Liberaltarianism in Practice

Over at Reason, there’s a debate about the future of libertarianism. Brink Lindsey argues that the American right has become increasingly inhospitable to libertarian ideas, and that it’s time for the dissolution of the historic “fusionist” alliance between conservatives and libertarians. Ilya Somin offers a thoughtful rebuttal.

Somin notes that Lindsey seems to be backing away from the stance he took in 2006 suggesting that there ought to be a “liberaltarian” political alliance. Somin writes:

It would be interesting to know what led to Lindsey’s change of heart about liberaltarianism. I suspect that the vast expansion of government promoted by the Obama administration and the decline of relatively pro-market views among liberal intellectuals were both contributing factors. Lindsey’s new view of liberaltarianism is now remarkably similar to the one I expressed back when he made his original proposal: that liberals and libertarians have much in common in terms of ultimate values, but relatively little common ground in terms of practical policy agendas.

I agree with Julian’s take on this: political alliances are built by concrete actions toward shared goals, not by abstract statements of philosophical agreement. But I think his point can be made stronger with some specific examples.

In 2005, I was a founding employee of the Show-Me Institute, a “free market” think tank. What we meant by “free market” is that the organization devoted itself exclusively to those issues where conservatives and libertarians agreed. We wrote about taxes, school choice, property rights, health care policy, and so forth. We had an explicit policy that we didn’t do work on “social issues,” which in practice meant any issue where libertarians sided with liberals. So we avoided writing about immigration, gay rights, free speech, abortion, drug prohibition, prayer in schools, the death penalty, and the like.

And the Show-Me Institute is hardly unique. There’s a nationwide network of think tanks called the State Policy Network, with member organizations in almost every state, that are built on this same premise. SPN held conferences twice a year. At these conferences, everyone would spend their day listening to talks about “economic issues.” Then we’d go out for drinks and discover that there were actually lots of disagreement on the “social issues” we avoided discussing on the clock. You can see the same phenomenon inside the beltway. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a libertarian think tank that writes almost exclusively about “economic issues.” The Institute for Justice is a libertarian law firm that focuses almost entirely on issues where libertarians and the ACLU disagree. There’s a long list of other examples.

Crucially, the basis of the alliance isn’t that libertarians and conservatives agreed on some kind of compromise position on “social issues,” we just didn’t talk about them on the job. And this works remarkably well. When you work at a “free-market think tank,” you pretty quickly get used to the fact that tax policy is on the agenda and gay rights are not. Over time, though, what started out as a marriage of convenience began to seem like a fixed part of the political landscape. “Free-market” think tanks tend to attract donors who are most interested in “economic issues,” and over time they start to cater to their own donor base. The people who work at libertarian think tanks socialize more with conservatives than liberals. (There’s an organization in DC whose entire purpose is to cultivate libertarian-conservative social ties.) And this nudges the median libertarian intellectual in a rightward direction.

After a couple of decades, you reach the point where a smart guy like Ilya Somin can claim that “liberals and libertarians have much in common in terms of ultimate values, but relatively little common ground in terms of practical policy agendas.” There are, in fact, lots of practical policy issues on which libertarians and liberals see eye to eye. The reason it doesn’t seem that way is that most libertarian organizations (with Cato an honorable exception) have made it a matter of policy to avoid writing about them.

So conceptually speaking, it wouldn’t be hard to create a liberaltarian movement. All you’d have to do is create a mirror image of the “free market” think tanks. Hire people like Radley Balko and Glenn Greenwald. Pay them to write about all the issues that “free market” think tanks don’t: foreign policy, civil liberties, gay rights, the drug war, immigration, torture, the death penalty, and so forth. Don’t hire anyone to write about taxes, school choice, guns, or other topics where libertarians and liberals have strong disagreements.

The big obstacle (other than the lack of obvious donors) to such a project is that a lot of libertarian intellectuals have so completely internalized the assumptions of the fusionist alliance that they have trouble writing about policy in a way that liberals find compelling. Many have come to regard “economic issues” as being at the core of the libertarian agenda, and their attempts at outreach to liberals too often consist of long-winded explanations of why liberals really out to support Social Security privatization, school choice, or whatever. Liberals are no more likely to be swayed by them than we are to be swayed by their arguments in the opposite direction. Making a liberaltarian alliance work would require a group of liberals and libertarians deciding that they care enough about issues of mutual concern to make those issues the focus of their work. There’s no philosophical reason this couldn’t or shouldn’t happen, it just has a half-century of institutional inertia working against it.

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26 Responses to Liberaltarianism in Practice

  1. Sarah says:

    SMI moved away from that policy somewhat after you left, at least for the blog.

