(with apologies to Louis Malle)
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of lunch with Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Michael Munger. Since he openly invited me to that lunch here on BlueNC, and I accepted, I reckon he won't mind if I share some of my thoughts on the experience with my fellow wild-eyed progressives.
I will begin with the most important thing I learned:
"Munger" rhymes with "hunger", not "plunger".
We started things off, bizarrely enough for anyone who's ever spoken with me, with a brief discussion of sports. Since my knowledge of the field ranges from meager (football) to nonexistent (everything else), this didn't take long, and after five minutes of that and ordering food, it was time for my new acquaintance and I to launch directly into laissez-faire capitalism, authoritarianism, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Barry Goldwater, Paul Volker, ballot access laws, the value of incremental reform, the peculiar tendency of U.S. capitalist/individualist libertarian collectives to engage in ideological purity tests and purges, Arrow's Theorem, the utility of the gold standard, the housing price and consumer credit crises, apostatic confessionals (his: Republican, mine: Libertarian), and other fare supremely unsuited to polite conversation.
Another theme that arose was the conceptual decay of the term "democracy" over the past years, with Professor Munger sharing his incredulity and disgust with the Bush Administration's feeble grasp of it—not domestically, but in Iraq. The purple fingers of civil elections were touted by the White House Press Secretary and the right-wing/traditional media echo chamber as redemptive of Bush's nation-building strategy. While this point wasn't made at lunch, the situationalist nature of Bush/Republicans' embrace of representative elections as the key democratic institution was revealed by its response to the Palestinian elections of 2006. It should not be a surprise that without a stable social order, elections and referenda are unlikely to serve as damping functions on societal unrest.
A point of particular interest to Professor Munger was the question of why the Libertarian Party (LP) tends to hemorrhage so many bright people (that's my paraphrase). It turns out he already had a pretty good idea of the answer, but he invited me to share my own, which I interpreted as an opportunity to recount my own political journey (perhaps one not too common, as a second-generation, post-Watergate libertarian, the son of a founding member of the national party). I admit that my own story may not have held much intrinsic interest, but it was the best I could offer as I had not come prepared with a systematic examination of the question posed.
We spoke a bit about the phenomenon of authoritarianism, which offered me the chance to name-check Bob Altemeyer and his book The Authoritarians. Professor Munger observed that the United States is idiosyncratic among western democracies in that our share of authoritarians is overwhelmingly overrepresented by the right-wing variety, and not more equitably split between right- and left-wing varieties.
(It is important to note at this point that in the social science literature relating to authoritarianism, "right-wing" means simply "oriented to preservation of existing power structures", whereas "left-wing" means "oriented to overthrow of the existing power structures". A right-wing authoritarian [RWA] seeks to integrate within the existing power hierarchies, whether as follower or leader, and a left-wing authoritarian [LWA] seeks to supplant the existing power structures with new ones—again, with which they will identify and/or in which they will participate. The Bolsheviks are a good example of LWAs, to my mind, because they exemplify how even if a group's politics are "left", the societies they build may be every bit as repressive as those of a politically "right" dictatorship.)
In the United States, we've never had much of a problem with LWAs. The most serious threat to our political order (after the Civil War), was the Business Plot. (Perhaps one reason that putative putsch did not succeed was because it did not sufficiently appeal to RWAs. Newt Gingrich evidently had a better feel for the pulse of RWAs than Gerald McGuire did.)
I shared my observation that one thing Objectivists, laissez-faire capitalists, Libertarian Party libertarians, and Bush's hard-core 25% support base have in common is their enthusiastic embrace of litmus tests as an enforcement mechanism for doctrinal orthodoxy. (I did not mention evangelical Christian fundamentalists, but they probably went without saying.)
Perhaps the failure of the LP can be attributed to the excess of cognitive dissonance; yes, you can find some people willing to be Moonies for independent thought ("yes, we are all individuals"), but not enough to sustain a political movement. Or perhaps I am wrong, and it is possible for the LP to succeed with a social infrastructure so laughably at odds with its stated principles—maybe the problem is simply that the LP doesn't offer enough in the way of policy prescriptions that appeal to the typical voter.
