Libertarians and Liberals

LIBERTARIANS AND LIBERALS….Should Democrats court the libertarian vote? Over at Cato Unbound, Markos Moulitsas is making the case for something he calls “Libertarian Democrats,” and the Cato folks themselves have released a paper claiming that “some 10 to 20 percent of voting-age Americans are libertarian.” Does that mean libertarians are a significant constituency that might turn the Democrats’ way with the right kind of wooing?

Color me skeptical. Matt Yglesias argues that in order to gum up the works and reduce the chance of continued legislative idiocy from Republicans, libertarians ought to vote for Democrats in 2006, and this seems pretty much inarguable on a purely tactical level. Any libertarian who can’t figure out this much needs to turn in his Hayek Fan Club badge.

But more broadly? I just don’t see it. When it comes to social policies, it’s true that liberals are more closely aligned than conservatives to libertarian principles. Liberals tend to be tolerant of drug use, dedicated to civil liberties, committed to separation of church and state, in favor of gay rights, and so forth. The Republican Party, having long ago sold its soul to the Christian right, can’t credibly pretend to support any of this stuff.

But it doesn’t matter. Libertarians may say they favor liberal social policies ? and they do ? but when push comes to shove most of them will toss the social stuff overboard in a heartbeat in favor of a dedication to economic libertarianism. What really gets their hearts pounding is big government and regulation of the free market. They’re against ’em.

And let’s face it: Democrats just can’t credibly claim to be on their side. We like labor unions, we support environmental regulation and consumer safety laws, we think anti-poverty programs are great, we favor safety net programs like Social Security and national healthcare, and we’re not allergic to imposing the taxes to pay for all this stuff. You can try all day long to find a few grains of libertarian economic doctrine in the Democratic Party platform, but why bother? You’re not going to convince anyone, least of all the libertarians themselves, that we’re on their side.

Now, I don’t quite know why it is that libertarians care so much more about economic libertarianism than they do about social libertarianism. Maybe they believe that Republicans talk a good game about their scary social agenda but aren’t really serious about imposing it. Or maybe they figure that although Democrats are theoretically more socially libertarian than Republicans, in reality they don’t do much about it. And those are pretty reasonable propositions. How many Democrats are in favor of any kind of serious drug decriminalization, after all?

But whatever the reason, there’s not much long-term chance of a marriage between liberals and libertarians. Economic policy is at the heart of the libertarian worldview, and on that score they’re just a lot closer to Republicans than to Democrats. It’s hard to see any plausible way of papering that over.