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Liberaltarianism Revisited:

Libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson has kicked off a renewed debate over the potential of "liberaltarianism," the proposed alliance between libertarians and liberals that was much-discussed back in 2006. Will believes that the idea still has merit. Various conservative and libertarian commentators, including Jonah Goldberg, Matt Welch, Ross Douthat, and Virginia Postrel are skeptical.

I. My Reasons for Skepticism.

Back in 2006, I argued that liberals and libertarians have stronger philosophical affinities than libertarians and conservatives. But I also doubted in that same post that a liberaltarian alliance was feasible because most liberal intellectuals are loath to emphasize those parts of their agenda that justify shrinking government and liberal politicians are strongly beholden to interest groups with a vested interest in expanding it.

Although I wish things were different, I think that my 2006 reasons for skepticism are more valid today than they were back then. The financial crisis/recession have persuaded most liberal intellectuals that our current problems are the result of insufficient government and have made it far more difficult to persuade them to take arguments against massive expansions of government seriously (to say nothing of arguments for its radical reduction). I think that claims that the financial crisis discredits libertarianism are seriously flawed. But most liberals clearly believe otherwise.

With the exception of a few economists, virtually all liberal public intellectuals that I know of either support Barack Obama's massive stimulus plan or believe that it should be even larger than it is. Back in November, I made the not very original prediction that President Obama's and the new Democratic Congress' plans for a massive expansion of government would drive libertarians and conservatives together in opposition:

With Barack Obama in the White House and the Democrats enjoying large majorities in Congress at a time of economic crisis, it is highly likely that they will push for a large expansion of government even beyond that which recently occurred under Bush. That prospect may bring libertarians and conservatives back together. Many of the items on the likely Democratic legislative agenda are anathema to both groups: a vast expansion of government control of health care, new legal privileges for labor unions, expanded regulation of a variety of industries, protectionism, increased government spending on infrastructure and a variety of other purposes, and bailouts for additional industries, such as automakers.

Most of the above has either already come to pass, or is on the president's legislative agenda for the near future. And, just as I expected, libertarians and conservatives have reunited in opposition to it.

II. An Intellectual Movement?

In his original post, Will Wilkinson conceded that liberaltarianism is not a likely political alliance for the near future, but argued that the movement still has great potential for bringing together libertarian and liberal intellectuals around common values. As he puts it:

I want to help create the possibility of a popular political identity that takes the value of human liberty, in all its aspects, really seriously. As I see it, this project involves an attempt to reunify the separate strands of the American liberal tradition.... [around] an authentically liberal governing philosophy that understands that limited government, free markets, a culture of tolerance, and a sound social safety net are the best means to better lives.

Will's "authentically liberal governing philosophy" sounds good to me. The problem is that few if any liberal intellectuals are willing to sign on, except by redefinining the terms in ways antithetical to what most libertarians would accept (e.g. - by "a sound safety net," they mean a vastly larger welfare state than even the most moderate libertarians are likely to support; under "culture of tolerance," they include a variety of PC excesses, etc.).

Back in 2006, liberal intellectual interest in "liberaltarianism" was driven largely by electoral calculations; they hoped that wooing libertarians would help the Democrats to finally defeat the Republicans (who had won several elections in a row). This comes through very clearly in Markos Moulitsos' 2006 defense of the concept, which explicitly refuses to concede any ideological ground to libertarians, but merely urges them to vote for the Democrats as a lesser evil relative to the Republicans. A number of prominent libertarian intellectuals - including Wilkinson, Brink Lindsey, and former VC member Jacob Levy - have sought to forge a liberaltarian coalition that goes beyond a temporary political alliance of convenience. It is striking that that not a single prominent liberal joined them.

Today, liberal intellectuals are, if anything, even less willing to make concessions to libertarians than they were in 2006. On an ideological level, the financial crisis has lowered the stock of libertarianism in their eyes. In a strange way, the Bush record of massive expansions of government has also shifted the goalposts for liberal Democrats. They seem to assume that anything Bush and the Republicans did must have been "laissez faire" (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) and that the current Democratic agenda represents a needed course correction relative to failed free market policies rather than a continuation of Bush-era trends of greatly increased government spending and regulation.

