The Unlibertarian Center

I largely agree with what Brink Lindsey has to say. Except, unfortunately, for the parts about libertarianism. His observation that “traditional attitudes about race relations, sex, the role of women in society, the role of religion in public life, the permissible limits of artistic expression, and the nature of American cultural identity have taken a beating” is correct, and I share his apparent view that this is a good thing. Is it a libertarian thing? I tend to think not. Certainly Barry Goldwater, probably the most libertarian major party presidential nominee we’re likely to see, didn’t think much of a giant pile of regulations telling people what they can and can’t do with their own property called the Civil Rights Act. And, as a result, Goldwater’s highly libertarian 1964 campaign found that its core supporters were the white supremacists of the Deep South who saw libertarianism as a good way to blunt the onrushing tide of cultural change that hoped to use state authority to build a new, more racially tolerant America.

But, of course, the white supremacists (and the libertarians) lost that battle and the liberals won, building one important piece of the new, less traditional America that Lindsey observes we live in. Nor has the feminist movement’s success in transforming traditional attitudes about sex and the role of women been innocent of un-libertarian deployment of state power. Discriminating against women in the workplace has become not just inefficient or impolite but actually illegal thanks to a series of heavy-handed regulatory initiatives that no libertarian could in good conscience endorse.

Similarly, the gay rights movement does indeed want gay couples to be unmolested in their private conduct. But their demands go far beyond that. They want to regulate who you may employ, who you may rent a house to, etc., etc., etc. — not merely a state that refrains from discriminating, but a state that takes the lead in fighting discrimination.

To me, this is all to the good. And if Cato Institute employees want to endorse it, that’s all to the good as well. But it’s not libertarianism.

The case on the economic front is more mixed. There can be no doubt that the American economy has substantially deregulated over the past 30 years, starting during the Carter administration, and in part because of the efforts of libertarian thinkers. This is no small thing. It represents, however, a triumph of empirical persuasion, of convincing people that, say, the regulation of the airline industry was not, in fact, generating the outcomes people prefer. It didn’t reflect a more ideological triumph of the view that regulation of private property per se is illegitimate and so the economy, while less regulated overall, is substantially more regulated in certain areas, notably environmental protection and public health, where regulation has been deemed empirically effective.

And then, of course, there are the entitlements. As best I can tell, the extent of the federal government’s commitment to securing American citizens’ finances in retirement and in times of ill-health has increased fairly uniformly over the decades. Now and again, libertarians proclaim the programs aimed at achieving these ends to be unsustainable. Less frequently, they claim that the political moment has arrived when they can be curtailed. And yet, politicians who propose substantial curtailments of entitlements – Ronald Reagan in 1981, Newt Gingrich in 1995, George W. Bush in 2005 – inevitably live to regret it. If Lindsey is right that conservatives should admit that they won’t be able to roll back the sexual revolution, and that liberals pining away for the return of midcentury-style massive regulation should get over it, then surely libertarians interested in practical politics might want to consider that a federal commitment to health security and retirement security isn’t going away.

Indeed, Lindsey’s essay contains a decent explanation of why these programs are popular. On the subject of America’s postmodern turn on cultural matters he quotes Ronald Inglehart’s dictum that the shift in wordview “springs from the fact that there is a fundamental difference between growing up with an awareness that survival is precarious, and growing up with the feeling that one’s survival can be taken for granted.” Part of that greater sense of security over the decades has spring from economic growth pure and simple. And part of it has sprung from the existence of social insurance programs aimed at reducing people’s exposure to risk. What’s more, federal social insurance not only mitigates risk, but allows people a certain measure of freedom from institutions – parents, children, churches, employers – who, in the past, might have been potential providers of that security. This was, as I understand it, the basis of the old “fusionist” synthesis of libertarianism and conservatism – a weak welfare state was thought to bolster traditional autocratic structures of family and religious life, by forcing people into dependence on those institutions.

Somewhere along the line, however, at least some libertarians – Lindsey included – seem to have decided that they don’t like being handmaidens of a dour, reactionary outlook on culture and, indeed, are more interested in promoting cosmopolitan individualism as a way of life than in promoting a specific doctrine about the legitimate scope of state authority. A good companion to Lindsey’s essay is Reason editor Nick Gillespie’s February 2005 column in which he concedes that the sense in which Kansas is “freer” than New York City isn’t actually a sense he’s interested in. Kansas has fewer business regulations, but New York is more conducive to cosmopolitan individualism. This turn is, as far as I’m concerned, all to the good – cosmopolitanism is an excellent thing, as is individualism, whereas libertarianism is a bit silly.

That said, the risk in these formats is to wind up overstating the extent of disagreement. Lindsey and I agree that the changes in American society over the past forty or so years have been, broadly speaking, changes for the better. I, unlike Lindsey, think a sudden reversal of the decades-long trend toward greater government involvement in health care is neither likely nor desirable, but since Lindsey’s so enthusiastic about a period during which the public health state has relentlessly expanded, I suspect he’ll be pretty happy with the future we’re likely to get. If Lindsey wants to call the resulting moderately liberal synthesis “libertarian” I suppose that’s his business.

Matthew Yglesias is an associate editor at The Atlantic Monthly.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • National Review Online editor-at-large and LA Times columnist Jonah Golberg offers a critical assessment of what he calls “the Brink Lindsey Project” — “a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans.” According to Goldberg, Lindsey’s “libertarian centrism” involves a suspiciously convenient confluence of forces. “His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism,” Goldberg argues. “And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide.”

  • 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.

  • 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.