Big-Government Libertarianism vs. Limited-Government Liberalism

I've really been enjoying all the terrifically smart comments in the last two posts, which have been really helpful to me. 
Maybe one way to frame my argument is that I'm not arguing for “big-government libertarianism,” but for “limited-government liberalism.” (I see that this may confuse my prior attempts to distinguish “small” and “limited,” but bear with me as I circle and recircle looking to illuminate some things that have long nagged at me.)  My sense is that most people don't see a difference and what I've been doing is groping for a way to make the distinction between the two plausible and clear.
One way to think of it is to consider where you're starting from. I am, more or less, starting from a fairly typical liberal account of the state and it's aims. I'm then arguing that those aims are best achieved through appropriately limited government. I believe this is a principled and coherent stance that stands or falls with the background arguments about the legitimacy and desirablity of liberal democracy. If you reject the basic argument for the liberal democratic state, then you're not going to be impressed. But if you accept the desirability of liberal democracy, you have every reason to listen.  
On the other hand, if we start from traditional minimal-state libertarianism, we're starting with a deep suspicion of the possibility of anything more than governance of very low quality; it's just that the anarchist alternatives (which may be feasible and worse, or just infeasible) are worse. So, to this sort of libertarian, “big-government libertarianism” sounds like one of three things: (1) A libertarianism that can't possibly work–a hopeless oxymoron. The argument for keeping the state strictly minimal is that a more-than-minimum state cannot be kept from bloating into a rights-stomping superstate. You've got to choose between almost nothing or almost everything, but big-government libertarianism tries to have it both ways. No dice.  (2) A strategy for getting liberals to trust libertarians enough to listen to libertarian policy arguments. Some libertarians seem to think this is worth trying (how could we do worse?) while others seem to think liberals are too hopelessly statist to be worth bothering with. But the real problem with (2) is that liberals will plausibly suspect libertarians of indifference to their conception of basic liberal values, and so  libertarian policy advice dressed in liberal language looks like insincere Trojan Horsing on behalf of the powerful. Why listen? (3) Libertarian non-ideal theory. One might think minimal state libertarianism is correct, as a matter of ideal theory, but see that it is politically infeasible, and so conclude that a  libertarianism that makes some concessions to welfare state liberalism is second-best, and steps in that direction are small movements toward the ideal. One problem here is: How do you tell the difference between someone who actually thinks mandatory retirement accounts, for example, are the best policy for limited-government liberalism (that's me, on days when I'm convinced that means-tested alternative can't work), and someone who argues for mandatory retirement accounts as a small step down the road to libertopia?
So, “limited-goverment liberalism” starts with liberalism and then argues that libertarianish policies and institutions will best secure liberal aims. “Big government libertarianism” starts with traditional minimal state libertarianism, but moderates it to make marginally more libertarian policy politically feasible.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

29 thoughts

  1. Adam Gurri – Collector of Stories. Co-founder of Sweet Talk. Follow me on <a href="">Twitter</a> or at <a href="">my personal blog</a>.
    AdamGurri says:

    This is a very interesting line of thought you’ve been pursuing, Will.
    There’s certainly a knee-jerk tendency to equate big with bad, when a big government might not necessarily be as bad as a smaller but more intrusive government. Hayek argued that part of what made the Roman Empire was such a success because it had a powerful government that strictly enforced property rights laws. He also, of course, believed that the government’s succumbing to the temptation to do more was part of their downfall.

    1. I think we spend too much time worrying about the downfall of the Roman Empire.
      Not that the problems of regulatory overreach, currency debasement, and overtaxation are not relevant.
      But I think the more relevant problem is the fall of the Roman Republic. The forces that turned a republican government with checks and balances into a tyranny are of more concern to me.

      1. Adam Gurri – Collector of Stories. Co-founder of Sweet Talk. Follow me on <a href="">Twitter</a> or at <a href="">my personal blog</a>.
        AdamGurri says:

        Well I think you are wrong on the historic point about the republic, but the comments section of this particular post is probably not the best place to go into that 🙂
        I only brought up what Hayek said about Rome to illustrate the difference between what is bad from a “small government” perspective, vs. what is bad from a “limited government” perspective.

