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Libertarian Coalitions

July 14th, 2010 · 27 Comments

It seems like the debate over where libertarians should make their political home is evergreen, even though I’ve always thought the answer was the rather boringly obvious one: Libertarian individuals and institutions should make whatever tactical alliances on specific issues that best suit their dispositions and concerns.  Still, a couple points about Ilya Somin’s response to the Reason debate linked above:

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

I realize the original “Liberaltarian” essay does read as a proposal for a near-term political alliance, but I always took the real point to be more about opening a somewhat longer-term  dialogue to see what we can learn from each other given the substantial overlap in our higher-order value commitments. That, at least, I’ve found reasonably fruitful.

To the extent that this hasn’t resulted in “an equivalent level” of cooperation with the left as that with the right on economic policy, it may be because few liberals have been willing to reciprocate. It’s striking that Lindsey’s own highly publicized efforts at forging liberaltarian cooperation met with little or no positive response among liberals.

This actually seems wrong to me. Yeah, there doesn’t seem to be much interest on the left in any kind of broad self-conscious “Liberaltarian Alliance”—but practical political coalitions don’t actually spring from New Republic essays, any more than real-world friendships arise from a formal declaration of an intent to be friends.. They’re a function of actually getting out there and doing the work, issue by issue, bill by bill, election by election.  Given my own pattern of interests, I end up mostly working on issues where I agree with civil libertarians on the left. And pretty much without exception, they’re happy to work with me on those issues, and for that limited purpose indifferent to whatever disagreements we might have over optimal levels of federal taxation and spending. None of the folks I’ve written for at the Prospect or the Nation have ever expressed the least reservation about running something with a Cato byline. If anything, I think left-leaning civil libertarians are happy to be able to point to us as evidence that opposition to torture or sweeping surveillance authority isn’t some strictly partisan punch up between Democrats and Republicans.  There are, to be sure, advantages to broader alliances, but one benefit to keeping both parties (and their associated movements) at arms-length is that I think (or would like to think) that it’s hard to credibly argue  I’m going to take a position or write an op-ed on one of my core issues with the primary motive of rooting for or against one team or another. Membership has its privileges, but so does a measure of distance.

Update: In light of Ilya Somin’s response, I realize I’ve muddled together two distinct points here.  The first is that I don’t think libertarians—and certainly not the libertarian movement as a whole—need to decide to “throw in” with one side or another in some kind of general coalition, whether traditionally fusionist or “liberaltarian.”  That said, if there were going to be some kind of broader “liberaltarian” alliance or collaboration, my point is that while it would obviously entail more than the kind of ad hoc, issue-based collaboration I’m suggesting is enough, that’s how in practice it would have to start anyway. So even if you thought a “liberaltarian alliance” were ultimately the way to go, you’d still begin with more limited collaboration and go from there.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michael B Sullivan // Jul 14, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    This is probably something that you subsume into the clause, “There are, to be sure, advantages to broader alliances,” but I think it’s worth calling out separately:

    If “Liberaltarianism” were a “thing,” what I’d expect from the libertarian side of things would be, “I’ll vote Democratic,” and what I’d expect from the liberal side of things would be, “I’ll prioritize areas of liberal/libertarian agreement higher than I otherwise would.”

    It’s hard for me to see, “I’ll take libertarian help when it’s freely offered” as any “alliance,” even in the most narrow sense. And it’s hard for me to see any sign that the Democratic government has made even the tiniest of concessions to a libertarian agenda: indeed, I think that libertarians have been surprised and dismayed by the extent to which Obama and the Democratic Congress have not lived up to the values they championed long before the term “liberaltarianism” was coined. Things like scaling back US military engagement abroad, privacy rights, Gitmo and torture.

  • 2 Patrick // Jul 14, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    One of the fun parts of the essay is Brink’s dismissal of the Conservative right to Conspiracy Theories.

    Apparently Brink hasn’t heard that the 16th Amendment wasn’t ratified properly, or that the UN is going to start a one world tax and steal our guns and gold coins.

    Hello! Brink! As the only sane person in the movement you’re vastly outnumbered. Might as well defect and join us.
    I’m reminded of Wilkinson’s post on this last year.

