Cautiously, Libertarians Reach Out to Occupy Wall Street

As conservatives bash the left-leaning populist protesters, Larry Lessig and Gary Johnson are trying to win them over. Is 'liberaltarianism' alive? 
 

With a left-leaning populist movement taking to the streets in cities around the country, conservatives are mostly content to bash the protestors as unemployed hippies jealous of their betters. In contrast, a few savvy figures with libertarian messages appreciate that although they may or may not succeed in influencing Occupy Wall Street, a limited alliance does make sense if possible, and a better opportunity to engage persuadable leftists has never before presented itself.

Prof. Larry Lessig, the Harvard academic and political activist, is among the observers calling on Occupy Wall Street and the tea party movement to recognize what they have in common. In the clip above, he says that crony capitalism is one shared object of ire, a message he repeated this week in Washington D.C., when he spoke to activists in McPherson Square. Lewis McCrary was on hand and reports on the intriguing frame that Lessig used as he began his talk: "He observed that 'the American Spring' had come in waves: the first, the election of Obama, which frustrated liberals when it became clear that his administration was about 'business as usual'; the second wave, the Tea Party, which he called similarly populist in character to the Occupy movement; and lastly the great 'third wave,' the Occupy movement itself."

GOP presidential primary candidate Gary Johnson is reaching out too. "I just have to express my solidarity with everyone there that expresses the notion that we have a country that doles it out unfairly," he said. "Corporatism is alive and well in this country. We've bailed out individuals on Wall Street that made horrific decisions that should have been rewarded for those horrific decisions by having lost all their money. Of course, that didn't happen, and you and I bailed them out at a cost of a trillion bucks, and they continue to award themselves bonuses at our expense. I'm outraged by that."

Then the pitch:

He told them that it is important for people to understand the distinction between capitalism and crony capitalism. "Is the free market to blame, or is it that fact that it's not a free market?" He said that no one could blame Wall Street for wanting to be bailed out for the awful decisions made there, but the way that the government gave in to their wishes was really unfair. "The root of the problem," Johnson said, "is politicians getting paid off." He said the outrage of the Wall Street protesters is not misguided and should be "directed at a system that allows for undue influence of political leaders for the benefit of those who can afford them."

When President Obama was elected, many libertarians found it unthinkable that three years on, someone like Johnson could approach disaffected liberals in a setting where people are open to radically different ways of thinking and say, Hey, you elected what you regarded as the best politician you could hope for, and he didn't change a thing. How about trying things our way? How successful libertarians will be in forging alliances or winning converts remains to be seen. Insofar as they're prepared to exploit an opportunity for a game-changing convergence, they owe a debt of gratitude to Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, whose indispensable work on what came to be called "liberaltarianism" was cut short by shortsightedness and discomfort with heterodoxy. Fortunately, their insights remain available to us, and certain of them are clarifying.

For example, Johnson found in his meeting with Occupy Wall Street that campaign finance reform is an obstacle when liberals and libertarians get together. That isn't going to change, but there are more and less persuasive arguments that libertarians can offer for their positions.

Challenged about Citizens United, Johnson said this:

The reform that's needed when it comes to campaign contributions is 100 percent transparency, and these Super PACs offer up non-transparency. Super PACs offer up a way for a wealthy individual or corporation to contribute money or to influence an election without their fingerprints on it, and that's not right. I don't have any issues with unlimited contributions as long as it is completely transparent.

This is merely adequate -- a way of saying, "I disagree with you" in boilerplate. Useful engagement between libertarians and leftists requires either emphasizing areas of agreement or persuading the other side that they oughtn't to disagree given their commitments. Is it coincidence that Wilkinson, who has done his homework on liberaltarianism, has written the single article that libertarians should most want the left to read on Citizens United and campaign finance?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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