  2. Greg N. says:

    “Hire people . . . to write about all the issues that ‘free market’ think tanks don’t: foreign policy, civil liberties, gay rights, the drug war, immigration, torture, the death penalty, and so forth.”

    Let’s do it!

  3. Re: Greg N.: Second!

  4. Rhayader says:

    An increase in prominence and institutional legitimacy for the “liberaltarians” would be a fantastic development. I think there are a lot of people like me, who are adherents of classical liberalism, but who consider locking someone up for a victimless “crime” to be a much more aggressive and egregious violation of freedom than inappropriate taxation. This can sometimes be an overly blunt distinction, but generally I’d sooner sacrifice economic freedoms than civil freedoms.

    and their attempts at outreach to liberals too often consist of long-winded explanations of why liberals really out to support Social Security privatization, school choice, or whatever. Liberals are no more likely to be swayed by them than we are to be swayed by their arguments in the opposite direction

    Yeah — it’s like trying to talk to conservatives about “the conservative case for legalization of all drugs.” No matter how much sense it makes, it doesn’t get you anywhere — which, like Tim said, is why the economic-centric libertarian think tanks have been successful in courting conservatives.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The problem is that there is a fundamental obstacle to a left/libertarian alliance that does not exist with the alliance with the conservatives: money talks. Economic issues are arguably more fundamental to liberty than social issues.

    For all the gassing on conservatives do about ‘family values’ and social issues and the like, the truth is as long as the state is leaving us alone and letting us keep the fruits of our labor, so to speak, people will always have the ability to buy our way past the silly blue laws that they pass. (No this is not necessarily ‘just’, but it is a fact.) The left-wing agenda has always been to limit economic freedom. This is why the right/libertarian alliance has always been a more natural fit (no matter how odious the right seems on social issues.)

  6. Rhayader says:

    Economic issues are arguably more fundamental to liberty than social issues.

    Well that’s the crux of the biscuit (sorry non-Zappa fans).

    It’s arguable indeed; and of course, I would argue that intellectual consistency (or maybe conceptual continuity? — sorry again) demands a healthy respect for both sets of issues. But like I said, I’d consider throwing someone in jail without legitimate cause to be a more direct violation of core liberties than hostility toward economic freedom. So when forced to make a choice, I think I would fall on the other side of that argument. So I think there is a fraction of self-described libertarians who would be very eager for an alliance on the left regarding civil liberties.

    One huge problem with that, of course, is that modern-day “progressives” are at best ambivalent toward civil liberties. Somin mentioned this. The opposite is also true of course — there’s little evidence to suggest that “conservatives” are serious about a commitment to economic libertarianism.

  7. Greg N. says:

    Peter: You raise the money, and Tim and I will do the rest.

  8. John Payne says:

    I would really like to see a liberal-libertarian think tank emerge because I actually have more expertise in the so-called “social issues” and enjoy them more, but I don’t think we’ll see it happen anytime soon.

    Also, while there may have been a time that SMI did not have that policy in force on the blog, it has been in place since I’ve been working here.

    Finally, Tim, I have your old desk, or at least that’s what I was told.

  9. Don Marti says:

    The biggest problem with the US libertarian scene is rent seekers. It looks like the Cato people stand alone on the corporate welfare problem.

    If you want to build an alliance to include liberals, how about starting with an easy issue: High Fructose Corn Syrup? The environmentalist liberals hate it because it promotes monoculture. The peace and development liberals hate it because it limits markets for sugar growers in warm, soulful countries to the south. The nanny state health liberals hate it because it makes people fat, cheaply. The budget-cutting libertarians hate it because it soaks up massive amounts of corporate welfare. The free-trader libertarians hate it because the US has to give in to other countries’ protectionism in order to keep our sugar quotas in trade negotiations. The only people who are for it are on the ADM payroll.

  10. Mike says:

    For a filthy liberaltarian like me, this is why ca. 2002 Reason.com, ca. 1998 Suck.com (is there a difference?), Bush-era McArdle, current Wilkinson/Howley/Sanchez/Welch/etc. are great. They are clearly libertarian, but they also talked and cared about the parts of the philosophy they had in common with liberals. Clearly, there’s something to be said for never trusting a libertarian over 30. Your description of the think-tank echo chamber effects show why.

  11. William says:

    Libertarianism is nothing more than an analysis of the proper role of government. Unlike the big two political parties, which both encompass and live off of grand narratives on the relation of human nature to the state and society, libertarians merely agree that there should be a minimal role for government. We should work with anyone who believes in these goals and disassociate with those who act contrary to this.

