Erik’s post today gives me a good excuse to better define and clarify what I’m talking about when I talk about liber-al-tarianism and the notion that the intermediate-term future of libertarianism lies more with the Left than the Right. I think Erik’s analysis in that post is pretty much right on the money, but I also think he conflates the two concepts in a way that I am sure is my fault. I say that I am sure this is my fault because I myself don’t do an adequate job delineating between the two, and I’ve noticed over the last 15 months or so that as a result, a lot of commenters wind up confusing the two concepts.
So let me try to make the delineation more clear, at least as I see it (I have no idea whether the originators and infinitely more prominent proponents of liber-al-tarianism would agree with this). When I speak of “liber-al-tarianism,” I am generally speaking about a particular philosophical project that attempts to take seriously liberal criticism of standard libertarian thought, recognizing the common intellectual roots of liberalism and libertarianism. It is, simply put, an attempt to develop a political philosophy that is as true as possible to classically liberal roots while recognizing the implications of modernity for classical liberalism.
As I wrote last year (see also, more light-heartedly, here), such a recognition means accepting: that we do not live in a Coasian world; that small government and limited government are often not the same thing; that although liberty cannot imply equality of result, it must at least attempt to imply equality of opportunity; and that there will be occasions when ameliorative government interventions will be necessary to correct the denial of equal opportunity created by other government interventions, both past and present. Finally, it must emphasize that freedom without the equal protection of the law is not freedom at all.
But this view of liber-al-tarianism is purely philosophical, an attempt to properly understand libertarianism as an intellectual project without the corruption that has been inherently wrought by libertarianism’s long affiliation with the American Right.
On the other hand, when I speak about libertarianism’s future lying with the Left rather than the Right, I am talking about a very different concept that is not necessarily related to liber-al-tarianism as a philosophical project. Here I am talking much more about the practical realities of American politics and coalition-building. Despite the existence of the Libertarian Party and any number of smaller fringe parties and despite cranks like me and Jaybird who are willing to vote for them, the fact is that at any given time the overwhelming majority of Americans find themselves in one coalition or the other, whether or not they describe themselve as “independents.” Until 2006, there was little doubt that libertarians, broadly defined, were overwhelmingly part of the coalition of the Right. But that year, things shifted and this group basically split its vote right down the middle. In 2008, when economic issues returned to the headlines, the libertarian vote not surprisingly shifted back to the Right.
That, however, does not mean it will stay there over the intermediate term (I expect it will be even more strongly in favor of the Right in this year’s elections, though). The main item tying those with libertarian inclinations to the Right at this point has to do with basic size-of-government issues: health care reform, bailouts, etc. But what happens if and when the Right returns to power and, as seems inevitable, fails to undo health care reform in a way that decreases the size and power of government? What happens when the bailouts and the stimulus, which were one-time responses to a massive economic crisis, fade from memory entirely and the GOP refuses to cut back on spending for its pet issues while failing to roll back entitlements? Moreover, what if it’s the Democrats who actually start the ball towards cuts rolling, however slowly?
To be sure, the Republicans will repeat their usual “tax-and-spend” Democrats line of attacks and attempt to play up fears about the way in which Democrats will continue to expand the power of government. This tactic has, after all, worked quite well for decades. But it’s a line of attack that doesn’t work very well when the movement Left has few, if any, significant plans to further expand the scope of the welfare state or the regulatory state.
In other words, what happens when the Left’s vision of the expansive role of government has basically won out, and that game is effectively over? If movement liberals like Matt Yglesias are to be believed (and they would certainly know far better than someone who is not a movement liberal), this will precisely describe the state of affairs once the recent health care reform bill survives Republican challenges. To be sure, cap-and-trade and financial regulatory reform remain as major potential stumbling blocks for libertarians, but the latter will need to be completed soon if it is to be completed ever and libertarian attitudes on financial regulatory reform seem quite unfocused in any event. Cap-and-trade is another story, but I’m not sure it will alone be an adequate basis for fearmongering to overcome the Right’s illiberalism on any number of social, civil liberties, and foreign policy issues.
To be sure, the Obama Administration has thus far been awful on those issues where it was supposed to be good. But that awfulness has at least been over the strenuous objection of the movement Left, even as it gets criticized by the movement Right for not being quite awful enough.
The libertarian shift that happened in 2006 demonstrates that libertarians are prepared to align with the Left when expansion of the welfare state is basically irrelevant, but expansion of the military-industrial complex is relevant, as are social issues.
In sum, when I talk about the future of libertarianism lying with the Left much more so than with the Right, it is this that I have in mind. It is not that I expect liber-al-tarianism the philosophy to suddenly persuade the Left to move in a more libertarian direction or that I expect libertarians to suddenly decide that they’re ok with the welfare state and regulation. Instead, it is that I expect those issues to largely become afterthoughts on the Left as they move on to the more libertarian aspects of their agenda. To be sure, the Left will defend the welfare state vigorously if it is attacked, but let’s be clear: once the smoke clears and Republicans fail to undo health care reform or the welfare state more generally, there simply won’t be any attacks to defend against.
I am not so naive to believe that libertarians will ever be pandered to in a manner where the desire to include us in a coalition will be strong enough for a party to adopt new policy preferences. We’re probably not a large enough group to warrant that, and even if we are, the issues that get any one of us riled up are all over the map in a way that is not traditionally the case with pandered-to voters (e.g., the “soccer mom” almost by definition cared more strongly about a particular set of issues; ditto evangelical Christians). So you might be able to get some small number of libertarians to sign up by pandering on one issue, and some more by pandering on another, but the numbers you get as a result of any one act of pandering aren’t going to be enough to justify the harm to your already-existing coalition.
Instead, I simply expect that the movement Left will find an appeal to libertarianism useful and probably even necessary as a means of getting centrist Democrats on board with the movement Left’s remaining agenda items. By contrast, the movement Right, which generally speaking has always been primarily interested in preservation of a particular way of life (usually by whatever means necessary, ie, with or without the use of the power of the state), will not find libertarians useful for getting centrist Republicans on board with their agenda. Libertarianism’s future lies with the Left not because of some deep-seated ideological affinity (even if that affinity exists) or because the Left will suddenly become more libertarian but simply because the issues that are most relevant will change.
Liber-al-tarianism, as a worldview and philosophy, need not have anything to do with this. Rather, the value of liber-al-tarianism if these events were to play out would be in attempting to persuade liberals of reforms to those already-passed welfare state and regulatory items that would make those items more effective on liberal grounds. Such a result is likely a pipe dream, but more important than that for the foreseeable future is the notion that liber-al-tarianism provides a rethinking of libertarian philosophy that allows it to more fully realize its intellectual potential.