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It is a confusing time for partisan alignments in America. A handful of conservatives have renounced the Republican Party as it degrades into what former Republican Max Boot calls “a white-nationalist party with a conservative fringe.” Libertarians (including “neoliberals,” a label some have tried to reclaim) might similarly find themselves unmoored. The protectionist, militarist, fiscally catastrophic, and, yes, white-nationalist Republicans are no option. But the primary victories of candidates affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset, might rattle those considering the Democrats.
Indeed, as a Democrat-voting libertarian — a label I accept hesitatingly, given its baggage, but an accurate one for my pro-immigration, anti-police-violence, and regulation-skeptical views — I’ve watched DSA’s ascendance ambivalently.
On one hand, the candidates have dragged establishment figures left on issues like enfranchisement and drugs. Most encouragingly, Ocasio-Cortez helped elevate the “abolish ICE” slogan — referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — from the left-wing fringe to a litmus test for 2020. One might think DSA presents libertarians an opportunity to write the next chapter of Ralph Nader’s book “Unstoppable,” a history of recent cross-ideological alliances to “dismantle the corporate state.”
On the other hand, DSA is, well, socialist — and, of course, its members promote policies that libertarians recognize as somewhere between ill-advised and disastrous.
During his presidential campaign, avowed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders espoused some libertarian-friendly views even beyond social issues, like opposing bank bailouts and corporate influence on policy-making, and dismissed the idea that “government should own the means of production.” But his national $15 minimum wage would probably significantly hurt employment, and, as Hillary Clinton noted, his notorious free-college plan would be deeply regressive. But Bernie is a neoliberal sellout by the standards of other DSA rhetoric: At a New York DSA rally, a banner called for abolishing both ICE (great) and profit (bad). Earlier this year, Los Angeles DSA banded with wealthy landowners to defeat Senate Bill 827, which would have liberalized the state’s zoning and tamed its skyrocketing rents.
But libertarians should eagerly accept these tradeoffs.
The gravest threats to liberty in America are deportation and mass incarceration. Immigration serves as an excellent litmus test for whether self-proclaimed libertarians actually believe in individual rights or merely seek the “right to be left alone for themselves and their tribe.” As Bryan Caplan (star of last week’s column) forcefully argues, migration is a fundamental human right, and its treatment as anything less should appall us. The injustices of imprisoning someone for a “crime” that violates nobody’s rights, whether selling marijuana or overstaying a visa — let alone separately imprisoning their child, a practice that continues — demand our immediate attention. ICE has been accused of a number of abuses — including retaliations against journalists and activists and the sexual assault of thousands of detainees. Meanwhile, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has announced a “denaturalization task force” focused on deporting American citizens. Libertarians must focus on abolishing ICE and decriminalizing migration now. Tax rates on the wealthiest earners can take a back seat.
Now, whether libertarians should vote for a DSA-backed candidate obviously depends on the particulars (see SB 827). But in national politics, left-wing Democrats, including those with the DSA label, represent the most viable option, electorally and politically, for addressing these urgent issues.
The electoral successes of DSA-backed candidates have already dwarfed those of the Libertarian Party: In addition to Sanders and the near-inevitably-elected Ocasio-Cortez, DSA affiliates have won a major-city district attorney election (to very libertarian-friendly results), a medium-city mayoralty, and various primaries and elections in state-congressional races.
Do other major-party factions offer better possibilities? No. The Republicans’ “anti-establishment” wing, the Freedom Caucus, have shown themselves either false libertarians or utter cowards in their deference to the administration’s statist drug and immigration policies. It’s hard to imagine DSA Democrats similarly falling in line behind Democratic leadership: Sanders, for one, openly called for a primary challenger to Barack Obama. Conversely, establishment Democrats might appeal to some economic policy-wonk libertarians or neoliberals as socially progressive technocrats. Yet they have failed to leverage their minority-party status as Republicans did under the Obama presidency, when Ted Cruz essentially single-handedly shut down the government over Obamacare, and have embraced civil-libertarian positions (like abolishing ICE) only under threat from their left.
Instead, libertarians should hope for a left-Democrat caucus strong enough to extract concessions (yet, ideally, too weak to determine the party’s economic agenda). Ocasio-Cortez has proposed such a caucus. Far-right Republicans followed this model to block immigration reform this year and in 2014, despite majority support in both chambers. (So much for the “Freedom” Caucus.) A small DSA bloc might use similar methods — perhaps threatening to shut down the government more credibly than center-left Democrats — to force the issue on DACA, family reunification, or even, say, future surveillance expansions. It could not launch a massive expansion of the regulatory state, let alone “abolish profit."
Even if DSA swings the economic platform leftward, “top neoliberal shill” Noah Smith has argued that Ocasio-Cortez’s proposals aren’t necessarily so awful (for consequentialists). And her “green new deal,” depending on its execution, might be reconcilable with libertarian principles: even Murray Rothbard and Robert Nozick recognized pollution as infringing on others’ property rights.
Ultimately, though, the greatest upside to an alliance with the left lies in its anti-establishment streak. Candidates who, like Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez, refuse corporate and super PAC donations, are less beholden to the “iron triangles” — comprising government agencies, the contractors who extract inordinate profits or regulatory capture from them, and policymakers who rely on the latter’s donations and pass such pork-barrel funding — that drain public funds and ossify bad policies. And in direct-action anarchist brilliance, DSA activists heckled Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant — and, one day later, the administration announced an end to the family separation policy.
So, on that inspiring note, let’s suspend disagreement on marginal tax rates. Let’s bring together everyone who agrees that people who weaponize state power to enrich themselves or rip families apart should not blissfully carry on at Mexican restaurants. I’ll give it to Nader, that old libertarian-progressive rabble-rouser: That alliance does sound unstoppable.
Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson Arts Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column usually appears on alternate Fridays.
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