Liberaltarians, the Non-Inevitable Welfare State, the Value of Libertarian Kooks, and the Limits of Consequentialism

Here are some scattered reactions to the first round of thoughtful comments, which I hope are the beginning and not the end of the conversation.

Brink Lindsey: I recognize the factual reasons for the pessimism he expressed; I share the optimism he expresses. I think it likely that the (short term) strategy he proposes toward the end of his essay about trying to forge what might be called a libertarianish (or “liberaltarian”) political movement—one with a reasonably solid Hayekian pedigree, one that recognizes the powers and richness of free markets, and believes in a dynamic social and business world—is worth pursuing (without believing it is the best or most important path to pursue.) While such a movement would not do everything that I think should ultimately be done when it comes to politics, it sounds like it could accomplish a lot that I’d be pleased with in comparison to the status quo. It could achieve social and political results worth cheering for.

I am curious about further exploring exactly what elements of the more widespread—radical, if I may say so—libertarian set of positions such a “liberaltarian” movement would stand for or advocate, and which they would not, and why. As Brink agrees, perhaps turning the current so-called welfare state into something that is only a welfare state instead of a hugely complicated round robin series of confusing and highly regulated income transfers across generations and classes that consumes huge portions of entire industries (like health care) is a good start. And, given the reactions to Brink’s reaching out so far, I’d wonder how many of these not-quite-libertarian liberals there are and what the political mechanism for bringing their power to bear might be.

Tyler Cowen: Tyler points out a fact—growing freedom in some directions, growing government in others—but I’m not convinced of the causal mechanism that makes them necessarily connected. There is a certain intuitive plausibility to “the richer we are, the more government we can afford”—but might we not, with more economic freedom, be richer still? So the questions raised by Tyler’s very thought-provoking words are: why must it be a package deal if education in libertarian principles along the classic Leonard Read lines continues? Is that sort of ideological education meaningless in terms of political and cultural change? (I know it changed the lives of, to name two completely random people, Brian Doherty and Tyler Cowen.) And even if there does seem to be some necessity to it, why need libertarians “embrace” it rather than fight against it? Given the changes we’ve seen in attitudes and practice in the past 30 years regarding inflation, regulation, and, yes, even welfare (the welfare state of today is a far different thing than the one of 20 years ago), why is Tyler so confident that “the welfare state is here to stay….like it or not.”

Tom Palmer: My wording about having a libertarian world only when people want it seems to Tom to mean that no progress toward liberty can be made without a world of people who think just like Leonard Read. He is correct that that isn’t so. But I do believe that any social or political progress in a libertarian direction does require that, at least as it applies to those areas, people who are thinking more or less like libertarians—to that degree. We can’t, for example, have a workable consensus about things like medical marijuana or gay marriage without people who have some sense that, at least in some areas, it makes sense to allow people to make their own choices with their lives as long as others aren’t being harmed—a libertarian principle. The same for changes in regulation and the welfare state.

For various complicated reasons about elections and public opinion, it may well be the case that in more abstruse areas—deregulation probably being one of them—the opinions of educated political and economic elites are far more important than mass opinion. I doubt most voters are even aware of, say, what sort of trucking regulation we used to have, what we have now, and why they should care.

But this does not make me think classic Read-style ideological education isn’t vital to a workable and stable libertarian world. Tom’s second interpretation of my “libertarian” answer about strategy is correct: I don’t know what will prove the best and most effective strategy for liberty. I think a lot of actions that are less than “best” or “most effective” are still worth doing, and that the inclinations and beliefs of each specific libertarian will be the best guide toward what will make them most effective at what they are doing—even if that particular thing isn’t the most effective thing!

To turn his metaphor around, without an intelligent and well-crafted menu, the customers are in danger of choosing a bad meal. The people whose stories I told—even the kooky and disreputable ones—were trying to create that very necessary and well-crafted menu, though intelligent libertarians will of course disagree about the extent to which they succeeded. Tom’s last sentence–” On the other hand, I’m engaged in them because I’ve been educated in the tradition of liberty by the many people whose contributions Brian so elegantly and intelligently describes and explains in his book”—is the kicker, and exactly what I would have said to him in my own defense if he hadn’t said it himself.

A modern, sober libertarian might think that, say, a Robert LeFevre was an ineffectual kook; however, I think it very unlikely we would have had any of the accomplishments related to the philanthropy of Charles and David Koch without him. One might think Murray Rothbard’s contributions to political philosophy not worth noting; but without them, we would not have had the contributions of Robert Nozick to political philosophy. The big answer to Tom’s cavils about color and kookiness over effectiveness in advocating liberty is that my book was consciously a history of a libertarian movement–people who were, or were seen as, pushing an overall libertarian vision within a specific world of self-conscious institutions and communities of affinity, not just everyone whose ideas or efforts were positive for liberty. That’s why the book has more about Andrew Galambos than, say, Armen Alchian. And while I adore Tuccille’s book, I deny that I relied on it “overmuch”; I don’t think more than a handful of pages out of over 600 are directly and specifically quoting it or relying on it alone for my interpretation–but reasonable men can disagree. I was trying to write a book that was accurate and true to the spirit of the self-conscious libertarian movement (as well as, yes, being entertaining and fascinating), and I think a fair amount of attention to people that most Americans—even most current libertarians—might find kooky was absolutely necessary for that.

