The Promise of Liberaltarianism

Scott and Chris each take issue with my post on Liberaltarianism in a Liberal Age, Scott on the grounds that a coalition of liberals and libertarians holds the greatest promise for advancing a libertarian agenda, Chris on the more substantive grounds that libertarianism does not offer a way of providing social safety nets in an era of increased marketization (of which libertarians obviously approve). 

Despite the vastly different viewpoints of these critiques, I think they both help suggest why the concept of liberaltarianism is so essential even as I think it has taken a massive body blow the last few months due to the turn of influential liberals back towards support of broad brush regulation such as the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, a general belief that all or nearly all deregulation is undesirable, and a general belief that any government spending is – almost by definition – good, “stimulative” spending. 

Ultimately, as I suggested in my earlier post, I think libertarianism will be best off if broadly defined libertarians become regular swing voters to whom both parties are willing to regularly pander.  However, I expect that at various points in time, libertarians will find relatively long-term alliances with the Left or the Right to be appropriate much as the libertarian alliance with the Right was generally deemed politically beneficial for much of the last 50 years or so. 

But in order for libertarians to more consistently act as political free agents, or even to sign on to a coalition with the political Left, something else will need to happen to free libertarian philosophy from the predispositions that have resulted from such a lengthy alliance with the political Right.  

I would propose, then, that the “something” to which I refer is “liberaltarianism,” “soft Hayek” as Jim Henley calls it, or “actual Hayek” as I like to call it.  The promise of this derivation of modern libertarianism is not that it attempts to paint libertarianism in a light that is palatable to modern liberals/Progressives, which our friend Kip rightly fears; instead, its promise is that it can help to rescue the fundamental worldview of libertarianism from the prejudices instilled in it by such a lengthy alliance with the Right.

Simply put, the promise of liberaltarianism is that it can help to build a libertarianism that is more true to its classically liberal roots.  In so doing, it is possible that it will become a libertarianism that modern liberals are willing to take seriously, and even learn from.  To be sure, if this were to completely succeed, I find it likely that libertarianism would eventually become as corrupted by the Left as it has been by the Right, thus creating the need for the cycle to start anew. 

So where are some of the areas where libertarianism has been corrupted by its affiliation with the political Right?  One area is in what tends to be our reflexive opposition to labor unions; there is a false assumption that labor unions exist virtually entirely because of government intervention and that they are therefore inherently coercive.  This assumption does not, however, line up with the facts, which show private sector labor union membership at its lowest level since 1900, and at half of its level from 1935, when the first major pro-union legislation (the NLRA) was passed (and before the massive economic interventionism of FDR).  Yes, private sector union membership was at almost 40% by the time Congress realized that the NLRA was too restrictive and passed the Taft-Hartley Act.  But the Taft-Hartley Act was itself a government intervention, and the resulting decline in private sector union membership to 1900 levels strongly suggests that Taft Hartley is even more restrictive of unions than a complete absence of federal labor laws. 

Another example has been the willingness (fading in recent years thanks to the Bush Administration’s big government economic policy combined with its rampant civil liberties absues) to emphasize economic liberty, which is consonant with the GOP coalition, while largely turning civil and social liberties issues, which are largely dissonant with the GOP coalition, into secondary issues. 

And the biggest problem of all is the one suggested by Chris in his post regarding libertarian ignorance of “the Commons” – i.e., the need for some kind of a social safety net that exists independent of the free market.  The simple fact is that true freedom – the principle that is at the heart of libertarianism – requires that everyone (or as many as possible) have access to enough resources that they actually can take advantage of their political and social freedoms. 

One final blind spot, I should add, is the notion that all regulation is inherently bad, which ignores Hayek’s distinction between “planning for” and “planning against” competition.  This blind spot essentially assumes that we live in a perfectly Coasian world with no transaction costs such that, for example, consumers are capable of being aware of all the externalities associated with a product.

The trouble with all of these blind spots is that they largely leave libertarians on the sidelines when it comes to debate on relevant issues, reduced to more or less relaying the plays called by the political Right.  So, instead of arguing for at least a partial repeal of Taft-Hartley, which would actually advance libertarian ends, as an alternative to EFCA (which really is a terrible law from a libertarian standpoint), we are reduced to union-bashing, resisting EFCA (and thereby neither advancing nor hurting the cause of individual liberty) without offering any kind of alternative. 

By not advocating as forcefully for civil and social liberties as we have argued for economic liberties, we leave liberals and progressives in possession of the field on those issues, rendering us irrelevant when economic liberties conflict with progressive social policies (see, e.g., affirmative action).

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.  The result is that the concept of a negative income tax, supported by (I think) all three, and by almost 80% of economists, gets almost no public airing whatsoever. 

And finally, our reflexive opposition to any and all regulation results in a situation where potentially necessary regulation is crafted in such a manner as to completely ignore its economic consequences. 

So therein lies the great promise of liberaltarianism, whether it be Wilkinson’s pragmatic incrementalist approach, or the more radical approach of Roderick Long.  It is not so much that it promises to create an alliance with the political Left, although ultimately I think it will.  Instead, it is to free libertarianism from the chains of its too-long affiliation with the political Right.

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