    But, the thing is, Virginia and Ed Glaeser are simply right about housing regulation. The fact that most liberals won’t listen, due to distrust, is a problem not only for liberal/libertarian amity, but for the poor people hurt by bad regulation. From the classical liberal side, we become distrustful when liberals say they are perfectly willing actually to perform the cost-benefit analysis, but then somehow find that there is always a net benefit. That’s fishy! And so we come to suspect that this seemingly reasonable willingness to honestly and rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of regulation is a front for what they really want: everything.
    I think Goldberg is more right on this debate then I want to admit. It really is about just identity politics rather then a reasonable belief that the Democratic Party can be pushed more libertarian, or that we have a reasonable chance of doing anything with that coalition. What I’m honestly more interested in, are libertarians the closest movement to the Anarchists who busted up Toronto a few weeks ago, or as far away as one can get? Is it more or less ridiculous to call for a coalition with those guys then liberals?

  • 3 Matthew Yglesias » Endgame // Jul 14, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    […] I wish Julian Sanchez would put this stuff on the official Cato […]

  • 4 bh // Jul 14, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    If “Liberaltarianism” were a “thing,” what I’d expect from the libertarian side of things would be, “I’ll vote Democratic,” and what I’d expect from the liberal side of things would be, “I’ll prioritize areas of liberal/libertarian agreement higher than I otherwise would.”

    This is just missing the point. Actual libertarians, as opposed to statist right-wingers who’ll will pose as such when convenient, are a very small, essentially powerless, group, albeit one that’s well-represented amongst the sort of people that read political blogs. So we’re not talking about a permanent political coalition; as a liberal, I have nothing to gain from that.

    And while I should appreciate that libertarians would generally rather debate policy than throw out insults, the belief that, with respect to economic policy, if we just heard the same arguments we’ve already know rehashed one more time, we’d start to agree with you.

    Look… I have a degree in economics. I’m fairly well-versed in public choice theory. I have read multiple books by Milton Friedman. And with respect to economics, I think you guys are wrong. About everything. I fundamentally disagree with libertarian arguments in this area. So do most liberals. It’s one of the things that, well, makes us liberal. And if you keep thinking collaboration involves meeting halfway, or a third of the way, or a tenth of the way, you’re bound to be — and deserve to be — disappointed.

    Instead, you do what I think Julian is referring to — you find common ground where there are shared goals and shared values. And those areas do exist, most notably in civil liberties and (what gets called) national security.

    But if that’s dependent on us, say, hating social security just a little… to quote the words of one libertarian… screw you guys, I’m going home.

  • 5 bh // Jul 14, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    … left off the end of paragraph 3: “… gets a little old.”

  • 6 Michael B Sullivan // Jul 14, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Hey bh, with all due respect, you’re grinding an axe, not responding to me.

    A few misconceptions you seem to have:

    1. In your first paragraph, you seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that I’m proposing that you form a “liberaltarian” coalition, rather than merely describing what I think one would look like.

    2. In your second paragraph, you talk about libertarians trying to convince liberals of their economic view: I proposed nothing like that (and neither did anyone else here). Rather I suggested that if a liberaltarian alliance existed, and if it were in fact an alliance, liberals would prioritize the pre-existing parts of their agenda that libertarians agree with. Not “take up libertarian economic views.”

    3. And then the rest of your post is self-congratulation and reiteration of the point that you aren’t going to take up a libertarian economic view.

    Once more, my point:

    Saying, “Liberals will accept support from libertarians when it is convenient to them” does not an alliance make. Not narrowly, not broadly, not at all.

    In the event that an actual alliance were to exist, the liberals would have to put something into it. I suggest that the realistic thing for them to put in — as I am cognizant of, for example, people like bh’s opinions — is not that they start accepting the libertarian position in areas where liberals and libertarians disagree, but that they focus their efforts on the areas where liberals and libertarians agree.

    And I note that the current liberal leaders haven’t done that. At all. In fact, they’ve done the exact opposite: focused very strongly on liberal values in areas where libertarians and liberals disagree, and done little, nothing, or in fact gone more conservative than the preceding regime in areas where libertarians and liberals allegedly agree.

    Whether or not that was a good political decision — well, we’ll see this year and in 2012. But it suggests to me that liberaltarianism is a meaningless descriptor.

  • 7 bh // Jul 14, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Screw you guys, I’m going home

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Jul 14, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    The quid pro quo, to the extent there is any, wouldn’t have to involve “hating social security just a little”. It could involve bumping low salience issues (for liberals) where we already agree up on the agenda. There’s plenty of that stuff.

