Rumors of liberaltarianism’s death are greatly exaggerated

Tim Carney thinks liberaltarianism is dead following the departure of Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey from Cato. He asks if there are any real life liberaltarians in politics, pointing out that the the only truly libertarian members of Congress are also social conservatives. He writes, "maybe there’s something about the socially liberal agenda that draws someone away from economic freedom."  Maybe. Or maybe this is an accident of history colored by personal bias. Who knows?

Alex Massie responds by pointing to the very real success of liberaltarian politics in Europe, noting that socially and economically liberal policies coincide nicely in Denmark, Sweden, and elsewhere. America is hardly the only bastion of classical liberalism after all.

Indeed, the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Liberty Index suggests that, actually, there’s little to no necessary contradiction between social liberalism and economic freedom.

For instance: Heritage hammers Denmark and Sweden for high levels of government spending but both countries are ranked "freer" than the US in matters as non-trivial as business, trade and investment freedoms. Indeed, Sweden and Denmark each score better than the United States in seven of the ten areas measured. (Britain comes out 5-4 ahead of the US with the property rights fixture ending in a draw. Germany is tied 5-5 with the Americans. Canada, Australia and New Zealand also do better than America.)

Now clearly if you were building a libertarian society from scratch you might not end up with something that looks very much like Denmark. And if tax rates are the only – or at least principle – measure you employ then, sure, Denmark and Sweden might look pretty hellish to you. But it depends which taxes you’re talking about and, for that matter, what aspects of government spending you’re unhappy with.

Quite right. (I love citing the Heritage Index because it says so much about how we should think about economic freedom, and yet the conclusion so many at think tanks like Heritage come to is that we just really need to cut taxes and quit spending money. I wonder how long until they tweak the index to better align with their conclusions?)

Indeed, taxes are entirely the wrong factor by which to gauge economic freedom – or at least only one factor among many. As evidenced by the success of liberal welfare states in Europe, economic liberty can occur in tandem with a pretty robust welfare state funded by high, progressive tax rates (though it helps to couple these with a consumption tax which is more reliable and less burdensome on productivity). Limited government and small government are not one and the same thing and conflate scope with size. Libertarians, I would argue, have largely dropped the ball on safety net issues, and the strict adherence to ‘markets solve everything’ and tax-slashing ideology has been a disservice to the cause of liberalism.

Meanwhile, Tim Lee suggests that the liberaltarian project is far from dead in the water, and should be viewed as a long-term project:

If we take a longer view and look beyond the next election cycle, the prospects for left-libertarian collaboration look much better. Political, economic, and social trends since the 1970s have pushed liberals closer to libertarian policy positions and conservatives further from them. As Scott Sumner points out, the left has accepted many of the key economic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s. Few liberals want to go back to 70 percent marginal tax rates, double-digit inflation, wage and price controls, economic regulation of trucking and airlines, and so forth. At the same time, the fear of communism, one of the key forces holding libertarians and conservatives together, is gone. And since the 9/11 attacks the right has become much more focused on warmongering and nativism.

Political categories are not fixed. Today’s Republican Party would be almost unrecognizable to Thomas Deweyor Prescott Bush, to say nothing of Teddy Roosevelt. There’s no reason to think that American political coalitions can’t continue evolving in a way that leaves the next generation of libertarians feeling more comfortable on the Democratic side of the fence. Barack Obama’s illiberalism no more dooms a 21st-century left-libertarian alliance than Dwight Eisenhower’s support for the welfare state precluded a fusionist alliance in the late 20th century.

I think this is exactly right. As Mark Thompson has argued in the past, it’s become fairly obvious that libertarianism has been corrupted through coalition with the right, and the long-standing fusionism between the two groups has liberals rightfully distrustful of libertarian intentions. This is compounded by the fact that even left-libertarians often speak the language of the right – something I’ve realized first hand writing at Balloon Juice and which displays a weakness in my own rhetorical style.

Liberals and left-libertarians can and should try to bridge this language barrier and whatever hostility the two camps hold toward one another. A coalition focused less on tax cuts and more on civil liberties, economic freedom, and social issues, would have a good chance of positively influencing the left and the Democratic party as well as libertarianism. And this new liberalism would also be more bound to civil liberties than previous attempts by market-friendly Democrats. The neoliberals under Bill Clinton may have been pro-free-trade but they were hardly leading the way on gay rights, immigration, use of military force, or the war on drugs.

I would say the left-libertarian (or liberaltarian) project is far from dead. (On the left you have bloggers such as Matt Yglesias who may as well be part of this loose coalition. And obviously the number of left-leaning libertarians interested in this project is growing.) It may lack a cohesive intellectual base and it may not have really any funding at all as opposed to the right-libertarian coalition (there are no think tanks for left-libertarians – not yet at least) but it strikes me as a project that has really only just begun. Far from being a signal of its demise, the departure of Lindsey and Wilkinson from Cato may be a sign of nothing more and nothing less than another blip in our political evolution. Right now the Tea Party may be the face of libertarianism in America, but I don’t think that movement has much gas left. It is at best a reactionary movement, and its short term success will be its long term demise. A movement based solely on opposition cannot by definition survive its own early political victories.

