In several posts I have aimed to show how one might imagine bridging the gap between libertarians and progressives on their fundamental disagreements concerning economic policy. For example, I have suggested that Robert Frank's progressive consumption tax proposal might be a policy that both libertarians and progressives find acceptable and helpful if not ideal.
Creative solutions to long standing problems often come not by having everyone agree to one specific way to solve the problem. Frank's proposal in some ways illustrates a synthesis of solutions, taxing only voluntary consumption (a libertarian ideal) and taxing in a way that asks more of those who have more and less of those who have less (a progressive ideal).
My main proposal here is not quite a synthesis as it is a mutual and temporary accommodation for the sake of getting something better done rather than allowing the corporate duopoly to totally shaft everyone of us for another 4 years.
Progressives and libertarians are both non-interventionists or at least truly reluctant interventionists when it comes to foreign policy. We both agree that our nation spends obscenely too much money on war and war preparation, so much so that we end up making war more likely. We both agree this money could be put to much better use.
We disagree, however, on what is the better use we could put this money to. We progressives would like to take every dime and use it to fund national green infrastructure projects, universal single payer health care and after these sorts of projects are sufficiently funded, to pay down the debt. Libertarians would like to use most or all of this money for lowering and/or eliminating taxes while shrinking the size of government to reduce debt, so that individuals and businesses keep more of their hard earned money to spend, save or invest in whatever ways they choose, allowing market forces to punish foolish choices and reward wise ones.
I try not to debate too much here which idea is the best although some of that is essential in the dialogue. Instead, I try to ask myself what policy would address the biggest concerns and embrace the most compelling ideas of both sides in as equal of a way as possible. One could argue that such a formula is a foolish way to make policy. I agree to a certain extent. I am of the pragmatic school that says, find out what works and fund that and de-fund the stuff that does not work.
The pragmatic approach is a fairly sound way to go about policy making as long as one does not assume that there is only one way to skin a cat (such an archaic, trite,and violent analogy, I know). Both progressives and libertarians understandably argue, we need more of this (tax cuts or infrastructure contracts) and less of that (tax subsidies for the already rich or infrastructure spending on bridges to nowhere). I say, depending on the context, both sides might be right.
I might say to my libertarian friend, Would the private sector have ever built the interstate highway system without government intervention and funding? To which she might reply, maybe not, but if we did not have to surrender our money to a central planner who over-regulates us, we probably would have developed a voluntarily funded transportation system that connects businesses and individuals rather than bypasses them. Reasonable people can make reasonable proposals that contradict one another with neither side doing so with malicious intent.
Where we sometimes get into unneccessary conflict is assuming that all contradictions are irreconcilible and that such contradictions are indicative of totally opposing goals and means to those goals. For example, it is often assumed that libertarians are always against centralized power and always in favor of the most localized power possible, individual power being the most effective way to get the best results. Conversely, it is also often assumed that progressives are against individual autonomy and localized power and always in favor of central planning.
These assumptions are found wanting when viewed more carefully. Libertarians are not against central planning as long as that those centralized powers gain power though an unfettered market place. Suspending the temptation to argue that unfettered market places do not and perhaps cannot exist, let's just assumed that Walmart gained all of its power (I am still talking primarily here about economic power) through being the best buyer and most cost competitive seller of the biggest variety of consumer products. If that is true then shareholders in Walmart may hire through their board of directors one person or a small group of people to work from one location to set policy for every Walmart store and employee in the world. (Not saying this is precisely what Walmart does but Walmart could function this way in total conformity with every libertarian principle that Ron Paul believes and lives by.) Without making a value judgement, it is possible within a libertarian frame of reference to fully endorse highly centralized power.
In the same manner, progressives would be perfectly happy with local governments and individuals making their own policies, laws and procedures without mandates or funding from the federal government and consequently with much lower taxes imposed from Washington, DC if those policies, laws, procedures, etc. resulted in full employment and universal, affordable, quality healthcare. (Once again I'm asking for a suspension of the argument that such has not ever been tried.) We can go further in stating that progressives are just as much likely as libertarians are to be involved or not in local and voluntary organizations and businesses which promote employment, hard work, just compensation, etc. We progressives want, just as much as libertarians do, to see individuals in local settings work hard and be rewarded for productive decisions and practices.
In short we progressives are very willing to move economic and political power away from Washington and Wall Street toward local and voluntary individuals and organizations as long as this increases rather than decreases human viability, dignity and worth both physically and spiritually. Of course, we will not agree that shutting down Washington will result in such advances or even reduce the centralization of political and economic power. However, would libertarians not be willing to partner with progressives if this meant money and power moved out of Washington and into the hands of of state governments to either enable tax cuts for individuals and businesses or state and local spending on whatever the state and localities deemed appropriate? What if partnering with progressives meant that 99% of the population paid less in taxes than they do under current law? What if we went from 5 marginal rates to only 4 and what if those margins began after a much higher exemption and continued in much a wider range at the bottom and the middle and only applied to money spent, not to savings or investment?
And to flip this back to progressives like me... what if giving up on Washington to partner with libertarians meant that your state would fund the hiring of more foreign language and physical education teachers for elementary schools? Or that new and energy efficient schools with the latest technologies were built all around your state and not just in districts and neighborhoods that could afford it. What if your state could compact with several surrounding states to fund and build a high speed rail system or single payer health insurance? Wouldn't legislation to enact such projects go through easier in state legislatures if the funds were there than if we wait for such projects being approved by the US Senate?
I know my libertarian readers are banging their heads against their I-pads right now. Why not just eliminate or at least massively reduce everybody's taxes, and if the market wants those things, let consumers and investors pay for them voluntarily? No need to loop the money up and through Washington and back down through state houses and city halls before a little bit of it comes back to me. Again, maybe you, my libertarian friend could do much more and better with $60K untaxed and in your wallet or bank account than $60K coming to your kids' school district from 3 millionaires in another state through a series of government bureaucrats. But consider this: wouldn't receiving block grants from Washington while most people are sending less to Washington over the next 4 to 8 years be better than what you will get from either Obama II or Romney I?
Time after time I have been trying to ask both progressives and libertarians, do you really want the unattainable perfect to be the enemy of the attainable good? And if you are willing to wait until final victory and unconditional surrender is within reach, are you really going to get anything better than what you are getting now?
Not to close this with something obviously self serving, but if you would prefer better to bad or worse,even if the best has to wait for another decade, how about linking this blog on every progressive and every libertarian site you know of and send this link to all you know on your mailing list who are tempted to vote for .... Well you know their names, their promises,... and their results.