The Brink Lindsey Project

First, let me say I am a longstanding fan of the Brink Lindsey Project (BLP) which, given Brink’s fondness for the culturally replenishing effect of the Me decade, fittingly enough sounds like a 70s progressive rock band.

What I like about the BLP is that its heart is in the right place. Lindsey wants to create a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans in one guise or another. As a conservative, I’m perfectly happy to listen to libertarians explain why conservatives should let their freak-flags fly a bit more. (It’s hardly a new lecture from that quarter, and I’d worry more if I stopped hearing it). More importantly, if strapping on labels like “progressive” or “centrist” to free market economic policies makes those policies more attractive to liberals, I say go for it.

Let me also say there are many, many, areas where I agree with Lindsey. I think he is right that conservatives are flirting too much with a rightwing populism which, like all populisms, poses the dangers of becoming nothing more than a thinly disguised special pleading. Conservatism is about more than classical liberalism, but political conservatism without classical liberalism as a major component is a conservatism doomed to failure — and one I want no part of.

But, I believe I’m here to offer thoughtful disagreements rather than say “ditto.” And I do have some pointed disagreements. I leave it to others to gauge their thoughtfulness.

First, I don’t buy this libertarian center stuff. As I wrote in response to his original New Republic essay, libertarianism has become something of a shmoo-word. Lots of people call themselves libertarians. But, if you press them just a teensy bit, you discover they’re libertarians about the things they think government should have no business meddling in and pretty gung ho for government intrusions elsewhere. I don’t have polling data handy, but there are pro-life libertarians and pro-choice libertarians. There are people who think they’re libertarians who favor strict gun control and others who support the drug war. Many of these so-called libertarian centrists are either the sort of (occasionally delusional) people who proclaim that they are “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” – that is, run-of-the-mill upscale Democrats — or traditional conservatives who support gun rights and economic liberty but look askance at gay marriage and drug legalization — AKA boring old Republicans. I am deeply skeptical that this is the rough clay for sculpting anything like a new libertarian center. As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru recently observed:

Both parties have strategists that can read survey data, and that is why they have been moving in exactly the opposite direction, with Republicans emphasizing social conservatism rather than market economics, and Democrats emphasizing statist economics rather than social liberalism.

Indeed, for a guy so opposed to hidebound reliance upon the past, Brink puts an awful lot of stock in the present as a predictor of the future. (The beauty of the past is that it’s a much bigger data set than what’s happening right now).

For example, Brink nearly revels in the decline in religious attitudes among Americans and then, a few paragraphs later, notes that the number of Hispanics will double thanks to immigration. Is it really so obvious that a country where one in four Americans are Hispanics — mostly Catholic but also increasingly Pentecostal and the like — will be as un-religious as the trend lines of the last decade suggest? Similarly, is it really true that the “crisis mechanism” of income inequality won’t become more useful for Progressives as we import millions of low wage, uneducated, immigrants who may not be averse to taking advantage of the welfare state or voting Democratic?

I don’t know the answer to either of these questions, but I do know straight line projections rarely illuminate future realities so much as reflect the false assumptions of the given moment.

Indeed, Brink knows far better than I that in the 1960s and into the 1970s liberals had good reason to be confident that current trends would deliver the Age of Aquarius. It’s fine to say that modern capitalism made social correction inevitable, but I’m not nearly enough the materialist — or, if you prefer, the optimist — to put all of my faith in the redemptive powers of capitalism. Don’t get me wrong: What has two thumbs and loves the free market? This guy! But I’m enough of a Whig to think there’s some other stuff at work, too. A little judgmental finger-wagging from conservatives might just have helped some teenagers to avoid drugs or the siren song of trying to emulate Madonna’s slattern chic.

A warning flag should go up when someone devises an argument in which the smartest political strategy, historical forces, and his own personal preferences happen to be in almost lockstep accord. In Against The Dead Hand, Brink chronicles in lucid detail and limpid prose how the very smartest experts of the early 20th century were absolutely convinced that their ideal social policies were confirmed by science, morality and History. There’s a similar whiff of hubris coming off libertarians who are not only sure that theirs is the best path, but that it will also be the most successful path. I like to think I have the best position on most issues, simply by virtue of the fact that if I thought a different position were truer and better, I’d have that position instead. Yet there are all sorts of things I believe ought to be, but I’m not under any illusion that putting Jonah Goldbergism into action would be a winning political platform.

