Can libertarians be liberals?

Working in Democratic politics can do strange things to libertarians. Part of the job is selling libertarian economics to hardcore liberals– and that’s a daunting task. Perhaps impossible. It led me to re-evaluate major aspects of my libertarianism (Liberals support x. Libertarians oppose x. But is libertarian philosophy really opposed to x?) and take a much closer look at liberal ideas.

When I started, I was already skeptical of some core libertarian arguments, due to my near-obsession with academic economics. My work with liberalism opened the floodgates. Eventually I was forced to admit that I was probably wrong in advocating free market anarchism and adopted a position awkwardly in between liberalism and libertarianism.

Since then I’ve struggled to find a way to describe my views. “Left-libertarian” was an obvious candidate, but it seems that most people using the term are anarchists, and I’m not nearly that radical. Taking a cue from Will Wilkinson, I started to use “liberaltarian“. But, in many cases, people simply interpreted that as “libertarian”, defeating the purpose.

For a while, if asked, I would just shake my head and laugh nervously. Finally I gave up and called myself a liberal.

So I was intrigued to find an essay at the Bleeding-Heart Libertarians blog by left-leaning libertarian Will Wilkinson, titled “Why I’m Not a Bleeding-Heart Libertarian“:

I’m not interested in identifying which among the many kinds of bleeding-heart libertarian I am because I’m not interested in identifying myself a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.

Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity. (See Steven Pinker’s new book.) Democracy is about as good as it gets. The institutions of modern capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights. I could go on.

Given the prevailing public understanding of “libertarianism,” this ain’t it and I’m no libertarian. And it’s not at all clear to me what is to be gained by trying to get people to retrofit the label to fit my idiosyncratic politics. At any rate, that’s not a project I’m interested in. I am interested in what it means to be free, and the role of freedom in flourishing or meaningful or valuable lives.

“Liberaltarian,” ugly as it may be, has been useful to me because it offers a convenient label for a position that is neither standard liberalism nor a standard libertarian altenative to standard liberalism. Jason Brennan and John Tomasi’s “neo-classical liberalism” is better, in that it isn’t such a barbaric neologism and doesn’t suggest as much affinity with libertarianism, but also worse, in that it suggests something like the liberalism of neo-classical economists, which it sort of is, but needn’t be.

Labels aside, I’m more interested in arguing with standard liberals about the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state than in arguing with standard libertarians about the justification of taxation, publicly-financed education, or welfare transfers. After all, there are many orders of magnitude more standard liberals than standard libertarians, and they possess many orders of magnitude more influence. We pick our fights, and I’d like to pick ones that stand a chance of making a real difference.

Anyway, I would encourage other decreasingly standard-libertarian libertarian-ish types to hasten their passage through the liminal “bleeding heart” stage and just come out as liberals. Or, better yet, to come out as inscrutably idiosyncratic. You are not alone. Well, if you’re inscrutably idiosyncratic, you are. But the similarly inscrutably idiosyncratic can be alone together. I’ve heard some good things about individualism. Maybe some of us should try it.

Join the club, Will!
But, although I’m excited to see that someone as well-known as Will Wilkinson is also struggling with this issue, what I found more helpful is the response from Timothy Lee, at Forbes:

There seems to be a bit of a double standard here. The two dominant political coalitions in American politics—”liberal” and “conservative”—encompass a broad diversity of intellectual views. David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, Reihan Salam, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, George W. Bush, Michelle Malkin, and David Frum all call themselves conservatives, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any issue on which all of them agreed. You could make a similarly eclectic list for liberals. American liberalism and American conservatism are sprawling political coalitions bound together by a cluster of shared values, assumptions, and associations. If your politics are closer to Ted Kennedy than Ronald Reagan, then you’re a liberal, and vice versa for conservatives.

In contrast, libertarianism tends to be defined much more narrowly. It’s often defined as the belief that the government should be limited to a night watchman state: police, courts, military, and nothing else. And there’s an anarchist wing of the libertarian movement that thinks even these functions can and should be provided by the competitive market.

By this definition, I’m not a libertarian. Among other things, I favor government-run roads, government-supported subways in large cities, educational subsidies for children whose parents cannot afford private tuition, safety regulation of dangerous chemical and nuclear facilities, regulation of natural monopolies, copyright protection, and so forth.

In many of these cases I can make a plausible argument that the government activities in question can be justified under a strict libertarian conception of the role of government. But in other cases (vouchers, for example) it’s more honest to admit that I simply don’t hold the most libertarian possible position on that issue.

So does that mean I’m not a libertarian? Maybe Will is right that the “prevailing public understanding” says I’m not. But I don’t think so. If someone is more conservative than the median voter on most policy issues, we call that person a conservative even if his views aren’t identical to those of Ronald Reagan. If someone is more liberal than the median voter on most policy issues, we call that person a liberal even if his views aren’t identical to those of Ted Kennedy. I’m more libertarian than the median voter on almost every policy issue. So I’m a libertarian despite the fact that my views aren’t identical to those of Ron Paul or Gary Johnson.

But this isn’t an either-or decision. It’s worth remembering that both F.A. Hayek or Milton Friedman, two of the libertarian movement’s most important thinkers, were self-identified liberals. This is partly for historical reasons—Friedman and Hayek were both middle-aged when the modern meaning of the term “libertarian” came into widespread usage. But it’s also because there’s substantial overlap between liberal and libertarian ideas. There are lots of Tea Party types who self-identify as both libertarians and conservatives. There’s no reason there couldn’t be an equally large number of people—like me and Will circa 2009—who identify as both libertarians and liberals. [Emphasis added.]

Thank you, Tim. I now have a name: I am a libertarian liberal.

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