Archive | Liberaltarianism

Bleeding Heart Libertarianism and “Social Justice”

The Cato Unbound website recently hosted an interesting debate over efforts by “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” to incorporate “social justice” into libertarian political theory. In the lead essay, “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” political philosophers Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi argue that libertarianism is best defended not on the basis of absolute rights to property and self-ownershp, but on the grounds that it benefits the poor and the “least well off” members of society. They argue that this approach is superior to the property rights absolutism they associate with libertarians like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.

As Zwolinski and Tomasi recognize, consequentialist considerations – including the impact of public policy on the poor – is far from a new idea in libertarian political thought. They note that 18th and 19th century libertarians repeatedly emphasized the negative effects of activist government on the poor as one of the justifications for restricting its power. In more recent times, such libertarians as Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and many of the public choice economists have made similar arguments. The same is true of some of my own work on property rights, federalism, and the War on Drugs, and co-blogger David Bernstein’s work on labor regulation. Many of the above writers – including Friedman and Hayek – also argued that libertarianism is, at least in theory, compatible with a minimal welfare state focused on providing support to those of the poor who are genuinely incapable of supporting themselves.

In his response to Zwolinski and Tomasi, economist David Friedman points out that much of what they argue for is better justified by utilitarian considerations. Many prominent libertarian scholars – including Friedman – are utilitarians and defend libertarian institutions on primarily utilitarian consequentialist grounds. On that basis, the interests of the poor surely count no less […]

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Jerry Brown’s Proposal to Abolish California’s Redevelopment Agencies Would Help End Eminent Domain Abuse

As part of his plan to address California’s fiscal crisis, liberal Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has proposed abolishing California’s 400 local “redevelopment agencies,” which would save the state some $1.7 billion per year, an important step towards closing the state’s $25 billion annual deficit. Unfortunately, his plan has so far been stymied by opposition from California Republicans, all but one of whom voted against it in the California Assembly. Under the California state constitution, passage of the bill requires a two thirds majority in the state Assembly, and Brown fell one vote short.

The GOP’s stance on this issue is extremely unfortunate, and at odds with the Party’s supposed devotion to free markets and property rights. As Steven Greenhut, an expert on California property rights issues points out in a recent Wall Street Journal op ed, the redevelopment agencies are notorious for their abuses of the power of eminent domain for the benefit of powerful private interest groups:

[I]n the last 60-some years, redevelopment agencies have become fiefdoms that run up enormous debt and abuse eminent domain by transferring private property to large developers promising to build tax-generating bonanzas. Today, there are 749 such projects. In the late 1950s, there were only nine. According to the state controller, redevelopment agencies consume about 12% of all state-wide property taxes—money that would otherwise go to critical public services….

Palm Desert’s redevelopment agency proposed to eliminate so-called blight by spending nearly $17 million on revamping a municipal golf club that remains one of the nation’s premier golfing locales.

In the 12 years I’ve spent reporting on this issue, I’ve seen an agency attempt to bulldoze an entire residential neighborhood and transfer the land to a theme-park developer. I’ve witnessed agencies declare eminent domain against churches—which pay few taxes—in order to

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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 […]

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Jonathan Chait Completely Misses the Point

[Note to “The ExileD” readers: George Mason University is a state university, funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia. My paycheck comes from the Commonwealth [which in turn gets the money to fund the university from our students’ tuition dollars, as law school tuition is over 35K for the majority of our students], and that is my employer. I don’t receive any money from the Koch Brothers. I don’t know anything about this website, but if this is illustrative of its reliability, you’re wasting your time reading it. FURTHER: “The ExileD” falsely stated that the Koch brothers are my “employers.” Any halfway respectable media site would just admit its mistake and move on, instead of trying to obscure its errors with juvenile insults.]

Responding to a post of mine regarding “progressive” demonization of the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers, TNR’s Chait expresses bafflement at libertarians’ “hypersensitivity” regarding criticism of the Kochs’ “great deal of influence over the political system.”

The problem, dear Jonathan, is that while you and others consistently assert that the Kochs have such influence, you don’t ever demonstrate it. Let’s review: It seems undisputed that the Kochs total spending on political and ideological causes is somewhere around 10-15 million dollars per year. How big a role does this money play in the American political system?

