Left-libertarianism in the Long View

The other key conservative reaction to the Lindsey/Wilkinson departure from Cato is this piece by the always-insightful Tim Carney:

Lindsey’s project – building political alliances between libertarians and liberals – is (or was) a bold one, and not impossible in theory. Cato and the Left generally agree on constraining federal surveillance powers, reforming detention of terror suspects, and humanizing our criminal justice system. Gay marriage, abortion, and embryo research also provide common ground. Lindsey coined “liberal-tarian” in 2006, and many Beltway libertarians vocally supported Obama in 2008.

But then Obama’s presidency happened. Obama immediately passed the largest spending bill in history, and then he fired an aide who was trying to close Guantanamo.

He nationalized General Motors and stuck his hands into Chrysler’s bankruptcy while escalating the war in Afghanistan. Obama required every American to buy health insurance and increased government control over health care. He’s increased federal control over finance, mortgages, tobacco and food while fighting to get his hands on political speech, energy, and manufacturing. Obama is the greatest enemy of economic liberty most Americans have ever seen.

I’m not sure what the point of this analysis is supposed to be. The fact that Barack Obama isn’t a libertarian no more discredits left-libertarianism than the fact that George Bush was a lousy president discredits fusionism. The actions of politicians are a lagging indicator of intellectual trends. Politicians are short-sighted, reactive creatures. To a first approximation they do and say whatever they think will please their existing political base and get them re-elected. And it’s obviously true that right now, there isn’t a significant “liberaltarian” faction within the Democratic Party (or the electorate more generally), so Barack Obama doesn’t need to pander to their views.

But the fact that there are few self-identified left-libertarians is the reason the Lindsey/Wilkinson project is needed. The point is to create a community of intellectuals, then voters, and finally politicians, who care about, and identify with, left-libertarian politics. This is not something that can be accomplished in a single election cycle.

To be fair, I think some of the confusion on this point is due to Lindsey himself, whose original essay on the subject focused too much on short-term political considerations. His more recent writings show more recognition that building a left-libertarian alliance will have to be a long-term project.

If we take a longer view and look beyond the next election cycle, the prospects for left-libertarian collaboration look much better. Political, economic, and social trends since the 1970s have pushed liberals closer to libertarian policy positions and conservatives further from them. As Scott Sumner points out, the left has accepted many of the key economic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s. Few liberals want to go back to 70 percent marginal tax rates, double-digit inflation, wage and price controls, economic regulation of trucking and airlines, and so forth. At the same time, the fear of communism, one of the key forces holding libertarians and conservatives together, is gone. And since the 9/11 attacks the right has become much more focused on warmongering and nativism.

Political categories are not fixed. Today’s Republican Party would be almost unrecognizable to Thomas Dewey or Prescott Bush, to say nothing of Teddy Roosevelt. There’s no reason to think that American political coalitions can’t continue evolving in a way that leaves the next generation of libertarians feeling more comfortable on the Democratic side of the fence. Barack Obama’s illiberalism no more dooms a 21st-century left-libertarian alliance than Dwight Eisenhower’s support for the welfare state precluded a fusionist alliance in the late 20th century.

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4 Responses to Left-libertarianism in the Long View

  1. dirty harry says:

    boo boo boo. we don’t need anymore teddy boys in the libertarian movement. we already have matt welch and that moyihan fella. good riddance will wilkinson. (btw, anyone seen his gay self portrait of him wearing a vest trying to look cooler than an eskimo?)

  2. Pete S. says:

    “gay self portrait” — not purging homophobes though, huh?

  3. Rhayader says:

    @dirty harry: Just because they left Cato doesn’t mean Lindsey and Wilkinson have left the “libertarian movement”. I’ve already seen a couple posts from Will at Democracy in America, and they’ve been great. And yeah, I think the movement does need smart, persuasive people, no matter what “flavor” of libertarianism they find most attractive.

    I do think though that the dynamics of Obama’s election and presidency are perhaps a bit more relevant than Tim implies here. What bothers me is the rope-a-dope aspect to it — Obama and Democrats in general seemed a lot more libertarian prior to November 2008 than after January 2009. So there’s a level of deception there. And while I’m perfectly fine working with progressives toward greater civil liberty and less aggressive foreign policy, I also don’t want to feel used to win an election without having any real hope of my goals being pursued once power has been secured.

    This is of course a defining characteristic of modern American politics; broken promises are nothing new at any level of government. But there are different degrees of deception, and like Carney described, Obama’s rejection of libertarian-ish governance was anything but mild. I take Tim (Lee’s) point — that flawed execution doesn’t necessarily indicate a flawed approach — but I think we need to be wary of throwing our weight behind any major candidate or party without being sure it’s a productive alliance.

  4. Wonks Anonymous says:

    The post-war conservative movement was opposed to Eisenhower. National Review refused to endorse him. So I don’t think the analogy holds. But I do think that GWB discredits fusionism! Obama similarly discredits “liberaltarianism”. And don’t call it “left-libertarianism”. Liberals are not the same thing as the Left. Karl Hess, SEK3 and (for a time) Murray Rothbard were left-libertarians, as is Kevin Carson now. They would not fit in with mainstream liberals, which is who the “liberaltarians” are trying to appeal to.

    Scott Sumner makes some good points, but none of those changes were accomplished by “liberaltarians”.

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