      2. Your point about government size is valid and more on topic than the Roman Republic.
        Maybe this is not the right place, sorry, but the transformation of republic to democracy to tyranny has been on my mind of late.

    2. You seem to be confused it’s only the Liberals that push for big government & over the top social programs. Libertarianism is a term used by a broad spectrum of political philosophies which seeks to maximize our individual liberties and minimize or even abolish the size of governments.

  2. I recently saw (in Reason? can’t remember now) some graphs that compared the various combinations of D’s and R’s controlling Congress and the Presidency. The results were obvious that government went crazy when one party had control of both, but the more interesting result was that it was better for limited government types to have R’s control congress and D’s control the White House than the reverse. I see it as being related to this idea of where to start. Whoever controls the presidency these days controls the agenda of the country. An opposition party in control of Congress then provides the limited part of your limited government liberalism equation.
    So maybe the best thing you should be advocating is for Democratic presidents and Republican congressmen.

    1. I know Cato does good work on “divided government.” You probably got the charts from them. I couldn’t be arsed to do too much work digging up the actual charts, but I did find some op-eds and editorials about giving divided government a chance. Here’s one:
      There’s a full-on study about this somewhere on that website.

  3. Government is inefficient.
    It does not have competition nor a profit motive to encourage efficiency. It actually has a built-in mechanism to encourage inefficiency (don’t spend all your budget this year, you are likely to get less next year). Further, the government cannot go out of business.
    It’s fine to argue that we can’t go minimalist-state or anarchist in one fell swoop. However, we should make progress. Arguing that ‘hey, maybe it’s ok if we have certain giant programs’ isn’t the way to go. Better to argue that we should make progress where we can today, and then focus on tomorrow. Instead of compromising or watering-down libertarianism, just take one or two issues at a time. Let’s have less government here, less government there and eventually there will be a lot less government.

    1. Adam Gurri – Collector of Stories. Co-founder of Sweet Talk. Follow me on <a href="">Twitter</a> or at <a href="">my personal blog</a>.
      AdamGurri says:

      I think Will isn’t saying “it’s ok if we have certain giant programs” so much as he is drawing a distinction between what it means for a government to be “big” vs. what it means for a government to be instrusive.

      1. As part of his liberaltarian project, I think he is saying ok to certain things, but what he should be saying is ‘ok for now, but we will revisit those issues in the future.’
        It’s fairly difficult for government to be big without some big programs.

  4. I think there is a big tension in Rawls 2b (any inequality allowed must be to the benefit of the least well off). Is better off in relative or absolute terms?
    On the absolute end there is the rising tide lifts all boats argument. That the least well off will be better off if the market is freer, because society as a whole will be much better off.
    On the relative end is the idea that the lesser the inequality between top and bottom, the better for the least well off.
    For those liberals more concerned with the absolute well being of the least well off, a limited government argument may have some traction, but they are likely libertarian leaning anyway.
    For those whose main focus is on inequality, it requires a massive government to Bergeronize life. (Harrison Bergeron by Vonnegut)
    OTOH, there are those on the left that reject Rawls, because he does not give them a big enough club to pound on the rich.
    Then there is the parental attitude on the left towards the poor (the right has this too). They know best how the poor should live, and want the social welfare structure to guide the poor (and the rest of us) into making the “right” choices.
    The problem with this is that the more choices are made because of regulation, the fewer will be made from virtue and there will be (has been) a steady decline in virtue. But we need a virtuous electorate to make wise choices for a liberal democracy to work (Plato’s critique of democracy has some relevance).

  5. So, “limited-goverment liberalism” starts with liberalism and then argues that libertarianish policies and institutions will best secure liberal aims.

    This reminded me of this, which Will wrote in a review of Nudge for Reason.

