It’s looking increasingly
likely that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to take a pass on the opportunity
to become the California Republican Party’s savior. Aides have told
reporters that he is currently leaning against jumping into the race for
governor, a bid that could make him the leading candidate should the recall
against embattled incumbent Gray Davis prevail, and they don’t anticipate
anything changing his mind.
So the Golden State GOP is going to have to look elsewhere for a candidate
who might actually be able to carry the first question recalling Davis and
then win the replacement round on question two – possibly settling on former
Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan or his onetime primary nemesis Bill Simon,
the 2002 gubernatorial nominee. And another celebrity faux libertarian
appears likely to pass from the political scene.
The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund has dubbed the Terminator a “compassionate libertarian.” Reason
editor Nick Gillespie is less enthusiastic on the libertarian score, but
he had hoped Schwarzenegger would be a candidate who could get help get lifestyle
issues – such as drugs, homosexuality and politicians’ purely personal peccadilloes
– out of politics.
The extent of Arnold’s libertarianism is that he supports legal abortion
and gay adoption, introduced a 1991 video issue of Milton and Rose Friedman’s
Free to Choose in which he proclaimed American individualism
good/European socialism bad, and widely reported drug use (he has been called
the Timothy Leary of steroids and he toked up onscreen in the 1977 documentary
Pumping Iron). Yet he also supports his state’s
assault weapons ban, championed a ballot initiative requiring taxpayers to
dish out $550 million per year for before-and-after school programs and has
otherwise seems to have conventional views on size-of-government issues.
(To be fair, Fund reports that Schwarzenegger made a number of low-key overtures
to economic conservatives while pondering the race, including hints that
he would restore a state spending limit that was abandoned in 1990).
Gillespie says this political outlook “mirrors a contemporary consensus that
generally wants a slightly smaller, more efficient government that nonetheless
delivers a large number of public services” – something that practically
everyone wants, but is probably impossible to indefinitely deliver.
At best, Schwarzenegger represented lifestyle libertarianism. He is
not the first celebrity to do so. Comedian Bill Maher famously described
himself as a “libertarian” while hosting “Politically Incorrect,” despite
his support for gun control, the Department of Education (his support of
government schools is so strong he referred to one private alternative, home-schooling,
as “the social version of inbreeding”) and the big-government Kyoto accord.
What makes him a libertarian? His support for legalized drugs, prostitution
and abortion – and Libertarians for Life would argue that not all libertarians agree with the last. A 2001 Salon
piece by Dann Halem quoted conservative chatroom denizens describing Maher
as “a tax and spend politically correct liberal who's a-okay with the Leviathan
state as long as he gets his Hustler, his hookers and his hash.”
Another celebrity who became a successful politician, former professional
wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, also has been described as
a libertarian because of similar positions. Although he was less of
a statist than Maher, he too staked out some unlibertarian positions: he
supported McCain-style campaign finance reforms and subsidies for lightrail
while opposing some tax cuts on fiscal-responsibility grounds (rather than
endorsing reduced spending) and school choice.
You don’t have to be famous to be a pol who passes off liberalism as libertarianism.
During his ill-fated 1996 Republican presidential bid, veteran Sen. Arlen
Specter described himself as “a fiscal-economic conservative and a social
libertarian.” There is just one problem with this: He was neither.
In some years, the National Journal has rated his economic voting record
as majority liberal and he has been more supportive of regulations and spending
and less supportive of tax and budget cuts than many of his GOP colleagues.
On social issues involving abortion and sexual orientation, he goes beyond
the libertarian position by endorsing active government intervention through
subsidy and regulation.
Another example is former Massachusetts governor William Weld. In his
first gubernatorial race in 1990, his Democratic opponent was a New Dealer
who was conservative on some social issues. This allowed the anti-tax,
pro-choice and pro-gun Weld to position himself as a strikingly libertarian
alternative, a different kind of Republican. During his first term,
he was a breath of fresh air to all who had felt stifled by the growth of
government under Michael Dukakis. His first state budget actually spent
less than in the previous year and he pressed forward with efforts to lower
taxes and clear away red tape that helped revive the Bay State’s moribund
Safely reelected to a second term with 71 percent of the vote (one of those
votes being mine), he began to cozy up to the Democratic legislature he had
railed against four years before. Weld signed a 55 percent legislative
pay raise, began to tolerate increasingly large state budget increases and
took the traditional regulatory approach to environmental issues. Along
the way he came out for racial preferences, dropped his support for Second
Amendment rights and became a staunch gun-controller. Although Weld
supported medical marijuana and his drug enforcement laxity was Jesse Helms’
pretense for denying him an ambassadorship to Mexico (proffered by that great
libertarian Bill Clinton), he often bragged in speeches about his drug warrior
credentials from his service in the Reagan Justice Department. If Bill
Weld is a libertarian, then Billy Graham is a Zen Buddhist.
As David Frum pointed out in his 1994 book Dead Right, even Weld’s social
permissiveness was not always libertarian. His gay rights positions
did not simply get government out of people’s bedrooms – they often enlarged
the state government’s regulatory power over local governments and the private
sector. Whatever one’s opinion of such policies, they are not libertarian.
Whether libertarians are bothered by the conflation of social liberalism
and libertarianism tends to vary based on their priorities. Libertarians
who believe that lifestyle and privacy issues represent the gravest threat
to our liberties tend to welcome help from the Schwarzeneggers, Venturas
and Welds despite the ideological inconsistencies. Others who emphasize
economic freedom and believe our private property and free exchange rights
are most at risk are more likely to criticize self-styled libertarians who
in fact favor bigger government. So, considering that I am no libertarian
purist myself, what does it matter? Why do I care?
There are two reasons. Allowing people who essentially want free lifestyle
choices paid for by other people through the welfare state to represent themselves
as defenders of individual liberty hurts that cause. It helps people
confuse liberty with license and irresponsibility. It is not uncommon to
hear people inaccurately describe libertarianism as a political movement
of people who want to be free to take drugs while the rest of us pay for
it – is this how libertarians want people to understand their ideology?
But more importantly, given conservatism’s recent drift toward increased
statism, anything that hurts libertarians and reduces their influence hurts
the cause of smaller government. Serious conservatives cannot hope
to revive constitutionalism and shrink government, particularly at the federal
level, without libertarian help. Big government conservatism cannot
be brought to heel without resurgent libertarian thought on the right.
This will not happen if Bill Maher and the moderate-to-liberal wing of the
Republican Party are seen as more representative of libertarianism than F.A.
Hayek or Milton Friedman.
There are plenty of people who confuse libertarians and contemporary liberals
already. Many seem stumped by the similarity between the words’ first
syllables alone. People generally think of civil libertarians, like
the ACLU, as being on the left. On top of that, libertarianism is descended
from the political philosophy originally known as liberal. Some true
believers prefer to call themselves “classical liberals” or “market liberals,”
hoping to take this name back from the social democrats who have captured
it. This seems like a losing battle.
Ed Clarke, the most successful Libertarian Party presidential candidate up
to this point in history, often sold his party’s philosophy as “low-tax liberalism.”
As we approach a presidential election in which many libertarians appear
poised to support the candidacy of Howard Dean, who has proposed effective
tax increases to pay for a new national health care program, one waits for
the day an enterprising politico runs for office promising oxymoronic “high-tax
libertarianism.” Stranger things have happened.
W. James Antle III is a Senior Editor for EnterStageRight.com and a primary columnist for IntellectualConservative.com. He is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachussetts.