How to Talk Liberaltarian

Nick Schulz weighs in on the liberaltarianism debate:

The original fusionist project of Frank Meyer and others was predicated on a belief that libertarians and conservatives (social/religious/paleo) actually agreed on some basic philosophical principles, not just shared goals such as opposing Soviet communism (as important as that was). Two of these have always been paramount: The importance of protecting individual liberty, and an appreciation for the vital role played by civil society and traditional mediating institutions that made American culture and ordered liberty possible.

This seems completely wrong to me. Conservatives care about “protecting individual liberty” for some people, but the conservative movement includes many people who are indifferent, if not hostile, to the liberty of foreigners, immigrants, drug users, gays and lesbians, women who want abortions, broadcasters, sex workers, criminal defendants, Muslims, publishers of pornography, atheists, and so forth. It’s true, of course, that you can compile a similar list (gun owners, business owners, etc) on the progressive side. But I see no reason to think the progressive list is longer, or that the people on that list are somehow more important, than the people on the conservative list.

What libertarians and conservatives share isn’t a shared commitment to freedom so much as a common way of talking about freedom. Conservatives and Republicans like to invoke the Founding Fathers, talk about free markets and limited government, quote Hayek, and so forth. But political rhetoric is a lagging indicator of ideological commitments. A lot of fusionist slogans have become so shopworn that they’re what Orwell called dead metaphors. The fact that they’re often combined with calls to “keep your government hands off my Medicare”, promote “energy independence”, and build a police state along our Southern border suggests that these slogans are little more than empty rhetoric. When the typical Republican politiician says he cares about limited government, his purpose isn’t so much to express support for a specific policy agenda (most of the Republican policy agenda involves expanding government) so much as to signal membership in the fusionist political coalition.

Because libertarians and conservatives share a political vocabulary we find it relatively easy to communicate with each other. Liberals and libertarians obviously “agree on some basic philosophical principles”—that’s why many libertarians still call themselves classical liberals. But many libertarians talk about liberty in a right-wing way that most liberals find off-putting. And liberals, for their part, talk about liberty in a way that’s alien to most libertarians. This “language barrier” exaggerates the degree of disagreement between us. Without a shared vocabulary, it’s challenging for liberals and libertarians to recognize and build on areas of shared agreement.

This is why I think it’s important for this kind of debate to move beyond manifestos to actually discovering and working on areas of shared agreement. Conservatives and libertarians feel an emotional bond because libertarians spend most of their time working on “conservative” issues, not the other way around. To develop a similar rapport with liberals, libertarians need to focus more on issues where they can count liberals as allies. As they do, they’ll find that there are actually lots of liberals who care about freedom, they just talk about it in a different way than conservatives (and most libertarians) do.

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32 Responses to How to Talk Liberaltarian

  1. Where’s the link to indicate that I like this?

  2. Look, this isn’t complicated. Libertarians care about liberty, consistently. Conservatives and liberals care about liberty occasionally, at best, and usually because of an underlying cultural attachment (guns, drugs, sex, religion) not because of the liberty principle. So, yeah, good luck with the liberaltarian institute. Couldn’t hurt. But I’m not getting my hopes up.

  3. Matthew J says:

    “…the conservative movement includes many people who are indifferent, if not hostile, to the liberty of foreigners, immigrants, drug users, gays and lesbians, women who want abortions, broadcasters, sex workers, criminal defendants, Muslims, publishers of pornography, atheists, and so forth. It’s true, of course, that you can compile a similar list (gun owners, business owners, etc) on the progressive side.”

    For me, there’s a fundamental difference between conservative “exclusions of liberty” and liberal “exclusions of liberty”. As a liberal who leans libertarian, pure libertarianism such as that mentioned by Kevin O’Reilly has always struck me as hollow, or limited in scope, in the following sense: granting liberty to one person to do as they want often infringes on another person’s liberty.

    Your right to smoke infringes on my right to not have to inhale smoke. Your right to pollute your stream infringes on my right to be downstream and have clean water. Your right to own a gun infringes on my right to not be accidentally shot. And so on ad nauseum.