Which leads me to my biggest complaint with the argument behind the Brink Lindsey Project. His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism. And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide. If this is unfair or incorrect, I am eager for correction.

The upshot of Lindsey’s new fusionism is that liberals are right on cultural issues because they are libertarians on cultural issues and conservatives are right about economics because they are libertarians on economics. Conservatives largely are libertarians on economics (with all the failures of the GOP and the exception of Buchananism hereby stipulated and agreed to). But it is simply not true that liberals are libertarians in the cultural arena. They are libertarians on the issues they are libertarian about, just like the centrist libertarian voter Brink celebrates.

One of the biggest con jobs of recent years is liberal outrage over conservatives imposing morality. It’s a staple of Democratic talking points and it is hooey. Yes, of course, conservatives believe in imposing morality to one extent or another. But so do liberals. Indeed, liberals push for statist economic policies out of moral conviction. Sure, many will claim their economic policies are the best policies on the merits. But you don’t need to scratch very far beneath the surface to get even these people to agree that their real aim is to redress wrongs, do good, help the little guy, make society more just, fair, nice and so on.

For example, in 2004, John Kerry (the Democratic presidential nominee in case you’ve blocked it out), insisted that his religious faith is “why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.” But, at the same time, he said that when it comes to issues like abortion, “What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn’t share that article of faith.” In short, when it comes to the specific topic of abortion he’s conveniently “libertarian” but at all other times he sees nothing wrong with imposing his moral vision on American society.

It is an enormous strategic and philosophical error to confuse liberal rhetoric about tolerance and personal choice as evidence that liberals are libertarians on everything but economics. If that were the case, the Democratic Party wouldn’t favor racial quotas, hate crimes laws, campaign finance reform, environmental statism and scads of other regulations and intrusions. Brink’s scheme gives liberals a benefit of the doubt they do not deserve. They are just as eager to impose their moral vision on society as conservatives are, they just hide it better.

Perhaps, as I’ve suggested, it may be the case that libertarians have become more culturally liberal themselves and so they are simply more eager to pick fights with cultural conservatives than cultural liberals. Frank Meyer, the author of libertarian-conservative fusionism would be horrified by what often passes for libertarianism these days.

Still, it’s worth noting that Meyer’s Fusionism didn’t work too well on paper either. But it was a very useful Sorelian myth for conservatives and libertarians alike, yielding some enormous political and policy gains over the last half century.

The Brink Lindsey Project might be another useful ideal. And if it succeeds in making progressives more market-oriented, I’m all for it.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a columnist for the LA Times and a member of the Board of Contributors to USA Today. His book, Liberal Fascism, will be released this December by Doubleday.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • The Unlibertarian Center by Matthew Yglesias

    Atlantic Monthly associate editor Matthew Yglesias joins Brink Lindsey in thinking that the relaxation of traditional social strictures over the past few deacades is a good thing, but he doesn’t see anything libertarian about it, citing the role of Civil Rights Act and other intrusive anti-discrimination laws in bringing about the shift. Yglesias concedes that the economy has in some ways become less regulated, but argues that this didn’t signal an “ideological triumph.” Furthermore, he argues, “libertarians interested in practical politics might want to consider that a federal commitment to health security and retirement security isn’t going away,” and suggests that Lindsey himself may have explained why.

  • First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin by Julian Sanchez

    Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez spots several ambiguities in Brink Lindsey’s argument leading him to doubt the conclusion that America has become more libertarian in a meaningful sense. “To speak confidently about America’s growing libertarianism,” Sanchez writes, “we need to establish that at least some of the changes Lindsey lauds are driven by a shared conception of justice” that leans increasingly libertarian. Yet Sanchez is unimpressed by the polling data Lindsey recruits to his cause. There is no doubt we now have more choice due to increasing abundance, but “the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options.” But, Sanchez argues, “much of the plausibility of Lindsey’s thesis relies on [the] conflation” of these two conceptions of freedom.

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