    The crucial conceptual difference is that “libertarian paternalism” pictures all manner of helpful guidance—meddlesome or imperceptible, persuasive or compelled—as falling along a common gradient of paternalism. Thaler and Sunstein argue powerfully for the desirability of staying on the choice-preserving end of that gradient, and this may succeed in making some of us less nervous about standing on the gradient at all. But the deeper point seems to be that we are on it, no matter what. Once that is accepted, we are left, as the old joke goes, “haggling over the price.”

    If one “accepts the desirability of liberal democracy,” then it seems that doing so comes with a lot of baggage, including some level of paternalism. How can the small minority of liberty-inclined liberals (as minority members of the broader liberal populace) realistically expect to have liberalism without paternalism? If one starts at liberalism and then tries to libertarianize it, aren’t you left “haggling over the price” against the rest of the liberal populace, the bulk of which cares less than you about liberty?

  6. I like this: Accept what, being charitable, *motivates* the liberal. Accept their normative premises, minus the means by which they think those normative goals are to be accomplished.
    Second, accept the liberal cultural outlook.
    This provides the form, which we can call “liberal.” It includes values, plus their interpersonal expression.
    The form includes, but is not limited to, acceptance (not tolerance) of gays and gay marriage, of different experiments in living, of deeply interwoven communities and social networks, and so on. It also helps shape the institutional discussion by insisting on improvements to the lives of the poor, of focusing on the impoverished and those who have a rough go, as normative standards by which we judge outcomes.
    Now throw in some empirical assumptions to provide the institutional content:
    1. Free and open market is best for most, best for poor as well as rich
    2. Government action crowds out private charitable activity, undermining community
    3. Government action involves incentives that promote public bads
    4. Wealthy folks have access and gain greater strength through government, and it isn’t the personality of the politicians that matters to crushing this
    5. Hayekian knowledge problem stuff goes here.
    6. Etc.
    This bit gives you the libertarian flavour. So you endorse libertarian institutions for liberal reasons. You accept their normative commitments, but challenge their empirical claims. Or, alternatively, you don’t give them a pass on what “most obviously” follows from certain commitments. We emphasize the “ought-state gap” (TM) — what we ought to do, and how we go about implementing it are two different things. The gap is a gap for empirical facts that bridge what we ought to do with the right institutional nexus that actually works at ensuring the outcomes we want.
    And that, to me, is liberaltarianism in a nutshell. At least, that’s why I like to call myself a liberaltarian, or a hippy capitalist, or a Rawlsekian, or whatever.

    1. “Accept what, being charitable, *motivates* the liberal.”
      That is the key premise. In reality is concern for the least well off really what motivates contemporary liberals? I would like to think so, but I fear not.
      I think that is one motivation, but there are others not so compatible with the liberaltarian arguments:
      — Reflexive support of unionism (although this may derrivative of some of the items below)
      — Suspicion of “economic power”
      — Vision of regulatory utopia
      — Dislike for economic and social inequality
      — Desire to cushion *everyone* from economic pain
      — Desire to cushion *everyone* from social pain
      — Desire for justice through the legal system for those who have been harmed by the actions of other (embodied in support for lots of legal rights of action)
      All of these are real modern liberal motivations that often conflict with a desire to help the least fortunate. When these motivations conflict, rationalizations tend to take over, at the expense (perhaps partial) of the motivation to help the least fortunate.
      This is at the heart of Virginia Postrel’s critique that liberals have never met a proposed regulation they don’t like.

