Libertarian Democrats and the Equality Imperative

Progressives stand for equality, and their guiding light is what's "fair."

Daily KOS suggests that as the Democratic Party tries desperately to figure out where it's going, its future may well lie with the Libertarian Democrat.  At first blush, it sounds sort of ridiculous.  Libertarians who are skeptical about the Democrats on foreign policy are going to stay that way — John Murtha may fire up the True Believers on the far left of the party, but he's doing the Party itself no favors, and that's reflected in how nearly the entire Democratic Senate spares almost no effort to portray themselves as considerably more moderate.  But, foreign-policy hawks aside, there is a surprising amount in common between libertarians, who want personal liberty, and liberals, who want fairness and equality.

Equality of Opportunity is part of that.  I work for people who make twice what I do, and who work three times as hard.  There will never be equality of opportunity between us:  they will always have the opportunity to send their kids to better schools than I can afford, whereas I will always have the ability to see mine, traffic allowing, by 5:30 p.m.  We can debate whether the minimum wage has any part of this, since, so far as I know, even fast-food joints pay well above the federal minimum.  If, as  Daily KOS suggests, there is any leeway for libertarian economic arguments to enter into a debate without automatically equating said alternate voice to a callous and malign heart, as some fringe Democrats are currently wont to do, then there may be some hope for cooperation on that front.  After all, what can one call it when Angelides, a committed liberal with impeccable union credentials, is full-speed-ahead for school reforms, and the rest of the local educational unions line up lock-step against it?  Ad-hominem aside, we call that a debate.

Equality of Opportunity is just a start, though.  One of the most damning arguments against the Drug War is not simply the fact that there would be no financial imperative for a drug trade without Prohibition — nobody who gets near the corridors of power is interested in taking a lesson from history that might diminish his pull.  No, the damning argument is that because some people have power, and clout, and connections, they and theirs can flout drug laws at will.  What happens if you're the son or daughter of Privelege, or happen to be related to a Senator, when you're caught with heroine or crack?  In the words of numerous press releases, you have a tragic problem, for which you're seeking treatment.  What happens when you're the son or daughter of a mail clerk who is caught with the same drugs?  You have a tragic problem, which is that your "treatment" involves being locked in a metal box surrounded by vicious predators, and after a couple years, even if you manage to get out of said box without being repeatedly beaten, raped, and otherwise abused (with the managers of said box unwilling to so much as lift a finger to protect you), you will be nearly unemployable, and never be able to vote again.

Any ten-year-old can tell you that this is brutally unfair.  And yet, unfairness is written into law throughout our society.

In theory, everybody should be equal before the law.  But in practice, money, power, and connections are a lot better at convincing the local District Attorney to go soft than a tearful working-class mother is.  And so the War on Drugs itself creates inequality between Those Priveleged Few who are treated like actual human beings with a medical problem, and The Rest of Us, who are treated like monsters to be controlled, who must then go through life with a Scarlet Letter of Damocles (how's that for a mixed metaphor?) hanging over our heads at every turn.  We can either choose to accept the double standard, because Power Is, or else we can let everybody among the regular citizens get away with occasionally smoking a joint if they want to, terminally-ill cancer patients included, rather than simply leaving it as a privelege for the sons and daughters of the Powerful.

When libertarians oppose Big Government, they don't do so because the fetishize the notion of squeezing environmental regulators into a can of sardines.  They do so because they're already KOS' cheering section — KOS just doesn't realize it yet.  KOS is absolutely right, that Corporations can form a threat to our liberties, as well as individual people and those with the power of Government behind them.  But it is political libertarians who can explain why, and how, they go about it — by using their money and clout to bend Government to their will, thus creating either an even-more-unequal playing field for smaller businesses, or by effectively insulating themselves against regulation. 

After all, if you've been following the political firestorms on the right side of the aisle lately, what else is the issue of earmarking all about, if it's not the Fat Cats voting themselves the cream that came out of workers' pockets?  Sure, you can say that the poor don't really pay income taxes, because they get a refund at the end of the year.  And plenty of conservatives make exactly that argument.  But libertarians and liberals both know that's pucky — when you're one of the "working poor," you don't need a refund in seven months:  you need the sixty dollars that the government has just taken out of your paycheck, and you need it this Friday, because rent is due.  Again, any kid can tell you it's unfair for people in Congress to filch that money.  But as long as the K-street lobbyists are in charge of tax policy and steering the earmarks, guess what?

Similarly, it's all well and good to say that we should have a safe meat supply, free from Mad Cow disease.  But when money gets to do the consulting, you end up with the National Animal Identification System, Cargill's new brainstorm to create two tiers in agriculture: one, where the big producers can have a site license labelling the animals that come from their gigantic factory farms, and another, that would force 4H kids at the county fair to literally register their home addresses in a federal database while small homesteaders have to buy an individual federal i.d. tag for, get this, each and every chicken they raise.  But so long as Cargill and the other giant players are the ones who get to "partner" with the USDA to write policy, guess what?

Now, there's some good news.  Thanks to the increasing transparency afforded by the Internet, the USDA has had to do some serious backpedaling on at least some of this issue (while publicly declaring that "it ain't over yet.")  But it's only had to do so because Rural America, a constituency the Democrats used to respect, essentially went thermonuclear over the issue.  And so the big boys might face reasonable regulations without necessarily being able to use Government Power as a club by which to beat down small competitors.

So long as Government, and let's be precise here, People in Government, have the power to use "Big G" as a lever for the Fat Cats to stick it to the Little People… they're going to.  So long as your city government has the power to toss you out of your house so that some developer can come in and build a shopping center where you and the kids are currently playing half-court in the driveway… they're going to.  Money and Power are like two poles of a magnet — they're going to come together sooner or later, no matter how many road-blocks one throws in the way. 

But if the Democrats want to break the Reagan Coalition, and peel libertarians (large or small "L") away from their current Conservative partners, they would be well-advised to take a page from the long-standing libertarian understanding that it's not simply economic equality that motivates libertarians, but political equality as well.  Because if Progressives define themselves as the people who "stand up for the little guy," and the Democrats would like to win libertarian and moderate votes, all they have to do is to counter Power Is with Fair's Fair at the ballot box.  And all they have to do in order to keep those voters forever, is to make those promises, and then deliver on them.

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  1. Zathras

     /  June 20, 2006

    For once I agree with almost everything you say. I think you are discounting the possibility that companies can create an unequal playing field without any governmental interference, but your ideas are right on target.

  2. That’s the funny thing, Zathras: I actually haven’t said a damn thing different than I usually do… but libertarians usually talk in the language of the right, rather than the language of the left. It’s the same basic ideas, but it comes out differently, b/c folks who lean left have an immune response to the right’s political language, and vice versa.

  3. Zathras — actually, he’s right on the button where libertarianism is concerned. We p1ss off both liberals and conservatives equally! 🙂

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