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Liberaltarian Roundup

December 5th, 2006 · 4 Comments

Brink Lindsey’s essay on the possibility of a liberal/libertarian alliance, which I noted yesterday, has elicited a flurry of discussion.

Kevind Drum is skeptical, and his comments section provides ample reason to think he’s right to be—while also, incidentally, providing some evidence for my other contention yesterday that lots of us seem content to understand the views of people we disagree with primarily through caricature. Apparently, my political ideology is just an epiphenomenon of my desire to avoid paying sales tax on the Thai stick at my local whites-only hash bar. Who knew? (The commenters at Hit and Run don’t seem much more sanguine, though.)

A series of posts by Todd Zywicki and Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy, conveniently compiled on one page, contain lots of good analysis. The upshot is that libertarians seem to have more in common with liberals than conservatives at the level of basic theory—which is certainly true in my case; I see my views as part of the line running through Mill and Rawls much more than, say Burke—but this ends up making relatively little difference in terms of practical policy debates, which are driven by coalitions of interest groups that libertarians lack the numbers to unsettle. (Contrast Will Wilkinson at Cato-at-Liberty, who suggests that this is shortsighted.) Zywicki, incidentally, makes use of Sowell’s constrained/unconstrained vision typology, arguing (as Sowell did) that conservatives generally adopt the former, liberals the latter, and libertarians fall in one or the other camp depending on whether they’re (say) more Hayekian or Randian. I think that was probably true when Sowell originally wrote, but I doubt it is now. I think of myself as pretty well in the middle of Sowell’s constrained/unconstrained spectrum, and for reasons I laid out last February, it’s contemporary conservatives who I think exhibit more of the core symptoms of “unconstrained” thought. In any event, one silver lining to draw out here is that there do seem to be libertarian-friendly positions that liberals already ought to support in principle, but haven’t prioritized to date. Maybe that’s just evidence of the intractability of interest group politics, but maybe it means liberals have an opportunity to reach out to libertarians in a variety of areas just by emphasizing different aspects of what they already believe.

Virginia Postrel and Dan Drezner both note that the theme of the recent elections seems to have been a shift to a more populist breed of Democrat, which bodes ill for a liberaltarian alliance. Maybe. But it may also mean that there are elements within the Democratic party, similarly uneasy about this development, that could sorely use some backup.

Tyler Cowen, as usual, has a sharp contribution, noting that “alliance” talk grounded on an optimistic estimate of the libertarian constituency (Cato has argued that “we” may be 13 percent of the electorate on a sufficiently loose definition of “we”) will run aground if there’s significant internal disunity. And there’s a reason the phrase “herding cats” crops up often in discussions of mobilizing libertarians. Tyler has another objection, though: Why bother talking of “alliance” rather than simply asking who it makes sense for libertarians to support in a more ad hoc way, given that both major parties can be counted on to disagree with us at least half the time?

This is a tempting line of thought: If libertarians are seen as basically unmoored and “up for grabs,” both parties will have more incentive to court us. And as someone who’s been amply repulsed by the extent to which some libertarians appear willing to make excuses for the GOP, I’m not about to suggest we swear blind fealty to Dems. But the relationship between exit, voice, and loyalty is complex: The threat of exit augments voice to a certain extent (think of responsiveness to consumer complaints in competitive versus monopolistic markets), but one’s willingness to make concessions in a coalition is going to be dependent on its apparent stability. You’re not going to move across the country and convert to Judaism for a girlfriend you suspect will ditch you for the first cute bartender who winks at her. And, as I suggested yesterday, there are places where moves to more optimal policies from both libertarian and liberal perspectives are blocked by liberal fears that we’ll exploit the diminished political popularity of more targeted social programs (say) to wipe them out altogether.

Finally, over at The Corner (where Jonah Goldberg is happy enough to imagine Dems being pulled in a more economically libertarian direction), a reader wonders why Brink doesn’t even mention the central issue that has already drawn so many libertarians toward the Dems in recent years: the war in Iraq. Ah, yes, that. This is a little less puzzling if you recall that Brink has basically staked out what Jim Henley dubbed the “mea minima culpa” position on the Iraq war. That is, he concedes he got it wrong when he supported the invasion, but only as a result of being too gosh-darn open-minded and un-dogmatic. Brinks omission may mean he wants to reserve the right to stump for another democracy-building clusterfuck somewhere down the line (I hope not), that he finds it awkward to cite this as a point of agreement given his own past hawkishness, or just that it didn’t seem like the right point to make in an essay for The New Republic. Either way, though, it’s another point that counts in favor of his case given the stance of the modal libertarian on foreign policy.

