In 2006, Markos of Daily Kos wrote two pieces in which he argued he was a “Libertarian Democrat.” While Markos is clearly a player in the game of politics, I think his posts nicely capture the jumbled mixture of complex, contradictory feelings a lot of “sane people” have towards government. So if I’m going to find a position with which to have a dialogue, this seems like a good place to start.
What does it mean to be a Libertarian Democrat? Libertarian Democrats, Markos argues, start from a core principle: maximizing individual freedom.
The key here isn’t universal liberty from government intrusion, but policies that maximize individual freedom, and who can protect those individual freedoms best from those who would infringe.
So a “free” market needs rules (“regulation”) in order to function. And such rules should be welcome so long as they are designed to enhance and protect our personal liberties.
What role does government play in maximizing freedom? First, create opportunity where the market doesn’t, because “without opportunity, there is no freedom.”
A Libertarian Dem believes that true liberty requires freedom of movement — we need roads and public transportation to give people freedom to travel wherever they might want…. A Libertarian Dem understands that no one enjoys true liberty if they constantly fear for their lives, so strong crime and poverty prevention programs can create a safe environment for the pursuit of happiness. A Libertarian Dem gets that no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so social net programs are important to allow individuals to continue to live happily into their old age. Same with health care. And so on.
Second, check the power of corporations.
But unlike the liberal Democrats of old times (now all but extinct), the Libertarian Dem doesn’t believe government is the solution for everything. But it sure as heck is effective in checking the power of corporations….
A Libertarian Dem believes that we should have the freedom to enjoy the outdoor without getting poisoned; that corporate polluters infringe on our rights and should be checked. A Libertarian Dem believes that people should have the freedom to make a living without being unduly exploited by employers.
My first reaction to Markos’ definition of a Libertarian Democrat: for someone who calls themselves a Libertarian, that’s an awful lot of government! Even plain vanilla Libertarians believe in some government, but Markos’ definition seems a lot closer to European-style Social Democracy than to anything most folks would call Libertarianism.
Then again, scratch below the surface of what many people who call themselves “Libertarian” and you’ll find a ton of government. So perhaps Markos is just making explicit what a lot of self defined “Libertarians” really think.
And even Markos soft pedals how much government he actually wants. Take the way he talks about Silicon Valley:
My libertarian tendencies have always found a welcome home in the Silicon Valley culture (and in all of the nation’s great technology centers). It is a place where hard work and good ideas trump pedigree…
But there are other reasons why this outpost of libertarianism works. The government has put in an infrastructure to support the region including, among many other things, roads, the Internet, government research grants, and the most important ingredient of all: education, from the lowliest kindergarten to the highest post-doc program.
He does mention that the government created the Internet, but it’s in passing, like roads. But building the Internet isn’t like building roads. The government essentially created a market from whole cloth. If it hadn’t, we’d be stuck in a tangle of oligopolies — e.g., Compuserv, AOL — that wouldn’t have produced a fraction of the innovation, creativity, and wealth the Internet did.
Given the enormous role Markos wants the government to have, it’s unclear what role he thinks the government should play. For example, throughout his both pieces he argues that government shouldn’t be the “first solution,” but it’s hard to tell what that means in practice.
Of course, this also means that government isn’t always the solution to the nation’s problems. There are times when business-government partnerships can be extremely effective (such as job retraining efforts for displaced workers). There are times when government really should butt out (like a great deal of small-business regulation). Our first proposed solution to a problem facing our nation shouldn’t be more regulation, more government programs, more bureaucracy.
This from a man who last year warned Obama during the healthcare debate that he’d better not cave on the public option:
We’re not talking what we really wanted – we really wanted single payer – so we already compromised from our position. I think the public option at this point is sort of our Waterloo, This is where we stand and fight.
This statement is particularly striking because unlike, say, urban mass transit, there are plenty of examples in healthcare of first-rate systems — e.g., the Netherlands — where the market effectively plays a much bigger role than Markos is calling for.
The other interesting thing about Markos’ argument that “the government shouldn’t be the first solution” is that he doesn’t directly talk about another alternative to government power — unions, environmentalists, and community groups. It’s not that he isn’t in favor of them. Markos has often come out in favor of strengthening unions, for example. But they aren’t an explicit part of his model.
Am I saying Markos is foolish for believing in the tangled mess he calls Libertarian Democrats? Not at all. I chose his posts because I have a huge amount of respect for him and for what he’s accomplished. His description of what it means to be a Libertarian Democrat is a good summary of the very mixed feelings a lot of folks on our side have about the proper role of government and corporations in the economy. I think it’s a sign that we don’t have an effective framework for talking about the economy that captures the complex, nuanced, sometimes contradictory feelings many of us have.