Tuesday, November 02, 2010

On "libertarians"

my last post, an anonymous commenter asks:
Why do you insist that Angus is a conservative? Are you unable to make a distinction between conservatives and libertarians?

Hint: they are quite different.
Two questions here. The first is easy; I insist that Angus is a conservative because he says a lot of the exact same things that self-described conservatives say. Political ideology is defined by consensus, not by a dictionary. If you are marching in an army, and you point around you and say "I'm not with these guys," I'm going to have to be a little skeptical of your claim. (Yes, I realize that there is a substantial possibility that Angus did not leave the anonymous comment; hence, I realize that saying "your claim" is not entirely appropriate in this situation; it is a figure of speech).

The second question is harder: What is the difference between self-styled "conservatives" and self-styled "libertarians"?

The common answer is: Social issues. Though many conservative politicians and writers call themselves "libertarian," their stances against gay marriage, immigration, and drug use give them away as closet authoritarians. True libertarians, we often hear, agree with conservatives on economic issues (lower taxes, less regulation) and with liberals on social issues (legal marijuana, gay marriage, more immigration).

I do not buy this distinction. As I see it, the American "conservative" ideology is not a rigid and unified canon, but a diverse set of interest groups held together by an unusually stable alliance of convenience. From reading conservative blogs and magazines, watching Fox News, and talking to self-described conservatives, I have grokked that the groups that make up the alliance we call "conservatism" are three: 1. businesspeople and other well-to-do folks who want lower taxes and regulation, 2. ethnic tribalists who think that white, Christian, and Southern/rural people and groups should have political and social primacy, and 3. militarists who want our military to be really big and to go kick peoples' butts. These are known in the press, respectively, as "economic conservatives," "social conservatives," and "neoconservatives." Militarists are the smallest group, so I'll ignore them for now.

What do these groups have to do with each other? Why has this coalition-of-the-willing endured for so long? In a word, socialism. The conservative movement as we know it is an alliance of two groups that felt threatened by the socialist (or "leftist") movement of the 20th Century - economic conservatives because socialists wanted to take their money, social conservatives because socialists wanted to diversify and liberalize their culture. As Wooldridge and Micklethwait document in The Right Nation, economic conservatives had to hold their nose a bit to join with a bunch of moralizing Bible-thumpers, and lower-income social conservatives had to do a bit of doublethink to avoid noticing that conservative economic policies mostly benefit rich people. All this is well known. The difference in priorities between the two main conservative constituencies is undoubtedly why conservatives spend so much time demonizing liberals; they want to keep the focus on the common enemy.

Which brings me to the question: What the heck is the difference between an "economic conservative" and a "libertarian"? Apparently, whether or not that individual publicly endorses the big-tent alliance described above. A true libertarian, we are told, holds true to his ideological self-consistency, and either votes libertarian or not at all.

Which is absurd, of course. On election day, most libertarians hold their noses and vote Republican, exactly as many "greens" and Naderites and assorted other leftists hold their nose and vote Democrat, because at the end of the day, people are not fools, and they understand the two-party system and how it works. In other words, when push comes to shove, libertarians behave exactly like the economic conservatives with whom they are identically one and the same. A few snarky throwaway protest votes do not constitute a separate movement.

And economic conservatives (including many who routinely refer to themselves as "libertarian"), far from being marginalized or disaffected within their movement, comprise the intellectual and ideological leading edge of that movement. It is think tanks like the "libertarian" Cato Institute and publications like the National Review who create and/or promulgate all of the economic ideas that later get parroted at Tea Party rallies and on Glenn Beck's talk show. Why do you think that a bunch of anti-immigration, anti-gay marriage, anti-drug-legalization fire-breathers are snapping up copies of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom? Hint: it's NOT because "libertarians" and "economic conservatives" are quite different.

It is "libertarians" who have created and promulgated the idea that Obama is a leftist, despite his very middle-of-the-road attitude toward business. It is "libertarians" who have given the legions of social conservatives, who hated Obama from Minute 1 because he was black and weird and intellectual, an excuse to associate Obama with Hitler without sounding like the racist tribalist reactionaries that they really are. "Big government!", the Tea Partiers shriek, when in fact they are dog-whistling "Nigger hippie outsider!" The "libertarian" enablers of this little pretense smile behind cupped hands, knowing that when tribal animus propels the Republican Party to power (as it will this evening), they will get their lower taxes and their deregulation. And if gay marriage and immigration take a hit, well, not optimal, but not catastrophic; those issues were never top priorities for economic conservatives anyway.

And those who cast snarky throwaway protest votes on election day will shrug and say "Don't blame me; I'm not a conservative, I'm a libertarian. Don't you know the difference?"

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:55 PM

    That's some mighty fine writin' you dun got goin' on in yer last two paragraphs there!