The luxury of ‘liberaltarianism’

Ross Douthat weighs in with a commentary on “liberaltarianism,” the proposed fusion of liberalism and libertarianism that started getting kicked around a bit on the blogosphere a couple of years ago. (Cf., “Obamatarians,” a more recent expression of the same impulse.)

The problem with this concept was never really on the part of liberals, except insofar as they either (a) misunderstood libertarianism, or (b) simply lied about their openness to libertarian ideas. Confusion and deceit among liberals is a given. But the liberals always knew what they wanted from such a transaction: Elect more Democrats.

What did the libertarians want from the transaction? It is here that the ridiculous folly of the enterprise is found. Most of the Will Wilkinson types are intellectuals who are embarrassed by what Hunter S. Thompson called the “Rotarian” instincts of the Republican Party. That flag-waving God-mom-and-apple-pie stuff just doesn’t light a fire under the American intellectual class, which is not now, nor has it ever been, enamored of religion, patriotism and “family values.”

As a political impulse, the sort of libertarianism that scoffs at creationism and traditional marriage wields limited influence, because it appeals chiefly to a dissenting sect of the intelligentsia. It’s a sort of free-market heresy of progressivism, with no significant popular following nor any real prospect of gaining one, because most Ordinary Americans who strongly believe in economic freedom are deeply traditionalist. And most anti-traditionalists — the feminists, the gay militants, the “world peace” utopians — are deeply committed to the statist economic vision of the Democratic Party.

There is no natural political constituency for the sort of libertarianism that considers marijuana legalization and the flat tax as equally estimable objectives. When it comes to the basic electoral calculus of 5o-percent-plus-one, this theoretical equation has never been shown to add up in terms of real-world coalition politics. (Maybe the stoners just forget to vote?)

During the “long boom” unleashed by the Reagan revolution, it was possible for libertarian intellectuals to believe that the arguments for economic freedom were now so blindingly vindicated that even their progressive peers must admit the obvious truth. All libertarians needed to do, they fancied, was to shed the unfashionable baggage of the GOP coalition — the Falwells and Buchanans and Dobsons and other such lowbrows — and the progressives would eagerly sign up for this new project: Free-market gay marriage! Free-market abortion! Free-market environmentalism! Free-market transhuman biotechnology!

If that idea ever made sense, it only made sense in a context of Republican political dominance. When the Democrats were putting up losers like Mike Dukakis and John Kerry, when Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were crushing progressive dreams like so many ants underfoot, free-market intellectuals could attempt to inveigle their progressive friends: “Don’t worry about those hayseed holy rollers, saber-rattling jingos and suburban Rotarians. They make a lot of noise, but they don’t really call the shots. Look at your 401K balance. The market works.”

Well, we passed the sell-by date of that argument somewhere between “Mission Accomplished” and “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” And all the libertarian intellectuals who’ve been sucking on the Koch tit over the past 25 years find that their progressive friends are as unpersuaded about the virtues of economic freedom as they ever were. Lending libertarian support to progressive causes — the driving impetus of the gay-rights movement is egalitarian, not libertarian — has strengthened progressivism, while doing nothing meaningful to advance the free-market cause.

With their Democratic friends now holding supreme power in Washington, progressives now openly celebrate Keynesian pump-priming and redistributionist economic schemes in a way they never would have done when Tom DeLay held the whip. Chuck Schumer can laugh that the American people don’t care what’s in the stimulus, and no one can effectively refute him.

At the apex of Republican power and at the zenith of the “long boom” ignited by Reaganomics, the “liberaltarian” impulse was a luxury that foundation-subsidized intellectuals could afford to indulge. The era of respectable intellectual luxury is now over, and serious people must now ponder the rude realities of coalition politics.

UPDATE: “Like the Higgs Boson, the liberaltarian is a phenomenon that hasn’t yet been directly observed but that everybody hopes to find someday.”

UPDATE II: Welcome, Instapundit readers! (Guess this means I’ll hit the 1-million hits mark a bit early, huh?)
UPDATE III: A slight diversion, to take aim at the false dilemma (either tax cuts OR Keynesian spending) argument as put forward by Newsweek‘s Daniel Gross:

Adherents of the tax-cuts-only strategy are suspicious of free-spending Democrats, old-fashioned Keynesians, and big government. They believe — no, they know –that tax cuts are more efficient than government spending, since people and businesses make better and quicker decisions about spending than government does. . . . The current, somewhat extraordinary circumstances, and the nation’s changing economic geography, should make us wonder how effective tax cuts will be in stimulating new spending and investment.

Now, I addressed this either/or fallacy Monday, with reference to Megan McArdle’s suggestion that marginal rates are now low enough that major Laffer-curve effects are not to be expected from further tax cuts. (Argue amongst yourselves.) What kills me is that Gross is allowed to make an expressly political argument under the guise of an economic expertise that he does not, in fact, possess:

Mr. Gross graduated from Cornell University in 1989, with degrees in government and history, and holds an A.M. in American history from Harvard University (1991). He worked as a reporter at The New Republic and Bloomberg News, and has contributed hundreds of features, news articles, book reviews and opinion pieces to over 60 magazines and newspapers. Areas of expertise include: economic and tax policy, the links between business and politics, the rise of the investor class, the culture of Wall Street, and business history. (Emphasis added.)

The man is a journalist, not an economist, and his echoing of Obama administration talking points ought not be disguised as economic analysis. Nothing wrong with being a journalist, you understand, it’s just that Newsweek is doing a bait-and-switch by presenting Gross as an economic “expert.” But if Paul Krugman can win a Nobel Prize, I suppose we’re all experts now . . .

UPDATE IV: Linked by The American Catholic.

Mark Thompson says I’m “somewhat hyperbolic.” Dude, you’re just now noticing this tendency?

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