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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12 thoughts on “Liberaltarianism in a Liberal Age

  1. I’m not sure about “L”ibertarians and Liberals coming together. However, roughly fiscally conservative/culturally liberal has a huge potential. Here’s to American Red Tories.


  2. Cascadian – I assume you mean movement libertarians, roughly speaking. And to the extent you are talking about the more paleo variety of movement libertarians, you’re probably right.

    But those of us of the more “soft” Hayekian variety do have quite a bit in common with liberals as a foundational matter, at least in the sense of having similar intellectual roots. On that basis I think it is well worth pursuing not so much a formal alliance as an open dialogue aimed at finding some common ground on which liberals would be willing to pander to libertarians.

    But ultimately the idea of a permanent and inflexible alliance with either conservatives or liberals is in my mind foolish. Conservatism and libertarianism have always been different worldviews, and liberalism has evolved enough from its roots that it’s a clearly independent worldview from classical liberalism, so a complete reunion is likely not achievable.

    So really what I’m looking for is to at some point have liberals at least willing to listen to libertarians on economic issues, and conservatives at least willing to listen to us on social issues. In the meantime, the best approach for libertarians is to simply be political free agents, supporting Dems who are libertarian where Dems are supposed to be libertarian, and supporting Republicans who are libertarian where they are supposed to be libertarian.


  3. “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).” – MT

    This is a theme I’ve been mining for a while. In one sense, it is the central concept of my blog. Your unstated premise, is that the permanent minority of libertarianish “social liberals, economic conservatives” must vote as a recognizable block in order to acquire the political clout to be an attractive target of the kind of policy pandering you allude to in this post. Which brings you to the classic libertarian “cat herding” problem. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll quote myself:

    “Libertarian organization is going to have to look different than traditional politics, after all, it is something we will have to be able to accomplish while sitting in the hot-tub. What is needed, is an organizing principle. Ideally, a principle that is so obvious, so logical, and so clear-cut, that no leadership is needed, no parties are needed, no candidates are needed, and no infrastructure is needed. Ideally it is this easy: You think about the principle, and you know how to vote. That organizing principle exists. It is Divided Government. It is absolutely clear-cut and easy to understand. Divided Government is documented by Niskanen to work in a practical real-world manner to restrain the growth of the state. As a voting strategy it can be implemented immediately. More importantly, it can collectively be implemented individually as we sit in our hot tubs and ponder the sorry state of the world. Whatever the percentage of the electorate that libertarians represent, whether it is 9% or 20%, if they vote as a block for divided government, they immediately become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single most most potent voting block in the country, specifically because they are willing to vote either Democratic or Republican as a block. Specifically because they are not fused to one party or the other.”

    It seems a no-brainer to me, that libertarian principles will always point to opposition of either major political party if that party controls both the legislative and executive branch. That is where the greatest threat to liberty resides, whether it is Republicans from 2000-2006 or Democrats now.


  4. this was a tough bit to read. there is a lot that makes sense but your characterization of liberals as believing the entire economic mess was caused be deregulation and thinking all reg. is good, is a straw man. I/we are more then happy to blame hyper rich, greedy, lousy businessmen for this mess to.

    the only place i ever hear that liberals love all government is in the mouths of conservatives. all the lib’s i have ever known all complain about stupid government.

    If we are to move forward towards a gryphon like liberal/libertarian creation we need ideological flexibility on all parts: not being bound to have everything done aligning with ones dogma and being open to listening to other ideas. I just don’t see libertarians all that willing to look beyond their econ dogmas. just the use of the term economic freedom suggests a moral superiority that will never think of anything but your particular beliefs of economics as anything but dictatorship. You know everybody in america believes in limited government, we just define is very differently.


  5. I just don’t see libertarians all that willing to look beyond their econ dogmas. just the use of the term economic freedom suggests a moral superiority that will never think of anything but your particular beliefs of economics as anything but dictatorship.

    First of all, neo-classical and Austrian economic theory, while you may disagree with many of their principles (and some were rendered more than questionable when the markets imploded), are not mere dogma.

    Second, I happen to believe that there is much blame to go around in the private sector and certain regulatory decisions contributed to it. I also happen to believe that it was Alan Greenspan’s manipulation of short-term interest rates that put us on this path. I would also say that interest rate manipulation by central bankers has nothing at all to do with free markets.

    As far as the aftermath of this mess, I see plenty of areas where I can be flexible. What about you?

    Third, economic freedom is not about moral superiority. It’s the recognition that within certain areas of mutually beneficial transactions there is a scope of private activity that government has no legitimate interest in interfering with.

    Last, where do you think you can be flexible?


  6. I’m plenty flexible. just like every liberal i know i think the free market works real good for some things, so so in others and poorly in others. i am more than happy to have free market solutions if they work and don’t create other worse problems.
    ( Warning generalization ahead) What is have seen in many libertarians is that they feel an unrestricted free market is always the only answer. that is the dogma i see.

    So i see gov is part of the answer and free markets are part of the answer to putting together a good society. different problems require different levels of gov, free market, etc. that sounds flexible to me.

    OBTW I wasn’t suggesting that any particular theory is dogma. any belief, left, right, middle or just plain weird can be held as a dogma. it is more about seeing your particular theory as the complete answer and believing that everybody else don’t know shite.

    It is the use of the term freedom that smacks of superiority, since you are suggesting that since you are for freedom then others who have different views are somehow less interested in freedom.

    OBTW again. while i respect economics as a discipline, i don’t think any econ theory works well enough or is able to describe the world well enough to become a true believer.


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