Missing the Point of Liberaltarianism

Over at The Corner, Jonah Golberg and John Hood have been taking poorly aimed shots at “liberaltarianism.” I’ll try to reply to some of what they say, and maybe Brink will jump in. Jonah writes:

As I read Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson these days quite a bit, I think I’m on safe ground when I say they are suitably vexed by the stimulus bill and its chief defenders.

Which gets me wondering: Whatever happened to liberaltarianism?


[I]t seems to me that the stimulus debate clearly puts the lie to the idea that liberals and libertarians can see eye to eye on the large questions of political economy, at least for the foreseeable future. The first principles simply aren’t aligned. The theoretical arguments in favor of the stimulus amount to rubbing the libertarian cat’s fur backwards. And the so-called “libertarian center” hardly seems to be decisive or even relevant to the public debate. In the most important and fundamental debate about the role of government in a generation, the libertarians are lining-up with, and even marching out in front of, the conservatives.

Jonah here is guilty of a common mistake about the “liberaltarian” or what I like to think of as the “liberal” project. I’ll let Brink speak for himself, but 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. I’m not sure what it is about that project that would that lead Jonah to think Brink or I should be vexed by the behavior of the Democratic Party and its operatives. The stimulus bill vexes me not at all. It’s what you’d predict knowing the current extent of Democratic power, the opportunity that the perception of crisis creates, and the composition of the Democratic coalition. As a student of James M. Buchanan, I’m no romantic about democracy.

Moreover, what is it about the era of George W. Bush that makes Jonah think that conservatives and libertarians see eye to eye on the large questions of political economy? I understand it is now politically expedient for Republicans to oppose whatever Obama is trying to do. But, frankly, the recent performance of the Republicans in Congress has been pathetic, managing to do little more than fight to get a bit more for their constituencies and a bit less for the majority’s. I do not remember hearing a plausible, principled alternative powerfully articulated by the Congressional Republicans. Maybe that’s because the great success of the GOP over the last eight years has been to destroy the reputation of free markets and limited government by deploying its rhetoric and then doing the opposite. Partisan Republicans choke on the truth that the emerging shape of the Obama era is the aftemath of the GOP’s successful, if unwitting, campaign to destroy the political economy they proclaimed. 

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. For many libertarians, hating the left just feels like home. So many libertarians will indeed come running home when called to service by the organs of partisan conservativism. Well, good luck to y’all, but I was never on the team, and I’ve never wanted less to be on it. I’d rather work the long angle.

I think Obama and the Democrats are already in the process of screwing it up. The romance of transformative hope is going to wear off pretty quick as all-but-uncontested Democratic policy deepens and lengthens the recession. There’s a lot of culturally and psychologically liberal people out there who are, and are going to be, interested in a liberalism that actually works. I want to use this time of ferment to work on developing the missing option in American politics: an authentically liberal governing philosophy that understands that limited government, free markets, a culture of tolerance, and a sound social safety net are the best means to better lives.

So “whatever happened to liberaltarianism” is that it’s an ongoing project to change who talks to whom, to freshen the stale dialectic of American politics, and to create new possibilities for American political identity.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center