The Promise of Liberaltarianism

Scott and Chris each take issue with my post on Liberaltarianism in a Liberal Age, Scott on the grounds that a coalition of liberals and libertarians holds the greatest promise for advancing a libertarian agenda, Chris on the more substantive grounds that libertarianism does not offer a way of providing social safety nets in an era of increased marketization (of which libertarians obviously approve). 

Despite the vastly different viewpoints of these critiques, I think they both help suggest why the concept of liberaltarianism is so essential even as I think it has taken a massive body blow the last few months due to the turn of influential liberals back towards support of broad brush regulation such as the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, a general belief that all or nearly all deregulation is undesirable, and a general belief that any government spending is – almost by definition – good, “stimulative” spending. 

Ultimately, as I suggested in my earlier post, I think libertarianism will be best off if broadly defined libertarians become regular swing voters to whom both parties are willing to regularly pander.  However, I expect that at various points in time, libertarians will find relatively long-term alliances with the Left or the Right to be appropriate much as the libertarian alliance with the Right was generally deemed politically beneficial for much of the last 50 years or so. 

But in order for libertarians to more consistently act as political free agents, or even to sign on to a coalition with the political Left, something else will need to happen to free libertarian philosophy from the predispositions that have resulted from such a lengthy alliance with the political Right.  

I would propose, then, that the “something” to which I refer is “liberaltarianism,” “soft Hayek” as Jim Henley calls it, or “actual Hayek” as I like to call it.  The promise of this derivation of modern libertarianism is not that it attempts to paint libertarianism in a light that is palatable to modern liberals/Progressives, which our friend Kip rightly fears; instead, its promise is that it can help to rescue the fundamental worldview of libertarianism from the prejudices instilled in it by such a lengthy alliance with the Right.

Simply put, the promise of liberaltarianism is that it can help to build a libertarianism that is more true to its classically liberal roots.  In so doing, it is possible that it will become a libertarianism that modern liberals are willing to take seriously, and even learn from.  To be sure, if this were to completely succeed, I find it likely that libertarianism would eventually become as corrupted by the Left as it has been by the Right, thus creating the need for the cycle to start anew. 

So where are some of the areas where libertarianism has been corrupted by its affiliation with the political Right?  One area is in what tends to be our reflexive opposition to labor unions; there is a false assumption that labor unions exist virtually entirely because of government intervention and that they are therefore inherently coercive.  This assumption does not, however, line up with the facts, which show private sector labor union membership at its lowest level since 1900, and at half of its level from 1935, when the first major pro-union legislation (the NLRA) was passed (and before the massive economic interventionism of FDR).  Yes, private sector union membership was at almost 40% by the time Congress realized that the NLRA was too restrictive and passed the Taft-Hartley Act.  But the Taft-Hartley Act was itself a government intervention, and the resulting decline in private sector union membership to 1900 levels strongly suggests that Taft Hartley is even more restrictive of unions than a complete absence of federal labor laws. 

Another example has been the willingness (fading in recent years thanks to the Bush Administration’s big government economic policy combined with its rampant civil liberties absues) to emphasize economic liberty, which is consonant with the GOP coalition, while largely turning civil and social liberties issues, which are largely dissonant with the GOP coalition, into secondary issues. 

And the biggest problem of all is the one suggested by Chris in his post regarding libertarian ignorance of “the Commons” – i.e., the need for some kind of a social safety net that exists independent of the free market.  The simple fact is that true freedom – the principle that is at the heart of libertarianism – requires that everyone (or as many as possible) have access to enough resources that they actually can take advantage of their political and social freedoms. 

One final blind spot, I should add, is the notion that all regulation is inherently bad, which ignores Hayek’s distinction between “planning for” and “planning against” competition.  This blind spot essentially assumes that we live in a perfectly Coasian world with no transaction costs such that, for example, consumers are capable of being aware of all the externalities associated with a product.