  12. TGGP says:

    One of my favorite Catallarchy posts was Policy Isomorphism, which explained the focus on some areas rather than others.

    In practice, “liberals” aren’t terribly close to libertarians even on social issues or foreign policy. National Review has supported marijuana legalization (libertarianism for wusses) for some time now, and not many liberals are willing to legalize the important drugs that the W.o.D is actually being waged on. And liberals certainly don’t have isolationist track record (Wilson, FDR/Truman, LBJ, they seem to preside over the biggest wars). There are left-libertarians like Kevin Carson (who participated in the late fusionist project “The Art of the Possible”) and paleolibertarians associated with LvMI/Lew Rockwell who are radical enough, but not many liberals. And as Jonah pointed out in his reply, “gay rights” for liberals is distinct from laissez-faire. Even on the gay marriage issue, one of the arguments liberals put forth is that gays don’t get certain state-mandated benefits associated with marriage. Libertarians should be trying to take away those benefits from straights!

    There may also be a sociological explanation. Many conservatives are happy to have libertarians around to do their heavy lifting on certain issues. Anecdotally, that may not be as true for liberals.

  13. Jesse Walker says:

    Ever read the first few years of Cato’s Inquiry magazine? It was pretty close to what you’re suggesting here, except (a) the alliance was more with radical than liberals, and (b) economics did creep in, but usually in the form of muckraking journalism about subsidies & stuff like that. (There was a regular feature called “The Corporate State.”) There was a lot more room for that kind of stuff in the libertarian movement of the ’60s and ’70s than the libertarian movement of the ’80s and ’90s.

  14. Rick says:

    One word: Donors. Not to put too fine a point on it, preaching lower taxes and less regulation is candy for the donor class. They don’t need to care about libertarian ideas, or any ideas, to open wallets for someone who promises to cut their taxes, or at least agitate for tax cuts. Everything else is a niche interest, and competes for donor dollars with your local symphony orchestra, etc.

    So the market for libertarian think tanks is always going to skew very heavily toward economic issues, where libertarians promote the interests of the donor class as a whole.

  15. Don Marti says:

    Rick, good point on the donor class. More and more of the donor class consists of high-end foodies, though. And our government’s current corporate-welfare-based food policy diverts land away from its economically most productive, tastiest-product-producing uses into growing subsidized corn for ADM.

  16. Adam says:

    There’s something very odd about the premise that conservatives and libertarians are aligned on economic issues. The fact that libertarians are convinced this is true may explain some of their failure to forge common ground with liberals.

    Speaking as a liberal, I like markets. I believe that they are generally the best mechanism we have for allocating resources and respecting individual freedom. I place a high value on economic freedom, because I value human liberty in general. This may make me sound like a libertarian (and philosophically I may actually be a libertarian), but in actual fact I’m a political liberal (in the present-day sense) and I’m generally very turned off by conservative/libertarian economic policy. I doubt that I’m so unusual. Particularly in my age group, I’m guessing that there are many people who lean libertarian philosophically, but are operationally liberal.

    There are a lot of reasons for this, too many to go into any great detail over. One is that conservatives seem to favor business interest more than they do markets. Another is that conservatives frequently fail to offer any meaningful solutions to pressing economic problems that require governmental response (climate change being the most obvious of these). A third is that conservatives seem to have no interest in improving the quality or efficacy of government services, because they are ideologically wedded to the notion that there is no proper role for government in civic life.

    Now, I’m not trying to pick a fight over these propositions. Maybe you disagree with them. That’s fine. What I’m trying to do is suggest that there’s a basic error being made if you assume that liberals and libertarians simply disagree on economic policy, and therefore any cooperation will have to occur on more ideologically congruent ground. On the contrary, I feel as though there’s a ton of possible cooperation between liberal and libertarians on economic issues, but libertarians themselves avoid these areas of potential cooperation for sociological/culture-warrish reasons that also tend to poison the well when it comes to other issues. You can call this “institutional inertia” if you like, but I think the issues run considerably deeper than that.

  17. Huck says:

    There is an inherent problem in the notion of the “free market think tank” that requires addressing: and it is the notion that anything that claims to be “free market” can be parcelized out into “work” time versus “social” time, and thus alliances can be forged accordingly. That implies a gradation of importance to a certain aspect of life that I believe is simply not true, and is something that has come with a kind of technocratization, professionalization, and specialization of our lives that is unsustainable. It implies that “work” is more important than “play.” This is true whether the “work” is on economic issues or whether it is on social issues. The hierarchy of value in constructing this dichotomy is unsustainable because human beings are who they are because of their totality, and eventually it is inevitable that the part of a human being suppressed as relatively less important when it comes to debating serious things will seep into the preceived “more important” stuff because people just can’t abide for too long having any part of their totality subordinated to a status of perceived lesser importance.

