What’s left of libertarianism?



This post (crossposted from Crooked Timber) is mainly an excuse for the pun in the title. But I do want to defend both parts of the pun.

First, liberaltarianism, as represented by the Niskanen Center (notable staff and associates include Radley Balko, Jacob Levy, Stephen Teles, Jerry Taylor, Will Wilkinson) represents an important shift of libertarianism to the left in the US context, and an important contribution to left-of-centre thinking. Compared to the left in general, the distinctive feature of liberaltarianism is scepticism about the effectiveness and beneficence of state action. The break with the Cato version of libertarianism, from which much of the Niskanen Center group has moved, is sharper, including acceptance of the need for income redistribution and action in climate change. We debated some of the issues raised by liberaltarianism in two posts about Jacob Levy’s “The Sovereign Myth”.

As my comments on that piece showed, I don’t necessarily agree with the liberaltarian view on lots of issues. But then, I agree even less with DLC Democrats. A majority coalition needs to encompass a wide range of views. More importantly, after decades of retreat, we need new ideas to respond to the failure of market liberalism and that means being open to a range of perspectives.

What I see as useful in the liberaltarian perspective is scepticism about the efficacy and beneficence of state action, and particularly detailed regulation as opposed to broadbased structural changes. Similarly, as we defend sanctuary cities and state-level action on climate change, it’s worth remembering that lots of progressives have been impatient with constraints on executive action by the federal government. Liberaltarianism provides a check on this.

Turning to the second part of the pun, apart from liberaltarianism, there’s nothing else of significance left of US libertarianism/propertarianism, either as an important political force or as an set of ideas that deserve attention and engagement.

In political terms, the 2016 election and, even more, its aftermath saw a complete failure on the part of propertarians. Electorally, there could scarcely have been a better chance for a propertarian candidate, yet Johnson pulled in just 3 per cent of the vote. Since the election, propertarians have either embraced Trump (notably Rand Paul) or maintained their standard position as mildly dissident members of the Republican base. Rand Paul is the most notable public example of the first kind, and Cato of the second. It’s startling to compare the vitriol directed at Obama (a lawless, warmongering enemy of constitutional government) with the respectful, if sometimes critical, treatment given to President Trump.

(Try Googling Cato+Obama and then Cato+Trump to check that these are reasonably representative)

More significantly, propertarians haven’t had a new idea in decades. As problems have emerged to which their ideology has no easy answer, they’ve resorted to making up their own facts. That’s most obviously true of climate change, where Cato and other propertarain thinktanks have been leading proponents of science denial (the honorable exception being Ron Bailey, who’s been pilloried by the Cato faithful for his relatively limited concessions to reality). But it’s also true of passive smoking (tobacco and coal hack Stephen Milloy got his start at Cato), inequality and lots more.

Engaging with this group is not worth the effort if the hope is to learn anything from the exchange. But, to the extent that any of them can be moved, the liberaltarians are best placed to do it. For example, here’s a piece by Brink Lindsey of Niskanen arguing that conservatives and propertarians should attack corporate welfare rather than the welfare state.

Considering what an outsized role libertarianism has played in US political debate, it’s encouraging to see that something can be salvaged from the smouldering wreck of orthodox propertarianism. I’ll look forward to more productive engagement with the Niskanen group and likeminded liberaltarians.

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