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Sunday, February 01, 2004

BIG L, LITTLE L, WHAT BEGINS WITH L 

VodkaPundit has been taking aim at doctrinaire libertarians and their knee-jerk opposition to the War on Terror, mainly here, with follow-ups here, here, here, here, and here. I think he's right on. This may seem surprising--after all, I've defended my libertarian leanings at stupefying length against the charge that I should "pull my head out" and fall in unswervingly behind G.W. and the Republicans. But at the end of that defense, I made the same sort of argument that VodkaPundit is making now:
Does that mean I’ll be voting for the Libertarian Party candidate? Maybe, maybe not; I don’t know yet (my flippant “undoubtedly” in another context notwithstanding). I’ve voted Libertarian since 1992 (Bush pere got my vote in 1988, Reagan in 1984), and I’m lukewarm on George W. overall. But I think the war against terrorism is by far the important issue facing this country today, and Libertarians seem to be more concerned with the excesses, real and imagined, of the Patriot Act than with the very real possibility that the next terrorist attack on American soil will kill millions, not thousands. Lileks seems to think this is a virtual certainty, and while I’m not that pessimistic, doomsday scenarios cross my mind a hell of a lot more now than they did during the Cold War, which after all had the icy logic of mutually assured destruction to keep everyone honest. Those days are gone; the challenge now is to find a new way to keep us safe. Bush’s decision to topple Saddam was a bold and risky attempt to do just that. It may turn out to fail, though I sincerely hope it doesn’t. But at least Bush seems to recognize both the gravity and the novelty of our predicament. I don’t get the sense that any other candidate does.
VodkaPundit makes an important distinction between big-L and small-l libertarians. The former are the doctrinaire ones, the reflexive anti-warriors who fantasize endlessly and pointlessly about "a perfect libertarian world" in which "we drop tokens in the meter to walk on the privatized sidewalks to sell legal heroin to a tax-exempt hooker." They have always dominated the Libertarian Party, and they are to blame for its deserved reputation as a fringe society for anarchists, utopians, and cranks.

Small-l libertarians are much harder to characterize by anything other than their non-doctrinairism, and I don't know if VodkaPundit has ever attempted a definition. But if I had to take a stab at one, I'd start this way: A small-l libertarian is anyone who is optimistic about the power of voluntary methods of organization like markets to give order to the world, and who is correspondingly skeptical of the efficacy of non-voluntary methods like government. To put it in legal terms, a small-l libertarian always presumes that government solutions to social problems are inferior to private solutions and always puts the burden of proof on the supporters of government solutions to prove their case. This presumption is hardly irrebuttable, and in areas like national defense that are plagued by collective-action and free-rider problems it is easily rebutted, but the burden is always squarely on the shoulders of the statists.

Needless to say, I consider myself a small-l libertarian. For many years I've been willing to put up with the big-L Libertarian Party and to vote for their candidates because we saw eye-to-eye on many issues and because their kookiness seemed harmless. But 9/11 changed all that. There are many things I don't like about Bush, but unless another candidate emerges who understands the dangers of Islamofascism, I'll have to give him my vote. (And for the record, my President Match scores: Bush 100%, Lieberman 83%, Kerry 63%, Clark 60%, Edwards 59%, Dean 57%, Sharpton 56%, Kucinich 36%.)

I do wonder sometimes, however, whether 9/11 will turn out to shake up domestic politics as much as it has international politics. I sense that the number small-l libertarians in this country is growing, and that they're restless. Comedian Dennis Miller, with his well-publicized post-9/11 rightward shift and his now-famous crack that he couldn't care less if two gay guys want to get married but that any foreign terrorist who wants to blow up their wedding ought to be eliminated, is an emblematic example; the phenomenon of South Park Republicans is in the same vein. If either the Democrats or (more likely) the Republicans could shake themselves loose from their ossified base constituencies enough to start fielding candidates that genuinely appealed to this crowd, I think they'd be assured of long-term electoral success.

Maybe this is wishful thinking, maybe not. But the chance that either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party will seize this opportunity seems vastly more likely than the chance that the big-L Libertarian Party will. And when the big-L's can't even woo the little-l's, you know they're in trouble.

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