Cause and Effect in Fusionism

Ilya Somin has another thoughtful post about the prospects for a liberaltarian movement:

The range of issues where libertarians and liberals genuinely agree is narrower than Lee assumes. Most liberals do not in fact agree with libertarians on civil liberties, the war on drugs, and gay rights. Certainly, both groups decry many conservative policies on these issues. But they don’t really agree on the alternatives to them. On civil liberties, for example, many liberals favor hate speech laws, restrictions on political speech by corporations, wide-ranging sexual harrassment laws that infringe on freedom of speech, and so forth. On gay rights, libertarians favor laissez-faire, while liberals tend to favor antidiscrimination laws that restrict the freedom of private organizations. On the War on Drugs, only a minority of liberals favor anything close to the full-blown legalization advocated by libertarians. Foreign policy, of course, is an issue that divides both liberals and libertarians among themselves.

The conservative-libertarian free market think tanks Lee points to succeed because the conservatives and libertarians there agree not only on rejecting liberal economic policies but also on an affirmative agenda of severely restricting government’s role in the economy. It would be much more difficult to run an economic policy think tank that brought together libertarians with “compassionate conservatives” who want to replace liberal economic interventions with conservative ones.

I’m confused by this because the situations seem pretty parallel to me. As Somin acknowledges, there are lots of right-wingers, “compassionate conservatives” included, that aren’t interested in any part of the libertarian policy agenda. I can’t remember the last time the Family Research Council published something I agreed with, even on “economic issues.” I think Pat Buchanan’s views on “economic issues” are appalling.

Fusionist organizations deal with these elements of the conservative movement by mostly ignoring them. They don’t write about their work. They don’t hire their employees or publish their scholars’ work. And instead, they work with people in the more free-market-friendly corners of the conservative world. On the margin, this raises the prominence of the free-market parts of the conservative agenda relative to the non-free-market parts. And over time, conservatives have increasingly come to see the libertarian vision of economic policy as the conservative economic policy agenda.

The distribution of opinions on the liberal side is similar. Common Cause doesn’t see eye-to-eye with libertarians on First Amendment issues. The ACLU largely does. And so a liberaltarian organization would hire ACLU-style liberals rather than Common-Cause-style liberals to work on First Amendment issues. And on the margin, this would raise the prominence of ACLU-style First Amendment advocacy relative to Common-Cause-style First Amendment advocacy within the liberal movement. You can tell a similar story on gay rights, the drug war, immigration, and other issues. The liberal movement is not monolithic; on each of these issues you’ll find some parts of the liberal movement like what libertarians have to say and others where they don’t. A liberaltarian organization would build relationships with the libertarian-friendly parts of the liberal movement on each of these issues, thereby nudging the liberal movement in a more libertarian direction on these issues.

The only reason this seems more awkward on the left is that the project is much further along on the right. People who are “in the trenches” together tend to see their views converge over time. People who are used to glaring at each other across the barricades tend to have their views diverge over time. So after a half-century of fusionism, conservatives and libertarians are used to taking each others’ arguments seriously especially on “economic issues. In contrast, a half-century of thinking of each other as being on opposite ends of the political spectrum has accustomed liberals and libertarians to dismissing each others arguments out of hand, even on “social issues.” But that asymmetry is largely a result of the fusionist alliance, it’s not a deep fact about political philosophy. And although path-dependency is a powerful force, there’s no reason it needs to be a permanent feature of the American political landscape.

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7 Responses to Cause and Effect in Fusionism

  1. Michael Yuri says:

    I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s seems to be a connection between the current liberaltarian conversation and the earlier thick vs. thin libertarianism debate.

    Of course, there’s the obvious point that so-called “thick” libertarians have greater philosophical overlap with liberals, and will thus find a political alliance more appealing. But I wonder whether there’s something deeper.

  2. Michael Yuri says:

    Another point — there is more than one way of looking at the liberaltarian debate.

    First, the liberaltarian project is an attempt to form strategic political alliances as part of the broader goal of moving public policy in a more libertarian direction. There are a lot of interesting issues here: single-issue cooperation vs. more broad based alliances, aligning with a single faction (whether that means “remaining” with the right or “switching” to the left) vs. working strategically with both sides, pursuing radical shifts in policy vs. improvements around the margins, etc. Most of the discussion has focused on these issues.

    But separately, the liberaltarian project is an attempt to build a better libertarianism. Will Wilkinson has made this point on a number of occasions, and your last paragraph seems to touch on this also.

    From Will Wilkinson:

    I’m not that interested in short-term partisan politics. I’m interested in a much longer-term project. I want to help create the possibility of a popular political identity that takes the value of human liberty, in all its aspects, really seriously. As I see it, this project involves an attempt to reunify the separate strands of the American liberal tradition. . . .
    . . .
    There’s a lot of diversity within libertarianism. And the most common forms of libertarianism are, I think, still pretty well shot through with conservative reflexes bred by the long Cold War alliance between libertarians and the right. . . .

  3. Brian Moore says:

    “And so a liberaltarian organization would hire ACLU-style liberals rather than Common-Cause-style liberals to work on First Amendment issues. […] A liberaltarian organization would build relationships with the libertarian-friendly parts of the liberal movement on each of these issues, thereby nudging the liberal movement in a more libertarian direction on these issues.”