Let’s start with ideological/intellectual causes. The liberal Ford Foundation spends over $400 million a year. The liberal MacArthur Foundation spends about $140 million a year. Liberal billionaire George Soros spends about $150 million a year. Liberals control the vast majority of academic positions in almost every humanities and social science department in every major university in the country, with total budges in the tens of billions.

Even in the libertarians’ tiny corner of the ideological universe, 10 million dollars would only keep the Cato […]

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The Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog

Several prominent libertarian political philosophers have recently joined together to form the Bleeding Heart Libertarians Blog. Participants include former VCer Jacob Levy, Jason Brennan of Brown University, and well-known law professor and former VC guest-blogger Fernando Teson. I am a big fan of several of the BHL bloggers’ work, including Brennan’s analysis of the ethics of voting (which I discussed here), and Teson’s work on deliberative democracy with Guido Pincione.

The main focus of the blog is the development of a version of libertarianism that combines broad economic and personal freedom with a small but nonzero welfare state (or at least the absence of any categorical opposition to such a state). This post by Jason Brennan explains in greater detail.

This kind of minimal welfare state libertarianism is not a new idea. It is in fact similar to the view held by great libertarian thinkers such as Milton Friedman (inventor of the negative income tax), F.A. Hayek, James Buchanan, and others. It is, however, unfamiliar to most nonlibertarian political philosophers, who tend to know only the version of libertarianism propounded by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, under which (as Brennan puts it) “justice requires that we respect property rights, period, even if that means a large percentage of people will starve, lead poor and desperate lives, or have no stake in their society.” The BHL bloggers are performing a valuable service in making other versions of libertarianism better known to their fellow philosophers, and even more so by developing the analytical foundations of those views in their scholarship.

Some of the BHL writers, such as Jacob Levy, hope that this version of libertarianism can revive the idea of a “liberaltarian” alliance between libertarians and liberals. I am skeptical of the political prospects […]

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The Further Death of “Liberaltarianism”

[Response to Jonathan Chait here.]
The ongoing twenty minutes of hate against the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers for being, well, billionaire libertarians is yet another nail in the already well-sealed coffin of “liberaltarianism”–the attempt of some libertarians to ally with the progressive left.

The underlying premise of liberaltarianism was that libertarians could emphasize their policy positions that appeal to liberals but not conservatives–drug legalization, hostility to war and military spending, support for civil liberties and for gay marriage–while liberals, chastened by the Bush years, would tone down their support for big government in other areas.

The Kochs would appear to be the perfect liberaltarians–they support gay marriage, drug legalization, opposed the Iraq War, want to substantially cut military spending, and gave $20 million to the ACLU to oppose the Patriot Act (compared to a relatively piddling $43,000 to Scott Walker’s election campaign).

It’s not surprising that some demagogic “Progressives” would nevertheless choose to try to demonize the Kochs to defend the Democratic money machine that public employee unions represent (update: though note that the attack on the Kochs began last Summer). What is, if not surprising, at least a bit depressing, is how few prominent liberal commentators have spoken out against the ongoing attempted Emmanuel Goldsteinization of the Kochs.

Indeed, Hans Bader points out that even the ACLU, as noted a major Koch beneficiary, has helped organize anti-Koch rallies, though the Kochs involvement in small government economic issues seems rather far removed from what is supposed to be the ACLU’s core agenda. So much for liberaltarianism.

Ilya has a series of posts expressing skepticism of liberaltarianism here. I pointed out here that the Kochs spend about a tenth as much annually on political/intellectual causes as does left-wing billionaire George Soros–which doesn’t stop shameless Soros grantees from suggesting that […]

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The Demise of the Democratic Leadership Council and the Future of Liberaltarianism

A recent Politico article reports that the Democratic Leadership Council is about to “suspend operations” for lack of funds. The DLC was a group founded in 1985 to try to move the Democratic Party to the center. Among its founders was then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who became the most successful of the DLC-affiliated New Democrats. DLC-supported ideas were one of the sources of the Clinton Administration’s relatively pro-market policies on various issues, including welfare reform, free trade, and spending restraint.

