Liberaltarianism Revisited:

Libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson has kicked off a renewed debate over the potential of "liberaltarianism," the proposed alliance between libertarians and liberals that was much-discussed back in 2006. Will believes that the idea still has merit. Various conservative and libertarian commentators, including Jonah Goldberg, Matt Welch, Ross Douthat, and Virginia Postrel are skeptical.

I. My Reasons for Skepticism.

Back in 2006, I argued that liberals and libertarians have stronger philosophical affinities than libertarians and conservatives. But I also doubted in that same post that a liberaltarian alliance was feasible because most liberal intellectuals are loath to emphasize those parts of their agenda that justify shrinking government and liberal politicians are strongly beholden to interest groups with a vested interest in expanding it.

Although I wish things were different, I think that my 2006 reasons for skepticism are more valid today than they were back then. The financial crisis/recession have persuaded most liberal intellectuals that our current problems are the result of insufficient government and have made it far more difficult to persuade them to take arguments against massive expansions of government seriously (to say nothing of arguments for its radical reduction). I think that claims that the financial crisis discredits libertarianism are seriously flawed. But most liberals clearly believe otherwise.

With the exception of a few economists, virtually all liberal public intellectuals that I know of either support Barack Obama's massive stimulus plan or believe that it should be even larger than it is. Back in November, I made the not very original prediction that President Obama's and the new Democratic Congress' plans for a massive expansion of government would drive libertarians and conservatives together in opposition:

With Barack Obama in the White House and the Democrats enjoying large majorities in Congress at a time of economic crisis, it is highly likely that they will push for a large expansion of government even beyond that which recently occurred under Bush. That prospect may bring libertarians and conservatives back together. Many of the items on the likely Democratic legislative agenda are anathema to both groups: a vast expansion of government control of health care, new legal privileges for labor unions, expanded regulation of a variety of industries, protectionism, increased government spending on infrastructure and a variety of other purposes, and bailouts for additional industries, such as automakers.

Most of the above has either already come to pass, or is on the president's legislative agenda for the near future. And, just as I expected, libertarians and conservatives have reunited in opposition to it.

II. An Intellectual Movement?

In his original post, Will Wilkinson conceded that liberaltarianism is not a likely political alliance for the near future, but argued that the movement still has great potential for bringing together libertarian and liberal intellectuals around common values. As he puts it:

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.... [around] an authentically liberal governing philosophy that understands that limited government, free markets, a culture of tolerance, and a sound social safety net are the best means to better lives.

Will's "authentically liberal governing philosophy" sounds good to me. The problem is that few if any liberal intellectuals are willing to sign on, except by redefinining the terms in ways antithetical to what most libertarians would accept (e.g. - by "a sound safety net," they mean a vastly larger welfare state than even the most moderate libertarians are likely to support; under "culture of tolerance," they include a variety of PC excesses, etc.).

Back in 2006, liberal intellectual interest in "liberaltarianism" was driven largely by electoral calculations; they hoped that wooing libertarians would help the Democrats to finally defeat the Republicans (who had won several elections in a row). This comes through very clearly in Markos Moulitsos' 2006 defense of the concept, which explicitly refuses to concede any ideological ground to libertarians, but merely urges them to vote for the Democrats as a lesser evil relative to the Republicans. A number of prominent libertarian intellectuals - including Wilkinson, Brink Lindsey, and former VC member Jacob Levy - have sought to forge a liberaltarian coalition that goes beyond a temporary political alliance of convenience. It is striking that that not a single prominent liberal joined them.

Today, liberal intellectuals are, if anything, even less willing to make concessions to libertarians than they were in 2006. On an ideological level, the financial crisis has lowered the stock of libertarianism in their eyes. In a strange way, the Bush record of massive expansions of government has also shifted the goalposts for liberal Democrats. They seem to assume that anything Bush and the Republicans did must have been "laissez faire" (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) and that the current Democratic agenda represents a needed course correction relative to failed free market policies rather than a continuation of Bush-era trends of greatly increased government spending and regulation.

From a political viewpoint, liberals they think they have strong enough congressional majorities and public support to be able to get along without libertarians. Moulitsos and his allies no longer see any need to trumpet their "libertarian democrat" credentials.

None of this means that libertarians shouldn't conduct a "conversation" with liberals, as Will urges. For example, we should continue to take their arguments seriously, and to press on on them the libertarian view that government has systematic flaws, and that the poor and disadvantaged - the traditional objects of liberal concern - are often best served by limiting its power. We should also remember the chief lesson of the Bush era: that a federal government under united Republican control is often no better than one controlled by the Democrats. The last eight years have highlighted and exacerbated our serious disagreements with many conservatives. Skepticism about liberaltarianism must be coupled with an appreciation of the shortcomings of the conservative-libertarian "fusionism" that frayed so badly under Bush.

That said, we must be realistic. There is not going to be any viable liberaltarianism in the near future - whether in the form of a political coalition or an intellectual movement. If the Democrats take some political setbacks, and Obama's big government policies come to be perceived as failures, liberals may become more open to liberaltarian ideas - as some were as a result of Democratic setbacks in the 1980s and 90s. Until then, liberals and libertarians can still listen to each other and cooperate on a few selected issues where we happen to agree. But not much more than that.

UPDATE: National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg claims that he was the one who really kicked off this round of liberaltarianism discussion, and that I am denying him his "morsels of glory" by giving the credit to Will Wilkinson. An in-depth investigation by the VC Blogging Glory Accreditation Department reveals that Goldberg's claim of chronological priority is correct. We hereby award him his unjustly denied morsel of glory.