Liberaltarianism, Again

I’ve long argued that libertarianism, to the extent it is entitled to consider itself the heir to classical liberalism, has been corrupted by its long-standing affiliation with the American political Right.   Tim Lee makes a compelling argument as to why that affiliation continues – and, despite my predictions and hopes – is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The big obstacle (other than the lack of obvious donors) to such a project is that a lot of libertarian intellectuals have so completely internalized the assumptions of the fusionist alliance that they have trouble writing about policy in a way that liberals find compelling. Many have come to regard “economic issues” as being at the core of the libertarian agenda, and their attempts at outreach to liberals too often consist of long-winded explanations of why liberals really out to support Social Security privatization, school choice, or whatever. Liberals are no more likely to be swayed by them than we are to be swayed by their arguments in the opposite direction. Making a liberaltarian alliance work would require a group of liberals and libertarians deciding that they care enough about issues of mutual concern to make those issues the focus of their work. There’s no philosophical reason this couldn’t or shouldn’t happen, it just has a half-century of institutional inertia working against it.

Since libertarians will, of necessity, always be the junior member in any ideological coalition, an increased affiliation with the Left requires that a critical mass of libertarian intellectuals be prepared to emphasize social and foreign policy issues over economic issues.  This, however, cannot and will not happen unless libertarians begin to question the ways in which the affiliation with the Right, rather than any real philosophical principle, is the reason we tend to emphasize economic issues so heavily over social and foreign policy issues.

UPDATE: Relatedly (via Patrick Appel at the Dish), please see Noah Millman, who explains in much more detail why economic issues should no longer be the area of overwhelming emphasis for libertarians.  Money quote:

Over the same period that saw libertarian priorities in economics relatively ascendant, we have seen a distinctly negative trend in the growth of militarism and the national security state.  In principle, this should worry libertarians as much as government intrusion in the economy. In practice, it should worry them more, for two reasons: first, the trend has been in the wrong direction for a while; second, while there are large organized interests fighting against government intrusion in the economy, there are no large organized interests similarly interested in fighting the growth of the national security state.

I would suggest that libertarians largely have not accepted that their priorities in economics have been relatively ascendant in part because the affiliation with the Right leaves us vulnerable to conservative culture war caricatures of the Left.  Barack Obama is far from an economic libertarian; but he’s also far less economically statist than LBJ or – for that matter – Richard Milhous Nixon. 

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30 thoughts on “Liberaltarianism, Again

  1. Every book I’ve read from a leading libertarian intellectual addresses social, economic, and foreign relations issues. The reason libertarians appear to be focused on economics is because a large part of the left predicates their agenda on controlling the economy, and this as far from libertarianism as one can get, so, yes, centralization and central planning have to be resisted. I really don’t understand your position — what good is an alliance if economic issues aren’t resolved first? Once resolved, then innovative ways — ways in which lbertarians can help develope — can be implemented to avoid the flaws of statism. Economics touch on everything — it’s not simply the tired claim of letting the rich get richer — hell, liberals are doing fine with that — it’s the connected rich, though.

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    • @Mike Farmer, The trouble with this is that it assumes that the Right doesn’t predicate a large part of its agenda on war, controlling social liberties, and – importantly – restricting civil liberties via its worship of law enforcement. These are often far more direct threats to liberty than whether taxes go up a little or businesses have to obey a few more regulations.

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      • @Mark Thompson,
        I was about to say. The problem conservatives refuse to face is that, in the words of George Will, capitalism destroys capitalist values. The paradox for conservatives is, the more successful capitalism is, the more individuals are empowered. The more individuals are empowered, the stronger the assault on “tradition” (cf. gay marriage). Not that your family-values conservative would ever make the connection.

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        • @sam, It’s been discussed before- Whittaker Chambers actually wrote a letter to William F. Buckley asking him if he realized how at odds capitalism and conservatism actually are. I don’t think he ever did though.

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      • @Mark Thompson,
        Mark, why do you go directly to Republicans/conservatives when the subject is alliance with liberals. I’m not proposing buying the militaristc, social concerns, civil liberities violations — we’re talking about liberals. Just because I think there is no commonality with liberals around economic issues, doesn’t mean the only alternative is the worst form of conservativism. I’m at a loss to understand the motivations behind this whole argument. The facton of conservatives who’ve focused on limited government and a free market appears preferable to liberals, but I’m not proposing signing up as a conservative — it just seems if they can dominate the Republican Party, that’s beter than relying on the Democrat Party — for any libertarian. Perhaps you can tell me the value of liberaltarianism — I’ll be damned if I can see it — what has the Democrat Party done to change the wars or civil liberties violations?

