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52


L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 52, July 31, 1999

Where Are Those Civil Libertarian Democrats?

by Michael R. Allen
mrallen@spintechmag.com

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

           I'll admit it - I like left-wingers.
           Not Clintonists, not The New Republic crowd, not the Democratic Socialists of America, not even the relatively harmless limousine liberals. What I like is the decentralist left, which consistently opposes imperial foreign policy, attacks on civil liberties, and the Democratic party. In short, leftists who know that 'is' means exactly what it looks like.
           In today's world, though, these leftists are as rare as their right-wing counterparts in politics. Like hard-line libertarians and constitutionalists, anti-authoritarian left-wingers have few allies in elected office, though in the real world (i.e. outside of Washington, D.C.) they abound. The anti-war rallies this past month were composed of many on the left who eschew the symbolic, statist politics of Bill Clinton.
           However, the Democratic party is no friendly home to civil libertarians; like the Republican party it is a world apart from its alleged constituents. Most of the leftists I respect already hate the Democrats, but it is popularly thought that Democrats defend civil liberties against Republican Miss Grundy's. While there are numerous issues where the difference between left-wing activists and congressional liberals (mostly Democrats) is clear, I will focus on an issue where I share a position emphatically with the activists: financial privacy.
           Though raised initially by libertarians and various right-wingers as an issue, defeating the "Know Your Customer" (KYC) regulations was quickly assumed as a goal by the American Civil Liberties Union. Banking regulations like KYC target for profiling people who deposit large amounts of cash in banks, and are seen rightly as an invasion of the agreement between banker and depositor.
           KYC is not the first such invasion of privacy in banking; the Bank Secrecy Act and other laws have mandated profiling. In order to reverse the tide, Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), working with Reps. Tom Campbell (R-CA) and Ron Paul (R-TX), introduced an amendment to H.R. 10, the Financial Services Act of 1999. The amendment killed KYC and made other changes in the old laws -- changes which proved too strong for the Democrats in Congress.
           Rep. John LaFalce (D-NY) arrogantly stated: "I am sorry that [the Barr amendment] was permitted." This is the same congressman who had earlier in the day urged his colleagues to vote against the consideration of H.R. 10 on grounds that its protection of medical privacy was insufficient! Is this hypocrisy?
           Perhaps it would be if one assumed Democrats are the partisans of civil liberties. The language LaFalce and others supported for medical privacy called for government intrusion to enforce the privacy protection. Barr's amendment took power away from government, which engendered immediate opposition from liberal Democrats.
           It was best said by another New York Democrat, Representative Carolyn Maloney, when she labeled the amendment "anti-law-enforcement." If the message isn't clear enough there, try Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA): "The ... amendment should be entitled 'The Drug Dealers' Improvement Act of 1999'..." The Democrats who opposed the amendment were appalled at the its anti-authoritarian tone, and rushed to defend government against the attack. Notions of civil liberty do not matter when it is the individual being protected from, not by, government.
           When the vote was counted, twelve Democrats joined about half of all Republicans to approve the Barr amendment. Of those twelve, only four could be characterized as liberal or left-wing.
           The Democratic party has built a reputation as a defender of free speech, privacy, and other decent values. But its advocacy of those issues, unlike that of earnest civil libertarians, is limited to instances where a.) protecting privacy establishes a new role for government; b.) mean, conservative Republicans are against a freedom; and c.) supporting liberty involves no political risk. Of course, these three instances largely ring true for Republicans, but no one tags the GOP the party of choice for the ACLU crowd.
           In Beyond Left and Right, A. Lawrence Chickering identifies why the Democratic party, and liberals in general, do not truly advocate civil liberty:

"One tendency -- the order left -- looks to politics, especially centralized politics, to realize its visions of community and equality. The order left dominates the Democratic party in the United States because its principal constituent interest groups are of the order left ... labor unions, environmentalist organizations, the women's movement."

           On the other hand, civil libertarians tend to be anti-authority, even if they inconsistently oppose free market economics. These leftists are not represented in politics as well precisely because they distrust the political process. Those liberals who succeed in politics are those that lack a single fiber of skepticism about authority.
           I am usually quick to criticize left-wing activists, and not merely because I disagree with their political agenda. There are elements of the left which are my necessary allies on important issues. When I criticize them, it is because they drift too close to the order left in their support for federal spending or mainstream liberal politicians. The decentralist left needs to be nurtured.
           As for the liberals who love the state, they can never, ever be the allies of anyone who loves liberty.


Michael R. Allen is editor-in-chief of SpinTech Magazine (http://www.spintechmag.com) and a columnist for Right Magazine (http://www.rightmagazine.com).


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