The trouble with all of these blind spots is that they largely leave libertarians on the sidelines when it comes to debate on relevant issues, reduced to more or less relaying the plays called by the political Right.  So, instead of arguing for at least a partial repeal of Taft-Hartley, which would actually advance libertarian ends, as an alternative to EFCA (which really is a terrible law from a libertarian standpoint), we are reduced to union-bashing, resisting EFCA (and thereby neither advancing nor hurting the cause of individual liberty) without offering any kind of alternative. 

By not advocating as forcefully for civil and social liberties as we have argued for economic liberties, we leave liberals and progressives in possession of the field on those issues, rendering us irrelevant when economic liberties conflict with progressive social policies (see, e.g., affirmative action).

By treating any and all social safety nets as irreversible steps on the Road to Serfdom, we allow liberals and progressives to shape those policies in ways that are inefficient, ineffective, and overbroad – even though Adam Smith, Hayek himself, and Friedman each advocated for a form of social safety net, demonstrating that social safety nets can be consistent with libertarianism.  The result is that the concept of a negative income tax, supported by (I think) all three, and by almost 80% of economists, gets almost no public airing whatsoever. 

And finally, our reflexive opposition to any and all regulation results in a situation where potentially necessary regulation is crafted in such a manner as to completely ignore its economic consequences. 

So therein lies the great promise of liberaltarianism, whether it be Wilkinson’s pragmatic incrementalist approach, or the more radical approach of Roderick Long.  It is not so much that it promises to create an alliance with the political Left, although ultimately I think it will.  Instead, it is to free libertarianism from the chains of its too-long affiliation with the political Right.

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24 thoughts on “The Promise of Liberaltarianism

  1. Man, I wish someone had come up with a different term than “liberaltarianism.” I keep missing that little “l” when I read it…the two words look so much alike! Maybe that’s the problem with the idea!

    No but seriously:

    By treating any and all social safety nets as irreversible steps on the Road to Serfdom, we allow liberals and progressives to shape those policies in ways that are inefficient, ineffective, and overbroad – even though Adam Smith, Hayek himself, and Friedman each advocated for a form of social safety net, demonstrating that social safety nets can be consistent with libertarianism.

    Yes! This is a huge problem with not only libertarianism, but with the resistance from within the conservative movement to any and all governance since it obviously would entail the dreaded State!

    But balance is tricky, isn’t it?

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  2. Yes, but I think this strips libertarianism of one the very things that make it attractive to people: that it’s a utopian purist ideology with no chance of actually being enacted, which lets its adherents off the hook for failing to truly live by their ideals.

    Not to sound too condescending, but really, is the average Reason subscriber really interested in actual political power? I mean, I read Long’s piece, and his whole thesis is utterly anti-systemic, and based on an insistence that our political and economic language are misused and abused 90% of the time. How is this a conversation starter?

    As for more pragmatic libertarians like yourself, there are (as I said on Scott’s post) not enough of you to matter in electoral politics, and those of you that are there are too concentrated.

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  3. Will: Wow. Thanks for the compliment! I’m flattered.

    Joseph: Except for anarchists and (arguably) minarchists, most libertarians do not believe in a “utopia,” at least not in the manner that word is traditionally defined. To be sure, most libertarians have an idealistic vision of a truly libertarian government that has little chance of becoming reality, but the same could be said about adherents of any political philosophy save perhaps Burkean conservatives.

    I also think you miss an important underlying premise of my argument, which is that a liber-al-tarian (I hope that makes it easier, ED!) worldview is no less idealistic than other forms of libertarianism, and indeed is at least arguably (and I would argue clearly) more of a “pure” libertarianism than the libertarianism that has developed over the last 50 years or so of affiliation with the political Right.

