Liberaltarian Envy

I’m fascinated by the liberaltarian conversations here and elsewhere and, as an outsider, more than a little bit jealous.  Whether or not the potential movement will be realized in the short term is still to be determined (although I tend to think based on demographics, it’s probably a good bet).  What I find so interesting is that it’s a political philosophy so far along that it can already be traced back historically, measured against established ideas, compared to movements in other countries, and can almost break through the elected official barrier (yes, the fact that all major libertarian electeds are social conservatives is a point, but we’re already starting to see the de-emphasis of social issues on the libertarian Right, Beck-ites and Islamaphobes excepted.)

My point is, liberaltarianism is ready to take off given the right political moment.  For someone like myself – economically Left and more socially conservative – there really is no organized counter-ideology.  If the political moment ever arrived and liberaltarianism actually got a foothold in American government, the only opposition would come from the Left on economic issues and the Right on social issues.  Getting hit by “both sides,” liberaltarianism would come to be seen as centrist (don’t worry, I don’t consider it High Broderism).  Sad, considering liberaltarianism is much more philosophically cohesive than the hodgepodge of ideas that make up modern liberalism and conservatism.

The kind of counter-ideology I would support is actually in the opposite stage as liberaltarianism; that is, while there is a lack of public discussion about the ideology, there are a couple of electeds who would loosely fit the bill (Bob Casey, Jim Webb to name a couple).  Unfortunately, they’re usually just considered conservative Democrats – as though the only difference between them and the Lieberman/Nelson crowd is a matter of degree.  Realistically, even my two examples – Casey and Webb – come at policy from different angles; Casey being a pro-life, pro-government New Deal throwback, and Webb being more of a 19th century Jackson throwback – certainly a class warrior, but ambivalent about government generally.  So to lump them together in some sort of liberaltarian opposition ideology might be accurate, but also requires thinking in the broadest of broad strokes.

As for historical traditions and comparisons to other movements or governments, only the Red Tories could be categorized as somewhat Left traditionalist.  Unfortunately the Red Tories are also a bit more paternalistic than populist, and in that way, I don’t think the model translates as well on this side of the Atlantic.  I’m not suggesting there are no good lessons to be learned from the Red Tories, just that it’s not directly applicable.

Anyway, I don’t mean to go into all of this just to bemoan the fact that the coalition/realignment I would like to see isn’t likely to happen any time soon.  I just mention it as a point of comparison to show, setbacks aside, how far along liberaltarianism actually is in this country.  It begins with a set of values (the “progress and freedom” duo that Erik listed certainly sums that up); it has a desired outcome (the open-market, classical liberalism with safety net policies in place practiced in Sweden and Denmark); it has an easily traceable American lineage, and a growing amount of interest from average citizens.  This is an ascendant ideology, not a dying one.  And yes, I agree that liberaltarian is a pretty poor label and left-libertarian isn’t quite right either.  But it’s not a bad luxury to be at the stage when what it’s called can be debated.

Frankly, I’m not sure how any of those questions can be answered on the other side in any way that actually draws mainstream support.  What would be the values of the opposing side?  Progress and freedom sound pretty darn appealing, and I’m guessing they attract a lot more adherents than something like tradition and justice or stability and peace or any of the completely dull (not to mention counter to the way this country likes to imagine itself) set of values that would naturally mark liberaltarianisms opposite.  Second, you’d have to get beyond the assumption that whatever is counter to any kind of libertarianism (left or right) is a reliance on The State – as though the obvious counter to more freedom for the people from government is more restraint of the people by government.

But even if the divide were less about Big Government vs. Small Government, and more about absolute independence vs. affiliation, I’m afraid absolute independence has a much more positive public image than affiliation, regardless of the role of government.  Unions aren’t exactly popular right now, familial ties have arguably weakened, and the belief in self-invention has become more and more accepted (now even to the point where there are serious predictions that a young person will soon be “entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood.”)