    So, I would suggest that any productive ideological engagements must not avoid the points of disagreement, but must find away to carve a functional path through the whole kit and kaboodle. If not, the alliance will dissipate after a while.

  18. Chris says:

    I think you’re failing to consider the extent to which the libertarian position is close to the conservative position even on social issues.

    For instance, if a gay couple wants to stay in a small bed and breakfast, and the owner wants to refuse them a room, then libertarians side with conservatives in recognizing the primacy of property rights, rather than with liberals in recognizing the rights of people to be treated without regard to sexual practices.

    A liberaltarian think-tank would quickly break down, even if it was limited to a few social issues.

  19. cjg2127 says:

    As a former libertarian-friendly liberal, I just want to say that the comments above, about how the donor class drives libertarian commentary, is spot-on and explains a lot of left-wing hostility to libertarians.

    On paper, a lot of the libertarian agenda sounds great; opposition to the military-industrial complex, agribusiness subsidies, corporate capture of regulators, excessive incarceration, ect. But in practice most libertarian organizations seem to focus on issue that matter to upper-class elites- lower taxes, legal hookers and pot, and no limitations on what you can do with your business (never mind externalities).

    That’s not what your average libertarian believes, of course; most are thoughtful, engaged, well-meaning people. Even if we don’t agree about the dangers of private power and private wealth there would be a lot of common ground on which to cooperate. But all of the big libertarian players are heavily, heavily influenced by conservative interests who only care about their personal freedom, not freedom for society as a whole. That’s not to say that libertarian organizations distort their positions–rather, as described above, they primarily vocalize the half of their agenda that suits their conservative backers.

    The upshot is that the fact that so many libertarian organizations let themselves be used as intellectual fig-leaves for what is basically an anti-liberty, parochial right-wing makes it hard to want to work with them on any issue.

  20. anonymouse says:

    Most “Social Issues” are, at their heart, economic issues. High incarceration rate, institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, gun/drug prohibition, labor, safety, environment, you name it. And I agree. It’s all about the donor class. The folks who are getting the shaft on the social issues aren’t really in any position to be paying for articles on the WSJ editorial page.

    The real irony is; since we’ve moved to a fiat currency system, and money is now entirely imaginary – they don’t even bother printing it on paper anymore, let alone minting coins of precious metals. It’s flipping bits now. And it’s still such a precious and scarce commodity, that it’s got to be hoarded and controlled so that 99% of people are compelled to struggle for “just barely enough” of it every day of their lives, and the other 1%. . . ban Cuban cigars to punish “those commies”, then enjoy a puff with their evening whiskey, because, rules are for everyone else.

    Since governments issue currency, and corporate charters in the first place, I often wonder what was the point of pretending there ever was such a thing as a free market? Other than the cognitive dissonance, of course.

  21. Tarpok says:

    This can sometimes be an overly blunt distinction, but generally I’d sooner sacrifice economic freedoms than civil freedoms.

    In other words, within your liberaltarian alliance, you’ll end up negotiating your economic freedoms away, while taking uncompromising stands that align perfectly with left-wing positions on social issues. Thus liberaltarianism will become indistinguishable from liberalism.

  22. Matthew says:

    Adam above has a good point. As a market-oriented liberal, I deeply WANT to be libertarian. Philosophically, I am a libertarian. But when the rubber hits the pavement, I find myself veering in the direction of current-day liberalism (which has been completely demonized and made pejorative by a right wing that can’t think with any nuance about issues of governance and politics. In their metric, everything not conservative is socialism, whatever that means.)

    Libertarianism in theory would, to my thinking, cause all kinds of harms and injustices in practice that I’m just not comfortable with. Yes, it’s fine to give people the ability to do as they see fit in the market—to relax environmental regulations on car dealers, for instance, so that they are not burdened. But what happens when that same car dealer begins pouring waste oil into the culvert behind his lot, and it pollutes a public stream, thereby depriving others of their liberty? On a whole range of issues, these harms cause me to move toward a more traditional liberalism: gun rights, climate change, social security, progressive taxation, school choice, etc etc.

    My feeling is that the American left has ceded these arguments to primarily right wing or right-libertarian think tanks, allowing them to define positions that have to do with reducing harm as something else entirely—some secret desire by liberals to spread the tentacles of government into every human endeavor. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most liberals are market-oriented, democratic, and strong believers in liberty and freedom. Most liberals think in a relatively nuanced way about these issues. But liberals have had trouble defining the terms of their own beliefs. Perhaps if liberals emphasized the libertarian aspects of their beliefs more heavily, they’d find more support from places like Cato etc.