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        • @Mike Farmer, My whole point all along has been that the long-standing affiliation with conservatives has led libertarians to be relatively unwilling to work with liberals even on single-issues where we may agree; it has also caused us to expend far more emphasis on economic issues (where we at least theoretically agree with conservatives) than on civil liberties and social issues. And, even where we do tend to focus on social issues and civil liberties issues, as Lee points out, it is on particular issues that are relatively unimportant to liberals or where liberals are likely to disagree with us.

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          • “My whole point all along has been that the long-standing affiliation with conservatives has led libertarians to be relatively unwilling to work with liberals even on single-issues where we may agree;…”

            Why do you think that? Take the drug war. Libertarians and most of the liberal intelligentsia (and most of the conservative intelligentsia) support scaling back the Drug War even if not everybody agrees with definitively ending it. It’s a matter of prioritization vs. the force of inertia.

            What is it about libertarian association with the Right that makes drug decriminalization a lower priority for liberals than it might be otherwise?

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    • @Mike Farmer,
      1. I’m sorry, but I find the idea that the majority of modern American liberals advocate central planning to be ridiculous.

      2. Contra Lee, Movement Conservatives support for free markets is HARDLY 100%. Movement Conservatives are at least tacit supporters of many restrictions on the free market. In fact, one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had was when I realized one can generally predict the level of Conservative opposition to a restriction based on it’s effect on the already-powerful. They will loudly oppose restrictions that limit them but will be selectively silent about, if not support, restrictions which aid them in maintaining or expanding their wealth and power.

      In my experience, the psychology behind this seems to be similar to that seen behind social darwinism – to wit “Group A has already proven itself better/fitter than Group B. Therefore it is ok to use the power of Gov’t to help maintain group A at the top since it is in accord with the natural order. Likewise it is ok to use the power of the gov’t to keep group B from out-competing group A since that would be a threat to the natural order”.

      The irony is that if Group A needs the help to keep it’s edge over Group B then it is, in fact, NOT fitter at all and, in fact, maintaining A over B becomes an example of the very inversion of the natural order that they seek to prevent.

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        • @Mike Farmer,

          The thins is, Mike, an equally large part of the right does as well, the only difference between the two are the mechanisms involved (the Right favors corporate giveaways, bailouts, subsidies, tax-code favoritism, and monopoly grants), and who benefits (in the case of the right, the already-privileged).

          This is the “liberaltarian” argument. This is a point that Mark and Jason and Will Wilkinson and Roderick Long have made over and over. You are simply proving Mark’s point by expressing a preference for left-bashing, ignoring the fact that sizable segments of the left (particularly those most scorned by the mainstream of the Democratic Party right now) are closer to libertarianism in their political preferences than virtually anyone on the right.

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          • @JosephFM,

            Basically, what I keep trying to get you to consider is that you only don’t see any commonality with the actual left on economic issues because you see economic issues through an explicitly right-wing frame born out of an alliance with conservatives that no longer makes any sense.

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            • @JosephFM,
              Joeseph, you misrepresent what I believe. I don’t if it’s intentional or that you just don’t get it, but it no longer matters. I’ve said all I can say here. Anyone who thinks my economic views orginate from conservativism has not been paying attention. I don’ know how else to explain it.

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            • @JosephFM,

              That’s fine – really, it just confirms what I have suspected, that we are arguing past each other. Your persistent inability to see that arguments against your viewpoint do not automatic constitute defenses of the state or of specific Democratic policies is extraordinarily frustrating, and when I actually ask your for an explaination of how you think your ideas will work in practice you respond with personal attacks.

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      • @angullimala,

        “In my experience, the psychology behind this seems to be similar to that seen behind social darwinism – to wit “Group A has already proven itself better/fitter than Group B. Therefore it is ok to use the power of Gov’t to help maintain group A at the top since it is in accord with the natural order. Likewise it is ok to use the power of the gov’t to keep group B from out-competing group A since that would be a threat to the natural order”.”

        I tend to think the driver here is functional rather than psychological. Group A has bought and paid for the Government, so it gets to use its power as it wishes. This psychology, though, would explain somewhat why so many in Group B are more upset about it. Matt Taibbi calls it the peasant mentality.

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  2. “In my experience, the psychology behind this seems to be similar to that seen behind social darwinism – to wit “Group A has already proven itself better/fitter than Group B. Therefore it is ok to use the power of Gov’t to help maintain group A at the top since it is in accord with the natural order. Likewise it is ok to use the power of the gov’t to keep group B from out-competing group A since that would be a threat to the natural order”. ”

    I’m so damn tired of these trite arguments.