      1. DW,
        You might be right that the motives of liberals are either in tension with one another, or simply not as benign as the argument Jaworski presented seems to presume.
        I think the liberaltarian argument/strategy still has importance, for this reason:
        It forces the liberal into a corner. One way to “sort out” the mixed motives is to put the liberal into a situation where two or more of their concerns seem to pull apart, forcing them (ideally) to choose.
        For example, one might compare the negative income tax (or the like) with the modern welfare state, in terms of which would be to the most benefit to the least advantaged. Supposing you can make a compelling empirical case for the former over the latter, the liberal has a choice:
        1. Endorse the negative income tax instead of the welfare state.
        2. Endorse the welfare state, despite the fact that the least advantaged will be somewhat worse off.
        You’re correct that a dishonest sort will rationalize and attempt to “have his cake and eat it, too.” But once you find someone like that, you don’t really need to talk to him/her anymore.
        On the other hand, the more honest type will see the dilemma, and will have to choose one consideration over the other. There’s something valuable about someone having to acknowledge the priority some of his normative commitments have over the others, and also that those commitments CAN come into conflict.
        In my mind, the least productive arguments occur between people with fundamentally different commitments, such that no consideration one raises will have significance to the other. Arguments between libertarians and liberals often reach that impasse very quickly. The liberaltarian strategy has the virtue of at least potentially meeting the liberal on some common normative ground.

      2. I am all for the “the liberaltarian argument/strategy” but I think its proponents need to realize that there are some potentially large impediments to its success at the base level of values (that most modern liberals hold at some level) that proponents of the strategy should be realistic about.
        BTW, I don’t think there is necessarly tension between these values even though they may push in different directions in different circumstances. That just means their proponents need a to develop a more nuanced theory to describe how you resolve the conflicts. (But the resolution may not be to the liking of the libertarian!)
        I should also point out that those of us reading this blog probably have similar competing values at some level. For example, I’m all for utilitarian justifications for limited government and defining rights and regulatory schema, but my definition of the good goes beyond utilitarianism in that I believe you have to pay a fair bit of respect to individual autonomy and concepts that flow from self-ownership even though these may push in directions that don’t maximize aggregate utility.

  7. Will,
    For further clarification, could you lay out exactly what the liberal ends you’re thinking of are, and which of them justify non-traditional-libertarian means (and the justified extent of those means)?
    Also, to what extent do you believe there are liberals who agree with (or could be convinced about) your list, and wouldn’t insist on more items that would jeopardize the liberal ends you support.

  8. Why exactly is anarchy so bad?
    The more I read about Somalia > most of Africa, the more I wonder about this all too common statement.

  9. One problem with this is that you can’t just keep eliding the distinction between classical-liberal and modern-left-liberal aims. The former, as I understand it, include a moral commitment to realizing as fully as possible Spencer’s “right to ignore the state” (hereafter RTITS). You can recast this in more modern political-philosophy terms as a sort of strong combination of value-pluralism and separateness of persons, but it’s still a fundamentally classical-liberal meme. And there are core modern-left-liberal aims, like ensuring a minimal standard of living for all through forced redistribution, that are just flatly incompatible with this ideal.
    Of course committing totally to a full realization of RTITS entails anarchism; but you can believe in the desirability of RTITS as an ethical ideal and still think some amount of a state is a practical necessity. This is what you’re missing, I think, in your account of where minarchism comes from and how it relates to other libertarian and liberal strands. You point out rightly that “big-government libertarianism” might be minarchist non-ideal theory but you ignore the extent to which minarchism may be (in my experience is) anarchist non-ideal theory.
    Anyway, I think one of the things minarchists and anarchists share is a broad conviction that RTITS is the foremost moral and social ideal, or at least one of the foremost such ideals, and is certainly more important than, say, maximizing economic growth or providing a safety net. Do you reject this conviction outright? Do you think that RTITS has any moral value at all?