So on the values front, liberaltarianism has a head start.  On the vision of a society putting the policies of the respective ideologies in place, well – where the liberaltarians can claim Sweden, a model of efficiency, modernism, free markets, free people, opportunity and optimism about the future – what kind of vision can the anti-liberaltarians put forth?  The question is not rhetorical; believe me, I know that any description of an alternative to libertarianism (again, left or right) is a dud in terms of political marketability, more likely in language and sentiment to appeal to conservatives and in policy implications to appeal to the Left.  Unlike liberaltarianism, in which there has been a gradual embrace or at least open-mindedness of the Left to accept libertarian tenets, there is nothing that suggests the Left is open to conservative philosophy or that conservatives are open to Left-leaning economic policies (not to mention left-leaning views on democracy and, in a modern context, left-leaning views on peace).

To add to all of this, both social liberalism and economic conservatism – plus the tendency toward political independence – increases with education, so as education rates rise, so will the pool of potential liberaltarian backers.  In Carney’s Examiner piece that questioned the liberal – libertarian alliance, he easily brushes away the notion that the Cato departures are “inside baseball.”  He shouldn’t.  That’s exactly what they are.  They’re just a response to the current political moment, specifically, the presidency of Barack Obama.  Just because it can be safely stated that Obama is not a liberaltarian (something I’m quite thankful for), doesn’t mean that there never will be liberaltarian politicians and a sizable constituency to vote for them.  What party they end up in is undetermined and even more up in the air since Obama is clearly not the person to nurture the alliance, but as an ideology, their future is rosy.

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23 thoughts on “Liberaltarian Envy

  1. “…as an ideology, their future is rosy.” I’m not so sure. Among the highly educated there’s no doubt that liberaltarianism is only growing in importance, but I don’t get the sense that there’s a lot of real support for it outside those highly educated circles.

    Given that both current parties have liberal and illiberal elements, do you worry that if all the liberal elements are on one side and all the illiberal elements are on the other, politics would become too existential? Right now the philosophical incoherence of the two parties seems like at least a modest safeguard against either one of them committing itself to the total destruction of the other.

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    • @David Schaengold,

      As far as the specific idea of liberaltarianism and an authentically “liberal” re-defining of ideology, I agree – that’s certainly more popular in highly educated circles than among the population as a whole. But as for the socially liberal-economically conservative concept that would build the base of a liberaltarian coalition, I see that in suburban communities (particularly around East Coast cities), I see it in people with college degrees, I see it in even low-level professionals. At least from my vantage point, it seems to be a hallmark of the upwardly mobile class and not necessarily a small group of political philosophers and polisci professors. That’s a pretty solid base to build around.

      On the second point, yes, although I see the concern more as a matter of ideological purity and not ideological alignment. Reconsidering coalitions (liberal/illiberal, in your terms) should be possible without dividing America into Ayn Rand vs. the Taliban.

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  2. So much good stuff here, and no time to adequately and appropriately respond right now. But don’t sell your ideology short here – there is indeed a larger constituency out there for tradition and stability than there is for growth and dynamism, even if few would put it in those words right now. You are, in effect, talking about Mike Huckabee when he’s at his best and most compassionate (even if I vehemently disagree with Mike Huckabee at his best and most compassionate). Oddly, I think David has things exactly reversed about the relationship between ideological incoherence and polarization. I’d argue (and argued very, very often at my old site) that ideological incoherence forces politics to be divided more along cultural and tribal lines. When political teams become ideologically incoherent, I’d argue, the surest way to keep them together is by an endless stream of pumping fear of the other team into your coalition. When coalitions are (relatively) coherent, they can proudly and honestly say “this is what we are for, and that is what they are for…you choose which you prefer.” When they are incoherent, they can more easily get away with saying “we are for all the things that everyone loves, and they are for all the things that everyone hates” because there’s: 1. always a small grain of truth to it (incoherence means you can take credit for anything and bemoan anything without breaching your ideology since there really is none); and 2. there’s so little actual ideological difference that you pretty much have to invent one.