  • 9 Michael Drew // Jul 15, 2010 at 3:08 am

    But a quid pro quo isn’t on the table. It’s just libertarians thinking about whether to hop on a different train. They’ve traditionally been on the rightward train, as mismatched as that was, and are now considering a switch. It is a one-way alliance that you are considering. Liberals aren’t offering you anything. Nothing. You either like them better than the train you’ve been on so far, so you switch, or you stay where you are, or you head into the wilderness with no mechanized means of transport. No one’s offering you anything – you don’t offer anything of value in return except unending, impossible-to-satisfy, Utopian critique. Sure, you were marketed to during a presidential campaign. Amazingly, so were people with diametrically opposed ideologies. Someone was going t be proven a dupe. So hop on or don’t, but don’t expect any concessions. Nobody but you cares if you come aboard or not.

  • 10 mike // Jul 15, 2010 at 3:27 am

    I think bh is right when he differentiates true Libertarians from Republicans (and would add Tea Partiers) that pose as Libertarians when convenient. True Libertarians are in fact a rare breed.

    This also means Libertarians have little leverage when it comes to coalition building because they have little to trade at the bargaining table.

    The only reason I can see that True Libertarians would want to align themselves with Democrats would be to limit their exploitation by Republicans and Crazies.

  • 11 bh // Jul 15, 2010 at 3:27 am

    And I note that the current liberal leaders haven’t done that. At all. In fact, they’ve done the exact opposite: focused very strongly on liberal values in areas where libertarians and liberals disagree, and done little, nothing, or in fact gone more conservative than the preceding regime in areas where libertarians and liberals allegedly agree.

    That’s because, you clueless fucking dope, there’s no percentage in it politically. At all. Obviously. You and I both know 2012 has nothing to do with it.

    So yeah… sincere apologies for not realizing your comment was even stupider that I initially thought.

  • 12 chris // Jul 15, 2010 at 9:06 am

    It could involve bumping low salience issues (for liberals) where we already agree up on the agenda. There’s plenty of that stuff.

    You mean like gay marriage? Or immigration reform? Or do “libertarians” back away from those issues when there are signs of movement in a direction that liberals and libertarians should (based on their respective philosophies) be agreeing on? Conservatives in libertarians’ clothing confuse this issue a lot, but there are issues of liberaltarian agreement that are on the table and potentially moving. They just aren’t economic, because generally economic issues aren’t issues of liberaltarian agreement.

    Libertarians aren’t numerous or politically powerful enough to provide meaningful political cover against the right’s favorite (and often quite successful) forms of fearmongering, like “If you’re soft on national security, the terrorists will kill us all!” and “If you’re soft on drugs and crime, dope fiends and criminals will kill us all!”. So there’s no immediate movement on those issues because it’s too politically dangerous to deviate from the orthodoxy.

    Liberals and libertarians need to work together to *convince more of the American people* that Ben Franklin was right and less war and torture and snooping and imprisonment really isn’t going to kill them. And I think they are working together to do that, to some extent, but it’s not at the point that, say, repealing the PATRIOT act could be taken seriously yet.

  • 13 Jason L. // Jul 15, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Michael Drew @9: They’ve traditionally been on the rightward train, as mismatched as that was, and are now considering a switch. It is a one-way alliance that you are considering. Liberals aren’t offering you anything. Nothing.

    Maybe nothing in the short term, but if libertarians like Julian sought positions with CAP rather than Cato, or made an especial effort to write for publications such as the New Republic, then civil libertarian issues would emerge more strongly within the liberal universe. These libertarians would have to decide that the influence they would have on the American left wing in making its policy more civil-libertarian would be more valuable than the influence they would have on the American right wing in making its policy more economically libertarian. My feeling is that most libertarians, even the honest ones who aren’t “statist right-wingers who’ll will pose as such when convenient”, simply care more about the economic side than the social/civil side of libertarianism. This is why cartoons like this work.

  • 14 Left, Right or Nowhere: Libertarians in the Wildnerness « The Enterprise Blog // Jul 15, 2010 at 11:19 am

    […] Cato’s Brink Lindsey in print and in person, there’s lots of chatter in libertarian circles once again about the future of “liberaltarianism,” Brink’s project to fuse […]

  • 15 j r // Jul 15, 2010 at 11:39 am

    This begs the question, but I have to ask, “To what end?” Maybe there is no end, only an evolving set of momentary collaborations that come and go as situations present themselves. If that is the case, why even go so far as to attempt to give this more substance and shape? Why not just let it be without ruminating on it?

    As the back and forth between bh and Michael Sullivan shows, this alliance will never be between equals. And that leads me to ask, “Why get involved in a relationship where you’re probably never going to be more than a booty call?” I suppose you could answer, as anyone who has ever accepted a booty call can tell you, that you are perfectly fine with the arrangement and don’t expect anything more. If that is the case, then I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor. I just hope you realize that he’s never going to leave her for you. You’ll always be Rielle Hunter and never Elizabeth.