    The reason I’m a liberal who leans libertarian (and not an out-and-out libertarian) is because of all of these potential harms that ensue when an irresponsible person is granted too much liberty—and ends up trampling my and other’s inherent right to life liberty, etc.

  4. X. Trapnel says:

    This gets it exactly right. You’re really been on fire lately! (Speaking of dead metaphors.)

  5. Brian Moore says:

    “The reason I’m a liberal who leans libertarian (and not an out-and-out libertarian) is because of all of these potential harms that ensue when an irresponsible person is granted too much liberty—and ends up trampling my and other’s inherent right to life liberty, etc.”

    But here’s exactly where I think liberals and libertarians can agree. I would say that most libertarians have no problem with:
    - laws that punish those who harm others with pollution, via streams or blowing smoke in your face.
    - laws that punish people for irresponsibly using firearms or anything else that might hurt people, like cars.
    Which I assume is pretty much what you support as well. You may want to say, restrict gun ownership more than a libertarian does, but I’m sure you support the concept that people should be allowed to have things that might hurt others, so long as they use them responsibly — like cars, which kill far more people.

    That’s why I think many times, conflicts between liberals and libertarians are manufactured, because as Tim points out, both liberals and libertarians have had very powerful reasons to distance themselves from each other. You had the perception that libertarians don’t care if someone upstream from you pollutes your water — and maybe some don’t. But that seems somewhat out of line with the idea with the very libertarian principle that while your rights are important, you don’t have the right to harm others.

    The entire concept that you outline, of “granting liberty to one person to do as they want often infringes on another person’s liberty.” is very central to libertarianism — and you’ll notice that they spend a lot of time discussing those issues on the margin where it’s sometimes hard to determine. But that sometimes liberals and libertarians disagree on those doesn’t change the fact that on the majority of the others, they agree.

  6. Nico says:

    Sign me up for the emerging Lindsey-Lee-Sanchez-Wilkinson School of Libertarianism!
    Will Wilkinson has it right that the liberaltarianism thing is best understood as a longer-term project- an effort to convince people with liberal impulses that a lot of libertarian insights are genuinely liberal, and to build a broader liberal coalition in years ahead. I think some progress has been made in this direction, insofar as people like Matt Yglesias seem to at least take libertarian arguments seriously. Remember, 40 years ago libertarians were MUCH MORE of a crazy fringe group.

  7. Mike H says:

    @Brian Moore

    I think the conflict between liberals and libertarians revolves around how someone’s right to pollute is regulated. As a liberal, I hove no problem with and agency like the EPA enforcing regulations that proactively prevent people form polluting the stream, while most of the libertarians I’ve talked to are opposed to those kind of regulations and agencies and believe that the civil courts are the place to deal with polluters.

  8. Allen says:

    When Bush was president the libertarians and liberals did join together in the anti-war movement, but I guess the liberals quit being anti-war once they had power.

  9. Allen says:

    @ Mike H

    Ya, you are right about that. I’ll probably get crucified for saying this, but a big factor in the BP oil spill was too much regulation. Had the government instead made it so BP had to have insurance and not limit the amount of money they were liable for this would not of happened. A company insuring BP would never had let them drill there, whereas the government did. Money is the motivating factor and the government will not see risk because it can’t lose money.

  10. Mike H says:

    @ Allen

    Gotta disagree with you (surprise!). The cause of the BP disaster was not too much regulation, it was a lack of enforcement of the existing regs. If the MMS had been doing their job, inspecting the rig and making sure it was in compliance instead of snorting coke off the arses of oil company lobbyists, the rig failure would have never occurred. The problem with allowing civil liability to take the place of strictly enforced regulations is that there will always be businessmen who will convince themselves that they can get away with cutting corners. There will always be someone who is willing to take any risk to increase his profit. There will always be company execs who don’t give a rip about the company’s liability if it interferes with lining their pockets. Then, when everything goes to hell, they walk way with a golden parachute and move on to the next company. No matter what happens to BP, do you think Tony Hayward will end up in the poorhouse?

