe in.

    I don’t like the direction the GOP has taken in the last 6 years or so (and I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion), but at least I know that I have a common philosophical grounding with Republicans. How a libertarian can forge an alliance with someone who rejects most of what (she believes in escapes me.