    PS to Jason L – If by “work” you mean “reduce the opinions of those who don’t agree with you to a crass and disingenuous exercise in personal calculus”, then yes it works.

  • 16 Michael B Sullivan // Jul 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Chris @ 12: I don’t see any sign that current liberal leadership cares at all about gay marriage or immigration reform. I have no doubt that certain liberals do, of course, but perhaps you should listen to your fellow travelers like bh and Michael Drew, who are frankly telling you that they don’t want to prioritize such things.

    For example: gay marriage. In June 2009, Obama’s DoJ began legal proceedings to defend the DOMA. In August, 2009, in response to criticism from gay advocacy groups, Obama suggested that he was actually not in support of the DOMA, but wanted to repeal it legislatively, not judicially. Fair enough.

    September 15, 2009, Congressman Nadler introduces a bill to repeal the DOMA. The Democratic leadership doesn’t support it, and it fails.

    Just recently, a judge finds for plaintiffs challenging the act on 10th Amendment grounds. News reports suggest that the DoJ is expected to appeal.

    Are there liberals who care about gay marriage? Clearly there are. Am I happy to join them in speaking about gay marriage? Sure. But that doesn’t make for any kind of meaningful “liberaltarian” alliance.

    As a libertarian, am I going to vote for Democratic candidates or advocate for them on the basis of their presumed stand on gay marriage? Not institutionally, because I don’t think that the Democratic party is institutionally really in favor of gay marriage. It’s possible that I’ll vote for particular Democratic candidates on a personal basis, but it will be in spite of, not because of, their party status. (Republicans — I’m not sure I’d vote for a Republican even if I did like him individually, right now).

  • 17 Julian Sanchez // Jul 15, 2010 at 11:53 am

    So, insofar as I don’t want to permanently limit myself to writing about issues where I agree with progressives—and insofar as they’d never actually hire me—working for CAP seems unlikely. But as I mention in the post, I write for liberal publications pretty regularly.

  • 18 Dan D // Jul 15, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    As much as I’d like the Libertarian idea to work I think there are two problems even with the type of issue based coalitions you favor.

    The first the tendency for organizations that support causes that liberals typically support to take the standard left-wing position on issues that have nothing to do with their core mission. Every feminist blog I’ve ever read makes it clear that opposing traditional gender norms is not enough feminism also requires supporting left-wing economic policies. this seems to happen one just about every issue for example gay right groups are opposing Arizona’s immigration law(see: http://www.hrc.org/news/14563.htm) in this case a agree with them on the merits but it has nothing to do with their core mission and just as often they take positions that a disagree with, it seems like every anti-war rally was full of anti-capitalist rhetoric(from the organizers some participants will always talk about unrelated issues), the ACLU went to court to prevent Cleveland from starting a school voucher program(if they opposed the use of Pell grants at religious institutions I wouldn’t have a problem with this but they didn’t). By contrast groups advocating free-market policies usually go to great lengths to avoid taking positions on social issues; this makes it much easier for libertarians to work with people who they disagree with on those issues.
    The second issue is I don’t think most liberals will consistently support civil liberties. If it’s a republican president violating civil liberties in response to Islamic terrorism Liberals will oppose it but if it’s Democratic president violating civil liberties in response to “right wing violence” I don’t think they’d say much(some would just as some conservatives like Bob Barr opposed Bush’s actions). How many Democrats opposed the Patriot act when it was initially proposed by the Clinton administration after Oklahoma City? The reaction of liberal bloggers to right violence over the past year and a half has caused my concerns to grow much deeper. When the DHS report on right wing violence first came out I thought that the reaction of conservatives was way over the top, at the same time I felt the left was way too dismissive of legitimate concerns since there is long history of the federal government using a small number of violent extremists as a pretext to harass legitimate groups with similar views, the reaction if most on the left was “we trust Obama not to do that”(to his credit he hasn’t but I don’t believe anyone should be trusted like that). Since then many on the left have been egger to use a small number of indefensible violent acts to condemn a much larger swath of people. I dislike both Limbaugh and O’Riely but to claim the either of them is in any way responsible for a violent act committed by one of their listeners is absurd. This type of hysteria has been going on for the past year and it driving me nuts(look at the way Balloon Juice ripped Jesse Walker for suggesting to people on the left were blowing violent acts out of proportion http://www.balloon-juice.com/2010/03/25/law-enforcement-is-in-on-the-smear/ http://www.balloon-juice.com/2010/03/24/thick-as-a-brick) look at the way Bill Clinton used guilt by association to group nonviolent people with timothy McVeigh. If the Obama administration proposed draconian measures to clamp down on right wing violence how many on the left would object? Several left-wing blogs called for the Obama administration to violate the civil liberties of the Hutaree militia. I’ve seen this type of inconsistency from the left on other occasions as well. For example many on the left are justifiably upset about overly harsh penalties for environmentalist who engage in non-violent civil disobedience but then turn and support harsh penalties for people who non-violently block abortion clinics it’s clear that they only support civil liberties when they agree with the persons message.