  11. Mike H says:

    Just re-read my last post. To clarify… it was the MMS folks who were doing the snorting, not the oil rig. ;-)

  12. Don Marti says:

    Maybe there should be a Taxpayer Appreciation Day, “sponsored” by some of the big recipients of corporate welfare. I’d volunteer to dish out free samples of High Fructose Corn Syrup outside the post office on Apr. 15th.

  13. Ron Good says:

    “The reason I’m a liberal who leans libertarian (and not an out-and-out libertarian) is because of all of these potential harms that ensue when an irresponsible person is granted too much liberty—and ends up trampling my and other’s inherent right to life liberty, etc.”
    ————-

    The Canadian writer, Barbara Amiel, noted that if people are going to be free enough to act truly well, they will also be free enough to act badly.

    Why would you fear your neighbors more than you value liberty?

  14. Ron Good says:

    “No matter what happens to BP, do you think Tony Hayward will end up in the poorhouse?”

    A reminder: it is a _regulation_ as opposed to a part of contract law that insulates Mr Hayward financially from the consequences of his company’s actions.

  15. Allen says:

    @ Mike H

    You say “There will always be someone who is willing to take any risk to increase his profit.” That is where the insurance company comes into play, they don’t cut corners because it is their ass. Risky drills would not profit an insurance company so why would they authorize one?

    Also the regulation are not enforced because they are only there to hinder competition. A great deal of regulations are created by and lobbied by the industry being regulated. The problem with regulations is that the corporations have people in the regulating segment of the govt and instead cut corners with govt approval.

  16. Liberty60 says:

    Interesting article- sharp observation that the political language has become shopworn into empty platitudes.
    But I think part of the problem is precisely because lliberals, conservatives and libertarians sometimes lapse into doctrinaire ideology that refuses to acknowledge the inherent contradiction between the lofty buzzwords we throw around.

    For instance, we cherish both individual liberty and a civil society; yet these two ideals often are in conflict, and the resolution is never neat and tidy. Often our individual liberty needs to be curtailed (I have to stop at red lights) or sometimes our notion of civic order needs to bend to other’s (I may have to live next to a noisy family).

    The rigidly pure ideology of classic Marxism, or of absolute Galtian libertarianism ignores the conflicts, and pretends that there is a clean and simple theology that resolves the world into order.

  17. KG says:

    Mike H and Allen – I think you’re probably both right. I am fairly libertarian in my leanings (in the last few years I’ve moved from center-right to center-left but that’s neither here nor there), and I think the truth is that we need both smart/effective regulation and vibrant civil court options. One is preventative (regulation) and the other is reactive (civil court system), it’s like medicine: vitamins on one side and antibiotics on the other. With no regulatory enforcement, the civil courts would be overrun and (I say this as a lawyer) justice would not be done and the market would fail. With an overly burdensome regulatory regime the market can fail due to abuse. Without recourse to the civil justice system, those who were harmed by bad acts would have no real remedy.

  18. AlanDownunder says:

    When the first order issue – by a country mile – for republicans of all stripes and libertarians is aversion to taxation, liberaltarians will continue to constitute an insignificant minority.

  19. Pseudonym says:

    @Allen

    I know this sounds highly unrealistic to you, but imagine a world where there might be a slight possibility that an insurer might happen to underwrite insurance policies based on an inaccurate assessment of risk and with insufficient reserves to cover its claims. Just for kicks, lets call this hypothetical insurance company something like “AIG”. Now clearly this could never happen in our universe, since the only reason companies ever go bankrupt is because Jimmy Carter forced poor innocent banks to give loans to undeserving black people. It’s also a good thing that your solution doesn’t depend on any sort of government intervention, since of course governments are evil liberty-destroying parasites, except for the perfectly functioning judiciary that guarantees equal access to the law for everyone and is powerful enough to seize the assets of a multi-billion-dollar largely foreign-owned company (and its insurer) and yet never oversteps its bounds to engage in judicial activism because judges and juries universally hold liberty to be the highest (indeed, only) human value, which is why the voters in this country are all without exception strict libertarians.