Liberaltarianism, on the other hand, far better reflects the momentum of history – a history of progress and freedom not well represented by the Glenn Becks of the world. And one that isn’t going away any time soon.

(P.S. One thing I may not have emphasized enough is that both sides will obviously need to give ground to make this work.)

(P.P.S. We also need a much better term for this. Liberaltarianism is much too awkward. And apparently left-libertarianism is not the same thing. Liberal is a better term but would be rendered meaningless in America.)

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29 thoughts on “Rumors of liberaltarianism’s death are greatly exaggerated

  1. Dude, tonight is dedicated to some drinkin’ and yellin’ on the porch (I hope) but I want to leave this here as a placeholder for the future.

    Maybe during tomorrow’s hangover, I can leave a real comment.

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  2. what a glibratarian mother fuc…….ooops sorry this isn’t BJ. I think you are right about this. Particularly about how the language and frames used by people, in this case you on BJ, leads to miscommunication. Its not fair and people should put more effort into listening to each other, but the constant self-righteous invocation of freedom by libertarians often leads nowhere. That completely misses the point that freedom may be looked at more then one way, “free” practices could easily lead to less freedom for some people and its often really hard to tell whether freedom is just another word for fuck off i got mine.

    I’ve noticed libertarians often talk about working with liberals in terms of getting liberals to buy into less regulation and such. That is all well and good , but we will really be talking when libertarians are talking to liberals to learn and improve their own ideas, not just to evangelize.

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  3. I will join the libertarian party as soon as everybody acts like Jesus in his sermon on the mount mode, or they figure out a way to give back the money the corps stole from the people who actually produce things, like carpenters, plumbers, pipe fitters et al–no bankers or stock traders need apply. Now that my need for sarcasm has been sated I think the Norse states do well. No wars, good pay for the workers, health care for all and a tax base that disallows extreme poverty coupled with excellent schools makes for a fairly content populace. Another thing the Norse do well is not scream “we are the best ever”.

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  4. For liberaltarianism to “survive,” or even come into existence in a real way, it badly needs an ontology. What is it? I mean what is “it”? A loose coalition? A movement? What are its goals? Is it just an ideological inclination? Does it have to be conscious? Does it matter if you want to be a liberaltarian? If you don’t? A liberal willing to say somehthing good about markets is one? Matthew Yglesias “might as well be” part of the movement? Or is?

    And, “Both sides will have to give ground to make it work”? Can you point to single liberal who wants to do that? It’s not like different liberals don’t already hold plenty of positions that coincide with libertarian ones – they always have. But that’s not a statement of common cause – those positions already exist and are sincerely held. Is liberaltarianism just the overlap between modern liberalism and libertarianism? Based on what then are you asking anyone to give ground? To what end? Are we really to believe libertarians are prepared to give ground on core principles not just rhetorical flotsam left over from right-fusionism? I certainly wouldn’t ask them to. This all just sounds like a scheme of persuasion to me. Name me an issue on which libertarians are willing to substantively compromise, not just “adjust the language used,” and give me a reason that liberals should want to reciprocate, and I’ll try to give the project another chance. Otherwise, I still don’t get what it is or what it’s for. It still sounds like it’s basically two things: libertarians highlighting the many places liberals’ positions long have and do overlap with theirs, and libertarians adjusting their language and areas of focus so as to be less scary to liberals.

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  5. Heritage sure does worry about taxes a lot.
    I’m wondering if living under a bridge and panhandling for a living might be their idea of a perfect world. No income tax, no property tax, no alarm clock to wake up to, etc.

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  6. I get the feeling that liberaltarianism has a great deal of work to do before it gets off the ground… primarily because the overlap between liberalism and libertarianism is about goals rather than means. The libertarian overlap with conservativism, what little there is, is about means rather than goals.

    Which basically means that libertarians and conservatives can at least agree on what ought to be done even if they disagree about what’s going to or ought to happen at the end of the day.

    Libertarians and liberals will be butting heads the moment they stop agreeing on what ought to happen at the end of the day and they start discussing what ought to be done.

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    • @Jaybird, Yup. But what I hear you saying is that libertarians are even higher on the expected outcomes of the economic prescriptions they share with conservatives (if perhaps only rhetorically) than conservatives are. “It’s gonna be great, just watch!” is the libertarian pitch, while “Eat your spinach” is the conservative one for similar economic policies (taking your construction that the policies are similar as a given; we know that real-life libertarians might well dispute the actual similarities). In any case, this perception is where the charges of either utopianism on the one hand (if the libertarian takes the time to listen to others’ desired goals for economic outcomes and claims his policies will deliver them), or glibness on the other (if the libertarian takes the, “there are particular defensible desires for what people ought to want out of economic policy, namely maximization of human liberty, and so my policies will deliver the only outcomes anyone ought to be interested in anyways” tack) stem from.

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  7. “Far from being a signal of its demise, the departure of Lindsey and Wilkinson from Cato may be a sign of nothing more and nothing less than another blip in our political evolution.”

    If they were being paid a salary, they may have been released due to low production. I never saw much from either of them there.

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