  10. Nicholas,
    I’m interested in the intersection of liberalism and value pluralism, so I found your comment quite interesting. But I think I need some clarification:
    About RTITS (oh, how I love that acronym, but for none of the right reasons 🙂 ):
    RTITS is understood as a deontic requirement of some sort, yes? That is, its force is not grounded in — say — consequentialist considerations.*
    If RTITS is a demand of justice (and I’m not saying all deontic requirements are demands of justice, but this one seems to be), then on what grounds can we be practically justified in ignoring RTITS in certain circumstances? In other words, how does the minarchist get away with compromising on justice?
    I suppose I’m confused because I don’t see rights as implying the kind of telos that would allow us to hold them as an ethical ideal that we could get closer or further away from.
    To say that X has a right of this kind is to say that we all have a duty not to treat him in certain ways, even if doing so would bring about otherwise valuable outcomes. I don’t think we can — compatible with this understanding of rights — violate someone’s rights in order to produce better consequences.
    So is the minarchist position morally consistent? I can see it as a stepping stone to anarchism. But once one has accepted that rights can be violated out of practical necessity, what’s the stopping point? Because those on the left might gladly sign on to the full blown set of libertarian constraints, if they could maintain that those rights are subject to violation if the consequences are worth it.
    Suppose we could arrange the world so that violating that one person’s rights would prevent all other rights violations from occurring. Call this the super-duper ultra minimal state: its only role is to violate that one person’s rights. It does nothing else. Not arranging the world in this way will lead to more rights violations occurring than would under this state.
    So here’s the question: which situation is closer to the RTITS ideal? The super duper ultra minimal state, where RTITS is violated less often? Or the anarchist situation, in which we know rights will be violated (not by us, but by others)? Which situation should the person who holds RTITS as an ideal try to bring about?
    Sorry, not trying to pick nits. Your comments just struck on a few issues I’ve given some thought to lately.
    * Some value-pluralists seem to think deontic constraints are just another kind of value, although I’ve never understood why. It seems like one could believe in a plurality of intrinsic, potentially conflicting values (happiness, wisdom, etc) and still think there are deontic requirements that place constraints on the manner in which we can pursue those values.

    1. RTITS can’t be a stand-alone moral conviction. RTITS can be reduced to more primitive moral commitments.
      RTITS tells us that we have the right to ignore the state. But it can’t be in virtue of something counting as a state that we have the right to ignore it. It must be something like this: I have the right to be fully autonomous. I don’t have to do what (political) authorities insist I do.
      I agree with this as a practical conclusion. We can (and probably should) ignore the state most of the time, in most situations. But this is because the state tells us to do the wrong things. It commands us to do things that, really, we shouldn’t.
      It tells us to pay certain taxes, and I cannot control where that tax money goes. I know, in advance, that a portion of my money will go to the provision of welfare (I’m okay with that, although I wish people would just ask me).
      But I also know a non-insignificant chunk of my tax change will go to statues of politicians, buildings for politicians, cars for politicians, staff for politicians, and so on (I’m not okay with this at all, it is an inefficient waste. Although I am intrigued by the argument that what we are paying for is a really interesting soap opera between, say, the Capulets and Montagues, except they’re called “Republicans” and “Democrats” and they’re not all of them biologically related. Some of us might really enjoy the soap opera, and might be willing to pay a lot to have it).
      And I also know that a very non-insignificant amount will go to prop up the warfare state, something that I definitely disapprove of. I might also be persuaded that it is very unlikely for us to have, in practice, a welfare state without a warfare state. I think the goodness of a welfare state is outweighed by the badness of a warfare state. Better not to have a welfare state at all if it is likely that we cannot cleave apart the welfare from the warfare (Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland are interesting examples of welfare but not warfare states, so there is some hope on this score).
      But RTITS only accidentally overlaps with what I think is the truth. And the truth is that we ought to do what is best, regardless of what someone with the right hat, or the right outfit, or the right wig, or the right Santa Claus outfit (Canadian Supreme Court… ahem), or a badge, or a headdress, or a etc. tells us to do. I don’t think we should ever do what an authority says *because* an authority says so, but only because it is the right thing to do for other reasons. Authority saying so is not reason-giving.
      The case of doctors and other “authorities” of this sort is a different issue. I have reason to do what this kind of authority tells me to do only on the condition that I have reason to trust that they know something that I don’t that is relevant to what is good for me, and reason to trust that they are telling me to do what is, in fact, good for me. No one should do things *because* a doctor tells them to and the doctor counts as an authority, but only because they have reason to trust the doctor’s knowledge and intentions. An M.D. qualification is a good proxy for what really matters, but is not independently normative.
      But that just means that RTITS is parasitic on other, more primitive, moral considerations. So we don’t, in fact, have a “right to ignore the state” but, rather, a right to ignore authorities more generally. But this right to ignore them depends on them not having some relevant bit of knowledge about what is good (either for us or generally), and maybe a reason to doubt their good intentions. We don’t have a right to ignore what we ought to do, and it’s possible that the state occasionally issues commands that are independently the right thing to do.
      This is why we have reason to do what our parents tell us to. It is not because they are our mom and dad, but, rather, because, in the ordinary case, they know more and they have our best interests at heart (we can rephrase this to capture bad parents like this: We should do what our moms and dads tell us to only if they have relevant knowledge and our best interests at heart).
      Reducing RTITS to the more primitive moral convictions that actually underpin it leaves open a space for, again, the overlap between liberals and libertarians. The best liberals do not worship authority for its own sake. They want authorities to tell those of us who don’t recognize what they ought to do, or are suffering from akrasia, or are merely being obstinate, to get these folks in line and do what they, themselves, have most reason to do.
      Only if we fetishize RTITS and think it has independent normative standing will we think that liberals and libertarians are fundamentally at odds with one another. But we shouldn’t fetishize RTITS. RTITS is not an independent, stand-alone moral conviction. It is parasitic on more primitive moral convictions that, in principle, liberals and libertarians can share.
      As for the authority worshiping liberals, pay them no mind. They are not the kind of liberals that are worth paying much attention to.

