Alex Massie of Britain’s Spectator offers a European perspective on the future of liberalism:
Libertarians dreaming of nirvana – or conservatives who think libertarians can’t possibly forge any meaningful, if even temporary, alliances with the left – are starting from the wrong place. At some point you have to deal with the world as it is, not how it might be had everything been different from the beginning.
So, sure, you wouldn’t start with something like the NHS. And you might not sign on to every aspect of German labour laws. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be liberal (in a classical, european sense) advances in Britain or Germany. Indeed, both countries are currently governed by socially-liberal, economically-conservative coalitions. If you want to see whether “liberaltarianism” is possible then you might look to these countries.
Germany’s Free Democrats and, to a lesser extent, some Liberal Democrats in Britain would probably come within a US definition of “liberaltarian”. Rock-ribbed libertarians can find plenty to be unhappy with in each instance but these governments are much, much closer and friendlier to what I’d term real liberalism than anything on offer from either party in the US or from any of the alternatives in the UK and Germany.
American thought tends to be confused on this score because the peculiarities of our electoral process has left us with just two political parties. That means that if you want to participate in mainstream politics, you have to choose one of the two major parties to do it. The modern libertarian movement allied itself with the Republican party in the mid-20th century, and since then the process of partisan polarization have exerted a steady rightward tug on the libertarian movement.
Multi-party electoral systems like those in the UK and Germany leave room for parties that are (relative to the altnernatives, at least) socially liberal and fiscally conservative. And what ends up happening is exactly what Brink Lindsey describes in his excellent book The Age of Abundance: libertarians (or liberals, as they’re known in Europe) occupy a kind of “centrist” position, acting as junior coalition partners and moderating the big-government tendencies of both the left and the right. At a minimum, the Britian and German experiences show that there’s nothing inherently contradictory about a left-libertarian movement.
The British and German experiences also provide support for the Boaz/Kirby argument about the libertarian vote in the US. The FDP and Lib Dems have historically gotten around 10 percent of the vote, on par with Boaz and Kirby’s estimates of the size of the libertarian vote in the United States. Boaz and Kirby also argued that the political effectiveness of libertarians is maximized when libertarians aren’t too closely tied to either end of the political spectrum. A credible threat to walk away from the Republican Party and support Democrats will give both major parties an incentive to take libertarian voters. That certainly seems to be confirmed by recent developments in the UK, where the Liberal Democrats were able to push their coalition government in a direction more friendly to civil liberties.