Addendum: Inevitably, just as I complained that Markos Moulistas’ “Libertarian Democrat” sounded like a straight-up Democrat, Ezra Klein thinks Brink’s “liberaltarian” proposals are just plain vanilla libertarianism in blue wrapping paper. To which I say: Fine, pretend for a moment you aren’t convinced this is a doomed idea and make a counteroffer. We want a system in which people are encouraged to rely more on individual saving and investment. Is there any distance you’re willing to go down that road? And if there is, what would it take in return? Lifting the FICA cap? A pony? We’re all dealing in hypotheticals at this point: What could you cede, and what would it take?

Tags: Libertarian Theory



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 joe o'malley // Dec 5, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    >Fine, pretend for a moment you aren’t convinced this is a doomed idea and make a counteroffer.

    There really isn’t much to bargain over. There just aren’t enough libertarians to make a difference. Libertarians do effect the elite consensus but that is about it.

    Liberals see social justice issues like universal health care, minimum wage and preserving social security as the type of issues that can get them a populist majority. For understandable reasons, libertarians are not going to be on board.

  • 2 Steve Sailer // Dec 5, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    Libertarians are a lot more prevalent in the high-IQ swatch of the web than they are in voting booth. This argument is eliciting a lot more excitement in the high-end blogosphere than in the offices of campaign consultants.

  • 3 Consumatopia // Dec 6, 2006 at 11:49 am

    We want a system in which people are encouraged to rely more on individual saving and investment.

    It depends on what you mean by this whether you’ll be able to get any liberals to sign on. If you mean you want people to save and invest more, then there are probably plenty of programs that liberals would be happy with–like, say, if the government matched the first X dollars that people put into a 401K every year.

    OTOH, if you mean that you want people to be more dependent on the performance of their savings and investments, by weakening social insurance, the safety net, or progressive taxation, then liberals aren’t likely to have anything to do with it.

    I suspect that the reason Republicans have largely abandoned fiscal libertarianism is that it is perfectly sensible for them to do so. A broad consensus is emerging that excessive risk and inequality should be resisted and mitigated even if–especially if–their increase inevitable. If globalism increases risk and inequality, the government should act to protect people from those trends rather than cheerlead to make things worse. So if you want to ask what we’re willing to cede in exchange for what ponies, the answer is simple–compare risk and inequality under the new proposal with those things under the current policy.

    It’s not quite that simple, as liberals and libertarians will have different economic models, especially when it comes to incentives–I think patients will do a lousy job of managing their own health care, and I don’t think Bill Gates cares how many billions he or his foundation has as long as he has more billions than anyone else.

  • 4 Mark Kolmar // Dec 8, 2006 at 3:28 pm

    We have at least two different styles of libertarianism. One is concerned with civil liberties and the relationship between the individual and the state in matters of daily life. Another is concerned with unrestricted, dynamic commerce and trade.

    The former type is perhaps more at home among the Democrats, and absolute civil liberty is more closely associated with the political left. The latter type is perhaps more at home in the Republican Party, and absolute laissez-faire is associated with the political far right.

    Individuals may fit better into one or the other type, and libertarians generally are not a close match to the core of either party. So then we face questions about pragmatic, political give-and-take — in other words, compromise.

    Government-sponsored or government-run safety net and minimal trade regulations are functionally compatible. As a matter of pragmatic politics, more likely congress can pass legislation for free trade and free enterprise, if people will walk an economic tightrope only with a safety net. People might accept the dynamism of “creative destruction” that dumps a ton of misfortune onto people who are economically at the wrong place at the wrong time, if the system does not leave them stranded in cold indifference.

    This may be the best compromise that would yield good results in policy, and can be achieved politically. This may not satisfy Che Guevara or Ludwig von Mises on ideological grounds. It is possible to find balance without ending up with a so-called deadly beast that has the head of a tiger and the tail of a shark. Laissez-faire theocracy is a more awkward match than this, even if the necessary compromises leave all Democrats somewhat unsatisfied.