  • 19 b-psycho // Jul 15, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    BH: isn’t the whole point of liberalism from a civil liberties view that just because a loud plurality doesn’t like something doesn’t nullify the RIGHT to do it if it doesn’t harm others? What use is modern liberalism if it’s stripped down to little more than slight adjustment of spending/taxation ratios?

    To respond to Michael like you did is, IMO, to say “liberalism is dead”.

  • 20 LarryM // Jul 16, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Part of the problem is that certain libertarian-ish reforms in the economic realm that smart liberals might embrace in theory suffer from negative political salience.

    I think, for example, libertarians and liberals could agree on the destructiveness of the mortgage tax deduction. But politically …

  • 21 LarryM // Jul 16, 2010 at 9:54 am

    And I have to ask bh – regarding “hating social security just a little bit.” It was my impression that most economically literate liberals would acknowledge that social security is conceptually a far from perfect program, and NOT what one would design if starting from scratch,but would argue (convincingly in my book) that it is a very beneficial program on balance, and for reasons of path dependancy and politics, should not be significantly modified.

    Or are you going to defend social security as a near perfect retirement program?

  • 22 More on Prospects for Liberaltarianism | theConstitutional.org // Jul 16, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    […] 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 […]

  • 23 MBH // Jul 24, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Julian, in the 2006 piece, Lindsey suggests, for liberaltarianism to be coherent, there would need to be “some kind of reconciliation between Hayek and Rawls.”

    I interpret Hayek’s advocacy for non-monopolized currency as brushing up against a polycentric legal system. Rawls would have none of that since such a system would discard the veil of ignorance — decisions would inherently be made without full regard for those outside one’s own legal/currency system (even though the externalities created by those decisions would inevitably impact the outsiders).

    But Hayek’s ideal is only sustainable through a veil of ignorance, because only through a veil of ignorance can one grasp all the externalities. Without it, the Hayekian is temped to distinguish between relevant externalities and irrelevant externalities. The “irrelevant” externalities are relevant to some group that will inevitably disrupt the Hayekian system.

    That’s not to say that monopolized currency/law is necessary for the Hayekian, only that to be a consistent Hayekian is to insert the veil of ignorance in economic decision making. I think that would please Rawls and, whether or not it pleased Hayek, it would be the only consistent and sustainable application of Hayek’s ideas.

  • 24 MBH // Jul 25, 2010 at 8:18 am

    I should also add: since Hayek believes the truths of economics are analytic a priori, he’s committed to a view from nowhere for their application (which dovetails nicely with Rawls’ veil of ignorance). That is: if economic truths have nothing necessary to do with the world of experience, as Hayek claims, then to even begin to talk about economics in the world, you would have to abandon the first-person perspective, or at the very least consider that person to be something like Walt Whitman’s “I”. To access the synthetic mode of economics — which is the only one worth discussing anyway — you would have no logical ground, from the Hayekian perspective, to privilege the immediate object we conventionally refer to as the self.

    So I want to strengthen my claim. Not only would the Hayekian system not last without Rawls. But from a purely theoretical standpoint, Hayek’s system is a non-starter without Rawls.

  • 25 By Definition, Schmibertarians Aren’t Libertarians | Wintry Smile // Aug 30, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    […] note that the two names I’m most familiar with don’t fit the picture: Gene Healy and Julian Sanchez.  Of course there’s a selection bias there: the Cato figures I’m most likely to know […]

  • 26 Argument ad Kochinem | Trevor Burrus // Sep 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    […] I agree with my Cato colleague Julian Sanchez: I don’t particularly care about the answer to these questions other than the “boringly […]

  • 27 Kennon // Nov 12, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Libertarianism and Liberalism have always been conjoined. There are plenty of coalitions. To see what Libertarians are actually doing, see http://www.Libertarian-International.org and check out the growing articles.