Defenders of the Status Quo

Have you read Steven Horowitz’s excellent response essay at Cato Unbound? Here’s an interesting nugget:

Libertarians like me who make arguments of the second sort can easily be accused of “vulgar libertarianism.” There might be cases where that claim is valid, but I don’t think the accusation is fair when the analyst tries her best to distinguish processes that characterize how markets work in general from the particular real-world processes that reflect the results of various government interventions. For example, if much of the claimed growth in inequality is the statistical artifact of the way in which people move through the life-cycle of income earnings and/or changes in the demographic characteristics of households, rather than a genuine increase in inequality or loss of mobility, there seems no necessary reason to reject that as being “vulgar libertarianism” and portray it as a defense of the statist status quo. This point is especially important as many of us see such arguments as crucial to heading off proposals that would, in fact, move us farther, perhaps much farther, away from freed markets based on a misinterpretation of the data. That is what I mean by playing defense, and whether or not this is “vulgar libertarianism,” it might well be an effective way to preserve real elements of freedom in the interventionist status quo.

Horowitz makes a persuasive case for pragmatic collaboration, and I think this mindset goes a long way towards explaining libertarians’ historical affinity for the GOP. Comparatively speaking, Republicans are usually a lot better on economic issues than the alternative, which makes the prospect of tactical collaboration on a wide range of domestic policies quite palatable.

The problem with this approach is that once you become closely associated with a political movement, your views are filtered through the lens of that movement’s ideological preferences. So the Cato Institute, despite its self-professed political independence, ends up relying on conventionally Right-leaning outlets for disseminating scholarship and commentary. And while National Review might publish an op-ed from Cato attacking the auto industry bailout, the magazine is a lot less likely to feature a piece that criticizes the Bush Administration’s surveillance regime or favors a less aggressive foreign policy.

Does an unreceptive political environment create a tendency within libertarian circles to downplay opposition to Republican policies? To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. But I suspect that solely relying on pragmatic cooperation has made libertarians a junior partner in an arrangement that is aimed first and foremost at advancing Republican principles.

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