Liberals: Wrong on More Than Just Economics

Brink asks:

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?

If I may beat a dead horse just a bit more, I think the question stacks the deck. Once again I think Brink is emphasizing economics when, for many liberals, economics is in a fundamental sense merely a means to an end (hardly a controversial view when you think about it). For example, Brink knows better than I how eager the Progressives were to create “industrial armies” and in other ways militarize society. But this didn’t make them militarists as we understand the term today. Rather, they saw the success of military organization and mobilization as a useful model that could be emulated in order to answer the “social question.” Indeed, ever since William James coined the term, liberalism has been in search of “the moral equivalent of war.” For a time, engineering and ultimately collectivist economics seemed to offer the best organizing principles for the new era of social organization.

Brink, I think, is absolutely right that traditional collectivist economics has taken a bruising from which it may never recover. But I don’t think the egalitarian and communitarian passions that once drove the craze for collectivist economics have gone anywhere. Such fundamentally tribal passions are part of the human condition and will find expression via other means. For example, a few months ago, I debated some Islamists at the Oxford Union. I was amazed how my opponents turned out to be run-of-the-mill socialists with some Sharia mumbo-jumbo thrown in to provide some radical chic. In another era they would have been Fabians. Now they’re Islamists. But, they still rail against the evils of individualism and capitalism. In other words, I think the argument for collectivist economics was always in a sense a Trojan Horse for the argument for collectivism generally. Denying a collectivist his economic arguments is not the same as denying him his collectivism ambitions.

Today, we see these impulses expressing themselves in relatively new outlets. The medicalization of public policy is one obvious example of the collectivist impulse seeking the path of least resistance. The beauty of using health instead of economics for Progressives is that they don’t have to argue with free market economists on their turf. Right now, the largely deserved backlash against China’s health and safety standards is serving as a better argument against free trade than any that has been offered by Pat Choate or Pat Buchanan in the last 30 years. Environmentalism is another obvious golden opportunity for collectivists who can no longer win arguments grounded strictly in economics. At least that’s the impression I get from much of the literature that comes out of places like the Cato Institute.

Brink also writes:

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.

I agree with this to the extent that anything that suddenly hurts economic growth will be unpopular (creeping collectivism — entitlements, agricultural subsidies, etc. — will often do just fine). But, again, I just don’t see what passes for liberal “cultural pluralism” and libertarian “cultural pluralism” being the same thing. Libertarians, typically, are repulsed by the forced-integration of the Virginia Military Academy or the failed attempts to force the Augusta Country Club to admit women. But such enterprises are at the core of what liberals consider cultural pluralism.

Brink would cast the contest as between conservative traditionalists trying to impose their cultural collectivism and liberals trying to impose their economic collectivism. That fundamentally miscasts the challenges for libertarians and conservatives alike. The real contest in American politics is between liberals trying to impose their cultural preferences everywhere, including in the realm of economics, and conservatives fighting fire with fire where they can. The good news for everyone is that, at least for now, conservatives are still in favor of the free market. Nonetheless, pinning libertarianism’s future on the idea that the current stalemate between left and right is the inevitable consequence of capitalism will leave libertarians woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead. Which worries me, because we conservatives will need your help.

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.