The Tone-Deafness of the “Statism” Charge
Jonah Goldberg argues that a left-libertarian fusionism is not only doomed to failure but is in fact likely to lead to a less libertarian, more “statist” society:
As for it being undesirable, I am consistently amazed when liberals and libertarians (and even some conservatives) want the right to abandon its dogmatic aversion to statism in favor of some more nuanced and compassionate gumbo or some kind of rightwing progressivism. If the right ever loses its anti-statism, we will have a race-to-the-bottom between two statist parties, one cosmopolitan and socialistic one nativistic and nationalistic. Neither is very appealing to me. And bipartisan consensus between nationalists and socialists is never pretty.
If Will can persuade progressives to be more libertarian, huzzah and wahoo. But I fear liberaltarianism — if it ever makes it out alive from Will and Brink’s drawing board — is more likely to become a mechanism for making libertarianism more progressive, without getting much, if anything, in return. If libertarians think they’re treated like cheap dates in the Republican tent, just wait until they spend some time in the Democratic tent.
Will Wilkinson and John Schwenkler respond, arguing that at the end of the day, anyone other than an anarchist is a “statist” of some sort, that the real distinction between liberals, libertarians, and conservatives is simply over the type of state we want. Thus, Goldberg’s premise, that conservatives have a “dogmatic aversion to statism,” is demonstrably false.
Wilkinson and Schwenkler are obviously correct in their assertion, but I think they miss Goldberg’s point, which seems to be more that liberals really aren’t any less statist than conservatives on social issues and are demonstrably more statist – and becoming more so – on economic issues (though John correctly notes that conservatives have become more statist on military issues and civil liberties). Goldberg’s bigger point thus seems to be that conservatives are fundamentally opposed to the growth of government, and in fact want to shrink it, while liberals are fundamentally supportive of the growth of government; he notes, somewhat correctly, that conservatives outside of Congress opposed much of the Bush-era growth of the federal government and that therefore it’s not entirely fair to lump conservatism in with the performance of GOP politicians. On the other hand Goldberg alleges that not only have Dem politicians become ever-more statist, but that this change is representative of liberalism as a whole.
I know enough liberals at this point to know that Dem politicians really are not much more representative of liberal attitudes towards government than Republican politicians are of conservative attitudes. But that aside, I think Goldberg’s argument still winds up largely missing the point.
First, it ignores that the value of liber-al-tarianism lies mostly in its attempt to create a libertarianism that is more true to its classically liberal roots by recognizing the way in which the alliance with conservatism has infected libertarian thought; that this may make libertarianism more compatible with liberalism is more an effect than a goal. In the process, speaking for myself only, I think the goal is to also define a liberalism that is more true to ITS classically liberal roots.
But as importantly, Goldberg’s emphasis on “statism” exhibits a certain tone-deafness that gets at the root of the differences between movement conservatives and libertarians. Goldberg’s assumption is that the animating principle of libertarianism is “anti-statism,” defined roughly as a belief that smaller government is always and everywhere better government and that larger government is always and everywhere worse government. He is, to be sure, likely correct that libertarian affiliation with the political Right is the reason movement conservatives consider “anti-statism” to be a core principle of movement conservatism. But he is wrong in assuming that anti-statism and libertarianism are coextensive.
Writing in an altogether different context, Wirkman Virkkala makes some magnificent use of (very politically incorrect-to-offensive) snark that helps explain why Goldberg’s assumption shows the difference between conservatism and libertarianism:
From what I can tell, conservatives at their best are Size Queens: They dislike “Big Government.” They want “smaller government.” Actual liberty? Where people are truly free to choose? Nope. That scares them. There is always some issue, like drugs, or religion, that throw them for a loop.
Individualist liberals and libertarians love liberty. Conservatives want smaller government. There is a difference.
Unfortunately, to accomodate the coalition with the Right, libertarians largely dropped their emphasis on liberty and individualism (which is completely incompatible with many elements of the modern coalition of the Right), settling instead for an emphasis on small government (which is less a principle than a hypothetical means of achieving any number of ends that were – and often still are – compatible with the other elements of the coalition of the Right). And so you wind up with self-described libertarians emphasizing things like states’ rights when it comes to government-sponsored discrimination (since ending that discrimination would entail the growth of federal authority) while largely ignoring the effects that state-level government discrimination has on individual liberty. Or you wind up with libertarians arguing vociferously against various slightly government-growing policies that either are intended to or would have the effect of ameliorating the effects of government intrusions of personal liberty (e.g., needle exchange programs, guest worker visas).
And all this says nothing of the manner in which the emphasis on anti-statism has likely corrupted various forms of conservatism.
However, Goldberg does seem to implicitly acknowledge this last point, ie, that libertarianism has corrupted certain other forms of conservatism, suggesting that libertarian-inspired “anti-statism” is all that is holding conservatism back from “nativism and nationalism.” This is similar to the point made by Ross Douthat a few days ago in a widely discussed post on this topic.
If Goldberg and Douthat are correct in their assumption that an end to the libertarian-conservative coalition would make conservatism more anti-intellectual while having no effect on liberalism other than to give it more power, then they’re absolutely right to criticize the liber-al-tarian mission. Frankly, it’s flattering that libertarianism is viewed as such an essential bulwark against totalitarianism despite the minute size of movement libertarianism.
But I think Goldberg and Douthat’s assumptions are also wrong; instead, I think that freeing libertarianism from conservatism may actually free conservatism to revisit its own intellectual roots, allowing it to once again become an invaluable brake on overly-radical social and political change. And, as I said above, I don’t think you can cast modern liberalism as a monolith any more than you can cast modern conservatism as such. But all that is an issue for another post.