Virginia Postrel (who first hired me at Reason magazine in 1994) is certainly that kind of libertarian who would find many of my major characters not worth taking seriously. Her very thoughtful comments point out that there are strains combined in the larger libertarian coalition that aren’t really philosophically compatible—and that is absolutely true. I was being descriptivist rather than prescriptivist in my book, dealing with those who, however incompatible from a larger view (and many of them recognized this themselves) were bound by a similar set of institutions, publications, supporters, and advocates.

I am not confident that a purely consequentialist libertarianism will create a world as free as most libertarians would like to see the world to be; and I don’t see how we can even judge consequences adequately without an underlying moral vision of what is right and wrong to do to people. Specifically, I’m not entirely sure (though I’m open to being convinced) that Virginia’s inspiring list of “self-definition, knowledge and discovery, free exchange across national or tribal boundaries, the ability to take personal risks and the responsibility to bear the consequences, the pursuit of happiness” can be fully defended in the larger social conversation about what kind of world people can be convinced to want without going beyond “just the facts.” I suspect it may also be necessary to appeal to and embrace certain values that may not always clearly be best in consequentialist terms.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Libertarianism: Past and Prospects by Brian Doherty

    Beginning with a riff on Brink Lindsey’s appeal to the “liberaltarian” left, and David Boaz and David Kirby’s analysis of the libertarian vote, Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, notes that “realistic talk of a “libertarian voting bloc” for major parties to fight over – the idea that a double-digit percentage of Americans can be assumed to be in line with libertarian ideas – is a major miracle in libertarian movement terms.” Back in the 1970s, Doherty reports, “the notion that an explicitly libertarian institution should even seriously think about effecting real-world political change was considered – well, it was not really considered at all…” What, then, does history tell us about the best strategy for creating a more libertarian future? “The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to,” Doherty argues. “The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy.”

Response Essays

  • Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World by Brink Lindsey

    Things may look bleak for libertarians these days, but there are grounds for hope, says Cato’s vice president for research (and Cato Unbound editor) Brink Lindsey. Though few Americans self-identify as “libertarian,” there is nevertheless a deep libertarian streak in American culture and a large group of voters who say they are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” In the long term, Lindsey argues, the goal for libertarians is to multiply the number of libertarians, and he concurs with Doherty in saying “let a thousand flowers bloom.” However, Lindsey argues that in the short term “what needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ voters from across the current left-right spectrum.”

  • The Paradox of Libertarianism by Tyler Cowen

    According to Marginal Revolution blogger and New York Times “Economic Scene” columnist Tyler Cowen, there have been a few truly great libertarian developments since the 1970s. However, he argues, they “also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.” Cowen argues libertarians accept this paradox, reconcile themselves to the welfare state, recognize positive liberty as more important than negative liberty, and restructure libertarianism around new threats to liberty such as global warming, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. Such a libertarianism, Cowen admits, would “run the risk of losing its intellectual and moral center. … Many people fear such a development, and I can understand why.”

  • Libertarianism or Liberty? by Tom G. Palmer

    In his reply, Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer maintains that Brian Doherty is guilty of “a confusion of two related projects: the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism, i.e., the theory that liberty should be the primary (or overriding) goal of a political order.” It is possible to promote liberty without promoting libertarian philosophy. This distinction motivates Palmer to dissent from Doherty’s emphasis on education. No amount of libertarian education will make a difference, Palmer argues, unless someone acts to make change for liberty. “If I were to put it as a slogan, it might be: ‘Education doesn’t eliminate trade barriers, legislators do.’” Palmer also quibbles with Doherty’s focus in his book on zany libertarian characters and with his laissez faire approach to promoting liberty.

  • An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head by Virginia Postrel

    Atlantic columnist and former Reason editor-in-chief Virgina Postrel argues: “Rather than defining ‘libertarian’ by appealing to deductive logic and so-called first principles, we can better understand the American libertarian movement as a sometimes uneasy amalgam of four distinctive yet complementary traditions, two cultural and two intellectual.” Intellectually, she points to “two seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions”: the modernist Rand-Rothbard quest for certainty “as rational and precise as a skyscraper, as ahistorical as Le Corbusier’s plans to remake Paris” and the empiricist Hayek-Friedman/Hume-Smith tradition, which “looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems.” Drawing on her book The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel warns against fighting the old fights between capitalism and socialism when the real battles is between “stasism” and “dynamism.” She plumps for the possibility of an alliance of libertarian and left dynamists against stasists of all stripes, but concludes with a challenge to the left: “We know we’re liberals. The question is, Are they?”

The Conversation