Liberaltarianism, One More Time

Will Wilkinson was taken with this Mark Thompson post, and so was I - albeit for somewhat different reasons. The undercurrent in my frets about a future in which libertarians are absorbed into contemporary American liberalism, as you can probably tell, is my sense that there are real affinities between my own probably half-baked vision for conservative renewal and what the liberaltarians say they're up to; I see them as sparring partners on many issues, obviously, but as potential allies on many others.

So for instance, when Thompson writes that "by treating any and all social safety nets as irreversible steps on the Road to Serfdom, we allow liberals and progressives to shape those policies in ways that are inefficient, ineffective, and overbroad - even though Adam Smith, Hayek himself, and Friedman each advocated for a form of social safety net, demonstrating that social safety nets can be consistent with libertarianism," I think, this is exactly the way that conservatives more generally should be thinking about the welfare state. It's true that Grand New Party was written, in part, as a critique of a certain kind of "libertarianism" - the kind that sees Rudy Giuliani's "tax cuts plus nothing" primary campaign as a model for Republicans, for instance - and obviously the book partakes of a moralism that many libertarians find distasteful. But on a lot of fronts, our analysis was informed by what we (and especially Reihan, as you might expect) saw as the smartest libertarian thinking on policy issues. It isn't a coincidence that Reihan and I and Will Wilkinson all supported a payroll-tax cut as an alternative to the stimulus package, for instance: A smart right-populism and a smart libertarianism have a lot of disagreements, but a lot to talk about as well. And the whole idea of a libertarianism that engages with the welfare state as it actually exists, and seeks revolutions within the form that enhance liberty and opportunity, is roughly what I want to see from the American center-right at the moment - which makes me loath to see people who have ideas along similar lines fleeing into the center-left.

This doesn't mean that there aren't good reasons to flee! But I think that the liberaltarians shouldn't get too carried away by their sudden rediscovery of deep philosophical affinities between libertarians and left-liberalism. These affinities of course exist, but they exist in part because America is a liberal country, where almost everybody has philosophical affinities with everybody else. In a later post, Thompson argues that the Right might benefit from losing its libertarian component because "a conservatism that lacked libertarianism would be able to form around a more ideologically coherent set of beliefs akin to traditional conservatism ...  I can't think of a more appropriate counterweight to [the liberal worldview] than a political coalition formed around the idea of social, economic, and political stability, and a deep-seated sentiment for tradition." I respect the people trying to build a conservatism along these lines, but I just don't think it's possible in the American context: The appeal of dynamism, to borrow from Virginia Postrel, is too pervasive to admit of an effective political coalition organized in opposition to it. Which means that a Right that lost its smartest dynamists wouldn't suddenly be taken over by the Daniel Larisons and Patrick Deneens of the world. It would still be a pro-growth coalition - Rush Limbaugh is nothing if not a liberal in that sense - it would just be a much, much dumber one.

Yes, there's a best-case scenario in which the dumbening of the American Right works out fine for libertarians, because the infusion of "liberaltarianism" suddenly makes the left-of-center much smarter and more freedom-friendly about issues of economic policy. But I think the more likely scenario is that the liberaltarians vanish into the center-left without much of a ripple, leaving a right-wing rump to battle eternally with a fat, lazy, none-too-libertarian left-liberalism. And in fact, that worst-case scenario already exists: It's called the state of California.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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