Off one coast, we have the two camps of the defenders of private economic liberty: the libertarians and the classical liberals. By classical liberals I have in mind a run of free market thinkers including Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek and Richard Epstein. The distinctive political commitment of classical liberalism is to private economic liberty—though classical liberals allow taxation to support a limited range of government provided social goods (education vouchers, a safety net). Some thinkers in this tradition argue from natural rights, but most employ consequentialist or ends-directed forms of reasoning. The philosophical base of this position is a conception of the person as a seeker of happiness or utility.
Hunkered down on the ice next to the classical liberals are the libertarians. Nozick is the paradigm here, though anarcho-capitalist such as Murray Rothbard roll out their blankets on the edges of this same camp. The distinctive political commitment of libertarians is also to private economic liberty—though libertarians tend to treat economic liberties as even more weighty than the classical liberals do (“taxation is theft”). Libertarians can be consequentialists, but they more often employ what we might call naturalistic forms of justification. They find their philosophical base in the idea of the person as a self-owner.
On the opposite coast are the high liberals:
The distinctive political commitment of high liberals is not to private economic liberty but to social justice: social institutions should be arranged so as to benefit all members of society, including the poor. High liberals minimize or deny the importance of private economic liberty. After all, such liberties limit the power of government to “spread the wealth around,” a strategy that high liberals see as plainly required by their commitment to social justice. Rather than a consequentialist or naturalist form of reasoning, high liberals characteristically employ deliberative forms of justification. A set of institutions is just and legitimate only if it is acceptable in principle to the citizens who are to live there. The philosophical base of high liberalism is not a utility seeker or a self-owner but an idea of the person as a democratic citizen. This is a person committed to living with his fellow citizens on terms that all can endorse, regardless of the particular social or economic position each inhabits.
Tomasi writes that in the first two camps, “social justice” is a “phrase they are told they must not speak.” In the latter camp, “private economic liberty” is a “phrase only rarely and dismissively heard.”
I find myself wandering hither and thither across the frozen sea. I suppose to me these are both phrases that ought to be uttered by anyone who cares about either issue. Perhaps that makes me a bleeding-heart-libertarian. I know that I have become more and more disenchanted with the left, and yet I cannot help but think that libertarians would be better off avoiding too much affiliation with the right. Liberal-tarianism is not dead yet, and I aim to pick up where I left off. Liberalism is a big tent as far as I’m concerned, even if icy lakes lie between one pole and the other.
I’m not sure exactly what differentiates classical liberals, liberal-tarians, and bleeding-heart-libertarians. What I do know is that I am too Hayekian not to be a bottom-up liberal (to borrow Tim Lee’s phrase) and too egalitarian not to be a bit of a lefty nonetheless. I don’t mind speaking of social justice and economic freedom in the same breath. In many ways they are complimentary, not mutually exclusive, as Jason has admirably illustrated in these pages.
In any case, the issues of greatest importance to me remain the same: equal rights for all and especially an end to marriage inequality, a ceasefire in the war on drugs, and a withdrawal of troops overseas and a return to some semblance of peace and non-interventionism. The rest is up for debate. How to construct and sustain a society that is at once flourishing and economically vibrant yet also just and fair is probably the single most important question for me (outside of our militarism and security state issues at least). Nobody, so far as I can tell, has satisfying answer. Pieces of the truth lie scattered about the ideas of the many.
And that’s why we blog, or at least why I blog. To ask questions, try on ideas, and then cast them aside when they are no longer useful, or when they’ve proven to be false in some way, or insufficient. When I have run out of nostalgia or romanticism or whatever other thing has colored my ideas, I default to doubt, to skepticism. And I suppose that, if nothing else, makes me a libertarian of some variety or other, however shabby.