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Brink Lindsey's Case for Libertarian Optimism:

At Cato Unbound, Brink Lindsey (who earlier won fame for his interesting proposal for a liberal-libertarian political alliance), has a fascinating essay arguing that longterm historical trends favor libertarianism.

Lindsey makes a compelling case that both economic and social freedom have made significant advances over the last 40 years, and that both popular and elite opinion has gradually moved in a libertarian direction over that time. Obviously, Lindsey's analysis of longterm trends has to be weighed against the significant setbacks that libertarian causes have sustained during the Bush Administration as a result of Bush's disastrous big-government conservatism and the resurgence of old-style big government liberalism on the political left. I also have a few other reservations about Lindsey's arguments that I may detail in a later post, if time permits.

Nonetheless, I think that Lindsey is right to insist on the primacy of longterm trends over short-term ones. And I also agree that many libertarians are unduly pessimistic as a result of overrating the significance of recent events, a point I elaborated on in this post. For the reasons Lindsey describes so well, long-run economic and social trends favor libertarianism in significant ways. But we will have our work cut out for us beating back resurgent statism over the next few difficult years.

Tom R (mail):
The problem with the "liberaltarian" project is not so much that many (most? the loudest?) libertarians regard a particular level of taxation as "too high", but that they regard all taxation as an unjust violation of rights - up there with segregated drinking fountains - unless the funds levied are used solely for law enforcement, defence and other collective goods. A tax rate of 70% might be accceptable to libertarians, if the USA were under direct invasion by Drakia or the USSR and the money all went on defence. A tax rate of only 17%, however, would be unjust if the money goes on federally subsidised milk for school lunches. Of course, ceteris paribus, if the govt keeps to its "core business", it will need less money, but this is a result, not a cause, of "justice in taxation".

Liberals, on the other hand (as Peter Beinart and Jon Chait argue), are more pragmatic. It's not that they "love big govt" per se, but they are prepared to justify a high level of tax'n'spend if it brings what they see as proportionate public benefits (going beyond coollective goods like defence, ie, aggregating individual gains). They don't restrict the purposes of taxation, and they regard the level as negotiable (eg, they can get just as incensed as any "dittohead" when the "waste" is $150 Pentagon toilet seats, etc).

So I can't see the liberaltarian alliance getting too far with taxation - not merely levels, but purposes - as the dragon down the path.

Re Lindsay's unstated assumption that "support for additional restrictions on abortion" is anti-libertarian... Maybe so. If one defines libertarianism as "opposition to coercion by governments, because governments deploy violence", then one would agree with Lindsay. If, on the other hand, one defines libertarianism as "opposition to all forms of unprovoked violence, whether committed by govts or by private individuals", then abortion restrictions are no more incompatible with libertarianism than are federal anti-lynching laws. It would seem odd to adopt a definition that would make Hillary Clinton or Walter Mondale more "libertarian" than Ron Paul or Nat Hentoff.
7.11.2007 1:51am
AdamL:
"Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal." [From Lindsey's essay]

Is support for legalized abortion an idea supported by most libertarians?

Lindsey puts it out there like legalized abortion obviously supports the idea of a trend favoring libertarianism. And later he treats support for restrictions on abortions as an arm of conservative or traditional values, presumably to the exclusion of libertarian values.

I didn't want to ask the question out of fear that it would send the comments way off topic, but curiosity got the better of me.
7.11.2007 1:53am
Tom R (mail):
PS to the PS. Having said that, in practice, opposition to abortion restrictions is one issue that (the dominant faction of) libertarians could strongly agree with left-wing liberals on. At least until the debate gets past "repeal all legal restrictions" to the next step - "guarantee public funding, and build a clinic in every county in the US" [*] - at which point the alliance would split again.

[*] Given birthrates among Mormons, traditionalist Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims compared to those among pro-choice Americans, I can't see the pro-choice electoral majority coming of age before, oh, say, 2019 or 2020 at the earliest.
7.11.2007 1:58am
Libertarian1 (mail):


Is support for legalized abortion an idea supported by most libertarians?

Note my handle. I can only speak for one Libertarian and I personally am very very strongly "pro-choice". All such decisions should only be made by the woman and her physician.

