The Promise of Liberaltarianism


Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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24 Responses

  1. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Man, I wish someone had come up with a different term than “liberaltarianism.” I keep missing that little “l” when I read it…the two words look so much alike! Maybe that’s the problem with the idea!

    No but seriously:

    By treating any and all social safety nets as irreversible steps on the Road to Serfdom, we allow liberals and progressives to shape those policies in ways that are inefficient, ineffective, and overbroad – even though Adam Smith, Hayek himself, and Friedman each advocated for a form of social safety net, demonstrating that social safety nets can be consistent with libertarianism.

    Yes! This is a huge problem with not only libertarianism, but with the resistance from within the conservative movement to any and all governance since it obviously would entail the dreaded State!

    But balance is tricky, isn’t it?Report

  2. Avatar Take the KASH says:

    Could you point me to your thesis statement? Thanks.Report

  3. Avatar Joseph says:

    Yes, but I think this strips libertarianism of one the very things that make it attractive to people: that it’s a utopian purist ideology with no chance of actually being enacted, which lets its adherents off the hook for failing to truly live by their ideals.

    Not to sound too condescending, but really, is the average Reason subscriber really interested in actual political power? I mean, I read Long’s piece, and his whole thesis is utterly anti-systemic, and based on an insistence that our political and economic language are misused and abused 90% of the time. How is this a conversation starter?

    As for more pragmatic libertarians like yourself, there are (as I said on Scott’s post) not enough of you to matter in electoral politics, and those of you that are there are too concentrated.Report

  4. Mark, Great post.!You say extremely well one of the things I’ve been struggling to say: the long alliance with the right has tainted classical liberalism.Report

  5. Will: Wow. Thanks for the compliment! I’m flattered.

    Joseph: Except for anarchists and (arguably) minarchists, most libertarians do not believe in a “utopia,” at least not in the manner that word is traditionally defined. To be sure, most libertarians have an idealistic vision of a truly libertarian government that has little chance of becoming reality, but the same could be said about adherents of any political philosophy save perhaps Burkean conservatives.

    I also think you miss an important underlying premise of my argument, which is that a liber-al-tarian (I hope that makes it easier, ED!) worldview is no less idealistic than other forms of libertarianism, and indeed is at least arguably (and I would argue clearly) more of a “pure” libertarianism than the libertarianism that has developed over the last 50 years or so of affiliation with the political Right.

    I’m glad you think that the version of libertarianism I advocate here is more pragmatic and politically viable than some of the more prevalent versions of libertarianism, but ultimately I’m less concerned with making libertarianism more pragmatic than I am with making it more consistent with its philosophical roots. In that sense there is quite a bit in common between my view and Long’s more radical view: both are primarily concerned with reforming libertarianism and recognizing, as Will says above, that “the long alliance with the right has tainted classical liberalism.” That Long is more focused on systemic issues that are less achievable is largely unimportant to me – if systems are to ever change, someone has to argue for systemic change. But I think that libertarian critiques, both of the systemic and more policy-specific variety, will be far more persuasive in general if they are more consistent with their philosophical basis.

    As for the issue of numbers, the fact is that most people who are loosely defined as “libertarians,” much like most people who are loosely defined as “conservatives” or “liberals” are not terribly concerned about deeper philosophical issues; put another way, most loosely defined “libertarians” just like most loosely defined “conservatives” and “liberals” are not part of a political “movement,” even though most politicians for whom they vote, and columnists they read, are part of a “movement.” Consider that, despite being the foundation for much of modern libertarianism, Road To Serfdom has only ever sold 400,000 copies (1,000,000 if you include the condensed version) in its 65 years of existence. And yet there are perhaps tens of millions of people who can be loosely defined as small ‘l’ libertarians (depending on how loose your definition is, of course). The point is that it’s only necessary to persuade a relatively small number of people, ie those who are intimately part of the “movement,” to a viewpoint in order for that viewpoint to become influential on a wider scale.

    As for whether the average reader of Reason is interested in political power, the answer is that, just like a reader of any liberal or conservative movement magazine, they are interested in political power, but are not willing to sell out their political philosophy in order to do so. What liber-al-tarianism seeks to do is to persuade those libertarians qua libertarians to take a slightly different worldview. That this worldview may be more persuasive to non-movement libertarians (and non-libertarians as well) is a important, but secondary, effect. Far more important is that it does not involve sacrificing core libertarian principles.Report

  6. Avatar JB says:

    I posted this comment on Will’s blog post, but thought it was worth repeating here:

    I’ll put this bluntly: Any sane libertarian should value economic freedom more than social freedom.

    Thus, sane libertarians should feel more comfortable with those who propose economic freedom than those who propose social freedom (neither of them does well on the execution front).

    A simple way to think of this is that you can buy social freedom with economic freedom, while it does not work the other way around. Look at drugs and prostitution; if you engage in wealthy pursuits of those vices it is very unlikely you will be caught and even less likely you will face punishment at the hands of the state (I’m looking at you, Eliot Spitzer, you hypocritical lying sack of poo).Report

  7. Avatar Christopher John Brennan says:

    Modern liberalism and libertarianism have very different principles at their hearts.

    At the heart of modern liberalism is the belief that “true freedom” requires that the government ensure that people “have access to enough resources that they actually can take advantage of their political and social freedoms”. This is actually a fairly utopian goal.

    At the heart of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle: simply the refusal to start fights to force others to do what you want. There is no promise of utopia, merely a goal of being minimally tolerant–i.e. not resorting to violence–when faced with peaceful decisions you cannot persuade others to change.

    The libertarian-conservative fusion was based in large part on the fact that conservatives believed that libertarian means involving more individual freedom from government power would serve their ends–especially when those ends were contrasted with those of the totalitarian USSR. Libertarian “corruption” (perhaps confusion is a better word) came when they started mistaking conservative ends for their own.

    There’s really not much to be gained in trying to convince libertarians that modern liberal ideals are really libertarian principles. At best, I think any basis for a modern liberals to work with libertarians would be in the areas of efficiency and avoiding unintended consequences.

    Overall, though, without an external driver that reinforces the fusion as the ideological nature of Cold War against the USSR did, I don’t see much of a future for liberaltarianism.Report

  8. Kudos to Mark! Ross Douthat just wrote about this on his blog. Will and Ross are two voices that I respect a lot. Big ups for getting their attention.Report

  9. Thanks, Mike! Expect a worthy response to Ross’ (and Will’s) points sometime late tonight.Report

  10. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Great piece, Mark. Worthy of the many responses. I’m not a libertarian or a liberal so I’ve remained rather quiet on all this, but I certainly think you’re on to something. Big tents are something to work toward. The opportunity is certainly there…Report

  11. Thanks, E.D.
    Oh – the response I’m going to put up to night is to Ross’ and the other Will’s points from the related thread.Report