Liberaltarianism as a Disposition
Mark Thompson offers a two-part analysis of liberaltarianism. I suspect there are three.
Part one looks back at the intellectual history of liberalism. We know the refrain by now: Bastiat sat on the Left. John Stuart Mill was a really great guy. Libertarianism at Twin Harvard. And Rawlsekianism.
Liberals and libertarians want basically the same thing — maximal empowerment for the individual to pursue diverse, possibly discordant, and highly unpredictable life plans, each of their own choosing, within a framework that aims at maximal freedom of choice for all. We don’t hate the community; we simply understand the individual is the building block of any authentic community, and we want those building blocks to be as sound as they can be. The two liberalisms only disagree on the proper means to that end, and possibly on some definitions along the way. We can work on those. There’s a project there.
Part two of liberaltarianism is an extremely short-term tactical realignment that frankly made a lot more sense when George W. Bush was president.
As American conservatives no longer faced down international communism, it became clear that they didn’t really care so much about creeping socialism at home. In retrospect, Nixon might have been a clue that they never really did. For conservatives today, the demons are Islamic fundamentalism — often a justifiable concern — and cultural liberalism, signified by gay marriage, abortion, gay marriage, immigration, gay marriage, gay marriage, gay marriage, and gay marriage.
Even aside from its basic incoherence, the new conservative enemies list doesn’t give libertarians a compelling case to stick around. Yet with practically every decision Barack Obama makes, the case for a leftward tactical allegiance fades. Obama is in many ways much worse than his predecessor on the issues of civil liberties, war, and even government spending. We never expected much, but many of us did expect at least a little.
The standard reply seems to be that Obama is a good guy who has fallen in with a lot of bad advisors. I don’t care for this line. It reeks of a system I thought we’d abandoned. Democracies hold officials personally responsible. They don’t shift the blame to unelected advisors so that we can go right on adoring the all-wise, all-powerful king. How is it the bad people got where they are? Someone appointed them. And we know who that is.
Even so, there remains part three of liberaltarianism. This may be the most difficult thing to write about, because it’s not a set of ideas or a political tactic. It’s a deeply felt disposition.
The conservative disposition is to favor the settled order, or, I might say, to imagine that there is one, and then to defend it. (The act of describing and defending a settled order often does interesting things to the settled order itself, but that’s the subject of another post.) Wherever a settled order has its defenders, there you will find conservatives.
The liberal disposition is at the very least to tinker. To innovate. The settled order can and does take care of itself, as long as we don’t do anything too drastic. And the one thing that would certainly destroy any settled order would be to stop innovating altogether. Who are we to imagine that what we have right now is the best we can do? Preposterous.
I have this liberal disposition in part because I am a student of history. As such, I know that I am a creature that would be almost unrecognizable a hundred years ago. I don’t really have a past, if I’m honest about it. Neither do you.
Try telling 1910: I’ve got a machine on my desk that knows everything. I helped to build it. So did you. When I want to publish a book or craft a sculpture, I just ask the machine, and the item arrives in the mail a few days later. To pay, I ask the machine to ask another machine to debit my bank account, which exists on a third machine. It costs a pittance, and at no point does it ever involve any tangible money.
I’ve got a warehouse full of records in my pocket. I wrote some of the music myself. I play chess against my telephone, and on a good day, I win. A self-propelled automaton sweeps my floors, but apart from that, I’m a man — a man! — who loves housework. I love it because electricity does all the drudgery, so I can just be creative with everything else.
A typical week of lunches includes Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and Pakistani foods, with an old-fashioned New York-style deli sandwich on Friday, just to round things out (Did I say 1910? Eat your heart out, 1952!). I’m proficient with chopsticks as a matter of course, and I know how they use cilantro on four different continents.
Women co-workers are the rule, not the exception. I’d be totally unemployable if they weren’t, and I can’t imagine working in a place where women weren’t my equals. My new house is in an upper-class majority-black neighborhood, and I’m thrilled about it. I’ve got several good friends whom I’ve never met in person, and for a few of them, I know neither their races nor even their genders. Which are subject to change, anyway, so no big deal.
Like I said, I’d be almost unrecognizable. So would you. We owe where we are to the habit — and the freedom — of tinkering. I hope the next hundred years will produce every bit as much weirdness, and that my daughter’s daughters’ daughters will live in a world I’d scarcely comprehend either. They deserve no less. I want and fully expect them to make the world their own. It won’t be mine after I’m gone, and my final wish is to leave them full control, not to veto their dreams from beyond the grave.
That’s a disposition I don’t see in conservatives. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the 2006 political realignment, and not that much to do with Rawlsekianism. It effortlessly resists, at least in my own mind, most attempts to refute it, because it’s not really an argument. It’s a feeling about how life ought to be. If conservatism has a disposition, then liberaltarianism has one too, and I’m pretty sure that this is it.