Bruce Bartlett on Liberaltarianism

An excellent column from Bruce Bartlett. Some highlights:

But even these metro-libertarians tend to be more concerned about economics than social or foreign policy. The Cato Institute publishes an annual survey of economic freedom throughout the world, but produces no surveys of what countries have the most political or social freedom or those that have the most libertarian foreign policy.
Furthermore, economic freedom tends to be determined primarily by those measures for which quantifiable data are available. Since it is very easy to look up the top marginal income tax rate or taxes as a share of GDP, these measures tend to have overwhelming influence on the ratings. As a result, countries like Denmark, which are very free every way except in terms of taxes, end up being penalized. Conversely, authoritarian states like Singapore don't suffer for it because they have low taxes.

I'd very much like us to try to measure freedom more broadly. The fact that it is an “essentially contested” concept needn't cause too much worry. What we should try to do is compile a number of different indices that reflect a variety of widely accepted conceptions of freedom. My hypothesis is that we would find most of them highly correlated with another, and with a wide variety of social indicators. The ones that correlate poorly with the others and/or correlate poorly with various indicators of well-being and human development can probably be just thrown out.
More from Bartlett:

At the liberaltarian dinner, many of the liberals persuasively argued that the pool of freedom isn't fixed such that if government takes more, then there is necessarily less for the people. Many government interventions expand freedom. A good example would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was opposed by libertarians like Barry Goldwater as an unconstitutional infringement on states' rights. Yet it was obvious that African Americans were suffering tremendously at the hands of state and local governments. If the federal government didn't step in to redress these crimes, who else would?
Since passage of the civil rights act, African Americans have achieved a level of freedom equal to that of most whites. Yet I have never heard a single libertarian hold up the civil rights act as an example of a libertarian success.
One could also argue that the women's movement led to a tremendous increase in freedom. Libertarians may concede the point, but conservatives almost universally view the women's movement with deep hostility. They think women are freest when fulfilling their roles as wife and mother. Anything that conflicts with those responsibilities is bad as far as most conservatives are concerned.

I think part of the problem is that if you hold up the Civil Rights Act as an example of libertarian success, most libertarians will deny that you are one. I think both the Civil Rights Act and the women's movement did in fact lead to tremendous net increases in liberty. I think Bruce makes an excellent point. Federal intervention, while certainly limiting freedom of association and trumping more local jurisdictions, resulted IMO in an overall increase in freedom. That many traditional libertarian conservatives, such as Goldwater, seem to have been willing to sacrifice a great gain in overall freedom in order to maintain status quo levels local self-rule seems to me to betray a commitment to ancient ideals of liberty as community self-government in conflict with the modern idea of liberty as freedom from coercion.
I think one could buy into all of this and safely maintain libertarian bona fides. But I think that in order to endorse the freedom-enhancing nature of the influence of the women's movement, you need to accept that cultural norms and social expectations can restrict liberty without the backing of state coercion (though state coercion very often does reflect and reinforce liberty-limiting cultural norms and social expectations). I accept that you don't need state coercion to threaten liberty. That's where some libertarians draw the line. But, please note, if one thinks that culture and convention can limit liberty, it does not follow that one must also think that it is permissible for the state to intervene in order to change convention. One can believe that the state may legitimately act only to protect liberty. But that does not imply that the state must do anything in its power that might protect or enhance liberty.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

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