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  3. “where the liberaltarians can claim Sweden, a model of efficiency, modernism, free markets, free people, opportunity and optimism about the future – what kind of vision can the anti-liberaltarians put forth?”

    The vision the anti-liberaltarians can put forth would be the inaccurate cartoon characterture of Sweden. Somebody somewhere in the Stockholm suburbs is waiting on a line at a government office that is too long. Some kid somewhere had his lingonberry juice stand shut down by the health department. Plus, scary Muslims! Next thing you know liberaltarians (and Swedes) will have to disprove the conventional wisdom that Sweden is a cross between Cuba and Iran with worse weather.

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  4. This is why I say the thing needs an ontology. Is it a practical coalition of different-minded people who align on ecrtain issues, or is it itself a “coherent” philosophy, which would make it, that I can see really nothing more than clasiical liberalism? But then how do you claim adherents among those who dissent from parts of it can’t be part of the. There is too much happy-talk around this idea and not enough saying what it is. If it’s a notional coalition, great. If it’s a set of doctrines, great. If it’s trying to be both, I don’t get it but I’ll listen if someone will explain it to me. But we seem to jetting past these questions to the part where we get all excited about this wonderful loaf of bread we’ve just taken out of the oven. Except from where I sit, it’s still really doughy. I can’t figure out how to assess this idea until someone figures out what it is supposed to be. Please don’t link to Tim Lee or Sanchez, because I’ve read them, and they’re not even close to as far along on these questions, despite being far more committed to the idea, than we are around here.

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    • @Michael Drew, Written in haste, but you get the gist. If it’s working for people, I don’t need to understand it precisely, it’s just that I feel it’s a really muddy idea and so I can’t analyze it. I think it’s muddy because there a major contradictions that need to be papered over; and proponents want people to look past those. One of those contradictions is the extent to which the libertarian label as actually self-applied remains something used by Right-leaning independents. This drastically reduces the number of libertarians whose votes are actually at issue. To compensate, much is made of the Left’s rhetorical embrace of civil liberties, as if this is some type of new development in politics. But that’s just what the Left has always been: pro-personal liberties on pet matters not others exceptions. So as far as I can see this is a discussion among the vanishing number of truly principled libertarians about what they should talk about and who they should make friends with. I’d call that something like “Reform Libertarianism,” as it really doesn’t implicate Liberals at all. Can a liberal who’s on board explain to me what liberaltarianism means for them? What does it require of them, how does it pay off? Or is it just a set of beliefs you happen to ascribe to, ie in your view liberaltarianism is just liberalism? If that’s the case, why don’t we just declare we’re all liberals again?

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      • @Michael Drew, I think your “Reform Libertarianism” has is about right. Liberaltarianism is ALL about principled libertarians finally realizing that fusionism with the right has been a bust and that lower taxes are not the be-all end-all of liberty. If it helps that these libertarians want to credit themselves with bringing liberals around on civil liberties and the benefits of freer markets, all’s the better if it speeds their break-up with conservatives.

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        • @62across, It’s not important enough to me that libertarians break away from the Right somewhat sooner than later such that I’m willing to sacrifice accuracy in an account of their role in causing a change in the balance of liberal thinking on certain subjects as compared to other causes, notably liberal intellectual agency.

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          • @Michael Drew, I can appreciate the importance you assign to the proper accounting of ideas, I really can.

            But, giving credit where credit is due can be a remarkably difficult thing to do if it entails some admittance that you might have been wrong about what liberals really stand for or what conservatives really stand for. The pragmatist in me would prefer to not ask too much of anyone who is willing to work with me toward our shared goals.

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  5. Liberaltarianism is blth philosophy and political movement.