  23. Dan L says:

    I can see why over the past 50 years think tanks of these types haven’t been popping up. I mean, how interesting of a magazine can you make of “Yes, we’re still for religious freedom and freedom of speech.” For a number of the issues mentioned in the last paragraph however, I think the time is now for such ideas to be worked out. Specifically, the drug war and foreign policy. I think there needs to be a long discussion of what “end the drug war” would mean specifically as policy. No liberal politician is going to do this on their own, however if we have writers making the case for it, and mapping out a policy course for how to do it, there is definitely an audience within liberal readers who would be interested in this. If enough of the liberal base is interested in the idea, and has a coherent policy on how to face drug laws, at some point liberal politicians will have to respond to it.

    Similarly, on foreign policy, now is a great time to do writing on a less aggressive foreign policy vision. Questions like how do we get out of Afghanistan and Iraq efficiently? What happens next after we leave? Would reducing troop levels to say 10,000 be a useful compromise, or is leaving an all or nothing proposition? Do we leave bases in these countries and how long should we keep those running? What, if anything, is our part in these countries once we leave? The point being, there are alot of questions to hash out for the “liberaltarian” foreign policy view.

    In both of these cases, I think it is important that people write about these issues at this time. You certainly have groups writing about a more aggressive foreign policy, and harsher drug laws. If we solely say “no” and don’t offer a complete policy concept, the perceived center will drift towards the more aggressive side, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This is exactly the sort of time that a think tank is most useful in my eyes.

  24. I think there are other areas where mainstream Liberals and American-style Libertarians can see eye-to-eye and they’re not simply in the obvious areas of civil liberties. Much of it directly pertains to how our economy functions. Ending corporate welfare is such an important issue and such a difficult one to tackle, it will take an alliance of Liberals, Libertarians and even Conservatives who are serious about free-market principles.

    Much of our environmental and social issues are not the result of what many Liberals sloppily call “capitalism” but from government intervention. Urban sprawl is the result of over a half a century of top-down engineering – encouraging people to buy homes and cars they can barely afford and using taxpayer dollars to build roads. Under a true free market, trains and roads would be given relatively more equal footing and it would pay to use “brown space”. Roads would have to pay for themselves, encouraging people to drive less often since roads will all be toll roads. There’s also the politically difficult issue to tackle – farm subsidies. Water is free for farmers and farmers are given subsidies to create more produce than we need. Without having to face real (international) competition and scarcity, farms are wasteful of land and precious water. It’s destroying the environment and making people fat and it’s not filthy capitalism at work, but capitalism poisoned by steroids. This is a form of corporate welfare and, again, so much political inertia is behind it that a strong alliance is needed to address the problem.

  25. glasnost says:

    “In practice, “liberals” aren’t terribly close to libertarians even on social issues or foreign policy. National Review has supported marijuana legalization (libertarianism for wusses) for some time now, and not many liberals are willing to legalize the important drugs that the W.o.D is actually being waged on. And liberals certainly don’t have isolationist track record (Wilson, FDR/Truman, LBJ, they seem to preside over the biggest wars).”

    This is a very poor and myopic understanding of what exactly “liberals” are, and their prevailing attitudes on various policy topics. In particular, the author seems to conflate “liberals” with “positions taken by Democratic Party U.S. Presidents”.
    Liberals are, by far, the strongest anti-war bloc in this country of any significance. Committed liberals have been overwhelmingly opposed to essentially every U.S. military intervention in the past 50 years. Various *democrats* have supported various interventions – these people are “moderates” or “moderate democrats”. Committed, serious liberals have a hard time getting into government service, especially in areas like foreign policy. Unsurprisingly, government officials try to avoid putting critics in power. If you’re not clear about this, go check on the political leanings of every serious anti-war protest in this country since about 1960. Come back and tell me what you find.

    Similarly, liberals are overwhelmingly in favor of legalization of pot for sure, and decriminalization of most other things. They may not be as hardcore as most libertarians on this subject, but they’re a lot further along then voters who self-identify as ‘conservatives’.

  26. Danny O'B says:

    I recently heard someone who, in the Nineties, one would imagine as the very model of a Gen-X Austinite libertarian, and is now a highly affluent but disillusioned independent, describe himself in a very particular way.

    “I’m a tax-and-spend libertarian”, he said.

    You can let your head explode over that, or you can (as I did) keep mulling it over.

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