Lessons on Partisanship for Libertarians

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Hey partisans — sit on it! Photo: Reason

My item about the Occupy Wall Street movement has raised the hackles of Reason editor Matt Welch, who replies by accusing me of partisanship. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Reason magazine's writers, it’s that they think I’m "partisan."

Last year ReasonTv editor and leather jacket fetishist Nick Gillespie called me an "unflagging Democratic stalwart." Later that year, Gillespie called me a "reliable Democratic partisan." Then, last spring, Reason's Ronald Bailey called me "Über-partisan." Then, last month, Gillespie, running out of synonyms, referred to me among "Democratic partisans such as The New Republic's Jonathan Chait." (If you're going to be a cool rebel who uses a leather jacket as a trademark visual, you need your own signature put-down catchphrase, and "partisan" is Gillespie's version of "sit on it.")

Welch has also taken time out from calling me a Democratic partisan to describe me as a "longtime John McCain fanboy." Partisans who are fanboys for politicians in the opposite party are the worst kind of partisan, you know.

Partisan thinking is an important problem, and it's worth thinking about what it means, because Welch and his libertarian buddies at Reason obviously don't understand it. Obviously, being a conservative or a liberal makes you far more likely to agree with one party most of the time. It's important, though, to distinguish between ideological agreement and partisanship. My views tend to place me close to the center of the Democratic Party. I'm in favor of universal health care, education reform, more progressive taxation, lower deficits, hawkish internationalism — the principles generally advanced by figures like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

It's important to hold the party you agree with to account when it fails to stand for the right principles. Probably a better and more important marker of partisan thought is how you react to questions that have nothing to do with ideology. After all, a lot of the time, we're not arguing about questions that reflect different visions of government, but about whether Chris Christie is too fat to be president or whether the filibuster is a good thing or whether Dick Cheney's hunting accident is a big deal. If you're always siding with one party over issues like that, it's a bad sign. If you're reversing your principles depending on which party holds power — denouncing things like the filibuster and recess appointments only when the other party uses them, and defending them when your party does — it's a very big problem.

Welch, in his latest post, kinda-sorta implies that I'm a partisan hypocrite. He begins by quoting other people hyperventilating about the dangerous violence of the tea party, then quotes me discussing Occupy Wall Street in more sanguine tones. The problem here is that the first batch of quotes doesn't contain anything written by me. That's kind of a necessary ingredient for accusing somebody of holding a double standard. You can't really do it by demonstrating that a person has contradicted positions expressed by other people. And, in fact, I have strongly criticized liberal hysteria over "violent language," and especially the attempt to connect right-wing rage to the shooting of Gabby Giffords.

Many libertarians, and especially Welch and his colleagues, like to use a different definition of partisanship. Libertarians hold far-right views on economics and left-wing views on social issues and foreign policy, meaning they don't fit in comfortably with either party. Many (though not, of course, all) libertarians like to present this as proof of their own intellectual independence.

It's certainly true that libertarians are not going to be partisan. Yet the mere fact that your views are too marginal to find representation in a political party does not make them independent. If you're going to automatically oppose any military intervention, new spending programs, or regulation, and automatically favor every tax cut, you're hardly unbound by dogma. In the same way, communists, UFO conspiracy theorists and followers of Lyndon LaRouche are very non-partisan, but this doesn't tell you anything terribly flattering about their ability to think for themselves.

People like Welch and Gillespie want their readers to judge arguments by using the heuristic of which person is more "partisan," as opposed to which makes the more compelling and intellectually honest case. Their motivation for doing so is obvious.