From a political viewpoint, liberals they think they have strong enough congressional majorities and public support to be able to get along without libertarians. Moulitsos and his allies no longer see any need to trumpet their "libertarian democrat" credentials.

None of this means that libertarians shouldn't conduct a "conversation" with liberals, as Will urges. For example, we should continue to take their arguments seriously, and to press on on them the libertarian view that government has systematic flaws, and that the poor and disadvantaged - the traditional objects of liberal concern - are often best served by limiting its power. We should also remember the chief lesson of the Bush era: that a federal government under united Republican control is often no better than one controlled by the Democrats. The last eight years have highlighted and exacerbated our serious disagreements with many conservatives. Skepticism about liberaltarianism must be coupled with an appreciation of the shortcomings of the conservative-libertarian "fusionism" that frayed so badly under Bush.

That said, we must be realistic. There is not going to be any viable liberaltarianism in the near future - whether in the form of a political coalition or an intellectual movement. If the Democrats take some political setbacks, and Obama's big government policies come to be perceived as failures, liberals may become more open to liberaltarian ideas - as some were as a result of Democratic setbacks in the 1980s and 90s. Until then, liberals and libertarians can still listen to each other and cooperate on a few selected issues where we happen to agree. But not much more than that.

UPDATE: National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg claims that he was the one who really kicked off this round of liberaltarianism discussion, and that I am denying him his "morsels of glory" by giving the credit to Will Wilkinson. An in-depth investigation by the VC Blogging Glory Accreditation Department reveals that Goldberg's claim of chronological priority is correct. We hereby award him his unjustly denied morsel of glory.

160 Comments

Should Libertarians Go Red or Blue? I have been enjoying the recent dialogue over so-called liberaltarianism (links are in Ilya's post). I don't have that much to add except perhaps this:

In a two party system, such as ours, each party is a coalition that is striving to get past 50%, unlike a parliamentary system in which governments are formed by joining together enough distinct parties. This seems to be one of the reasons why the Libertarian Party was doomed from its inception (though I erroneously supported its formation way back when). It would seem that draining both parties of libertarians would have to make each party less libertarian at the margin. Becoming a part of each party's coalition would make each somewhat more libertarian at the margin, however slightly. It would necessarily mean, however, that libertarians in either party would be in a coalition with some with whom they greatly disagree. That is politics in a two-party system.

Happily, some libertarians feel more comfortable with conservatives and others with progressives (i.e. modern liberals). Some are reasonably comfortable with both camps, depending on the situation. Libertarians should simply gravitate to where their inclinations take them. Some of this will turn on where each party is at a particular moment. For example, are Republicans "big government conservatives"? Are Democrats "New New Dealers"? Of course, other libertarians can abjure politics and parties altogether for some other activity that advances liberty.

I found this idea well summarized by a comment posted to Will Wilkenson's blog:
The reality is that Republicans think A and when in power do B, while Democrats think C and when in power do B. Libertarians are generally against B. What we need is a substantial presence of libertarians in both parties, so that when in power there is an internal narrative that advises against doing B.
The key is the "internal narrative." The tricky part is getting each coalition to value its libertarian contingent. To achieve this, however, would seem to require the sort of political engagement that at least some libertarians dispositionally dislike--which is how they gravitated to libertarianism in the first place.

Like I said, I don't have anything particularly novel to say about this. But casting the issue in terms of 2 competing electoral coalitions may be more constructive than either employing Republican/Democrat or conservative/liberal dichotomies.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Sean Gabb's Advice to the Tories:
  2. Should Libertarians Go Red or Blue?
  3. Liberaltarianism Revisited:

Sean Gabb's Advice to the Tories: Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance in the UK is a sharp and provocative speaker and writer. Two nights ago, he gave a fiery address to the Conservative Future, a group of young Tories. Here is how the group reported the speech on its website:
Last night Dr Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance, gave an impassioned speech in the cause of liberty to members of Conservative Future at the monthly Star Social event of the Cities of London and Westminster Conservative Future, of which I am chairman. In it he bluntly laid bare the actions that a truly conservative government should take, and his fears for the likely incoming Conservative government.

