Cautiously, Libertarians Reach Out to Occupy Wall Street

By Conor Friedersdorf

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

It is here.

Click through and read the whole unfamiliar-to-most critique, which I won't try to summarize. But I do want to quote a small part, which hints at what a libertarian should tell a liberal when they find themselves at an impasse about financing campaigns. As Wilkinson puts it, the left has a "tendency to fixate on the high drama of elections rather than the more mundane processes by which corporate and other special interests actually do rig legislation and regulation in their favor. A single lobbyist with a good friend in the right place can deliver more to a special interest than many millions spent on campaign advertising." Isn't that powerful? Put in a way that could lead to a useful agree-to-disagree alliance, "We can disagree and even fight about unlimited donations, but can't we agree that regulatory capture by connected actors is hugely destructive and worth fighting together? Because I know we agree on that much."

Lindsey once wrote this about liberal-libertarian fusionism:

Liberals and libertarians already share considerable common ground, if they could just see past their differences to recognize it. Both generally support a more open immigration policy. Both reject the religious right's homophobia and blastocystophilia. Both are open to rethinking the country's draconian drug policies. Both seek to protect the United States from terrorism without gratuitous encroachments on civil liberties or extensions of executive power. And underlying all these policy positions is a shared philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value.

The central challenge in cementing a new fusionist alliance--and, make no mistake, it is a daunting one--is to elaborate a vision of economic policy, and policy reform, that both liberals and libertarians can support.

Those words appeared in The New Republic in December 2006. Five years later, Lessig and Johnson are doing their utmost to grope toward just such a vision, and while the odds are against their success, the rise of corporatist Rick Perry and TARP supporters Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, all disasters from a libertarian perspective, are useful reminders that the libertarian-right alliance is plagued with as many problems and has odds as long of policy success.

What Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie of Reason would argue, based on my reading of their enjoyable book The Declaration of Independents, is that the whole notion of libertarians picking between an alliance with the left or right is misguided -- that the way forward is independent voters making alliances of convenience to get their way on individual issues. Maybe we're now seeing the outreach favored by liberaltarians in service not of a wholesale alliance with congenial liberals, so much as a narrow alliance with protestors who share just a desire to end corporate cronyism and the redistribution of taxpayer money to connected political actors.

Or maybe Occupy Wall Street will get co-opted by the Democratic Party in the same way that the tea party got co-opted by the Republican Party and the conservative infotainment complex, and they'll fight one another, presuming bad motives and obsessing over cultural cues. With Lessig and Johnson taking one approach, and Limbaugh and Cain the other, I know for whom I'm rooting.

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