Liberaltarianism in a Liberal Age

Robert Stacy McCain has a scathing post that seeks to permanently douse the concept of a left-libertarian coalition ever being a real possibility, which includes this little bit:

As a political impulse, the sort of libertarianism that scoffs at creationism and traditional marriage wields limited influence, because it appeals chiefly to a dissenting sect of the intelligentsia. It’s a sort of free-market heresy of progressivism, with no significant popular following nor any real prospect of gaining one, because most Ordinary Americans who strongly believe in economic freedom are deeply traditionalist. And most anti-traditionalists — the feminists, the gay militants, the “world peace” utopians — are deeply committed to the statist economic vision of the Democratic Party.

Yikes.  Now, of course, McCain is being somewhat hyperbolic in his characterization of the coalition of the political Left.  But in many ways there is a fair amount of truth to McCain’s fundamental point, which is that the response of the political Left to the economic crisis has dramatically undermined the basis for any theoretical coalition of “liberaltarians.”  To be sure, McCain thinks that the entire concept of such an alliance is a “luxury” that never had any chance at success, but the more pertinent issue is the role of the economic crisis in exploiting the divide between liberalism and libertarianism/classical liberalism.  This is a particularly difficult truth for me, as I have repeatedly gone on record predicting that “libertarians,” broadly defined, are likely to continue their recent trend towards the Democratic Party in terms of their voting habits.  Heck, I even put my money (and daughter’s toys) on the line by making a bet to this effect with John Schwenkler.

One of the things that has happened in the early days of the Obama Administration has been some fairly good (but by no means great) steps in the direction of restoring civil liberties and reigning in executive power.   While this is something libertarians such as me have absolutely cheered, the reality is that these issues were a major part of what was pushing libertarianism to the left in recent years.  As victories have been earned on those fronts, the entire basis for that move leftward is getting removed (although history tells us that we’re not about to see a complete restoration of civil liberties and balance of power anytime soon, either). 

To be sure, really good bases remain for a left-libertarian coalition on certain specific issues, especially the War on Drugs.  And I still fully agree with the great FA Hayek, whose opus Road to Serfdom describes many of those we now call liberals as essentially misled classical liberals (that we now call libertarians).  And that says nothing of his essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” – still relevant nearly half a century later.

So I still think that, at some point in time, progressives and libertarians will be reunited within a political coalition separate and distinct from conservatives.  But at a minimum the progressive response to the financial crisis, with its finger-pointing for the crisis almost solely at deregulation and its use of the stimulus bill as a means for implementing all sorts of pet projects that have little to do with stimulus even under a Keynesian analysis, has brought the economic divide between liberals and libertarians to the forefront in a way unseen for decades.

To be sure, I think conservatives – especially conservative politicians – have played a role in the whole situation, both by saddling us with massive debt in the name of the War on Terror and by repeatedly (and falsely) campaigning on the idea of Obama as a socialist (and thereby turning an unwinnable election into a de facto referendum on socialism).   But the fact is that the political Left, led by Congress, is now using this opportunity to implement wide-reaching policies that are anathema to libertarianism. 

Simply put, it appears that liberals and Progressives, at least the influential ones, have once again taken up the mantle that regulation is always (or almost always) good, and so is just about any form of non-military government spending.   As Virginia Postrel notes discussing the refusal of influential progressives to concern themselves with the effects of the abysmal, horrible, no good Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act:

Unfortunately, once you are ideologically committed to the idea of regulation, you can’t say that a given regulation is bad–or, worse, that maybe doing nothing new would have been the best course.

And this is the problem the rebirth of dogmatic support for regulation has created for any liberaltarian coalition.  Rather than consider ways of achieving liberal ends (which are usually shared by liberals and libertarians alike) that may have incorporated libertarian thinking or were at the very least highly targeted, progressive politicians have been choosing extraordinarily broad and intrusive means of achieving those ends.  This is not to say that those politicians ever really cared what libertarians thought; only that this route of action has undermined any possibility of a significant percentage of libertarians (again broadly defined as fiscally conservative and socially liberal) becoming intermediate-to-long-term members of the Dem coaltion. 

All that said, Will Wilkinson is no doubt correct that all this talk of a left-libertarian political coalition misses the entire point of “liberaltarianism,” which is not properly understood as being about coalition-building:

I think Obama and the Democrats are already in the process of screwing it up. The romance of transformative hope is going to wear off pretty quick as all-but-uncontested Democratic policy deepens and lengthens the recession. There’s a lot of culturally and psychologically liberal people out there who are, and are going to be, interested in a liberalism that actually works. I want to use this time of ferment to work on developing the missing option in American politics: an authentically liberal governing philosophy that understands that limited government, free markets, a culture of tolerance, and a sound social safety net are the best means to better lives. 

One of the major reasons I continue to support the concept of “liberaltarianism” is that ultimately I think it can only serve to increase the pathetic influence of libertarianism on American politics, turning libertarians into true political free agents that must be pandered to, year in and year out (if you use the broad “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” definition, we’re large enough a group to be worth pandering to).  Just as importantly, it promises to improve libertarianism itself by encouraging a purer form of classical liberalism that is not, as Wilkinson says, “pretty well shot through with conservative reflexes bred by the long Cold War alliance between libertarians and the right.”  Or as Reihan Salam notes in a sentence that speaks particularly well to me: “The liberaltarian idea, as I understand, is to start rethinking coalitions that appear to be natural because they’ve been in place for so long.”


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