Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Liberaltarianism: Might Mormons Embrace a Liberal-Libertarian Alliance?

I once foolishly asked if the liberal dominance of the immediate post-Bush era would have the effect of liberalizing Mormon voters.  The answer came resoundingly recently with a Gallup poll that showed that Mormons give President Obama the lowest favorability marks of any group, 24%.  Sigh.

So I started wondering if there is anything that could be done about this.  In my mind Mormons should feel very comfortable leaning politically left on issues such as immigration (love thy neighbors, the special place of "Lamanites" in Book of Mormon prophecies), the environment (the sanctity of all God's creations), war (Gospel of peace), and poverty (BOM: no poor among you, all things in common, 4 Nephi), among others.  But I am continually disappointed.

In my meanderings trying to figure all this out I came across my solution du jour: liberaltarianism.  That's right, the fusing of libertarianism and liberalism.  This newish brand of Western politics could be just the thing to shake Mormons out of our political heterodoxy.  Or not, but let's take look.

Mormons unquestioningly have a libertarian bent.  Hostility to government has a solid foundation in extermination orders, declarations of war, military occupation, and opposition to the religious practice of polygamy.  Whereas early members focused on communal living among saints at the exclusion of federal government meddling, modern-day members have taken those anti-federal government feelings and invested them in free-market capitalistic principles.  Add that to the now cliche Western Individualism, wrought by eking out a living in a harsh land, and you have the perfect storm of libertarianism.

For many years libertarians found a natural relationship with conservatives.  Both argued for small government, because big government led inevitably to a loss of individual freedom and liberty.  They had basically every government ever as a precedent for this belief.  But some funny things happened over the years.  First, conservatives adopted a big government agenda just like liberals and Republican administrations increased the size of federal government and national debt exponentially more than Democratic Administrations who actually reduced the national debt.  Second, corporations grew to be just as big or a bigger threat to individual freedoms and liberties as government.

The libertarian-conservative alliance has been weakening for years now.  That has lead some political thinkers to wonder if there might be room for a new alliance between liberals and libertarians.  The basic idea is expressed well from that first link in the previous sentence:
The core Democratic values of fairness, opportunity, and investing in our nation and people very much speak to the concept of personal liberties -- an open society where success is predicated on the merit of our ideas and efforts, unduly burdened by the government, corporate America, or other individuals. And rather than always get in the way, government can facilitate this.
Such an alliance would be based on some mutually agreeable principles.  The low-hanging fruit where there is some obvious common ground includes opposition to government intrusion into Americans' family decisions and churches; opposition to government's weakening of civil liberties in the name of self-defense like NSA's spying program, warrantless wiretapping, and police brutality; opposition to war and entangling foreign policy; strong support for protecting the Bill of Rights (including the 2nd Amendment - I know I wrote this and I'm grudgingly willing to start perhaps maybe rethinking it if it means edging some Mormons' minds to the left a bit); support for a more open immigration policy; and rethinking our approach to the drug problem.  So there are certainly some significant areas of agreement between liberals and libertarians.

The hard part, of course, is economics.  Where libertarians have a general distrust of government intrusion into free markets, liberals have a general distrust of free market forces and wish government to promote more fairness.  The alliance, then, has to be framed in terms of creating more real choices and individual freedoms for Americans.  The first easy one is cutting corporate welfare.  Corporations in America receive billions of dollars of subsidies and tax breaks every year.  By eliminating corporate welfare we would open up the markets for greater competition and choice, and protect Americans from corporate restriction of our freedoms.  If we eliminated corporate welfare for traditional fossil fuel companies we would make it easier for alternative clean energy companies to compete.  If we eliminated corporate welfare for big agriculture we'd encourage more local, sustainable family farming.  If we eliminated corporate welfare for big banks we'd open up the market for smaller, community-based banking.  These all create more choices for Americans and a healthier economy.

The government could help create more choices, freedom, and information by investment in roads, public transportation, and the internet.  Infrastructure is key to promoting individual freedoms.

Next, a liberal-libertarian union would agree to dramatically reduce government over-regulation of small businesses.  Some of these measures may be painful for liberals, but could really go a long way to forging that left-libertarian alliance and free small businesses to create more jobs.

