Libertarians and the Tea Party Movement
By Arnold Kling
A debate among Brink Lindsey, Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Kibbe. Although it is self-recommending, I have read it. Lindsey says,
prior to the rise of the conservative counter-establishment–think tanks, talk radio, websites, and Fox News–the right’s dark side was subject to a critical constraint: To be visible at all in the nation’s public debate, conservatism was forced to rely on intellectual champions whose sheer brilliance and sophistication caused the liberal gatekeepers in mass media to deem them suitable for polite company. People such as Buckley, George Will, and Milton Friedman…It gave conservatism a high-quality intellectual leadership that, to some extent at least, was able to curb the movement’s baser instincts.
…Notwithstanding the return of libertarian rhetoric, the right today is a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian movement…Far from being anti-statist, it glorifies and romanticizes the agencies of government coercion: the police and the military. It opposes abortion rights. It opposes marriage equality. It panders to creationism. It routinely questions the patriotism of its opponents. It traffics in outlandish conspiracy theories. If you’re serious about individual freedom and limited government, you cannot stand with this movement.
…Declaring independence from the right would require big changes. Cooperation with the right on free-market causes would need to be supplemented by an equivalent level of cooperation with the left on personal freedom, civil liberties, and foreign policy issues. .. libertarians should be making the point that their differences with the right are every bit as important as their differences with the left.
Some of my own thoughts.
1. It was Brink who commissioned me to do a book on health care for Cato, Crisis of Abundance. Intellectually, I consider it a triumph. I think it makes a lasting contribution to the health care debate. Published in April of 2006, I thought it would have a relevant shelf life of a decade, and I stand by that. Cato’s permanent on-staff scholars continue to do yeoman work on health care policy, as exemplified by Michael Tanner’s comprehensive analysis (self-recommending) of this year’s bill.
Having said that, I think that as far as providing impetus toward a less statist health care system, the Tea Party movement is vitally important. Without the TPM, Cato would just be spitting into the wind.
2. Brink bemoans the “base instincts” of the right and complains about the inward-looking closed-mindedness one finds there. However, for sheer intellectual bullying, it seems to me that the elite on the left has no peer. I can disagree with conservatives about immigration without getting called nasty names. But among the left–and, I may add, among some in Brink’s libertarian crowd–one cannot so much as praise the Constitution without being called a racist and a homophobe.
Jonah may be thinking on similar lines, for he writes,
as a matter of practical politics, Lindsey would have libertarian spokesmen and advocates alienate conservatives in the hope that this would earn credibility with liberals. It seems far more likely that liberals would pocket libertarian attacks on the right–of the sort found in Lindsey’s essay–while continuing to ignore libertarian arguments on economics and other key areas of public policy. Left-wing environmentalists will not suddenly embrace property rights because libertarians vilify the Christian Right. But the Christian Right may well stop listening to libertarians if they all started talking the way Lindsey does here.
I would not want to put myself in the position of currying favor with the liberal elite by feeding their need to feel morally superior and helping to delegitimize the TPM. Instead, I would declare intellectual independence by arguing my substantive point of view, which sometimes aligns with the TPM and sometimes does not.
Finally, Kibbe writes,
This massive grassroots revolt against big government is the greatest opportunity that advocates of limited government have seen in generations, yet libertarian intellectuals like Lindsey seem content to sit on the sidelines and nitpick.
I do not think that it is imperative that libertarian intellectuals join the TPM. In fact, I think it is important that we continue to articulate our areas of disagreement with positions that are widely held within the TPM (again, immigration is an example).
Somehow, all this reminds me of an experience I had in the early 1970’s. After my sophomore year in college, I had a summer job in a factory, working with various foul-smelling chemicals and unhealthy materials (such as fiberglass) in the southern portion of St. Louis County. That is a very redneck area. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local, to which all of us in the factory belonged, had only recently been integrated. The other workers were a far cry from being college material. They were into cars, beer, and hunting, none of which were my thing. But I still enjoyed their company–I remember joining in their handball games at lunch, where the St. Louis heat was enough to almost make you pass out.
One subsequent fall (it might have been a year or so later), on the first day back at Swarthmore College, we had to attend a two-hour speech on curriculum reform by a professor of religion. If I had to pick between spending the rest of my life listening to that professor and the rest of my life working in the factory, I would choose the latter.
[UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds puts it, “if libertarians are to be as influential as we’d like, getting over BoBo class-solidarity hangups is pretty important.”
One could argue that maintaining BoBo class solidarity is necessary, because they are never going to be dislodged from power. In any case, I like Reynolds’ way of posing the issue]