What if Liberals and Libertarians Agreed on Empirical Questions?

At the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, libertarian lawprof Fernando Teson writes that “The remarkable truth of this conversation between bleeding heart libertarians and progressives is that our disagreement is exclusively empirical. If we all agree that political institutions should be arranged to alleviate poverty, then the only remaining question is which policies actually do this. Why is it then that we cannot agree, or at least converge, by just looking at reliable data, studies, and empirical theories?”

Fernando suggests that disagreement between liberals and libertarians would largely disappear if the two sides could agree on empirical facts. I think there is a lot of truth to this, but it’s not the whole truth. Agreement on empirics would greatly narrow the range of disagreement between libertarians and liberals, but some important differences would remain.

As I explained in this post, some libertarians are actually utilitarians: they support libertarianism purely because they believe that libertarian policies maximize happiness. Some liberals are utilitarians as well. If a utilitarian liberal and a utilitarian libertarian came to a consensus on empirical issues, they could also come to agreement on policy as well. The only thing that separates them is a disagreement over how best to achieve a common goal: maximizing happiness (I set aside, for the moment, the fact that there are different schools of utilitarianism that disagree over the definition of happiness).

Most libertarians and most liberals are not pure utilitarians. Similarly, few if any care only about alleviating poverty, the issue Fernando focuses on in his post. Here are some issues that would continue to divide libertarians and liberals who aren’t pure utilitarians even if they overcame their empirical disagreements:

I. Economic Liberties.

Most libertarians assign at least some intrinsic value to economic freedom over and above its instrumental benefits. Thus, they would be willing to sacrifice at least some utilitarian gains in order to preserve it. For example, I would oppose mandatory national service even if I were convinced that it would create substantial utilitarian benefits. Economic freedom is valuable enough to sacrifice some happiness for. Obviously, there are limits to the tradeoffs I and most other libertarians would accept in this regard. If a draft were the only way to prevent the conquest of the United States by a totalitarian dictatorship, I would (reluctantly) support it. However, most liberals assign little or no intrinsic value to economic liberty, and therefore would be reluctant to sacrifice even small utilitarian benefits to preserve it.

II. Income Inequality.

Just as most libertarians assign intrinsic value to economic liberty, many liberals assign intrinsic value to restrictions on income inequality. And they are willing to sacrifice at least some utilitarian benefits to achieve it. If, for example, we could greatly reduce income inequality at the price of a 1% reduction in average income for the middle class, many liberals would take the deal. Virtually no libertarians would, since they assign no intrinsic value to income equality at all.

III. Dignitary Wrongs.

Much liberal opposition to libertarian ideas such as organ markets and abolition of the minimum wage and minimum housing standards is due to disagreement over empirics. But not all of it. In discussing such issues with liberals, I often hear arguments such as the following: “Even if organ markets would make the poor better off, I still oppose them because it’s morally wrong for anyone to have to sell parts of their body in order to avoid poverty. It’s wrong to exploit the poor in that way.” Or this: “Even if abolishing minimum housing standards would improve the situation of poor tenants by enabling them to rent cheaper apartments, we as a society shouldn’t do it because such inadequate housing is morally unacceptable.” Liberals who reason in this way believe that some mutually beneficial economic exchanges should be forbidden because they create some sort of dignitary harm that outweighs their utilitarian benefits. Libertarians either discount such considerations entirely or at least believe they aren’t important enough to justify restricting individual freedom.

IV. Multiculturalism and Group Solidarity.

On average, both libertarians and liberals are much less nationalistic than conservatives. This is one of the points that unites the two groups. Nonetheless, many liberals do believe that membership in an ethnic or racial group can create some moral obligations, especially if that group has been the victim of oppression or discrimination. Liberal political philosophers such as Will Kymlicka argue that government should subsidize and otherwise promote minority cultures. Not all liberals assign intrinsic value to such group membership, but many do. To the extent that this is true, it’s a point of disagreement with libertarians that would persist even if the two groups agreed on empirics.

In sum, a liberal who came to agree with libertarians on empirical issues would favor a major reduction in the role of government in society. But he would still probably support more taxation and redistribution than libertarians do. He might also still favor banning some mutually beneficial economic transactions that create dignitary wrongs and support some government subsidization of minority cultures.

A libertarian who accepted the liberal view on empirical questions would come to endorse a lot more taxation and regulation. But he or she still would not support as much regulation as liberals do because of the countervailing intrinsic value of economic freedom. He also would still oppose government intervention in cases where the goal is purely to alleviate dignitary wrongs or subsidize some ethnic group’s culture for its own sake.

We could probably add a few other items to the above list. But I doubt that there would be many more that are of great importance. If so, this suggests that empirical disagreements are by far the most important points of dispute between liberals and libertarians, even if not the only ones. I would be thrilled to form a political coalition with the hypothetical liberal who retained his left-wing values but came to agree with libertarians on empirics. And I bet most liberals would be happy to ally with his libertarian analogue (the libertarian who adopts liberal positions on empirical questions while retaining his or her libertarian values). Empirical disputes, not values, are the main obstacle to a liberaltarianism.

That, however, does not mean that a liberaltarian alliance will be easy to forge. The empirical disagreements in question are extensive and deeply held. Moreover, most people don’t evaluate evidence on political issues with anything approaching unbiased objectivity. Worse, many have a tendency to believe that those who oppose them on empirical issues are actually motivated by abhorrent values or narrow self-interest. That makes agreement even more difficult to achieve than it would be otherwise.

UPDATE: Some of what I say about economic liberties in Point I above also applies to property rights. However, as I noted in this essay, many liberals do attach at least some intrinsic value to property rights, so the disagreement here is more focused on empirical questions than that over economic liberties. Liberals support more restrictions on property rights than libertarians do in large part because they disagree over the empirical effects of such restrictions.