Yesterday afternoon I attended a forum hosted by Kevin Rollins at the Mercatus Center called "Liberal Economists and the 2010 Election". Rollins is a George Mason graduate student and an editor of Econ Journal Watch who knew me through my recent publication there. The event title refers to what I like to think of as the new definition of the old definition of "liberal", namely "liberal" as "classical liberal" which itself is recast to mean "libertarian".
The event consisted of a panel of three speakers - J. Bradley Jansen, Garett Jones, and Paul Gessing - and an active discussion with the audience. The discussion was on the prospects of the Tea Party in the mid-term election, the role that libertarians and libertarian economists might play in influencing a Tea Party in power, and the likelihood that the Tea Party could act as a libertarian power-broker in the future.
One thing that struck me as soon as I got off the elevator and started talking to people before the panel was how political (in an electoral sense) this group was. Lots of people were involved in campaigns, on Capitol Hill, etc. A lot of it was internal libertarian politics as well - candidates that I wasn't even familiar with. Norm Singleton, Ron Paul's legislative director, was fascinating to listen to. He was talking about a lot of the trade-offs in the way that Ron Paul and Gary Johnson (I hadn't heard of him before, but apparently he's another regular libertarian candidate) would present their message - the trade-off between being more appealing to voters and getting the message across. He was happy at the prospect that two or possibly even three libertarians would be on the stage in the Republican primary getting their message out, but also concerned about the reaction of more traditional Republicans. It was nice to arrive a little early and hear some of this back-and-forth. I'm working in D.C. on policy issues every day, but I'm in a whole different world from this Congressional/Capitol Hill/elections universe.
J. Bradley Jansen spoke first, and I think he raised the most concerns for me. To begin with, I think he was far too sanguine about the Tea Party, essentially interpreting it as a fundamentally libertarian movement. I've found that there is significant divide among libertarians in how they view the Tea Party: some view it as a libertarian/Ron Paul movement, while others view it as having substantial populist elements to it. I'm clearly sympathetic to the latter view. Over the course of the discussion Jansen seemed compelled to concede the populist point, simply because both other speakers and most of the audience insisted that the Tea Party did not represent unalloyed libertarianism - but in his opening discussion it was clear that he thought (hoped?) he could pass it off as libertarianism.
From there, Jansen said two other things that I couldn't agree with. First, he set up a "Glenn Beck history of the United States" (which later in the discussion he actually did attribute to Glenn Beck), in which we started on a Constitutional trajectory, and then the big bad Progressives came along and put us on a "Progressive detour", the current task being to return to Constitutionalism. Anyone who has read this blog for a while would know my objections on this point. Some posts I've written on the Constitution are here, and needless to say I consider myself an originalist, and as I read the Constitution most of the policy innovations of the 20th century - although they might not have been convincing or appropriate in the late 18th century - fall well within the Constitutional scope and intent of the founders. I see guys like Jansen as placing artificial limits on the ability of Americans to engage in republican self-governance, which makes the whole idea that he's preserving the intent of the founders a little absurd to me. Jansen's brand of libertarian constitutionalism strikes me as more akin to George III than George Washington: a benign neglect for the most part, with an absolute refusal to let Americans solve their own problems with their own means.
The second thing that bothered me about Jansen's talk (and a point which I questioned him on) was the idea that the Tea Party could play a "kingmaker" role in the United States in the way that the Liberal Democrats have in the UK and the FDP has in Germany. The problem with this, for me, is that you can only play this "kingmaker" role if your party can plausibly work with either major party. I simply don't see this for the Tea Party - they can't govern with the Democrats, and therefore they'll never be able to fulfill this role. When I asked him about it, Jansen referenced the fact that a third of the electorate doesn't identify with either party. OK, so what? I'm in that independent third. I never respond as a Democrat or a liberal on surveys, and I've voted for Republicans and Democrats. I think I'm representative of at least a good portion of American "independents", and it's because I'm a moderate. These independent moderates are not leaning Tea Party. Jansen assumed these sorts of things a lot in his discussion - he made a similar assumption when somebody brought up immigrants and what they mean for the Tea Party. His response was that a lot of immigrants are innovative and entrepreneurial (that's why they come here in the first place), so they'd fit in perfectly with the Tea Party. It never dawned on him that entrepreneurs aren't by definition libertarian. Kevin Rollins himself (I believe) made a similar mistake later talking about investor reaction to the election - implicitly assuming that all investors are going to react the way libertarians react and that no investors might actually be happier to see a traditional Democrat or Republican in office. I don't think you can assume these things.
I liked more of what Garett Jones had to say, because I think he was more realistic and honestly probably because he was an economist rather than a political activist (which Jansen and Gessing both are). Jones noted the populist elements of the Tea Party and said he fully expects them to act like run-of-the-mill Republicans when in office. He did leave open the possibility that they might pull the Republicans slightly libertarian. He doubted anything substantial would be done in terms of fiscal austerity measures until the bond-market began to respond negatively, although even there he noted that what ultimately happens is uncertain. Libertarians want to slash spending now for more political/philosophical reasons. But there is a large contingent of people (including myself) who see the budget problem as being a long-term entitlements and revenue problem having nothing to do with short-term spending increases. Jones suggested it was not a foregone conclusion that the libertarian position would be the dominant one, and that when the bond-market does start to get concerned these two perspectives would be competing to set the narrative. I spoke up at this point and also ntoed that it wouldn't only be a fiscal policy debate - when long-term interest rates start to show signs of trouble, we're going to see even more pressure for monetary easing. Jones responded that we still don't know all that much about monetary policy and long-term rates, which I would agree with him on.
Paul Gessing of the Rio Grande Foundation was the final speaker and he discussed the situation of New Mexico, which has been dominated by Democrats for decades and is now starting to turn Republican/Tea Party. He described the severe poverty in New Mexico, and how some reforms started by libertarian governor Gary Johnson and current governor Bill Richardson have helped out. In many ways, Gessing's talk was the most open (from a political perspective) of all three of them. Gessing is clearly a strong libertarian, but he had no problem praising Richardson for what he did right and not rejecting all non-libertarians simply because they didn't adhere to everything he stood for. I imagine if your state is as dominated by a single party as his is, you get to appreciate decent policy whenever you can get it. Like Jones, Gessing was skeptical of the idea that the Tea Party would be any different from the Republican Party when in power. Another thing that came up during Gessing's talk was the importance of federalism, which of course is another thing I talk about a lot on here and I think is central to reform in this country.
Kevin Rollins Plug
Before closing this, I want to promote Kevin Rollins's website, The Free Liberal, where he promotes this work, as well as Econ Journal Watch, which he edits. He expects to hold more of these events in the future, which I hope to continue to attend, contribute to, and write about. The Free Liberal group (a lot of the attendees seem to be members) looks like a great, positive, libertarian forum in the Northern Virginia area.