    I think that’s the key, right there. I think the negative reaction to the concept of “liberal-tarian” is because we use the words “alliance” instead of “advocacy.” You aren’t really proposing that libertarians ally with liberals, you’re saying that we use the points on which the two L’s might agree as a springboard to make the latter more like the former. I think that it might be best to portray this as libertarian outreach; and I think that outreach is a good idea. Libertarians should be trying to use any common ground to convince any and all other political categories to think more like them.

    And in this arena, I know this sounds strange, but they really do have the advantage, since from what I can get from most of the major “thinkers” on the conservative/liberal fronts, they are more interested in policing their own borders than making really good arguments for their policies, because they assume most people are already convinced — and they are, but perhaps they can be un-convinced, specifically if you can show how their policies contradict their stated principles. I can usually convince most moderate liberals that school choice should be allowed, because I paint it in light of giving everyone a good education, and because it’s what the worst-off members of the educational system often want. There’s nothing inherently liberal about terrible public schools and teacher’s unions that harm student interests. These are just entrenched associated interests of the same fusionist variety as above.

  4. Brian Moore says:

    To say this more briefly, when someone (like Somin) responds to “liberal-tarian” with “but liberals don’t think enough like libertarians,” I think the response should be “and that’s why we need to change their minds with outreach efforts like this.”

  5. BC says:

    Brian —

    That’s fine as far as it goes, but given the finite number of hours in the day, it runs into the very real question of whether the time and energy spent on outreach to the left would be more profitably spent on analogous outreach to the right.

    Please don’t misunderstand me. I would be delighted to see modern liberalism embrace more libertarian ideas. But as restive as the fusionist conservative-libertarian alliance has often been, it’s been possible at all because conservatives and libertarians are speaking in roughly the same tongue. As awful as conservative policy often is, most conservatives appreciate, at least in the abstract, that human freedom is an end unto itself, and not some instrumental privilege dispensed by the state in an effort to realize a technocratic conception of a just society.

    Not only do I see no similar understanding among the overwhelming majority of modern liberals, I see little hope of reaching — never mind persuading — more than a handful of them. I think the caterwauling over Citizens United was fairly instructive: for every Glenn Greenwald, there were hundreds of liberals who were perfectly happy to pitch the First Amendment over the gunwhals for the sake of some putative improvement of the American political system, as if democracy is a higher-order value than liberty (Timothy Sandefur had a terrific post up at PLF blog about this). How can we carry on productive outreach to people with whom we do not share even the most basic of premises?

  6. Matthew says:

    Reading Somin’s post caused me to consider another difficult aspect of libertarianism that is important: are we talking about libertarianism for individuals or corporations? Is it right to treat corporations as individuals in terms of speech, freedoms, etc? I think that most of the disagreements between “right-libertarianism” and “liberaltarianism” arise at exactly the point where individual versus corporate rights overlap.

    I find myself supporting libertarianism for individuals, which often conflicts with libertarianism for corporations. The rights and freedoms of corporations so often infringe upon the rights of individuals (there may be a more sophisticated way of saying this.) This is true in arenas of choice, the environment, civil rights, and so on.

    For instance, a gay person’s liberty—their right to be comfortable and open about their sexual orientation—is often delimited by a corporate or military atmosphere that is anti-gay. In another example, many corporations want to be free of arduous environmental regulation, which tend to protect the liberties of the individual (to have air and water free of pollutants, for instance.) Do the liberties of a corporation trump the liberties of an individual in these cases?

    I tend to side with the liberty of the individual over/against the corporation. Right-libertarians who deal primarily with issues of free markets often seem to forget the individual and favor the corporation.

  7. Brian Moore says:

    BC: There may be finite hours in the day, but there are lots of people/think tanks who support libertarian ideas. If some of them spend some time convincing liberal people, I don’t think it’s going to upset their ability to convince conservative people as well.

    Matthew: I think the debate over “corporate rights” is somewhat missing the point. If a company steals the land of an individual, then libertarians will be on the side of the individual. If the reverse happens, they will be on the side of the company. It’s not a matter of “trumping” the rights of either side.

    “Do the liberties of a corporation trump the liberties of an individual in these cases?”

    No, of course not, why would they? I think these things are pretty well resolved in current law. If you dump something in the river and it goes downstream and harms someone, it’s pretty obvious how to resolve that: it’s illegal. The “anti-gay” atmosphere at a company is not as clear cut, since there would obviously be some subjective debate of whether it was true or not, but even if you consider the “people should be allowed to discriminate” argument that some libertarians advocate, it’s not a debate about corporations or people.

    I think this is part of the confusion that libertarians have with liberals who don’t like Citizen’s United, as BC points out above. The corporation/person distinction was not an essential part of the decision, yet many critics act as if it were. However, unlike BC, I think that most liberals can be convinced that freedom of speech is something worth protecting. Again, this is only anecdotal, but once people realize that had Citizens United been decided differently, it would have prevented say, a small liberal organization from making a film saying that people shouldn’t vote for Bush 2, they usually come around.

    I don’t think it’s a big stretch to get a libertarian to agree that in general, individual rights should be protected against everyone, including government, other individuals or corporations, or foreign nations. I honestly think this is a perfect case for liberal/libertarian agreement; mainly because I think the disagreement is largely either because of misunderstanding, or manufactured.

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