  20. Allen says:

    @ Pseudonym

    Can u please explain your point better.? I caught the sarcasm but the rest seemed like a retarded rant with no coherence.

  21. Pseudonym says:

    And no, government regulation doesn’t function perfectly (or even close). It never will. I’m not under the illusion that there will ever be a government free from bias, cronyism, and corruption, which is why I feel a responsibility to work towards fixing the good parts and eliminating the bad ones rather than fantasizing about a perfectly functioning marketplace that only depends on every participant to hold as his ultimate value the liberty of every other human being on the planet.

  22. Pseudonym says:

    Here’s the point: you argue that if the government just required insurance and didn’t have statutory caps on liabilities then disasters such as Deepwater Horizon would not happen. We’re in the middle of a recession caused by a financial crisis that could not have happened since investment banks were careful to obtain insurance for their investments in derivatives and didn’t get to cap their losses at a few million.

  23. Allen says:

    I know some regulation is necessary, but many of the regulations that now exist go too far. Economic liberty is just as important as personal liberty. Dough Stanhopem a great comedian can explain my point with this quote:

    “They say if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish…. then he’s gotta get a fishing license, but he doesn’t have any money. So he’s got to get a job and get into the social security system and pay taxes, and now you’re gonna audit the poor cocksucker, cuz’ he’s not really good with math. So he’ll pull the IRS van up to your house, and he’ll take all your shit. He’ll take your black velvet Elvis and your Batman toothbrush, and your penis pump, and that all goes up for auction with the burden of proof on you because you forgot to carry the one, cuz’ you were just worried about eating a fucking fish, and you couldn’t even cook the fish cuz’ you needed a permit for an open flame. Then the health department is going to start asking you a lot of questions about where are you going to dump the scales and the guts. ‘This is not a sanitary environment’, and ladies and gentlemen if you get sick of it all at the end of the day… not even legal to kill yourself in this country. “

  24. Stan Wright says:

    Where liberals and conservatives differ isn’t in commitment to freedom – each is equally committed, or otherwise. The dividing line is in where freedom lies. To a conservative, freedom begins in the wallet. To a liberal, freedom centers in the body.

    Thus, conservatives have no qualms about passing laws preventing others from having abortions, but find taxes and environmental impact laws anathema. Liberals believe the reverse, and each side sees the other as hating freedom because they value the ‘wrong’ freedoms.

  25. Matthew J says:

    StanWright:

    I think your definition is basically right, though perhaps oversimplifying. In the case of liberals, it’s not only about the body but about the idea of the ‘commons,’ in the Garrett Harding sense. Many liberals believe in the idea of sharing in principle: that resources and land can and should be maintained in common, for everyone. Not only that, but they believe that an enlightened population can do this without problems. Conservatives and libertarians, I’d argue, are skeptical of this idea of the commons.

    No idea illustrates this for me better than the following: my parents, who are very liberal, live in a neighborhood with a community garden maintained by everyone, a community beach that has a number of boats on it for free use, even by those who don’t live in their neighborhood, etc. My wife’s parents, who are very conservative, live in a gated golf community, where each resident pays a yearly fee for use of the “common” spaces, and to which no outsiders are allowed. Golf carts and equipment are locked and are individual property. I don’t know that one is necessarily better than the other, but they illustrate very clearly for me the differences between liberals and conservatives.

    The other distinction I might make is that conservatives tend to have a stricter sense of one’s personal responsibility, even given uncontrollable circumstances (i.e. a poor person who may make bad decisions that a liberal would say were the result of a lack of education, social opportunity, etc, a conservative might regard as simple irresponsibility, period.)