Finally, left-libertarians would have to agree that some regulation is necessary to keep markets healthy by expanding choices and giving consumers more information.  Regulating the worst health insurance industry practices such as denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and refusing coverage based on technicalities gives consumers more and better health care choices.  Regulating the food and drug industries allows consumers to have more information on which to base their choices.

One of the keys, here, is to remember that the modern-day libertarian really has little in common with the extreme version seen in some "Tea Party" candidates like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle.  While those examples certainly verify that the extreme libertarian still exists in America today, most libertarians are more the Cato Institute ilk that understand that some regulation of markets is required to make them more efficient.

This obviously isn't going to be for every liberal or every libertarian.  Both sides would have to give up a significant amount to make it work for the long-term.  But the idea is to appeal to voters in the "Mormon Belt," where libertarianism is strong but liberal thought has a lot to offer.  In places like Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, and Nevada, a small-government liberal in the mold of Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, Montana Senator Jon Tester or Wyoming Governor David Freudenthal can and has done very well.

So there's the idea for liberaltarianism.  It is a focus on individual freedoms and choices and identifying places where the government can facilitate progress.  It is about maintaining that core Western and Mormon belief in the power of the individual, while reminding us that if we work together we can achieve more.  I think this has some potential, but I've been wrong before.


Architect said...

I agree that the libertarian movement is made up of about one third liberals. And that GW Bush encouraged libertarians to leave the GOP. The size and scope of big government is a sincere threat to liberty and self government. How free is someone, really, when half of their pay check disappears to serve questionable government activities?

It may be helpful to look at some charts of federal spending.

Or you could use
to calculate what the federal government is going to cost based on current spending. I like their tool because it breaks spending into the major budget categories and one can dream of eliminating the wasteful federal departments.

A serious discussion about the cost-benefit of federal government programs needs to take place.

Is it really necessary to have the federal government endorse charities with tax dollars?

Do we already have enough pages of laws and regulations such that no ordinary citizen can read and obey?

How many federal programs (that give tax dollars to people)do we need?

Andrew said...

First off, hello to my fellow bloggers -- I'm not dead, just rather busy. I will post something in the next few weeks (I promise!) that I've been meaning to write about for some time.

Now, on to the matter at hand. We've been through a couple of bubbles in the last ten years or so (tech and housing), with the housing bubble being the most damaging. There is no question that popping the housing bubble was the primary contributor to our current economic malaise. This was a large-scale implosion caused by poor decision-making on the part of every player; investors, the general public, and the government.

I don't know that we need to rehash how that all went down, but I think the mood is right for another Mormon trait -- thrift. And, I would add, sustainable economic growth.

These ideas run counter to the capitalistic orthodoxy that's prevailed since at least the 1980's, that we need to grow consumer spending ad nauseum. Wall Street is basically built upon that principle, that we'll always consume more of something (be it goods or services) no matter what, and that there is no limit.

That orthodoxy, in light of current experiences with bubbles, sounds an awful lot like bubblespeak. At some point in time we simply produce too much stuff, whether it be houses or computers or online dating sites or search engines or financial services and instruments. Whatever it is, there are limits to how much we can have of it. And, inflating the bubble pushes us well beyond the carrying capacity of the economy in whatever sector is affected.

In my mind the Republican party is forever wedded to the prevailing orthodoxy about capitalism -- that we can just produce stuff forever and there are no limits. It runs counter to the concepts of thrift and self-reliance that many Mormons have been taught. It also runs counter to the idea of sustainable economic growth, since that growth simply can't happen at the rates implied during bubbles.

Unfortunately, some Democrats also display that bubble-causing mindset. I think most of the folks running the economy now are expecting to get us back on track for the next bubble. It's nice because employment shoots up very quickly (and people need jobs), but ultimately it will crash again and we'll go through the same cycle.

Mormons and libertarians are more inclined (at least in my experience) to espouse thrift and sustainable growth as desirable values. I think that many Democrats who recognize the bubble mentality are open to coming up with new ways to grow the economy so that we don't have to go through these destructive bubbles. And, I think they'd be much more receptive to those ideas coming from libertarians than the Republicans will be.