  11. First, a question: Mr. Wilkinson, do you believe that income equality is an end of government? That is a fundamental goal of liberals – if you don’t share that goal, it’s hard to see how you could partner with them.
    But, second – the fundamental flaw with Mr. Wilkinson’s schema is that people create their own facts in reliance on their world view. Liberals are absolutely convinced that in the absence of government intervention, large corporations would concentrate power among a very small number, exploiting nearly everyone, corrupting government, driving the poor deeper into the depths of poverty, etc. They believe that without safety regulations workers would be maimed and killed in enormous number.
    Conservatives are certain that eliminating prayer in schools and government, and increased sexuality in mass entertainment has increased crime, broken homes, and other social ills.
    Liberals will never believe that small government will help achieve their ends, including those ends shared with libertarians (eg, more general prosperity). I think that libertarians will in general not believe that larger government will help achieve their goals, including the goals they share with liberals (better general health outcomes, lower costs of health care, etc.).
    Appeals to objective facts are unavailing, because there are no objective facts. All sides in these arguments will point to facts that are claimed to support their perspectives. Mr. Wilkinson will find in his genial discussions with liberals that when he points out how a smaller government can achieve liberal aims, the liberals will genially respond that he is mistaken, and that in actuality it will take more government intervention to enhance public welfare.

  12. “I am, more or less, starting from a fairly typical liberal account of the state and it’s aims.”
    To repeat what some of the other commentators have asked – what exactly are the aims of the liberal account of the state? And why do you find them preferable to a libertarian or classical liberal account?

      1. The question isn’t whether they starve to death. Rather, to me, the question is whether someone should be required to keep them alive, and if so, who.
        And that’s where I part ways with the liberal crowd. To the extent some humans are not empathetic, I’m not one for requiring they keep others alive. I, on the other hand, would willingly pay to prevent old people and children from starving to death. Frankly, I do so every Sunday.
        Incidentally, I also believe that allowing the choice validates (and in some ways encourages) my voluntary contribution.
        I’m sure this issue is more sophisticated than i realize, but the whole discussion above seems to imply that libertarians agree with this Rawlsian notion that everyone is entitled to a certain minimum standard of living, but that libertarians disagree with liberals about the best means to that end. At the very least, the discussion is premised on the notion that liberals and libertarians agree that government should assist the less fortunate. Call me ignorant, but I didn’t know there was agreement (among libertarians) on these premises.

      2. “Call me ignorant, but I didn’t know there was agreement (among libertarians) on these premises.”
        I don’t think there is. But it’s probably that difference that makes Wilkinson a limited-government liberal instead of a libertarian.

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