Today, the DLC and its ideas are out of favor in liberal Democratic circles. It is telling that the organization is failing for lack of funds at a time when most of the issues it used to emphasize are as important as ever. Certainly, we have a much more serious spending problem today than in the 1980s and 90s. The Politico article indicates that the DLC’s role will now be filled by the Progressive Policy Institute, the think thank which was affiliated with the DLC until a recent split. But the article also notes that PPI has only two fellows and eleven paid staff – a very small size for a major DC think tank. Evidently, there is very little donor support available for centrist Democratic organizations. The article also refers to a more recently established group called “Third Way” as a possible successor to the DLC. But Third Way is not clearly a centrist group, and its “board includes old –line liberals like Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.).”

The fall of the DLC and the lack of a strong successor organization has important implications for “liberaltarianism,” the idea of a political alliance between liberals and libertarians. Although the New Democrats were far from being libertarians themselves, there was important common ground between the two groups. The […]

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Scott Sumner on Liberaltarian Progress

I have generally been pessimistic about the prospects of the “liberaltarian” project of forging an alliance between libertarians and liberals (e.g. here and here). Economist Scott Sumner, however, makes a good case that this effort has achieved a lot if you look at it from a longterm perspective. Ultimately, the difference between Sumner’s view and mine is less stark than it seems. As I explained in this post, there is a difference between “liberaltarianism” conceived as a wide-ranging political coalition, and liberaltarianism as an intellectual dialogue between the two groups, in which libertarians seek to understand liberalism and try to persuade liberals to become more libertarian. I am pessimistic about the former, but I think the latter has achieved considerable good in the past and may achieve more in the future. Sumner defines liberaltarianism as “basically libertarians attempting to knock some sense into liberals on economic issues.” This dialogic approach is very different from Brink Lindsey’s famous 2006 proposal for a political alliance which first coined the term.

Here are some of Sumner’s specific points, with my comments:

Let’s review what liberals used to believe, before libertarians knocked some sense into them:

1. In the US, they believed the prices of goods and services should be set by the government. Ditto for wages. This took the form of the NIRA in the 1930s. It took the form of multiple industry regulatory agencies like the ICC and CAB. By the late 1960s and early 1970s they favored “incomes policies” which were essentially across the board wage and price controls. Today they generally favor letting the market set wages and prices. Very liberal Massachusetts recently abolished all rent controls.

This is real progress and some of it was indeed due to efforts at persuasion by libertarian scholars such as […]

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The Cato Institute’s Supposed “Purge” of the Liberaltarians

At Slate, David Weigel claims that the libertarian Cato Institute may have purged its “liberaltarians” – scholars who advocate an alliance between libertarians and the political left:

The libertarian Cato Institute is parting with two of its most prominent scholars. Brink Lindsey, the institute’s vice president of research and the author of the successful book The Age of Abundance, is departing to take a position at the Kauffman Foundation. Will Wilkinson, a Cato scholar, collaborator with Lindsey, and editor of the online Cato Unbound, is leaving on September 15; he just began blogging politics for the Economist.

I asked for comment on this and was told that the institute does not typically comment on personnel matters. But you have to struggle not to see a political context to this. Lindsey and Wilkinson are among the Cato scholars who most often find common cause with liberals. In 2006, after the GOP lost Congress, Lindsey coined the term “Liberaltarians” to suggest that Libertarians and liberals could work together outside of the conservative movement. Shortly after this, he launched a dinner series where liberals and Libertarians met to discuss big ideas…. In 2009 and 2010, as the libertarian movement moved back into the right’s fold, Lindsey remained iconoclastic….

There are two big problems with Weigel’s insinuation. First, Cato has not changed or even deemphasized any of its positions on those issues where they have long differed with conservatives including the war on drugs, immigration, foreign policy, and others. If they were trying to move “back into the right’s fold,” one would think they would pulled back on these positions at least to some noticeable extent. Yet a quick glance at Cato’s website reveals recent attacks on standard conservative policies on Afghanistan, and the “Ground Zero mosque,” among other issues.

Second, it […]

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Tim Lee’s Rejoinder to My Most Recent Post on Liberaltarianism

Tim Lee has written an interesting response to to my most recent post on liberaltarianism. He addresses my argument that liberaltarianism is problematic because most liberals don’t in fact agree with libertarians on “social issues” as much as he assumes:

As Somin acknowledges, there are lots of right-wingers, “compassionate conservatives” included, that aren’t interested in any part of the libertarian policy agenda. I can’t remember the last time the Family Research Council published something I agreed with, even on “economic issues.” I think Pat Buchanan’s views on “economic issues” are appalling.

