The Libertarian Ethos Constrains the Left and Right

Jonah, Matt, and Julian have done a good job of exposing the major vulnerabilities in my essay – vulnerabilities to both objection and confusion. So let me see if I can clarify my argument and, in so doing, answer at least some of their objections.

First, what do I mean when I say that American society has grown more libertarian since the ’60s? Certainly not that activist government has retreated across the board. As Matt points out, freedom of association has been hemmed in significantly by antidiscrimination laws; personal and corporate behavior is now subject to much stricter regulation in the name of protecting health, safety, and environmental quality; and entitlements to health care and retirement subsidies have grown steadily. Nor do I mean that public attitudes are generally more skeptical of Big Government than before. Julian and Jonah are right that most people’s commitment to limited government is highly selective. As I conceded at the outset of my essay, the number of principled, self-conscious libertarians is miniscule.

Rather, I am making the more limited – but, I think, both important and underappreciated – point that freedom from government control has expanded in certain key dimensions of social life. First, in the economic sphere, regulatory constraints on competition and entrepreneurship have loosened considerably. Yes, health, safety, environmental, and antidiscrimination regulations have increased, but these operate as side-constraints on competition and entrepreneurship, as opposed to the head-on barriers erected under old-style price and entry restrictions. Second, in the cultural sphere, laws governing self-expression and personal lifestyle choices are substantially more liberal than they were prior to the ’60s.

These critical changes in public policy have occurred in the context of broader trends in social development. Globalization and the IT revolution have both stoked the forces of market competition; the ebbing of traditional beliefs has expanded the range of personal choice. The overall result is that, both economically and culturally, the processes of creative destruction have intensified markedly. Incumbent firms now face relentless competitive pressure; so do communities of shared belief and identity. In the marketplace as well as the cultural bazaar, individualism reigns.

How to characterize this overall result? Since liberals tend to resist individualism in the marketplace, while conservatives do so in the cultural bazaar, it doesn’t make sense to say that American society has grown more conservative overall, or more liberal. Instead, given the libertarian support of individual choice in both realms, it seems appropriate to describe the general trajectory of American social development since the ’60s as broadly libertarian.

Is that a misuse of the term libertarian? I admit it’s an unusual use, as libertarianism is generally understood as a rigorous system of political economy that yields definitive, and often radical, positions on a wide array of issues. But I am striving to develop a broader sense of the term, in keeping with the scope of the terms liberal and conservative. Neither of those describes an exact blueprint of logically interconnected positions; rather, liberal and conservative describe general sensibilities and visions combined with a reasonably various menu of policy position options. If it makes sense to talk of social changes in a liberal or conservative direction, I think it makes just as much sense to talk about social developments that are of a broadly libertarian character – namely, marked by a general orientation toward both economic and cultural freedom.

Second, what do I mean when I say that a broadly defined libertarianism occupies the center of the political spectrum? Of course, politics is multidimensional, so there are many possible centers that can be located along many different axes. But drawing a particular axis and identifying a particular center may be more or less illuminating of broader political reality. And according to one particular description of the political spectrum that I think sheds useful light on our current situation, a broadly libertarian position does sit in the middle. In this description, the left and right poles are organized around discontents with the new, more libertarian social order: the left is hostile to and pessimistic about the economic changes that have occurred, while the right is similarly dour about the cultural changes. Or, in other words, the right is unreconciled to the fact that the ’60s happened, while the left is unreconciled to the fact that the ’80s happened. Meanwhile, in the ideologically uncategorized and unarticulated middle lies a broad satisfaction with the new dispensation: a comfort with both economic and cultural dynamism.

I believe that this ideological middle ground raises at least a promising possibility of a more libertarian politics. That is, I think that there is an untapped entrepreneurial opportunity for politicans to anchor generally libertarianish policy positions in a cultural centrist sensibility. But I admit that, at present, such a new-look libertarianish politics is nowhere to be found. Perhaps we will be stuck with the economically discontented left and the culturally discontented right for many years to come.

Even so, however, the interaction of prevailing political values (as opposed to opinions about public policy) with certain facts about how the world works means that the new, more libertarian nature of American society is highly resistant to fundamental challenges from either the left or the right. The relevant political values are tolerance and cultural pluralism on the one hand, and strong support for continued, robust economic growth on the other. Any attempt by the right to push too far in imposing traditionalist morality will be regarded as extremist and divisive and therefore be unpopular; any attempt by the left to push too far in imposing collectivist economics will throttle economic growth and thus produce results that are unpopular. In either direction, the scope for maneuver is limited.

And finally, what is the connection between mass affluence and the changing social and political realities I’ve discussed above? On the cultural side, I think my argument is pretty clear – namely, that increased affluence promotes a growing focus on self-realization and a diminished deference to established authority.

As to economics, it is my contention that the deregulation of product, labor, and financial markets – and some consequent increase in the dispersion of incomes and wealth – was a necessary condition for the macroeconomic stability and robust productivity growth experienced over the past quarter-century. There is, therefore, no going back to the more collectivized political economy of the early postwar decades. In that earlier, less advanced stage of economic development – with a large, semi-skilled manufacturing labor force, with large remaining untapped gains from extending classic mass production techniques and modern forms of corporate organization throughout the economy, with other untapped gains from producing a pent-up supply of new products and serving pent-up consumer demand after two decades of depression and war, with yet further untapped gains from catch-up growth in the underdeveloped South and underpopulated West in a now-integrated national market, and with foreign competitive pressures muted by wartime devastation – the Big Government-Big Business-Big Labor triumvirate was able to deliver an impressive level of economic performance. Those days, however, are gone with the wind.

Let me close with questions for my interlocutors. What constraints do you see on possibilities for a leftward push for collectivism or a rightward push for traditionalism? Is anything like European-style social democracy (which even now, on its home turf, has retreated considerably from its earlier ambitions) in the cards? Is a full conservative victory in the post-’60s culture wars really conceivable? If the fondest dreams of progressives and social conservatives are likely to go unfulfilled, why? Might not the arguments I’ve made here have something to do with it?

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.