By Robert Capozzi
Where are we, politically, as a nation? Are we Left, Right, conservative, liberal…what? And what the heck is a “Free Liberal”?
Increasingly, in the “postmodern” world, the answers entirely depend on who you ask. Few would suggest that this nation – or the world – is where it should be. Most who have political views have, at least, a vague sense of where they believe the country should be, and what direction we should go in.
That seems reasonable. Rare is it that a nation is ever politically “ideal.” Too much collectivism, and a nation collapses economically, as in the name of equality, as the incentives to work, save, and invest are twisted to the point that vast portions of the populace are pushed into poverty.
Authoritarianism doesn’t work, either. Whether ruled by a monarchy or fascist elite, rule by the few at the expense of the many inevitably leads to tyranny. At some point, the tyranny collapses, with internal forces bringing down the regime or external forces toppling these corrupted nations.
Nations based on little-to-no government are few in history. Arguably, the United States has been an experiment in a very limited government. It’s indisputable that, using spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), the US has drifted from its small-government roots. While, as a nation, we have amassed great wealth, some of that wealth has been ill gotten.
The treatment of African Americans through slavery and Native Americans through treaty violations corroded this nation’s founding principle: That all people were created equal. So, in a sense, while the US started off as a seemingly small government as measured by government spending, that really doesn’t capture the full costs of government. If you were an African-American slave in 1776, government was enabling and supporting your enslavement, so in that sense, government was massive and thoroughly tyrannical, in effect.
Still, putting aside the treatment of slaves, Native Americans, and women, certain overarching trends become clear. As the nation grew, so has the State, the latter disproportionately so. Once the government at all levels took 10% of GDP. Currently, it’s in the 40-50% range, depending on how one measures the government’s impact on the private economy. As the State has grown, special interests, often economic elites, have taken advantage of the larger State, exacerbating the perception (and reality) that the gulf between the haves and have nots has grown.
While still used, the distinction between “left” and “right” no longer seems to capture the political landscape’s essence. Increasingly, many are coming to believe that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are tiny, to the point of their being indistinguishable.
A New Tool: The Transpartisan Triangle
The Transpartisan Triangle is a tool that helps us cut through the clutter.
As the above figure shows, the political environment is a triangle between three polar extremes: Communism, Fascism/Monarchism, and Anarchism. The Triangle posits that few nations ever achieve the polar extremes. Most are mixed, and somewhere in the middle of the Triangle. The north/south axis is a measure of individual liberty to complete statism. The left/right axis is a measure of whether a nation, on balance, has an environment that is beneficial to the many (egalitarian) or the few (elitist).
For illustrative purposes, the Transpartisan Triangle shows helps us understand the historical trends in the US. (Please note that the actual placements on the Triangle are subjective.) The US began as a small-state, with elitist tendencies. Government was small, but the nation had slavery, protectionism, and a bicameral legislature, one of which – the Senate – was not popularly elected. The President remains a non-popularly-elected post.
The nation has drifted – generally slowly – toward where it is today: Edging left and closer to the center, and far more south. The slow drift sometimes speeds up, such as during the Civil War and the Great Depression/World War II periods.
By contrast, France is further south and further left. The old Soviet Union – more so.
At any given time, there is what we’ll call the “mainstream zone,” as illustrated in Figure 2. There, the current debate of the day is conducted. Elected officials tend to all be very close to the epicenter, each tugging the country in infinitesimally small ways in one direction or another. Bush is just to the right of the epicenter, arguably in a southeasterly direction, based on the Iraq War and Patriot Act, for instance. On a few economic matters, he’s tugging north and right – his social security reforms and tax cuts come to mind. By contrast, Hillary Clinton tugs south and left generally.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Bernie Sanders, the independent, democratic socialist congressman from Vermont, is probably somewhere outside the mainstream zone, into the “cutting edge” zone, or even outside of that. Sanders seems to stand somewhere due southwest. Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas, well-known in constitutionalist and libertarian circles, is also probably out of the mainstream and into the cutting edge or beyond, tugging the debate due north.
Interest groups and pundits also line up, generally, in the mainstream zone. Some test the bounds of the mainstream; others step into the cutting edge zone.
Where are the Free Liberals?
Those who read this publication regularly should get the sense we write about matters that are clearly northerly. There is no Free Liberal “party line,” but we tend to want, first and foremost, less government. However, unlike orthodox libertarians and old-school, “paleo” conservatives, our writers tend to have more interest in matters that are of concern to “the many” over “the few.” Free Liberals tend to emphasize issues in a north and leftward direction.
