As one of the two resident unidentifiable (politically) members of the League, I thought I might give some sense of where I’m coming by riffing off Mark’s excellent post on Liberaltarianism in the Obama Age.
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.
We have two parties: one deeply committed to what I would call plutocracy and the other the party of government. Both parties have their own myths of salvation through cleansing war: The GOP with the anti-Communist crusade and now the War on Terror/Civilization motif and Democrats with Wars on Poverty, Racism, Pollution, etc. What we’ve interestingly seen in these early days of the Obama administration is the shifting of the functions and functionaries of The State (in the classical European sense–i.e. National Security Apparatus) as well as Corporatist influence/power (see Bank Bailout) shifting over to the Dems where formerly it was Republican territory.
But we still have basically a party of Business and a Party of Government.
Which brings me to Adam Smith, who occupies a very interesting place in the Liberaltarian, Liberal/Libertarian discussion. Smith’s work, in the Anglo-sphere, was (mis)translated to be a pure advocation of free markets (yes, I’m generalizing, just go with me for a sec). Unfortunately a whole other side of Smith was lost. Namely his strong belief in the necessity of a civil society determining the strict paramters of where the market was allowed and were it was forbidden. Some of that restriction of the market Smith felt would come through the government (as agent of the polity’s will) but another would come through what he called The Commons.
Within the frame of the market, the invisible hand works. His criticisms of mercantilism and the entrenched power of the aristocracy of his day still ring true, making a profound connection between economic freedom and political freedom and do as the libertarians of various stripes (Hayek, Friedman, and their descendants) have helpfully reminded us.
But they leave out The Commons and the socially determined, normative, cordoning off of the market. Smith’s Moral Philosophy argued for sentiment (sympathy) as the prime driving factor in ethics. He felt that sympathy could be lost by excessive marketization. Stress on excessive. Excessive being growth of markets and market mindset (which Smith felt emphasized competition) being expansion beyond their properly socially determined role.
We have no party in the US (and Western democratic world more largely) that is the party of The Commons. If I’m to be located anywhere it would be somewhere here. (This tendency is a strong factor I think in why I’m hard to identify via traditional political labels).
The Commons requires in my mind a crucial place and requires institutionalization via legal/political/social mechanisms and practices relates. I mention it in relation to liberaltarianism because I think liberaltarianism (even in say its most sophisticated forms) is still missing this key ingredient.
Mark quotes the following line from Will Wilkinson:
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.
Will is without question an ultra sharp dude (bonus: he even knows his Smithian sentimentalist moral philosophy!!!) but I see some fault lines in his proposal. Here’s I would phrase the difficulty–where will the sound social safety net come from in an era of increasing marketization (free markets if you like)? Where the markets are global and therefore largely unable to be controlled by national governments? For W.W. this might not a particularly central issue as he doesn’t have a great affection for nation-state territorialism. He believes (as I understand it) more in the right of free movement of labor across national boundaries.*** That idea to my mind is a logical corollary of his more global-free market economics (in that sense I am definitely not a US movement conservative). That logical corllary to my mind is something that should perhaps bring one back to questioning first principles on the economics, but that’s another discussion for another day.
But in my mind the question of a social safety net and its relation to nation-statehood is a profoundly important question. As I believe movement is more and more from the nation-state construct to what Philip Bobbitt terms The Market State, then this takes on profound implications. The simplest defintion of The Market State is that the State functions to maximize potential opportunities for its citizens-cum-clients.
Would a social safety net work in that context? Potentially I suppose but I’m doubtful. But social safety nets are I think much more closely tied to the era of nation-statehood (both procedurally and in terms of overall mindset). In this sense I think the New Deal Liberals have a point which is that for a safety net to pass requires the inculcation of shared responsibility (and some shared sacrifice–including higher taxes for the rich generally).
In a Market State era, the ability to call on that general common sense is profoundly weakened. Because as I would say, there is no Commons.
If there is no Commons, no place that is truly neither market nor government, then where does this safety net come from? If markets begin to determine or at the very least profoundly shape why would they frankly care about social safety nets? Otherwise if there is to such a net, doesn’t if involve a massive welfare state bureaucracy of some sort by whatever name you want to call it? If government is limited and largely out of this game, then I just can’t see it happening.
And if no safety net then I don’t really see a way to prevent the savaging of much civil society through the competitive appetites, the consumerism and idleness (lack of a productive mind and body) that Smith himself in someways foresaw.
There’s something missing then I think from the missing option in American politics.
***Update I: This topic really deserves a separate post but another fault line/crack in the view Will W. lays out is the role of national security forces and its relation to the movement of people, goods, and labor. In the modera era, power had to be pushed up in order to be pushed down. By that I mean Americans can cross states (and Canadians provinces/territories) because of the pushing up of power to federalized levels. (Or con-federal leves for the Canucks). I’ve also thought it interesting that federalism can mean one of two seemingly opposite things in US political discourse: 1)The Federalists, i.e. the guys who wanted to and succeeded in many regards in massively expanding the size of a Federal Government and 2)The devolution of power to state decision making processes. The second however deeply hinges on the first. The states can’t afford to have the free time to deal with the kinds of matter federalists (variety #2) would like unless they are divested of all sorts of issues that Federal Govt’s (federalists #1) take over. Especially and most primarily in US history by taking over the need for state militias and armed citizenry (see 2nd Amendment).
Ditto in certain ways The EU. EU members can cross the various national boundaries in this quasi-United States of Europe construct. For there to truly be worldwide free global labor then would require, you guessed it, a World Government. Which would then push power up beyond all nation-state levels, take care of their security needs at the nation-state level, and only then would allow global movement of labor. Without a Commons as a third way/mechanism then I don’t see how this hypothetical scenario wouldn’t just also push up the same broken Market/Business vs. Government flawed binary we have at the national level.
In my mind because too many more economically inclined libertarians tend to forget the Number 1 Freedom is the Freedom from Violence, not in the abstract but actually having some armed force for protection, then I find the global movement of labor discussion far too abstract and in some fashion deeply contradictory to the purported claims (by the libertarians themselves) of limited government-ness.