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Liberaltarianism: Stimulated to Death, or Still Kicking?

by Micah Tillman

Whatever happened to liberaltarianism?” Jonah Goldberg (National Review’s resident libertarian watcher) wondered aloud yesterday. Referring specifically to the work of Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, Goldberg wrote:

“It seems to me that the stimulus debate clearly puts the lie to the idea that liberals and libertarians can see eye to eye on the large questions of political economy, at least for the foreseeable future. The first principles simply aren’t aligned. The theoretical arguments in favor of the stimulus amount to rubbing the libertarian cat’s fur backwards.”

He added later:

“[L]iber(al)tarians make a terrible mistake when they assume that a few shared values about what constitutes "social goods" or "tolerance" means that libertarians and liberals actually share a common vision of the role of government.”

Mr. Wilkinson has had some things to say in response since. For instance:

“So ‘whatever happened to liberaltarianism’ is that it’s an ongoing project to change who talks to whom, to freshen the stale dialectic of American politics, and to create new possibilities for American political identity.”

____

It’s on the point of identity that I think the reunification project that Mr. Wilkinson envisions (“As I see it, this project involves an attempt to reunify the separate strands of the American liberal tradition”) will face it’s greatest challenge. The liberal (=progressive) and libertarian personalities may differ too drastically to ever be welded together.

In fact, the idea that they both come from the same tradition of liberal politics, and therefore have a primordial unity that can be gotten back to, may turn out to be one of those facts that’s too distant or abstract to have any effect. (We’re all supposedly descended from Y-Chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve, but that hasn’t helped get the Family back together yet.)

Furthermore, the unity between the libertarian and conservative personalities goes deeper than Cold War camaraderie. (Wilkinson: “[T]he most common forms of libertarianism are, I think, still pretty well shot through with conservative reflexes bred by the long Cold War alliance between libertarians and the right.”)

Goldberg is right when he says, “The first principles” of progressives and libertarians “simply aren’t aligned.” And he’s also right when he says “the overlap” between libertarians and liberals on social issues “isn't nearly so transparent as it is between conservatives and libertarians on economic issues.”

____

The conservative-libertarian alliance is as fundamental as it is often troubling. There are three ways in which libertarians and conservatives are ultimately the same (and in which conservatives and libertarians differ radically from progressives):

(1) Libertarians and conservatives agree on what kind of thing government is. (2) They agree on what humans are. (3) They experience themselves in the same way.

That is, the basic libertarian and conservative positions are consonant with respect to (1) the ontology of government, (2) anthropology, and (3) personality.

____

With regard to government, conservatives and libertarians agree with John Locke:

“POLITICAL POWER, then, I take to be a RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.”

Government is a physical power.

Progressives, on the other hand, experience governmental power as being economic.

____

Starting from the progressive view of government, you come to see government as a potential partner or donor.

Starting from the libertarian/conservative view, however, you come to see government as a potential threat, whose only virtue is that it can minimize other threats.

Start from the progressive point of view, and you want to see how involved you can make government (how much of its money can you appropriate?).

Start from the conservative/libertarian point of view, and you want to see how small you can make government, without negating its ability to minimize legitimate threats.

Start from the progressive point of view, and you think government comes to have the biggest guns because it has the most money. Start from the libertarian/conservative point of view, and you think government comes to have the most money because it has the biggest guns.

Same facts. Different starting points. Different viewpoints—even when they seem to be standing on the same spot.

____

Beyond the radically different views of government, progressives and conservatives have radically different anthropologies (as I’ve argued elsewhere). And, once again, the libertarian and conservative personalities are—at the most meaningful and basic level—the same.

For the libertarian and conservative, people are to be respected by giving them space in which to blossom.

For the progressive, people are to be respected by giving them the assistance they need to blossom.

____

As I’ve also argued elsewhere, the differing progressive and conservative anthropologies depend on fundamentally different kinds of self-experience. And, once again, the libertarian and the conservative are the same.

The libertarian and conservative experience themselves as having self-actualizable potentials. Given that others don’t stand in their way, the libertarian and conservative feel they can become all that they can be, without having to be nannied by others.

The progressive, on the other hand, experiences himself as having potentials that are only fully actualizable by others. Only in the right environment and community does the progressive feel he will be able to give and receive in a way that makes him all that he can be.

____

The libertarian and conservative personalities diverge in ways that I can’t fully explore at the moment. (E.g., the questions of [1] whether one’s group-membership/citizenship defines one’s being/personhood, and [2] whether the groups we form have an existence or life that transcends us.) But, I would argue, they only begin to diverge as the conservative and progressive personalities begin to converge.

A quasi-collectivist tendency can arise in both the conservative and progressive personalities-types, a tendency that can lead both conservatives and progressives to be able to sing with equal vigor that they are, “Born Again Americans.”

And as the chorus begins, libertarians run screaming for the hills.

So, add a conservative/progressive urge to sing to the fundamental differences on governmental ontology, on anthropology, and on personality, and you see just how large a task Lindsey and Wilkinson have set for themselves.

My best wishes go with them, naturally. But. . . .

Micah Tillman is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.


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Comments

The idea that left-liberals and libertarians could form a unified movement is clearly wrong. It was inspired by shared opposition to the big governement conservatives that controlled the Bush administration.

But even here, there was a problem. Opposition to the Iraq War was the central issue that led libertarians to ally with liberals; Brink Lindsey supported Bush's War.

By the same token, the libertarian alliance with conservatives was (& is) also opportunistic, based on shared opposition to an incumbent left-liberal or progressive regime -FDR, LBJ or now BHO.

But secular libertarians and religious conservatives are fundamentally at odds over social issues, foreign policy and even our conceptions of patriotism. So a pan-libertarian third force is the real goal of libertarian activism.

People probably overstate "liberaltarians" as a concept. Liberals are open to libertarian ideas on some issues, mostly social and military policy. Great! If, in the process, we can convince liberals to do at least less-injurious economic policies, also helpful.

Conservatives are open to libertarian ideas on economics. Similarly, if we can convince them of less-injurious social and military policies, also helpful.

# posted at by Robert Capozzi

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/13/2009, at The Unreligious Right

# posted at by UNRR

From my perspective as an anarchosyndicalist, the only way for libertarians to be really successful is to address the concerns of the liberals in developing policy. By the same token, for liberals to be successful, they must adopt some of the modes of libertarianism.

No liberal activist who spends any time in government believes for long in the efficacy of state action (unless they keep their ideological blinders on tight). Government run health care will be just as dysfunctional as government run operations in Iraq or the War on Drugs.

Eliminating the beast won't work either. Its been tried. It led us to the current state because people organized against its excesses.

Bringing the ideals of freedom and democracy into non-governmental sectors are the best hope for fusion. When we can figure out how to bring democracy (back into) the church and into business, the need for government goes away.

# posted at by Michael Bindner

"Bringing the ideals of freedom and democracy into non-governmental sectors are the best hope for fusion."
I'm not entirely certain what this is supposed to mean. In general, I would say that imposing a democratic model (or any other particular model, for that matter) on business is a recipe for prolonged economic difficulty.

# posted at by engineer

Workplace democracy is why Toyota's don't break down quite as much as American cars. Planned obsolescence and other such bureaupathologies may be good for short term gain, however it is likely to kill Detroit unless they do the Japanese one better.

# posted at by Michael Bindner