Interestingly perhaps, few in the public square are in this quadrant. Conservatives generally emphasize right-leaning issues, sadly increasingly southeasterly issues. Under Bush, for instance, government spending – especially military spending – has increased rather dramatically, in context. Progressive liberals have long staked out the south and left quadrant.
For all his conflicting views, the president in recent years who might have been closest to a Free Liberal would be Bill Clinton. Post Cold War, Clinton told us during a State of the Union speech that the “era of Big Government is over.” While he didn’t necessarily follow through on that notion, in context he did, at least, slow the growth of government spending. He tended to emphasize issues that were for the many – those, who he liked to say, “Play by the rules” – but he did so with an eye toward a somewhat less-intrusive, more-efficient government.
Ronald Reagan, too, talked a pretty good Free Liberal game. His fixation on winning the Cold War, however, often conflicted with his somewhat populist, free market lean. His administration was also heavily influenced by the elitist supply-side school, who tugged the Gipper north and rightward.
The only notable pol, however, who seems to fit fairly consistently in the Free Liberal quadrant is Jesse Ventura, the very independent Governor of Minnesota. He tends, at least, to be skeptical of government solutions to social problems, and has a decidedly populist, of-the-people streak to his political positioning.
The other muscle-man governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, also does seem to have Free Liberal tendencies. California’s fiscal crisis makes his a monumental job. Though they have long been out of office, the former governors William Weld and Peter du Pont, too, can be viewed vaguely like the “Governator.”
It should be no surprise that conservatives push rightward. Their funding base has tended to be from either foundations set up by the affluent, or single-issue-energized grassroot organizations, such as firearms-rights and pro-life activists. Liberals have gotten their financial juice from guilt-ridden affluents (most Hollywood elites fit this category), labor unions, environmentalists, and the government (and therefore taxpayers.).
There is no obvious short-term beneficiary of the Free Liberal, north and leftward, quadrant. The appeal of this direction is far more transcendent of mere pocketbook issues. From a realpolitik perspective, that may seem like bad news.
The good news, however, is that government solutions to social ills have been shown time and again to fail. Unlike 30 years ago, this is now common knowledge. The Law of Unintended Consequences keeps proving to be correct. The skepticism about government has been a field long plowed by some conservatives and libertarians. However, the elitist, righward twinge to these camps tends to alienate the general public. Examples of such elitism include tax cuts targeted for the “rich” and a shocking contempt for environmental matters.
Liberals have been cowed by the conservatives, to the point that few advocate broad new government programs. Instead, they fight – and generally win – rearguard defenses of the status quo. Instead, liberals tend to stake out an anti-war and environmental pose as their key differentiators.
Since 9/11, conservatives have become mesmerized by the War on Terror. They are flooding the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security’s coffers, and thereby disregarding their smaller-government roots.
And, so, government during this administration has gotten nothing but bigger. There is a sort of stalemate, and southerly drift, in the current political landscape. The political knife fight has its victims: common men or women, who continue to be cut by the blades of both Left and Right, in the form of more government taxes and spending, more war, and more infringements on the basic liberties guaranteed us by the Constitution.
Yet, while the “patient” is wounded, the blood loss remains non-critical, for most. Our nation remains extremely affluent by historical and world standards. For perhaps the top 60% of the population, life is generally good in a material sense, with much disposable income and an ever-increasing array of choices in the marketplace. Charitable giving, large homes, dining out, travel, electronic devices…all these things are available to a strong majority of Americans.
Still, they have no voice in politics, which is increasingly the domain of special interests.
Perhaps a Free Liberal approach is it. By pushing both north and left, Free Liberals, in a sense, are small-government centrists. Mindful of both individual liberty and voluntary community, the Free Liberal message can reach out to thoughtful people on both the Left and Right, emphasizing areas of agreement rather than dispute. We suggest to all that free markets need not be Darwinian and that concern for community need not be coercive.
Robert Capozzi is a Contributing Editor to The Free Liberal. He works as a private investor. Capozzi is a former investor relations executive for several Washington, DC, area publicly traded corporations. In an earlier career, he was a policy analyst for Citizens for a Sound Economy, which he helped found. Capozzi has been a registered Congressional lobbyist. In addition to The Free Liberal, Capozzi has been published in the Baltimore Sun, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune, and Inquiry magazine.