Where Are Those Civil Libertarian Democrats?
by Michael R. Allen
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:
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,
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
"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
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
and a columnist for Right Magazine (http://www.rightmagazine.com).