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    • @Mike Farmer, Well Mike you could try putting up some non-trite ones (as Jaybird would say be the change you wish to see).

      For instance you could explain where your belief that Democrats and the majority of the left genuinely wish to establish complete honest to goodness centralized state run industry. We’ve seen leftists running around in Europe. I’m not going to say that their record is excellent but in none of their ascendant states have they genuinely established command economies (or even close to command economies). They’ve remained market economies (in some cases sure more regulated than ours though in some significant cases considerably -LESS- regulated than ours). From whence but your mental alignment with the conservatives can this article of faith come from?

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      • @North,
        If you can’t see healthcare reform, the financial reform and the proposed energy reforms they would pass if they could as honest to goodness State managed economy, then I can’t help you — good luck with it all. I’m taking a break from this place, it’s become too homogenized.

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        • @Mike Farmer, Sorry Mike, I don’t see it and I don’t follow your exasperation. We’ve seen true and near to true command economies. These aren’t those despite the hyperbole of the tea party and frankly I’m a little aghast that you would suggest it. Would you like to go through, say the finance reform bill, and explain how this constitutes bank nationalization for example?

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        • @Mike Farmer, honest-to-goodness state managed health care programs cover more people and spend less money. I fail to see the problem with this, other than a knee-jerk OMG GUBMINT SUKS argument.

          Oh, well, I guess the insurance company middlemen don’t get their cut anymore either, but fuck them.

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  3. Frankly, I don’t even see the economic case for libertarians to maintain a coalition with the right.

    If I consider the threats to my economic liberty, I’d place wage stagnation for the middle class far above taxation. I think growing income equality is a danger to our country’s economic sustainability that is on par with the deficit. I’m sure someone will blame these both on the liberal agenda, but I don’t see it.

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  4. Pingback: Re: Liberaltarianism, Again | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

  5. “Barack Obama is far from an economic libertarian; but he’s also far less economically statist than LBJ or – for that matter – Richard Milhous Nixon.”

    Do you have any particular thoughts on Nixon v. Obama to think that?

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  6. The more I think about it, the less I accept the division of policy into “economic” and “social” issues where libertarians are meant to agree with conservatives on economic issues and liberals on social issues.

    This just isn’t correct for any kind of consistent, principled libertarianism. For a start, many conservatives are nationalists and nationalists hold many positions that are just inconsistent with libertarian positions on “economic issues” – for example they believe in restraining free trade, subsidising exports and manipulating the dollar for trade-related reasons.

    Immigration is an even more interesting. Is it an economic issue or a social issue? A good (and very conservative) friend of my recently tried to convince me it was a national security issue and therefore off the table for any kind of reform other than tightening border security.

    Or defense spending for that matter. Most conservatives seem to favour “strong defense” which in practise means maintaining bases and even invading armies in places with tenuous connections to the national interest and no relation at all to anything you can call defense without causing George Orwell to spin in his grace. Libertarians do not – or at least should not – favour this.

    Even on the supposed core of conservative/libertarian agreement, I don’t believe the agreement is or ever has been all that close. Consider taxes. Both conservatives and libertarians want low taxes, but there’s a huge divergence on precisely which taxes to lower and how. If libertarians are being true to their principles they should prefer taxes than are as non-distorting as possible and as close as possible to being voluntary. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to manipulate the tax structure to promote their favoured activities just as much as liberals do.

    And lets consider the other side of the coin – I’m not sure where this idea that the gulf between liberals and libertarians is unbridgeable has come from. In spite of what some of the commenters here believe, the goal of liberal policy is not in fact to introduce central planning. To the extent liberals differ from libertarians on “economic issues”, they just believe the state has a role in enforcing labor and consumer standards and in regulating the overall frameworks of markets. Yes, there are people who want more than that – those people are called socialists, not liberals, and there are essentially no socialists in American politics. If you can’t tell the difference its you, not the liberals, who are out on the extremes.

    The interesting thing about this disagreement is that it isn’t really one of principle for liberals. If libertarians could present a credible argument for how, say, drug safety or labor standards could be enforced without the state there’s no particular reason liberals would not go for it. As it is libertarian responses to these questions generally have an Underpants Gnomes quality to them: “Abolish government” ???? “Self enforcing labor standards”.

    The basic thing I’m getting at here is this: Libertarianism is a restriction on means – in particular the non-violation of various rights. Modern liberalism is largely about one particular end – the maximization as far as possible of everyone’s positive liberty, There is no fundamental inconsistency between these ideas.

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