  26. Taktix® says:

    Orwell called them “dying metaphors” actually. The term “dead metaphors” was used long before Orwell…

  27. Brian Moore says:

    @ Mike H

    “As a liberal, I hove no problem with and agency like the EPA enforcing regulations that proactively prevent people form polluting the stream, while most of the libertarians I’ve talked to are opposed to those kind of regulations and agencies and believe that the civil courts are the place to deal with polluters.”

    Right, but that’s a debate over methods, not principles. I don’t think that you, or even any liberal strictly believes that all “person A harms person B” situations should be dealt with via a regulatory agency. If someone provided convincing proof that a different method of handling these problems better resolved them than the EPA, or perhaps had fewer negative side effects, or did so in a more cost effective manner, I assume you would be all for it, right? Since the principle and primary goal is minimizing harm?

    That’s why I think things like this are absolutely ideal instances of liberals and libertarians realizing they really aren’t really that opposed. I think when liberals hear a libertarian say “man the EPA is stupid” they hear “the EPA is stupid, and so is their goal of preventing environmental damage that hurts people.” But that’s the not the case — they just think the goals (and perhaps other goals as well, via unintended consequences) are better achieved in a different way.

    Yes, I know there are all kinds of other debates wrapped in this, but most still just obscure the fundamental agreement. Just because you support the EPA, I am not asserting that you support all the costs, cronyism, politics, corruption and contradictory policies associated with them –I just assume you are aware of them, but consider them worth the benefit. So, do libertarians the same favor and assume that just because they may oppose a federal agency for achieving some goal doesn’t also imply that they oppose the goal.

  28. b-psycho says:

    Matthew J:

    “Your right to own a gun infringes on my right to not be accidentally shot.”

    Does that include the cops, too? At least, the ones that don’t shoot unarmed, subdued civilians on purpose?

  29. PatB says:

    As long as libertarians disagree with the idea of “social justice”, I can see only transforming liberals in libertarians, rather than create a genuine fusion of policies (which may be what most libertarians want anyway).

    Libertarians have several kinds of objections to the idea of social justice. They involve social justice’s definition, its feasibility, its current reality, and its implementation. One objection defines the principle differently from liberals, where social relations, institutions and societies are only unjust in so far as they are the result of, or are sustained by, force, coercion, and involuntary exchange. The outcomes will be just even if they are unequal or in any other way not socially just according to the definition liberals use.

    Another tack libertarians take is to argue with the feasibility of the concept. If liberals define social justice as human equality, libertarians can say that any scheme to achieve that will not only fail, but destroy individual freedom. If liberals mean that everyone should have certain positive rights, like free healthcare, social insurance, housing, and a minimum income or wage, libertarians may say these things rely on unjust coercion of people with those means and thereby inhibiting freedom, that such arrangements may be so economically unsustainable and inefficient to the point of causing economic ruin, that the provision of these things publicly will be vastly inferior to an entirely voluntary market approach, or that those dependent on such provisions will have gained such things at the expense of other more important rights and freedoms.

    Many libertarians also argue about the current reality of social justice in our society. They point out that inequality is not so bad, the poor are not suffering, existing inequality is due to our meritocracy, etc.

    And then there is the line about how if how society became more libertarian it would also become more socially justice. Voluntary charity would do better than state welfare, everyone would be economically and socially better off (rising tide argument), inequality would actually dissipate, and so on.

    Libertarians basically miss a beat here by not acknowledging the possibility that markets and agreements based on unequal power can be unjust. Social justice has to do with democratically rectifying the unequal relations of power which sustain arbritary social inequalities. Most liberals would agree that coercion of the type that libertarians are concerned about is unjust, but do not think that minimizing it will lead to a more socially just society in and of itself. Positive measures by governments, by communities, and by democratic organizations exerting their influence in civil society are necessary. If no actions are taken, if its all hands off, then those with power will use it to accumulate more of it.

    Most liberals will not go so far as to argue that all social injustices must be rectified immediately or even should, they might implicitly acknowledge John Rawls’ idea that those inequalities which benefit the worst off are justified (there’s the opening to turn liberals into libertarians). Still this remains a major point of disagreement which libertarians do not have to be as concerned about with conservatives.

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