But as stated above, no Federal funding.
7.11.2007 2:30am
Ilya Somin:
The problem with the "liberaltarian" project is not so much that many (most? the loudest?) libertarians regard a particular level of taxation as "too high", but that they regard all taxation as an unjust violation of rights

I expressed skepticism about the liberaltarian idea in my earlier posts on the subject. however, I don't think taxation is an inevitable deal-breaker. Libertarians differ among themselves about whether some taxation can be justified. THe majority probably would agree that a low level going to legitimate functions of government (i.e. - public goods) is justifiable. But even hard-core antitax libertarians could support an alliance with liberals if it resulted in significantly less taxation or a significant reduction in other functions of government relative to the available alternatives (alliance with conservatives or no alliance at all).
7.11.2007 3:01am
msmith (mail):
...I hope that nothing in this essay has conveyed even a hint of libertarian triumphalism....

No need to worry about that and Lindsey is appropriately modest to the point of being apologetic about his case.

As the Boomers get ever closer to Social Security and Medicare I see little evidence America is getting more libertarian. Mr. Bush and friends going as far as throwing them another, and monstrously expensive, entitlement bone in Medicare Part D.

No hint of libertarian triumph indeed. Triumph of freeloading? Triumph of the American freeloader? Never a greater love of American Leviathan than today, just don't ask me to pay for it! Leave that to the kiddies to sort out. There's a long term trend with no end in sight.

But wow, gay sex is legal. Something for libertarians to celebrate. Good stuff. At times like this I always think of Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas et. al. teaming up a few years back to rule that high school honor students wishing to play in the school band or participate in glee club (or other extracurricular activity) could indeed be required to provide a urine sample for testing, or forego that privilege.

Yes, liberty/freedom on the march, one hears, in certain foreign locales. Good stuff. Lindsey fails to mention Milton Friedman's great libertarian triumph--the elimination of the American military draft. Said it was his greatest achievement. I suppose someone doing a third deployment in Iraq might not be quite as thrilled as Friedman was in his triumph. One persons liberty perhaps coming at the expense of another. But that's always been the problem with libertarians and probably one reason they normally poll in low single digits, despite the alleged great libertarian trend. Good stuff, in principle.
7.11.2007 3:30am
ATRGeek:
I think Lindsey's abundance theory is essentially correct, and I think you can see it in polls of young people, who these days tend to fall in the "socially liberal/fiscally conservative" category much more than older generations.

I also think he is largely right about the near future. For the most part, I don't think statist-progressives are going to convince Americans to adopt the Western European model, and that is partly because there are too many libertarian-progressives (or liberaltarians) standing in their way. I think he is also right that health care issues will likely be an exception in the near term, but also that in the long term, the likely trend will be to cut back on entitlements.

Which brings me to the last point I wanted to make: I agree that the liberaltarian idea runs into some forseeable problems on issues like health care and taxation levels. But I think it is important to understand that Lindsey realizes that libertarians are still a minority, and the idea is for them to position themselves in the center in order to leverage their political weight as a swing constituency.

So, for example, liberaltarians might have to accept that in the near term, there is likely going to be an expansion of the state's role in health care--not because they want it, but because they cannot stop it. What they can do, however, is try to use their influence as part of the progressive coalition to moderate those events. Indeed, I think that is already happenning--if you look, say, at the health care plans of the Democratic candidates, most are shying away from something like a single payer plan. I don't think it is wrong to see the moderating influence of Lindsey's liberaltarians in that fact.

And down the road, the libertarians who have positioned themselves in the center may well break with the progressives and join with future conservatives in an effort to cut back entitlements (again, I personally feel that future entitlement cuts are very likely). That, of course, is the whole idea of positioning yourself in the center: to swing back and forth over time depending on who offers you the best overall deal.

So, I do think some amount of libertarian optimism is warranted. That doesn't mean the more libertarian view will always win on every issue, but sometimes it will win, and when it loses libertarians might still be in a position to moderate their losses, creating a general if jerky trend in libertarian directions. Indeed, I think Lindsey is right that this has already been happening in the United States, and again I think the young people are primed to continue these trends.
7.11.2007 8:29am
Jacob (mail):
The "resurgence of old-style big government liberalism?" You mean since forty years ago? How is the "big government" part of liberalism better off than it was then? Clinton pushed through a couple tiny programs, and the populace seems more accepting of something close to univeral health care than it ever was. Beyond those I don't know what success the big-government part of the liberal platform has had. In fact, I bet if you asked the most antagonistic conservatives all the ways that liberals have succeeded in ruining America recently, they would list things like immigration, foreign policy, abortion politics, homosexual rights, Clinton being generally nefarious, and hating the troops. None of these are really the big-government/small-government problems.

