Friday, February 13, 2009

The future of "liberaltarianism"

The brilliant Will Wilkinson blogs an excellent response to the libertarian-leaning conservatives who question the concept of "liberaltarianism" and wonder how the theory can be squared with Democratic action in regards to the stimulus. Will's response is below.

... 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've been critical of the idea of "liberaltarianism" in the past, but mostly because the liberals promoting the ideas (such as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas) seemed more intent on the politically expediency of getting libertarians to vote Democrat than they were concerned with crafting, as Wilkinson says, a more long term philosophical movement.

As I was working on this post, Reason posted a link to former editor Virginia Postrell's thoughts of the subject:

When you get political theorists together, they assume the big divide is over the relative weights given to equality and liberty--the old Rawls vs. Nosick split. But given the right flavor of liberals and libertarians, that's bridgeable. The real division, I believe, is over regulation. Contemporary liberals will say, as someone did at dinner in DC, that they are against stupid regulations like the controls on trucking abolished in the late 1970s. And I'm glad for that.

But finding liberals who oppose any new regulation is almost impossible--no matter what the perverse consequences.

She's right, but I'm not convinced the liberal lust for regulation is an impossible to overcome obstacle. As I've blogged about several times over the past month, when liberals get all starry-eyed about the New Deal, it's not over FDR's massively unsuccessful regulatory efforts. Liberals get starry-eyed about social security, public works projects, and the whole idea that government was trying to do something to help the people. The truth about regulation is that no one involved in it likes it and that no one can at times even include the regulators. As I mentioned in my blog a year ago, even a staunch a Democrat as former Presidential candidate George McGovern can see the light when it comes to regulation.

Who actually likes regulation? Arrogant intellectuals who think that they or those like them have the knowledge and foresight to manage everyone else's affairs. It's an image that may be shared by some of the rank and file on the left, but only by those who haven't had the misfortune of dealing with a complex regulatory bureaucracy. (It's one thing to have to deal with the DMV every few years and another when a DMV-like agency creates more regular havoc or actually threatens their livelihood.) The truth is, most folks on the left don't spend all that much time thinking about regulation, meaning they think even less about it's consequences. A true "liberaltarian" project would have to ideologically convert those liberals to whom regulation is not a holy mandate. Part of that project would also involve libertarian acceptance of certain basic functions of the state, that basic social welfare is every bit important as national defense and public roads.

As I've been saying for awhile now, the key is to move beyond welfare as an intellectual battleground, focusing instead on the pernicious forms that aid can take. Helping the poor and helping those who have lost their jobs is one thing if it comes in the form of cash helping people to help themselves. But policies designed to have certain results (think home ownership), have had disastrous results and we're seeing more of those same policies again and again. A "liberaltarian" project can succeed if in the long term it can get enough people thinking about these sorts of issues.


Anonymous rose said...

What constituencies are going to elect a liberaltarian as described by Wilkinson?

Mike Huckabee was competitive in the republican primary because there's a lot of evangelicals who care more about values that very much conflict w/ libertarian views of liberty. And they care about little else. Huckabee had no real ideas. His success was disturbing to me.

And what democrat constituencies are going to vote liberaltarian? Certainly not the unions. Not the greenies. Not any group who depends on special treatment from the dems (at the hidden expense to others). I'm highly skeptical you're going to get our generation.

Sign me up for what Wilkinson describes. But you're not getting the evangelicals and you're not getting the multitudes of democratic special interest groups. So how are you getting elected?

Sign me up though, it sounds good to me.

4:50 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Rose, I think the point is that these constituencies don't exist yet and the goal of this project is to create them. There are plenty of well-meaning liberals out there who identify as liberal primarily because of the basic social issues and partly because of the impression that liberalism as a philosophy cares more for the less fortunate than does any other mainstream political philosophy. Combine that group with those who vote Republican as the supposed party of smaller government and I think you do have a substantial political movement. The point is, I think it's a relatively small number of liberals who are reflexively anti-capitalist and ideologically in favor of large government.

11:20 AM  

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