Now On the Liberaltarianism Channel: Reflections on Liberaltarianism

It’s sort of gratifying to be unable to keep up with all the people talking about your ideas. But I really can’t keep up. I promised Jonah another reply, but haven’t done it yet. We’re doing a Bloggingheads tomorrow, so maybe I can get some of it out then. Here’s another reply from Ross. Let me say something about this bit:

Yes, there’s a best-case scenario in which the dumbening of the American Right works out fine for libertarians, because the infusion of “liberaltarianism” suddenly makes the left-of-center much smarter and more freedom-friendly about issues of economic policy. But I think the more likely scenario is that the liberaltarians vanish into the center-left without much of a ripple, leaving a right-wing rump to battle eternally with a fat, lazy, none-too-libertarian left-liberalism. And in fact, that worst-case scenario already exists: It’s called the state of California.

I want to emphasize for all the conservatives who’ve come ’round these parts complaining about me calling them dumb that I swear it was Ross Douthat, the conservative Catholic Republican, who brought up the topic of “the dumbening of the American Right.” I admit that I leapt on the idea and indulged in some “jingoistic fagbasher” sort of rhetoric, which is a poor strategy for winning the affection of both those conservatives who do and do not fit the description. I assure you that many of my closest friends are Republicans, and those approving of gay sex on burning flags are closer still. To clarify further, Ross and I were not talking about the relative IQ scores of Democrats and Republicans. We were talking about “intellectuals,” an elusive species of social parasite paid to publish their worthless thoughts, and whatnot. I noticed that some among those who thought I was saying that they are dumb simply on account of their ardent belief in the Good Book seemed to be a bit hostile to the very idea of an “intellectual.” Because who the heck are intellectuals to think they’re so much smarter than the rest of us when they probably can’t even change the oil or gut an elk? It’s a good point. But there you have it.  

But that’s neither here nor there. Pardon me if my series of blog posts is not internally coherent, because I’m truly working things out in real time. But again I find myself wanting to stress that all this farseeing speculation about the relevance or irrelevance of liberaltarians is interesting to me, but decidely secondary. I’ve now spent well over a decade devoted to the study of philosophy and political economy and for what?! I have had many periods of doctrinal enthusiasm, but let me now congratulate myself by publicly admitting that my aim has always been to get it right. As a human, I’ve liked being on teams and have taken some real satisfaction in ideological partisanship. It seems I can’t help but listen to arguments against my side because I’m so aggressively partisan I mean to personally undo them all. Through dumb repetition, I eventually gained a distinct awareness of the singular subtle sensation of intellectual aggravation. Allow me to generalize here, so that this is not about me only.

The more one feels aggravated by a line of reasoning, the more one resolves to unravel it. Our methods for disposing of the obviously spurious vary, and we may become attached to our methods. But not all methods are equally useful for swift and total disposal. Those especially inefficient in this are prone to become intrigued by arguments whose indubitable spuriousness is deviously hidden. One may pick at the knot a while, but become distracted by, say, a beloved but dubious proposition simple to sadistically dissect. So certain problem thoughts are shunted off to obviously spurious storage. One assumes one will return, soon, better equipped to straigten things out. The day of reckoning will come. But then one night, while sniffing the hamper, one recalls with mild alarm earlier in the day deploying, with no trace of devil’s advocacy, an argument previously locked in obviously spurious storage. There may be a problem! Tiny spiders of self-suspicion canvass the web of belief. Heretofore unquestioned doctrines may be quietly accused of undetected spuriousness. In the end, one makes the minimum necessary adjustments. No, there is no problem at all, one is relieved to conclude. There is yet so much in common with the team. The best team!

These are not conversion experiences. These are periodic tune-ups. But how many periods until the boat you’ve rebuilt one plank at a time while sailing in it is a distinguishably different model? What if you like your boat, but you’re lonely on it? Oh what a team our regatta would be! This is liberaltarianism to me. If the question was what to do with my voter registration card, I’d make an origami cat.

Back to Ross’s passage. Regarding the state of California, I’m told the problems more than anything have to do with their ill-designed scheme of direct democracy. And the prison union.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center