I went to work for a libertarian bookstore. They had a lot of stuff I had not read, including a most enlightening pamphlet by Peter Schwartz called, “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.” I quit the bookstore after two months.
A few times back in the old days I heard or read libertarians attempt to appeal to the left. I noticed that they downplayed economics and played up social issues – as if they could pull a fast one on the liberals by not talking about free market economics. There was also a moral relativist cast to their appeals, as if they were saying, “Hey, you leftists don’t have moral standards, and neither do we! We’re not stuffed shirts like those religious conservatives. Let’s live and let live together!”
I wondered who the libertarians were trying to kid. Love of the state is central to liberalism. (In America the word liberalism means socialism.) Liberals want the state to be your mommy, your daddy, your nanny, your psychotherapist, your nutritionist, your doctor, your lawyer, your conscience, your TV, your radio, your publisher, your employer, your climatologist, your insurer, your professor, the guardian of your morals and your jailer. Liberals are collectivists who fear and loathe individualism and want to use the state to force individuals to serve the collective. How can there be anything but a temporary ad hoc alliance between lovers of freedom and the lovers of power?
Liberals are never fooled into thinking libertarians are their allies, even though they agree on issues of spiritual values, such as abortion, euthanasia and censorship. As Ayn Rand noted, the left allows (some) freedom (for now) on these issues because it does not regard them as important. Socialists are materialists; to them, economics is important, and that is what they seek to control. Liberals understand that there are fundamental differences – differences of principle – between their statism and capitalism. You never hear liberals hoping to make an alliance with libertarians.
Moreover, liberals don’t need the libertarians. Socialists have been on the winning side for over a century now, and despite a few setbacks, the state has grown and continues to grow. Free market ideologues are still a small minority in America. Most Americans are happy with the welfare state, and the more they depend on handouts, the happier they are with the status quo. Why would liberals stop this highly successful program of advancing government into every aspect of our lives to compromise with a faction they think of as a right-wing fringe that is out of step with history?
Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute has made an earnest case for liberals and libertarians to unite in an article called Liberaltarianism. He describes the case against the Republicans well:
…runaway federal spending at a clip unmatched since Lyndon Johnson; the creation of a massive new prescription-drug entitlement with hardly any thought as to how to pay for it; expansion of federal control over education through the No Child Left Behind Act; a big run-up in farm subsidies; extremist assertions of executive power under cover of fighting terrorism; and, to top it all off, an atrociously bungled war in Iraq.
This woeful record cannot simply be blamed on politicians failing to live up to their conservative principles. Conservatism itself has changed markedly in recent years, forsaking the old fusionist synthesis in favor of a new and altogether unattractive species of populism. The old formulation defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government. Just look at the causes that have been generating the real energy in the conservative movement of late: building walls to keep out immigrants, amending the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, and imposing sectarian beliefs on medical researchers and families struggling with end-of-life decisions.
With this change in Conservatism, Lindsey sees an opportunity for the left to pick up libertarian votes:
The basic outlines of a viable compromise are clear enough. On the one hand, restrictions on competition and burdens on private initiative would be lifted to encourage vigorous economic growth and development. At the same time, some of the resulting wealth-creation would be used to improve safety-net policies that help those at the bottom and ameliorate the hardships inflicted by economic change. Translating such abstractions into workable policy doubtlessly would be contentious. But the most difficult thing here is not working out details--it is agreeing to try. And, as part of that, agreeing on how to make the attempt: namely, by treating economic policy issues as technical, empirical questions about what does and doesn't work, rather than as tests of ideological commitment.Liberal blogger Kevin Drum gives an honest reply to Brink Lindsey. Drum’s bottom line:
Lindsey is better than most at diagnosing where the real differences lie, but those difference are core to the identities of both groups. It's hard to see the point of even trying to compromise on this stuff.It is interesting that whereas the libertarian Lindsey is thinking in terms of political practicality (“empirical questions about what does and doesn’t work”), the liberal Drum thinks in principle. Drum zeros in on the economic issues Lindsey floats as areas of potential compromise, progressive taxation and entitlements. As Drum notes, these issues are fundamental to liberalism and no compromise is possible.
More important, issues such as progressive taxation and entitlements are moral issues to liberals. They support these policies because altruism demands that the strong serve the weak. People don’t compromise on moral principles, at least not as a matter of proud, explicit policy. Hypocrisy is done in the dark and is rationalized in evasive excuses, not in a party platform.
Lindsey senses the need for more than just political pragmatism:
If a new kind of fusionism is to have any chance for success, it must aim beyond the specifics of particular, present-day controversies. It must be based on a real intellectual movement, with intellectual coherence. A movement that, at the philosophical level, seeks some kind of reconciliation between Hayek and Rawls.Rawls is liberalism’s most important theorist of egalitarianism. Hayek defends spontaneous order and tradition. Neither defends reason. Perhaps a reconciliation between these two is possible, but it would result in some form of welfare state, certainly not laissez-faire capitalism. So what is the point of such a reconciliation if it just means more of the same? And again, why do the liberals even need to bother?
Lindsey’s piece shows the futility of libertarianism. The movement is a hodge-podge of small factions that oppose the state on various grounds. Libertarianism itself lacks intellectual coherence because it is not a movement for individual rights and capitalism supported by a philosophy of reason.
Any movement that tries to work out some political compromise with liberalism without attacking the left’s morality of altruism will fail to make any meaningful change in the welfare state. They will merely become the left’s useful idiots. The left might compromise on marginal issues out of political necessity, but if their principles go unchallenged, these pragmatic compromises only serve to give socialism legitimacy and help it in the long run. But right now there isn’t the political necessity to force the left to do anything but laugh at the libertarians.
UPDATE: Slight revision.