While describing (at greater length than necessary, I'm sure) my own shift of attitude toward the LP from sympathy to frustration (or even contempt), I noted that an important step in my apostasy was, after college, obtaining a job that afforded me the luxury of disposable income. While I did not celebrate the fact that 27 to 33 percent of my gross income went to various taxing authorities, I noted that I could no longer sincerely place taxation near the top of my list of societal evils. Having lived a hand-to-mouth existence as an undergraduate, I appreciated its hazards, and did not have to personally experience the dramas of illness without health insurance, or being evicted due to late rent payments, or going hungry (on the contrary, like many college students, I achieved the dubious honor of a BMI classed as "overweight"), to appreciate the virtues of a social safety net.
But there's welfare, and then there's welfare, and since the end of World War II Republicans have been careful to distinguish the two. Even in elementary school I had a notion of the vast quantities of taxpayer dollars spent on military and intelligence projects (and as a teenager, I appreciated the fact that this also resulted in de facto massive market-distorting subsidies to affiliated firms). The Libertarians at least nominally opposed both social and corporate welfare, but their economically conservative brethren still with the GOP were not consistent. Oddly, this did not result in major hostility among Libertarians toward the Republicans. While the LP would mouth its slogans about "Voting Republicrat Means More of the Same", in practice, it was broadly understood that, especially in the many races where the LP did not field a candidate, it was socially acceptable to vote for a Republican, almost never for a Democrat. Unless, that is, the Republican was too socially conservative. Such selective flexibility with respect to an outgroup in combination with strict ideological controls internally was an inconsistency too great for me to bear.
Another fact that should never go unremarked in these discussions is that while the federal government's profligacy under the Reagan Administration—which ended with a national debt at historic highs in both absolute size and rate of growth—the GOP blamed "the Democratic Congress", not the "Reagan" (ERTA/Kemp-Roth) tax cut combined with the "strong America" conservatives' nearly psychotic obsession with increased militarization. But you'd have to have a pretty selective perceptual apparatus to not notice that not only was the conservative "deficit hawk" a nearly extinct species by the time the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, but that their passing was practically unremarked-upon and unlamented. Short of a supernatural figure descending to earth to etch stone tablets with lightning, I cannot imagine what could constitute to observers a clearer revelation of American economic conservatives' actual fiscal priorities. (I suspect the British can offer similar observations about their Thatcherite cousins.)
The key point underscoring the above for our community (to the extent that you folks share my perspective) is that Professor Munger seems sympathetic to all of it. He seems to want nothing more than to put lots of distance between himself and Rand and Rothbard, not just because he finds them ideologically disagreeable and intellectually unserious, but because he's never been close to them.
In my view, this makes him unusual as a member of the Libertarian Party, if perhaps less so as a high-profile candidate, because the LP will happily accept impure representatives on the ballot as long as they offer some celebrity clout and are former Republicans (vide Bob Barr).
Yes, unfortunately, Professor Munger is a typical Libertarian Party specimen in one sense; he used to be a Republican. He identified with them through the 1980s and 1990s, and left the GOP in 2002, because he (like everyone else with open eyes) could see the Iraq War coming, and profoundly disagreed with its prosecution.
Still, in most respects, and in the ways that matter more than personal history, Professor Munger is not your father's Libertarian (or my father's, either). He does not have the flat-earth problem so many of his fellows possess when it comes to externalities and other economic concepts. Dan Besse expertly brought this to light in our live blog with Professor Munger. I encouraged Professor Munger to elaborate regarding his differences with some economic planks of the LP platform, and urged him to respond at greater length here. From our progressive perspective, Professor Munger offers much less in the way of batshit crazy economic policy positions than his party does. He attributes this to actually being a trained economist. (I'm inclined to ascribe it to a willingness to engage one's critical faculties on economic issues.)
I registered Democratic this year for the first time in my life, so that I could vote for Barack Obama in the presidential primary. Despite my new affiliation, I will keep my eyes open for third parties and independents who have something valuable to offer.
More to the point, I think Professor Munger has something to offer BlueNC, and I hope he'll stick around here through the general election and well afterward.
Thanks to our antiquated, first-past-the-post election method, I will have to vote tactically in November; so unless the polling data show either Perdue or McCrory running away with the race, I won't be able to say that Professor Munger earned my vote. In a close race, I'll have to vote anti-Republican. But he has certainly earned my respect.
I look forward to breaking bread—or tortilla shells, as the case may be—with Professor Munger again in the future.