I’ve long argued that libertarianism, to the extent it is entitled to consider itself the heir to classical liberalism, has been corrupted by its long-standing affiliation with the American political Right. Tim Lee makes a compelling argument as to why that affiliation continues – and, despite my predictions and hopes – is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
The big obstacle (other than the lack of obvious donors) to such a project is that a lot of libertarian intellectuals have so completely internalized the assumptions of the fusionist alliance that they have trouble writing about policy in a way that liberals find compelling. Many have come to regard “economic issues” as being at the core of the libertarian agenda, and their attempts at outreach to liberals too often consist of long-winded explanations of why liberals really out to support Social Security privatization, school choice, or whatever. Liberals are no more likely to be swayed by them than we are to be swayed by their arguments in the opposite direction. Making a liberaltarian alliance work would require a group of liberals and libertarians deciding that they care enough about issues of mutual concern to make those issues the focus of their work. There’s no philosophical reason this couldn’t or shouldn’t happen, it just has a half-century of institutional inertia working against it.
Since libertarians will, of necessity, always be the junior member in any ideological coalition, an increased affiliation with the Left requires that a critical mass of libertarian intellectuals be prepared to emphasize social and foreign policy issues over economic issues. This, however, cannot and will not happen unless libertarians begin to question the ways in which the affiliation with the Right, rather than any real philosophical principle, is the reason we tend to emphasize economic issues so heavily over social and foreign policy issues.
UPDATE: Relatedly (via Patrick Appel at the Dish), please see Noah Millman, who explains in much more detail why economic issues should no longer be the area of overwhelming emphasis for libertarians. Money quote:
Over the same period that saw libertarian priorities in economics relatively ascendant, we have seen a distinctly negative trend in the growth of militarism and the national security state. In principle, this should worry libertarians as much as government intrusion in the economy. In practice, it should worry them more, for two reasons: first, the trend has been in the wrong direction for a while; second, while there are large organized interests fighting against government intrusion in the economy, there are no large organized interests similarly interested in fighting the growth of the national security state.
I would suggest that libertarians largely have not accepted that their priorities in economics have been relatively ascendant in part because the affiliation with the Right leaves us vulnerable to conservative culture war caricatures of the Left. Barack Obama is far from an economic libertarian; but he’s also far less economically statist than LBJ or – for that matter – Richard Milhous Nixon.