06/18/2010 10:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Liberals and Libertarians: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda?

Like wine and cheese, liberals and libertarians should go together, but it hasn't happened and probably won't.

So while the United States, and a good deal of what we used to refer to as the Western World, move ever closer to insolvency, poverty, and the prospective collapse of democracy itself, two groups of people who have a history of philosophical support for democratic capitalism go their own way like orphaned siblings, separated at birth.

Blame for this state of affairs could be spread around, but it is the liberals, or what's left of them, who are most blameworthy.

It will come as a surprise to many, particularly the young, to know that there was a time when liberalism was marked by such attributes as tolerance, broad-mindedness, and generosity of spirit.

But that was before liberals morphed into "progressives." And before liberalism's clerisy embraced the rhetoric of political correctness, and the policy nostrums of special interest lobbies and antediluvian leftists.

One could wonder how this has happened; how it is that there is so little support and understanding, among liberalism's armies, of capitalism's contribution to democracy and political liberty. Or of the great sociopolitical need, in countries with popular democracies (the United States especially), for abundance and economic growth.

Libertarians understand this, but apparently today's progressives do not. Perhaps this is because progressives have moved beyond such mundane concerns in favor of more exotic pursuits, like finding and organizing groups of people with societal grievances of one kind or another.

Or maybe there's a political explanation. Perhaps it was George W's reign, marked by his cruel and mistaken Iraqi adventure and his "nation building" agenda, not to mention the unseemly way he became president in the first place. Perhaps W's eight years in office radicalized liberals and liberalism beyond sensibility.

Whatever the cause, one thing is, or should be, entirely clear: If there's ever to be any kind of political union between liberals and libertarians, it's the liberals who are going to have to move. Libertarians have already given all they can.

From the support of many (much rued in hindsight) for the candidacy of Barack Obama, to their position on social and foreign policy issues, libertarians have given aid and comfort to many "liberal" causes. What they haven't done, and won't do, is abandon marketplace economics. It's the liberals who are going to have to get their heads, if not their hearts, around that concept.

Sorry to say, even if that were to happen today it might be too late. This, because right now the United States and large parts of the rest of the world are facing economic problems that threaten more than just their standard of living.

As the head of the European Commission put it just last week, the "crisis-hit countries in Southern Europe could fall victim to military coups or popular uprisings as interest rates soar and public services collapse because their governments run out of money."

And the Old World isn't alone in its economic misery. Here at home the United States is struggling with unemployment problems that look all the more intractable given "stimulus" and other government programs (and the concomitant explosive growth in federal deficits) which have done nothing to expand the private sector work force.

Worse still, there are many who believe that those middle class jobs that have been lost are not coming back. If this proves to be the case, one wonders how these displaced persons are going to respond. These are not, after all, student activists whose concerns are funded on mom and pop's dime. Nor are they part of a class of people who've never known anything but government support.

These are people who've played by the rules, worked and paid taxes, and raised their families without relying on others to provide for them. If the time comes that large numbers of them find themselves facing withering and sustained hardship, what might their reaction be? What if they don't take it well?

There can be little doubt that, politically, the country is growing more conservative, a trend that in all likelihood will find expression in deep congressional losses for the Democrats in the fall elections. But this, by itself, isn't a guarantee of anything, merely a reaction to hard and unsettling times.

The clear and present danger is that our economic problems have already placed this country in what chess players call a "mating net," from which there may be no political escape consistent with our pluralistic, marketplace, and democratic ideals.

An early sign of this are those programs, like the government's takeover of General Motors, which constitute a kind of "crony capitalism." If, in future days, this begets something worse--like the kind of "state capitalism" that is seen in China, Russia, and among the Arab states, it is a lead-pipe certainty that political liberty will be circumscribed as well.

As Ian Bremmer warns, "Over the next five, ten, twenty years, state capitalist governments and the companies and institutions they empower will be a serious and global force to be reckoned with...The threat for Americans is that all this is happening at a moment when people are struggling, and their elected leaders have every incentive to respond to that fear and anger with promises to throw up walls meant to protect them from all these changes."

If the prospect of a future with diminished liberty isn't enough reason for liberals to stand up, reclaim their heritage, and liberate themselves from the dead hand of progressivism, nothing else will do the trick. If, on the other hand, liberals were to bestir themselves and link arms with libertarians, they might become a powerful force, if not so much politically as morally and intellectually. And in the process they might just help save some of the best aspects of the world as we know it.


Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit organization supported by media and communications companies. The views expressed above are his alone, and not those of the Institute, its Board or contributors.