Brock Lindsey’s “Liberaltarianism”

The Cato Institute’s Brock Lindsey, in a column I referenced earlier today that is now available to the public, writes about the possibility of a political alliance of sorts between modern-day liberals and libertarians:

The conservative movement–and, with it, the GOP–is in disarray. Specifically, the movement’s “fusionist” alliance between traditionalists and libertarians appears, at long last, to be falling apart. To understand what’s happening, look at the Democratic gains made in previously Republican strongholds on Election Day. In “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire, both House seats–as well as control of both houses of the state legislature–flipped from the GOP to the Democratic column. Out in the interior West, Jon Tester squeaked past Conrad Burns in the Montana Senate race, while other Democrats picked up a House seat in Colorado (along with the governorship) and two more in Arizona. These parts of the country are all known for their individualism and suspicion of officialdom–in short, for their libertarian sympathies.

Libertarian disaffection should come as no surprise. Despite the GOP’s rhetorical commitment to limited government, the actual record of unified Republican rule in Washington has been an unmitigated disaster from a libertarian perspective: runaway federal spending at a clip unmatched since Lyndon Johnson; the creation of a massive new prescription-drug entitlement with hardly any thought as to how to pay for it; expansion of federal control over education through the No Child Left Behind Act; a big run-up in farm subsidies; extremist assertions of executive power under cover of fighting terrorism; and, to top it all off, an atrociously bungled war in Iraq.

As I said in my first post, disaffection between libertarians and what passes for modern conservatism should come as no surprise. The limited-government ideal of Ronald Reagan in 1980, or even Newt Gingrich in 1994, is completely foreign to the Bush Republican Party of 2006. In the past six years, we’ve witnessed everything from the McCain-Feingold Act to Medicare Prescription Drug Plans to the No-Child-Left-Behind Act. Hardly the stuff of a limited-government Republican. It’s hardly surprising that libertarians would be, to say the least upset.

The question, though, is whether an alliance with the Democratic Party is really an option. Lindsay seems to think so:

Can a new, progressive fusionism break out of the current rut? Liberals and libertarians already share considerable common ground, if they could just see past their differences to recognize it. Both generally support a more open immigration policy. Both reject the religious right’s homophobia and blastocystophilia. Both are open to rethinking the country’s draconian drug policies. Both seek to protect the United States from terrorism without gratuitous encroachments on civil liberties or extensions of executive power. And underlying all these policy positions is a shared philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value.

Really ?

The liberalism that I’m familiar with is the liberalism that believes that businessmen are more likely to choose workers based on their skin color or gender rather than their competence, the liberalism that believes that consumers are incapable of making choices that are in their best interest, the liberalism that believes that believes that “racist” or “homophopic” beliefs should be excluded from the public square, and the liberalism that believes that the will of the majority trumps all.

That is not a philosophy that can be reconciled with libertarian values in any respect.

The central flaw in Lindsay’s idea, I think, lies in the compromise he thinks libertarians and classical liberals must make:

The central challenge in cementing a new fusionist alliance–and, make no mistake, it is a daunting one–is to elaborate a vision of economic policy, and policy reform, that both liberals and libertarians can support. Here, again, both sides seek to promote individual autonomy; but their conceptions differ as to the chief threats to that autonomy. Libertarians worry primarily about constraints imposed by government, while liberals worry most about constraints imposed by birth and the play of economic forces.

The basic outlines of a viable compromise are clear enough. On the one hand, restrictions on competition and burdens on private initiative would be lifted to encourage vigorous economic growth and development. At the same time, some of the resulting wealth-creation would be used to improve safety-net policies that help those at the bottom and ameliorate the hardships inflicted by economic change. Translating such abstractions into workable policy doubtlessly would be contentious. But the most difficult thing here is not working out details–it is agreeing to try. And, as part of that, agreeing on how to make the attempt: namely, by treating economic policy issues as technical, empirical questions about what does and doesn’t work, rather than as tests of ideological commitment.

In other words, concede the central role of the state in the economy, and hope for the best.

Several further thoughts over at The Volokh Conspiracy here, here, here, and here. And from Daniel Drezner

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  • Adam Selene

    I have yet to see where the left (I refuse to refer to them as liberals, that just sticks a bit too much) believes at all in individual autonomy. They believe in individual choice just so long as it conforms to what they consider correct. The only difference between the left and the religious right is that one defines correct behavior based on religious writing and the other based on secular writing. Neither allows for an individual to be … well, an individual.

  • Kevin

    In other words, concede the central role of the state in the economy, and hope for the best.

    When hell freezes over Mr. Lindsey.

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