I'm trying to imagine some point in the past fifteen years that would have gotten a Great Society-era liberal excited, but I'm not seeing it.
7.11.2007 9:36am
Houston Lawyer:
Since the front runners in the Democratic presidental race all promise universal health care, I don't see how the libertarians are progressing. Bush's policies with respect to Social Security reform should have pleased libertarians, but the big government types easily killed off his plans. Old fashioned lefties are doing everything they can to prevent people from making their own choices with their own money. I agree that the Republican Congress wasn't much help in this regard.
7.11.2007 10:59am
ATRGeek:
Houston Lawyer,

Again, though, I think you need to be a little more nuanced when looking at an issue like health care, because there is a wide range of possible "universal health care" plans, and libertarians could still influence where in this range we fall.

For example, at one end of the possible spectrum you would have "socialized medicine": state-run hospitals with state-employed health care professionals (an American example would be the VA hospital system). Less far out on the spectrum are "single payer plans", where the government takes over providing health care insurance but the health care providers (hospitals and professionals) remain private (an American example would be Medicare). Even less far out are schemes where both provision and insurance remains in private hands, but insurance is mandatory, employers are required to contribute to insurance, the state provides some additional subsidies for insurance, and so on (I'll call this the "Massachusetts Model", although of course Massachusetts actually blended multiple approaches to get to near-universal health care).

As I noted before, I don't want to sugarcoat this: a libertarian may fairly object to any such universal health care scheme. But they could also work to at least moderate the scheme, say favoring a single payer plan over socialized medicine where possible, and the Massachusetts Model over a single payer plan where possible, because by doing so they leave more of the system in private hands.

Which, in fact, is exactly what we see happening right now. Socialized medicine is basically off the table, and a universal single payer plan is only being supported by fringe candidates like Kucinich. So, I really think the moderating influence of centrist libertarians can be seen in the parameters of the current health care debate, even if it is clear that libertarians will not be getting what they would want in an ideal world.
7.11.2007 11:33am
Virginia:
On the economic side, Lindsey cherry-picks his numbers to make his point. Economic policy is somewhat more libertarian than it was forty years ago, but far less libertarian than it was 100 years ago. And given the impending baby-boomer retirement, it will probably be somewhat less libertarian forty years hence.

On the social side, it's difficult to see how a lot of the changes Lindsey mentions are libertarian at all. He notes that people are less likely to defer to the authority of family, employer, or church. Hence, the government has enacted laws (or courts have issued edicts) restraining these private institutions. How that is a libertarian development escapes me.
7.11.2007 12:01pm
ATRGeek:
Virginia,

I agree that the direction of the economic trend on the scale of centuries is not so favorable for libertarians. But the key to Lindsey's thesis is a modern (and accelerating) growth in abundance, so I think it is fair to restrict the scope just a bit.

On the social side, I think one has to be careful when dealing with the interaction between the state and private institutions like marriage, employers, and churches, because sometimes the state is already involved with those institutions, and thus changes in that relationship need not take the form of restraints.
7.11.2007 12:45pm
markm (mail):
Liberaltarianism? All a moderate libertarian-liberal alliance needs is for the liberals to agree to

- Reduce welfare and other wealth transfers by taxation.
- Reduce regulation.
- Respect property rights.
- Stop assuming that the government has to solve every problem anyone encounters.

In other words, the liberals just have to change until they no longer recognize themselves, because their present program is as antilibertarian as a "conservative" program of sodomy laws and mandatory church attendance would be.

And what gets libertarians discouraged isn't the election results so much as that, no matter who the voters elect, we still get bigger government. Bigger government is in the interest of the party in power, even if they got in power by promising to reduce government, and they seem to think that they'll get farther by increasing government while trying to baffle those who voted them in on smaller government promises. Notice how most of the Republicans just woke up and noticed that Bush has been betraying their principles for seven years.
7.11.2007 1:04pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
"In the long term, the likely trend will be to cut back on entitlements."

I respectfully suggest that this is nuts. Big-government liberalism will always be the most appealing approach for most people, simply because it is the political philosophy of giving things to you.

Naturally, this stuff has to come from somewhere -- i.e., other people -- and over the long term this approach is unsustainable. So after some decades you approach a crisis state, as the U.S. and Britain did in the 1970s. You could conceivable, I guess, get a variety of outcomes there, including a partial rollback, as we did beginning with Reagan and Thatcher. But the long-term trend is to pick up the cycle again, once enough time has passed.