    I’m glad you think that the version of libertarianism I advocate here is more pragmatic and politically viable than some of the more prevalent versions of libertarianism, but ultimately I’m less concerned with making libertarianism more pragmatic than I am with making it more consistent with its philosophical roots. In that sense there is quite a bit in common between my view and Long’s more radical view: both are primarily concerned with reforming libertarianism and recognizing, as Will says above, that “the long alliance with the right has tainted classical liberalism.” That Long is more focused on systemic issues that are less achievable is largely unimportant to me – if systems are to ever change, someone has to argue for systemic change. But I think that libertarian critiques, both of the systemic and more policy-specific variety, will be far more persuasive in general if they are more consistent with their philosophical basis.

    As for the issue of numbers, the fact is that most people who are loosely defined as “libertarians,” much like most people who are loosely defined as “conservatives” or “liberals” are not terribly concerned about deeper philosophical issues; put another way, most loosely defined “libertarians” just like most loosely defined “conservatives” and “liberals” are not part of a political “movement,” even though most politicians for whom they vote, and columnists they read, are part of a “movement.” Consider that, despite being the foundation for much of modern libertarianism, Road To Serfdom has only ever sold 400,000 copies (1,000,000 if you include the condensed version) in its 65 years of existence. And yet there are perhaps tens of millions of people who can be loosely defined as small ‘l’ libertarians (depending on how loose your definition is, of course). The point is that it’s only necessary to persuade a relatively small number of people, ie those who are intimately part of the “movement,” to a viewpoint in order for that viewpoint to become influential on a wider scale.

    As for whether the average reader of Reason is interested in political power, the answer is that, just like a reader of any liberal or conservative movement magazine, they are interested in political power, but are not willing to sell out their political philosophy in order to do so. What liber-al-tarianism seeks to do is to persuade those libertarians qua libertarians to take a slightly different worldview. That this worldview may be more persuasive to non-movement libertarians (and non-libertarians as well) is a important, but secondary, effect. Far more important is that it does not involve sacrificing core libertarian principles.

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  9. I posted this comment on Will’s blog post, but thought it was worth repeating here:

    I’ll put this bluntly: Any sane libertarian should value economic freedom more than social freedom.

    Thus, sane libertarians should feel more comfortable with those who propose economic freedom than those who propose social freedom (neither of them does well on the execution front).

    A simple way to think of this is that you can buy social freedom with economic freedom, while it does not work the other way around. Look at drugs and prostitution; if you engage in wealthy pursuits of those vices it is very unlikely you will be caught and even less likely you will face punishment at the hands of the state (I’m looking at you, Eliot Spitzer, you hypocritical lying sack of poo).

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  10. Modern liberalism and libertarianism have very different principles at their hearts.

    At the heart of modern liberalism is the belief that “true freedom” requires that the government ensure that people “have access to enough resources that they actually can take advantage of their political and social freedoms”. This is actually a fairly utopian goal.

    At the heart of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle: simply the refusal to start fights to force others to do what you want. There is no promise of utopia, merely a goal of being minimally tolerant–i.e. not resorting to violence–when faced with peaceful decisions you cannot persuade others to change.

    The libertarian-conservative fusion was based in large part on the fact that conservatives believed that libertarian means involving more individual freedom from government power would serve their ends–especially when those ends were contrasted with those of the totalitarian USSR. Libertarian “corruption” (perhaps confusion is a better word) came when they started mistaking conservative ends for their own.

    There’s really not much to be gained in trying to convince libertarians that modern liberal ideals are really libertarian principles. At best, I think any basis for a modern liberals to work with libertarians would be in the areas of efficiency and avoiding unintended consequences.

    Overall, though, without an external driver that reinforces the fusion as the ideological nature of Cold War against the USSR did, I don’t see much of a future for liberaltarianism.

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  12. Great piece, Mark. Worthy of the many responses. I’m not a libertarian or a liberal so I’ve remained rather quiet on all this, but I certainly think you’re on to something. Big tents are something to work toward. The opportunity is certainly there…

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