    1. First the philosophy bit. Miberaltarian philosophy is going to appeal to people like me. I’m basically a Rawlsian and I think that the principles that rationally self interested people would choose behind the veil of ignorance are the principles of justice, whatever those principles may be. I also think that the principles chosen would recommend things like free markets, a social safety net, social freedoms (like gay marriage etc) i.e. a socially liberal Singapore with even fewer economic controls. (currently singapore is so conservative that anti sodomy laws are still on the statutes even though they have been declared uneforceable. Also, government still exerts some kind of price controls on taxis. buses and trains seem nominally private, but its just a massive duopoly. We could also eliminate our corporate tax altogether and open up our borders more.)

    Basically liberaltarianism is libertarianism argued from very liberal (left of centre) premises.

    2. We hope that the liberal intelligentsia will consider our arguments and that their policy recommendations will start to look more libertarian. Matthew Yglesias is an example of someone who is listening

    Achieving this is going to require a lot of work in the blogosphere by liberaltarians. We have to put the case forward without sounding like concern trolls.

    3. Once we have saturated the liberal intelligentsia, we will have more political clout. We will become the new common wisdom/sense with regards to policy. So if people at think progress and wasington post are giving liberaltarian policy recommendations people’s minds will be changed and more libertarian democrats could be elected, or the PAP in singapore could more in a more libertarian direction, both socially and economically.

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    • @Murali, As far as I can tell, what you’re describing is modern liberalism. Do you think libertarians would go for that? To the extent they did, don’t you think more orthodox libertarians would begin to worry rather urgently, quite rightly so, about the end of libertarianism as such? I’d have pretty little respect for any self-identified libertarian who didn’t, to be honest. What is this thing they’ve been going around calling themselves for a few decades now, in that case?

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      • @Michael Drew,

        I’m not sure what you mean by modern liberalism. The neo-liberal consensus of the 90s seems to have been rejected by a lot of self-identified liberals and progressives.

        1. Philosophically speaking,
        Modern liberals seem obsessed with economic inequality. Instead, they should be concerned with how the worst off are doing in an absolute sense rather than a relative sense.

        2. There is an obsession with symbolic victories (which sometimes comes at the expense of more concrete victories). Take for example, a guest worker program. A guest worker program in the US would be superior to its current migration policy in terms of its benefits to the worst off. Yet, so-called modern liberals seem afraid to even go near one.

        Similarly with the welfare state, liberals seem to prefer an official guarantee of minimum welfare even if an alternative which lacked an official guarantee let fewer people fall through the cracks than the official version. THe left in america and even europe fail to appreciate the massive gains in efficiency (more welfare for less money) that could be achieved if different sets of policies were used.

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        • @Murali, These are very much debates that are taking place within the broad tent of modern American liberalism. You’re picking and choosing the views of various factions within liberalism in order to serve the definitional point you’re pursuing. But (modern) economic liberalism is precisely the doctrine that the scope of government intervention ought to be an major component of, and largely determined by, the process of democratic debate, the inevitable resulting mixed economy being presumptively desirable on the merits, as judged by those who live in it. Diversity of views on markets among liberals is merely the embodiment of this democratic approach by its adherents. This is in contrast to classical liberalism, which offers prima facie prescriptions for the substantively desirable outcomes of such debates, and illiberal Leftism/communism which prima facie rejects the market outright without regard to debate, and have therefore never been liberals, though they are of the Left.

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      • @Michael Drew, No time right now to say more than this, but one thing worth mentioning is that most libertarians would vastly prefer the term “liberal” in their heart of hearts. The term “libertarian” came about for purposes of describing the modern libertarian movement at a time when the term “liberalism” had – in the eyes of early modern libertarians – become hijacked. As you imply, modern liberalism has changed quite a bit over the last 30 years (see here, for example, although there’s room for debate as to whether the author gives libertarians a bit too much credit for the changes in modern liberalism: http://www.themoneyillusion.com/?p=6593). There have been some definite steps backwards (from the libertarian’s perspective) the last two years or so, but it seems inarguable that the preceding 30 years far outweigh that backwards movement. Is modern liberalism now fully consistent with the Hayekian understanding of classical liberalism? Not at all. But I think a strong case can be made that it is closer to that understanding than modern conservatism.