I think we are beginning to see this already. New voters now don't remember the 1970s -- they associate it with retro fashions, disco, and afros, not gas lines nor malaise nor stagflation nor ravaged inner cities or any of the other cumulative effects of decades of big-government liberalism.

Sorry to sound so pessimistic, but there is a lot of truth to the idea that a democracy will only last up to the point that the people realize they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. Or as Toqueville noted, it takes a certain kind of person to grasp the benefits of freedom over lesser but more tangible benefits of stability and security.

Well, back to work.

- Alaska Jack
7.11.2007 2:00pm
Ilya Somin:
The "resurgence of old-style big government liberalism?" You mean since forty years ago? How is the "big government" part of liberalism better off than it was then?

The resurgence has not (yet) resulted in much new legislation. However it has reflected itself in a renewed commitment by most liberal Democrats to large new welfare state programs, more extensive regulation, and opposition to free trade. On all three counts, this is a significant change from the Clinton Administration.
7.11.2007 2:53pm
ATRGeek:
markm,

First, I agree that single-party control generally leads to bigger government. But I think that is less true of split governments.

On that subject, consider just your first point: welfare. Bill Clinton ran as a candidate in part on welfare reform. Eventually he hammered out a compromise with a Republican Congress. Now you can argue that Bill Clinton wasn't a true liberal, but that is just semantics, and the fact is that he wasn't exactly a true conservative either. And whatever you want to call him, it was a coalition of a President like Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress that achieved welfare reform.

Alaska Jack,

I primarily think that entitlement cuts are very likely because of demographics: the lower the percentage of workers, the higher the necessary tax rates for a given amount of entitlements, and at some point that system will indeed break--and largely in a way which is forseeable well in advance. In fact, I'd note that Europe is already confronting this issue and scaling back entitlements. So, for example, even Sweden recognized the looming problem and partially privatized their equivalent of Social Security in a way that was consciously designed to lower government spending and taxes. See here:

Heritage Foundation on Pension Reform in Sweden

That article nicely lays out the factors leading the Swedes to reform their pension system, and again the basic problem is demographics and the necessary effects on tax rates. It also explains that pension reform was very popular in Sweden, and I think that shows that "big-government liberalism" is not in fact always the most popular stance.
7.11.2007 3:48pm
Pro-life Libertarian:
Sorry, I don't have time to fully lay out why I am pro-life and still insist that I am as libertarian as the next one.

I want to instead address another point -- how much of today's abortion battles SHOULD be a pro-life/libertarian alliance, even with the prochoice libertarians.

Funding is an obvious one. But others include the serious efforts by the NARAL set to quash pro-life speech (see Hill v. Colorado), and the efforts to force those who want MD licenses to perform abortions in training.

Then there's the battle over pharmacists who don't want to give out Plan B or RU-486 or any other contraceptive or abortifacient pill. The libertarian answer should be, in my view, that the employer chooses. Wal-mart can go either way in firing/not firing such an employee, or in even choosing the stock a given pill.

I can maybe see a libertarian supporting, as a lesser evil, the individual-conscience approach, i.e., supporting the objecting pharmacist against her employer, on the "equality" idea. The idea might be that we mandate other forms of employer-accomodation, although against libertarian principle (e.g., giving Saturday off to some religious claimants), so if we're going to do thaat, we shouldn't discriminate against this particular belief. But even though I can maybe see that, I think the better libertarian view is that the employer decides.

But I don't think any libertarian should support what the "pro-choice" lobby wants: a mandate that all pharmacies must carry and dispense certain drugs. I see no liberty there -- hence my sarcasm about "choice" -- yet this is where the battle is in many States.

Thus, while many abortion restrictions may be an issue for libertarians who are pro-choice, all libertarians ought to resist these statist impositions of the abortion-is-OK regime.
7.11.2007 4:13pm
whackjobbbb:
Good article, especially when he refers to the libertarian center , which is the essence of libertarian, I suspect. The fierce partisans view libertarians as something otherworldly, but then they always wind up rooting around for us in the center, scrambling to persuade us somehow, which they can't unless they have something worthy to persuade with. THAT is the nature of our influence on affairs... that we attract THEM towards US, rather than the reverse.
7.11.2007 8:41pm