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Here come the 'liberaltarians'?

| Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006

The libertarian vote is up for grabs in a way it may have never been before. A compelling case is being made for the economically conservative yet socially liberal libertarians to switch their political allegiances from Republican to Democrat, a trend that has already begun.

Brink Lindsey, a scholar with the libertarian nonprofit Cato Institute, lays out the reasoning in "Liberaltarians," a provocative essay in The New Republic. He explains that the defining ideology of the American right for the last 50 years has been conservative fusionism, which recognized the common interest in both social and economic conservatives to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government.

But when social conservatives came to power and started to use big government to impose their cultural vision on others, the libertarian disaffection began.

Libertarian voters were repulsed by the religious right's impulses to deny gays the right to marry and to interfere with Michael Schiavo's decisions about his wife Terri's end of life. Then, when an entirely Republican federal government abandoned any pretense of small government by spending uncontrollably, nation-building in Iraq and replacing science with theology, the trickle became a stream.

In 2000, the 13 percent of the voting-age population identified as libertarian-leaning voted for George W. Bush over Al Gore by a 72-20 percent margin. In 2004, support from this quarter for Bush fell to 59 percent, with John Kerry winning 38 percent. In 2006, these voters undoubtedly helped Jon Tester win a Montana Senate seat against Conrad Burns, and helped secure Democrat wins in Republican-leaning New Hampshire, Colorado and Arizona.

Lindsey says that with libertarians generally disenchanted with a Republican Party of crony capitalists and theocrats, it is a propitious time for an entente between liberals and libertarians.

The commonalities are many. Both groups oppose censorship, legal strictures on sexual practices between adults, the ferocity of the drug war, the Bush administration efforts to curtail civil liberties in its war on terror and numerous other encroachments on personal autonomy.

But where the groups split is on economic policy, which, as Lindsey insightfully notes, is also a question of personal autonomy. The divisions come because libertarians see constraints by government as the chief threat to that autonomy; liberals are more concerned with how the consequences of one's birth and uncontrolled economic forces affect the individual's economic options.

This sharply differing worldview can be reconciled, Lindsey believes, if the left can be brought to understand that economic dynamism is the engine of progressive social progress.

"The civil rights movement was made possible by the mechanization of agriculture, which pushed blacks off the farm and out of the South," Lindsey writes. "Likewise, feminism was encouraged by the mechanization of housework. Greater sexual openness, as well as heightened interest in the natural environment, are among the luxury goods that mass affluence has purchased. So, too, are secularization and the general decline in reverence for authority, as rising education levels (prompted by the economy's growing demand for knowledge workers) have promoted increasing independence of mind."

In Lindsey's hopeful sketch of a more permanent liberal-libertarian alliance, liberals would understand that they have a natural ally in capitalism and libertarians would be more accepting of compassionate, safety-net policies to accompany free markets.

I agree that some economic common cause is feasible if both sides are willing to bend. But if Lindsey thinks the Democratic Party will ever embrace an abandonment of Social Security and Medicare as entitlements (he suggests that private savings largely cover the cost of old age), or the marginalization of labor unions, or the elimination of the corporate income tax, he should think again. There will be limits to this convergence.

With only two major parties, and neither one a perfect fit, libertarians are in a tough place. They are flirting with the Democrats because their regular partner is dancing with another. But I hold out hope that the hippie and the suit could make some nice music together.

Stranger things have happened. Think Bono and Paul O'Neill.

Robyn Blumner is a columnist for The St. Petersburg Times.

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