To most people who’ve thought at any length about politics, the familiar left-right schema used to characterize political positions seems deeply unsatisfying. Do we really think, after all, that the complex cluster of beliefs people have on a wide range of issues can be adequately captured by a one-dimesnional metric? Do we imagine that the seating arrangements of the French National Assembly of a few hundred years ago are relevant to the questions modern democracies face? The Nolan Chart, long beloved of libertarians, is an improvement, but still a gross oversimplification.
The left-right groupings are not altogether irrational, though — at least, not in a country like the United States, with its first-past-the-post, winner-take-all voting system. Under such systems, as political scientists have observed, there is strong pressure for coaltions to form in pursuit of that magic 51% of the votes, leading to the emergence of two major parties. Since all that matters for electoral outcomes is which party a voter feels closer to on the whole, the left-right gradient serves as a useful modelling tool after all. Just as a map or blueprint distills a few important aspects of the three-dimensional world, and represents them on flat paper, the left-right model reduces the tangle of voter beliefs to a single handy gradient.
Of course, that means that “left” and “right” are merely contingent placeholders for a pair of dominant coalitions: there is nothing natural or necessary about them. A century ago, the Democrats were the party of free trade, while Republicans opposed it vigorously. It is not the struggle between left and right that determines public policy; rather, it is the struggle over policy that determines how the boundaries of “left” and “right” are drawn. For example, Duke University professor Michael Munger has speculated that in the 19th century, the industrial North, which favored high tarriffs, emphasized the slavery issue at least in part as a gambit intended to break a political coalition, which supported low tarriffs, between the Southern and (more anti-slavery) Western states.
Libertarians now tend to be categorized as part of the right. But we sometimes forget that, in the late 60s and early 70s, the Vietnam War forced a split in that alliance, as illustrated most dramatically by the purging of libertarians from the Young Americans for Freedom at the group’s 1969 conference in St.Louis. For a while even Murray Rothbard flirted with the new left, though the end of that conflict soon restored the Cold War coalition. Now, as even avowedly communist countries scramble to liberalize their markets, it’s only a matter of time before “the right” as we know it ceases to be.
As before, the proximate cause of the split is likely to be a war — in this case, the impending invasion of Iraq, should it occur. Blogger Pejman Yousefzadeh writes in a recent article that the war will, in fact, reinvigorate the conservative/libertarian fusion right. But Yousefzadeh is focused somewhat myopically on the disproportionately hawkish blog community. Closer to the mark is National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, who examined libertarian reactions to the war in a recent print edition of that magazine. Though the warbloggers are perhaps more visible, most libertarians fall either into the “Cato/Reason mainstream,” which supported military action in Afghanistan but opposes the “Bush doctrine” of preemptively invading anyone who looks at us funny, or the hardline antiwar camp.
Signs of a realignment are already cropping up. A post on the liberal website TalkLeft agrees with law professor Jeffrey Rosen that nominally “liberal” democrats are so busy falling in line behind Bush that Dick Armey has become the last, best hope of those who care about civil liberties. And the so-left-it-hurts TomPaine.com has been citing with approval the writings of Cato scholars like Ivan Eland.
It’s not just the war, though. I recently debated a pair of conservatives on the question of cloning, one of whom posited that this issue threatened to expose the deep and fundamental divide between libertarians and conservatives. Virginia Postrel, he observed, had even hoped that Democrats would recapture the Senate, because they were less hostile to therapeutic cloning. As this technology develops, and the potential benefits to humanity it offers become increasingly clear, more and more libertarians may begin to wonder whether cooperation to fight the capital gains tax is as important as combatting debilitating diseases or defending scientific freedom and reproductive rights.
This doesnâ??t mean that libertarians are about to — or should — flee the blue-blazer and khaki crowd for the warm embrace of the Green party. It does mean that we should begin to take more seriously our own rhetoric about being “beyond left and right.” We should, as John Adams advised the United States, steer clear of permanent alliances, and instead begin to develop ad hoc coalitions with issue groups on either side of that artificial left-right spectrum. The new and surprising combinations that emerge (not, as some would say “strange bedfellows,” except to those who can’t see how arbitrary the current teams are) will make it more difficult for a lazy media to pigeonhole any of us. And the exchange of ideas between groups which normally view each other as enemies will undoubtedly be healthy for all concerned. We might even learn something.