This is supposed to be the third act reversal: libertarian reinforcements appearing on the horizon to fend off the dual assault on Brink Lindsey’s lead essay. But I’m afraid this will be more Calvary than cavalry—which means we should begin by nailing down a few central concepts.
Before we know what to make of the “libertarian center” thesis—the claim that “American society” is both deeply and increasingly “libertarian,” and that growing mass affluence is the cause—we need to be clear about what, precisely, this is supposed to mean. Sometimes, as Matt Yglesias observes, Lindsey seems prepared to count as evidence in his favor outcomes libertarians would endorse, even when achieved, at least in part, by means or mechanisms that self-described libertarians have traditionally opposed.
In still other cases, such as that of economic deregulation, it seems we have yet another instance of Karl Marx’s accidental prescience, a theme Lindsey explores in his book. For much of the shift we’ve seen in the ideological superstructure, both here and throughout the developed West, appears to have been driven by the realities of the economic base. In other words, if we have largely abandoned price controls and direct government control of industry, this is less because the general populace has developed a taste for Hayek than because specific efforts in this vein have so demonstrably and catastrophically failed.
But where this is the case, Lindsey’s larger narrative about affluence promoting greater individualism is just beside the point: The outcome and the mechanism alike are more libertarian, but not because Americans are becoming more libertarian. People will frown on policies that constrict growth without compensating benefits whether they are ardent Proudhonites or strict Stirnerians. And while we can infer from this that collective farming and five-year plans are unlikely to make a comeback, it has less predictive value for cases where government action is sold, not as a means of promoting growth, but as a mechanism for trading off growth against other values, such as a particular vision of social solidarity.
This brings us to the crucial question of whether our attitudes or values are becoming more libertarian. Yet here, again, there is a kind of ambiguity. Value changes may occur, if I may borrow a bit of jargon from the late philosopher John Rawls, in our conceptions of justice or our conceptions of the good. The former provides better grounds for generalization, for adopting a more libertarian conception of justice would mean endorsing a general principle that, for instance, private sexual practices or forms of speech we might find personally offensive aren’t fit subjects for government regulation. A change in our conceptions of the good might produce similar outcomes, but for very different reasons. We might, for instance, come to regard homosexuality as either less seriously wrong or out of the individual’s control, without becoming more generally jealous of our privacy. Similarly, we might come to find certain instances of formerly disapproved speech less offensive, but remain no less hostile to the limitation of speech we do disapprove: In with the f-word, out with the n-word.
To speak confidently about America’s growing libertarianism, then, we need to establish that at least some of the changes Lindsey lauds are driven by a shared conception of justice. To that end, Lindsey cites a series of public opinion polls. And while these are not always without utility, that old triumverate, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” could probably be expanded to include a special subbasement of perdition reserved for polling data. I do not mean to insult my countrymen’s general cognitive powers (much) when I say that almost any sentence beginning “Americans think…” is already false. Framing effects are so powerful, and our views so protean, that on the broadest questions it’s usually possible to find polls pointing in very different directions. For instance, recent polls show a sharp and steady increase since the late 1990s in the proportion of Americans agreeing that “government should care for those who can’t care for themselves,” even with the stipulation that this would increase national debt. The First Amendment Center conducts an annual poll on the “State of the First Amendment,” and finds that while people avowedly favor constitutional protection of free speech, strong majorities consistently disagree that “people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups,” while substantial minorities are prepared to countenance restriction of everything from dirty song lyrics to criticism of the military. And while the consensus among economists about the virtues of free trade may be relatively strong, the popular consensus is far weaker: Recall the spate of post-midterm cover-stories about the new Democratic populism.
But leave all this by the wayside. Even granting that there is something of a libertarian streak in America’s public political culture, Lindsey’s projection that this will persist and, indeed, expand in the future is tied to his account of how mass affluence promotes these attitudes. (At least some doubt should be cast on this by the gulf in attitudes between Americans and their European counterparts, which seems unlikely to be explained entirely, or even primarily, by our greater wealth.) Implicit in this assertion is the idea that, ceteris paribus, we will only become more libertarian as we get wealthier. Yet it is easy to come up with a variety of equally plausible counter-narratives.
In his book, Lindsey invokes Maslow’s Pyramid, a hierarchy of human needs people seek to satisfy lexically: As our basic survival and security become better assured, we are increasingly driven by our desires for social belonging, self-esteem, creative expression, and self-actualization. Consider the environmental Kuznets Curve as one manifestation of this. Industrializing economies produce increasing amounts of pollution up to a point, but once a certain level of general wealth is achieved, people begin to value environmental quality above economic growth at some margin, and pollution decreases. Perhaps that’s all to the good, but it’s also a clear way in which greater wealth makes people more disposed to sacrifice the productive power of unfettered markets in the name of other values. It’s rare to find a call for an expansion of government social programs that isn’t prefaced by some equivalent of: “Surely the richest country in the world can afford…” Matt Yglesias cites a column in Reason by Nick Gillespie on the different kinds of “freedom” available in low-tax Kansas and regulation-happy Manhattan. Gillespie notes that he, and many others, seem to prefer the latter. One way of interpreting this phenomenon is to say that because it offers such a fantastic diversity of cultural and economic options, Manhattan can “afford” quite high levels of taxation and regulation without deterring people from wanting to live there.
On the cultural front, while there’s one sense in which I share Lindsey’s enthusiasm for growing secularism and declining faith in “established authority” (though this certainly does not seem to have been accompanied by a declining taste for religion-inflected politics), I also wonder whether it may prove to counterbalance our libertarian streak. Many analysts have linked growing secularism to an expansion of welfare statism, as people come to regard functions previously performed by faith communities as the proper duty of government. The rhetoric of a “politics of meaning” may be gaining ground as a result of the same kind of substitution effect. Even popular reverence for the Constitution, congenial as I find it, often seems rooted more in a kind of traditionalist fetishism than a considered endorsement of the political values of the Framers.
All of which brings us back to the question with which we began: What, precisely, do we mean by libertarianism? Is the freedom and individualism Lindsey sees the freedom from interference we find in Kansas or the plenitude and diversity of options we find in Manhattan? Or more generally, which of Isaiah Berlin’s “two concepts of liberty” are implicated by growing mass affluence? With this question front and center, we may begin to see the hint of a tautology in a rhetorical question Lindsey poses in his book:
The new abundance, meanwhile, opened up a mad proliferation of choices—and what, in the end, is freedom but the ability to choose?
Yet the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options. One can be more free in the latter sense, just by dint of living in a rich society, even if one is subject to ever more restrictions.
That is not to say that libertarian negative freedom is the only good. Clearly I don’t think so, or I’d be living on a deserted island somewhere, rather than in coastal cities. But these are nevertheless discrete kinds of freedom, and it seems that much of the plausibility of Lindsey’s thesis relies on their conflation.
Julian Sanchez is a Washington, D.C.–based writer and journalist, and a contributing editor for Reason.