Fusionist organizations deal with these elements of the conservative movement by mostly ignoring them. They don’t write about their work. They don’t hire their employees or publish their scholars’ work. And instead, they work with people in the more free-market-friendly corners of the conservative world….

The distribution of opinions on the liberal side is similar. Common Cause doesn’t see eye-to-eye with libertarians on First Amendment issues. The ACLU largely does. And so a liberaltarian organization would hire ACLU-style liberals rather than Common-Cause-style liberals to work on First Amendment issues. And on the margin, this would raise the prominence of ACLU-style First Amendment advocacy relative to Common-Cause-style First Amendment advocacy within the liberal movement. You can tell a similar story on gay rights, the drug war, immigration, and other issues.

There are two problems with this parallel. Libertarian-leaning liberals are a small minority on the left on most issues. As you can see from the liberal reaction to the Citizens United decision, the Common Cause view of the First Amendment has many more liberal adherents than the ACLU version. And even the ACLU has retreated from strong advocacy of free speech when it seems to clash with antidiscrimination law, as co-blogger David Bernstein documented in his book You Can’t […]

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More on Prospects for Liberaltarianism

Cato Institute scholar Brink Lindsey, a major originator of “liberaltarianism,” may have given up on the idea. But not all libertarians have. Julian Sanchez and Tim Lee have both written interesting responses to my recent post criticizing it. Sanchez argues that libertarians and liberals can cooperate with each other an issue-by-issue basis when they happen to agree, and also engage in a philosophical dialogue. Lee has a broader vision of potential left-libertarian collaboration.

I. Issue by Issue Cooperation.

In Sanchez’s view, “Libertarian individuals and institutions should make whatever tactical alliances on specific issues that best suit their dispositions and concerns.” On issues where we happen to agree with liberals, we should make tactical alliances with them. I don’t disagree with that. Indeed, I myself have noted areas of agreement with liberals such as Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich. To my knowledge, hardly any libertarian thinker disagrees with the idea of making whatever tactical alliances are likely to be effective in a given situation. Liberaltarianism, however, is more than that. At the very least, it calls for a strategic political alliance that cuts across a wide range of issues. In Lindsey’s original formulation, it entails a broad philosophical fusion of the the two ideologies, a “new progressive fusionism.”

Sanchez also points to instances of issue-specific cooperation between liberals and libertarians and suggests that they refute my claim that there is little liberal interest in liberaltarianism. My claim, however, was not that liberals are opposed to any and all cooperation with libertarians, but rather that most have little or no interest in the sort of broader political alliance or philosophical fusion that liberaltarianism requires.

I also agree with Sanchez’s call for a dialogue between the two groups. However, that dialogue has already been taking place for many years. […]

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From “Liberaltarianism” to Libertarian Centrism?

Reason has an interesting debate on the question of libertarian political strategy. Should libertarians seek to forge an alliance with conservatives or liberals or neither? Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg and Tea Party leader Matt Kibbe argue for reconsituting the libertarian-conservative coalition that was badly frayed if not completely severed during the Bush years. Cato Institute scholar Brink Lindsey argues against that view. Although I am much closer to Lindsey’s political views than Goldberg’s, I find myself agreeing somewhat more with Goldberg’s position in this particular debate.


I. Brink Lindsey’s Retreat from Liberaltarianism.

Lindsey seems to have stepped back from his much-discussed 2006 argument for a “liberaltarian” coalition between libertarians and liberals.

Today, Lindsey argues that libertarians should instead try to occupy “the center,” because an alliance with the left is no more viable than one with the right:

Does that mean I think that libertarians should ally with the left instead? No, that’s equally unappealing. I do believe that libertarian ideas are better expressed in the language of liberalism rather than that of conservatism. But it’s clear enough that for now and the foreseeable future, the left is no more viable a home for libertarians than is the right.

It would be interesting to know what led to Lindsey’s change of heart about liberaltarianism. I suspect that the vast expansion of government promoted by the Obama administration and the decline of relatively pro-market views among liberal intellectuals were both contributing factors. Lindsey’s new view of liberaltarianism is now remarkably similar to the one I expressed back when he made his original proposal: that liberals and libertarians have much in common in terms of ultimate values, but relatively little common ground in terms of practical policy agendas.

II. What Would Libertarian Centrism Look Like?

I would also be interested to […]

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