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.