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        • @Mark Thompson, I remember you mentioning that earlier, and I’ll happily go on record saying that the one place I’d gladly see the liberaltarian discussion ending up is a jettisoning of the distinction altogether in favor of a process-discourse model of liberalism as I outline above, which in my view is what liberalism actually is anyway. But I’m not sure that’s where a lot of people see it heading, otherwise you’d think they’d be saying so. In such amodel, libertarianism as a vector makes much more sense, since it would just reflect a particular policy inclination within a shared identity, rather than also constituting an identity or group label, as it does now, regardless of whether a particular adherent conceives of the “-ism” as a vector or a hard doctrine. When you can say, “I’m a libertarian,” I think you need to be responsible for the limiting cases, whereas if you’re willing to say “I’m a liberal with a strong libertarian inclination,” then I think it’s fine for that inclination to just go however far it goes. Not how I feel about other peoples’ political identities much matters – whatever works for folks.

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          • @Michael Drew, this take on inclinations is really good. A lot of energy can be given to defining one’s political identity, but in the end I don’t know what it does for people. We’ve witnessed E.D. on this site struggle mightily recently on how he would politically identify himself, and though I believe he would self-identify differently today than he would have in January, I don’t see that his worldview or political philosophy have shifted all that much.

            Your process-discourse framing really resonates with me. You try to honestly look at what works and what doesn’t (process) and pay attention to what people want and what they democratically vote for (discourse) and proceed from there.

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  6. How’s this for a flip summary of liberaltarianism/liberaltarians:

    1) A liberaltarian is a liberal who has given serious thought to Hayek;

    2) A liberaltarian is a libertarian who has given serious thought to Rawls;

    3) A liberaltarian is a D.C. movement conservative who is tired of flattering other peoples’ prejudices for votes.

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      • @Murali,

        You’re right. It doesn’t fit in completely – more of a necessary but not sufficient situation. I was thinking of adding “and does not believe that the top marginal tax rate is neither the only or the most important measure of human liberty,” or “and does not sign no-new-taxes-ever-no-matter-what pledges.”

        The explicit assumption here is that liberaltarianism would appeal to a movement conservatives, which it may not (thus it isn’t called liberalconservativetarianism). My East Coast elite cocktail party experience has perhaps jaundiced me into believing that movement conservatives do the social issues and Laffer Curve/starve the beast ringamarole just to please voters. Obviously, those voters are far more numerous than the DC apparatchiks who talk down to them.

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        • @Randy F.,

          As someone who is so far to the east as to be on another continent (I’m in Singapore) the perception I get is that american elites’ policy preferences tend to be more libertarian than the hoi polloi. At least according to Caplan’s myth of the rational voter, the economic policy preferences of dergee holders is colser to that of economists than the general public’s. And economists in general hod fairly market friendly views. Low taxes are in general a good thing as they in the long term encourage business investments and create jobs, which would especially benefit the worst off etc. Movement conservatives also tend to be hawkish etc. So, if movement conservatoives are demogogue-ing social issues, economic issues and foreign policy issues, I suppose that growing a conscience would bring them over to the side of angels (i.e. my side) But in that case I’m not sure that the third point you made can be taken as anything other than snark. (i.e. it is charitable to assume that movement cons hold at least some of their positions honestly right?)

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  7. For me as a European your description of an alternative just sounds like the classical European “Christian Democrats” – Christian (most often: Catholic) on social issues and at their better times with a strong Union wing. Originally catholic alternatives to the socialists, now set up broader and more in a free market direction – but compared to America still social democrats on economy. For example they now form the German government like most of the time since 1945.

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