It was fiery oration, and no doubt shook some of the audience who came with more blissfully sedate views. But it underscored the importance of the conservative movement, the broad church of organisations and individuals which generates the ideas to drive forward the pursuit of liberty. All who attended were of the opinion that whilst they may or may not agree with Dr Gabb, he was an excellent speaker with fascinating ideas.

For my part, I think memories of his speech will live long in attendees' memories, and, uncomfortably perhaps, at least at first, they'll come to see some of the wisdom therein. There can be no question that more young people need to hear from Sean and his ilk, purveyors of fresh thinking.
You can read the transcript of the speech here along with a bit of introductory commentary. I hesitate to provide any excerpt because the speech hangs together as a whole--and you especially want to read the hostile questioning as well as Gabb's responses. But perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition is his advice to abolish the BBC immediately upon obtaining power:
[Y]ou should not try to work with the Establishment. You should not try to jolly it along. You should not try fighting it on narrow fronts. You must regard it as the enemy, and you must smash it.

On the first day of your government, you should close down the BBC. You should take it off air. You should disclaim its copyrights. You should throw all its staff into the street. You should not try to privatise the BBC. This would simply be to transfer the voice of your enemy from the public to the private sector, where it might be more effective in its opposition. You must shut it down - and shut it down at once. You should do the same with much of the administration. The Foreign Office, much of the Home Office, the Commission for Racial Equality, anything to do with health and safety and planning and child protection - I mean much of the public sector - these should be shut down. If at the end of your first month in power, you have not shut down half of the State, you are failing. If you have shut down half the State, you have made a step in the right direction, and are ready for still further cuts.
But retaining welfare and national health care.
Following from this, however, I advise you to leave large areas of the welfare state alone. It is regrettable, but most people in this country do like the idea of healthcare free at the point of use, and of free education, and of pensions and unemployment benefit. These must go in the long term. But they must be retained in the short term to maintain electoral support. Their cost and methods of provision should be examined. But cutting welfare provision would be politically unwise in the early days of our revolution.
The purpose of moving on the former but not the latter is explained this way:
Let me emphasize that the purpose of these cuts would not be to save money for the taxpayers or lift an immense weight of bureaucracy from their backs - though they would do this. The purpose is to destroy the Establishment before it can destroy you. You must tear up the web of power and personal connections that make these people effective as an opposition to radical change. If you do this, you will face no more clamour than if you moved slowly and half-heartedly. Again, I remember to campaign against the Thatcher "cuts". There were no cuts, except in the rate of growth of state spending. You would never have thought this from the the torrent of protests that rolled in from the Establishment and its clients. And so my advice is to go ahead and make real cuts - and be prepared to set the police on anyone who dares riot against you.
This last remark about the Thatcher "cuts" reminded me of how I felt during the Reagan administration. Reagan was loudly and persistently condemned for making radical changes to the size and scope government that he never made. So it always seemed to me that he would have been no worse off politically had he actually had made the radical changes for which he was blamed. Then at least his supporters would be heartened and the benefits of these changes would be felt. But not making the changes, but being blamed for having done so, was the worst of both worlds. So too with the Bush Administration, though Bush's critic have a hard time keeping a straight face when they accuse him of promoting Laissez-Faire. Still, how much worse would Bush's political standing have been if he had actually done what he was accused of doing? I would wager his approval rating would have been higher. 30-35% opposition to any Republican administration is fixed. So you don't get to Bush's low approval numbers without substantial disapproval from his base. However, although I do not know either man personally, I suspect a big difference between Reagan and Bush is that Reagan truly wanted a smaller government and Bush truly did not.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Sean Gabb's Advice to the Tories:
  2. Should Libertarians Go Red or Blue?
  3. Liberaltarianism Revisited: