Saturday, June 10, 2006

No Exit

So what the hell am I doing ripping off a Sartre title? No, really, what the hell am I doing ripping off a Sartre title? I'm the guy who rolls his eyes at the very mention of French philosophy. So what's the explanation? I suppose it could be that I've realized the truth of Sartre's claim that hell is other people. Or perhaps I'm really tired. Or maybe it's that I'm dating an existentialist. Actually, it's partly all of the above. Mostly, though, I'm making a long-winded and very obscure connection to political philosophy, particularly to a couple of recent posts from Jonathan Wilde and Micha Ghertner responding to a post by Kos who claims to be, of all things, a Libertarian Democrat.

Now let me first say that I think that Kos is, well, on crack if he thinks that he's anything like a Libertarian Democrat. Sure he's libertarian in the sense that he is a social liberal. But Kos has also rather loudly and famously claimed that he is not particuarly interested in political theory; he's a political operative interested in winning elections for Democrats. As such, any move he might make toward libertarians is purely a matter of political expediency and not one of theoretical solidarity. As such, I think that Jonathan is right to be wary, and Micha is right to point out that Kos is asking for an alliance with libertarians without bothering to offer any sort of concession.

While I don't have nearly as big a loudspeaker as Kos, I am nonetheless a Democrat who has pretty strong libertarian leanings. And I'd like to make a case for bringing libertarians into the fold. Kos' strategy is to argue that Libertarian Democrats ought to believe in all of the things that regular old Democrats pretty much all believe in, namely that the state should protect basic freedoms such as the Bill of Rights and privacy and the like and that the state should also provide certain basic services such as roads and schools and so forth. The first part strikes me as exactly right. The second part, however, is a bit of a stretch. Libertarians very much do not believe that the state ought to be in the business of providing much in the way of public utilities such as roads or schools or internet acess or electricity or the like. The libertarian argument is that private institutions do such things more efficiently, and it's really hard to see why that shouldn't be so. Take a look at universities in this country. Of the top 25 universities, all but four are private. And those public universities that are highly ranked are often effectively private universities (When I was there, the University of Virginia, my own alma mater, received only about 11% of its non-medical-school operating budget from the state).

So if I wanted to bring libertarians on board the Democratic Party, what would I offer? Experiments. Democrats (to the extent that there is any old-fashioned liberalism left in the party) claim to be interested in helping people out. That's great. But there is no reason to be dogmatically committed to the position that only governments can help people out. That old invisible hand works fairly well a lot of the time. So if I wanted to bring libertarians into the fold, I'd offer to experiment with market-based alternatives to government programs. Let's try a means-tested voucher program for schools. Or let some cash-strapped state auction off its roads to private bidders and see how it works. Perhaps we can offer to privatize NASA and deregulate space exploration. Push alternative energy not by regulating current energy sources but by offering incentives to those who experiment with new sources. You know, sweeten the market rather than trying to thwart it.

Libertarians won't necessarily be ecstatic about all of these proposals. Nor will Democrats in many cases. That's why they are called concessions. But they are concessions, and from the libertarian perspective, they are a step in the right direction. Moreover, many Democrats rather famously claim to be reality-based. Presumably that means being good empiricists and adopting programs that actually work rather than programs that map onto a particular ideology. Many libertarian seems to be in the same camp. So let's try these sorts of things. If they work, then great. That's what Democrats are supposed to be after. If they don't, then I assume that reality-based libertarians would admit their failure and adjust accordingly.

Anyway, there's my offer. Not that anyone in any sort of position to make a real offer is likely to read it. But there it is anyway.

Oh, yeah, and that whole No Exit thing. It's a reference to the fact that the preferred libertarian solution to political philosophy, namely exit, isn't a realistic option right now. Voice, however poorly it might work, is an option. For those libertarians open to gradualism, I submit that their voice might be effective if added to the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party.

See, I told you the title was a bit contrived.


Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

If Democrats adopted a policy of market-friendly reforms across the board but retained their love of redistributive programs, that would be a compromise I could live with. Unfortunately it seems to me that a prerequisite for that would be giving up the folk Marxist way of looking at the world, the chances of which appear slim at this point.

3:06 PM  

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