A Libertarian Center By Definition?

Brink’s latest post makes a distinction I think is key, because the long term trend he’s describing is significantly more defensible than the thesis that there’s a “libertarian center” in contemporary politics; a claim that’s both distinct and more problematic. All words are greased hogs, and political words especially. Imagine trying to parse for a Martian linguist: “The conservatively dressed liberal heaped liberal scorn on the conservative liberal arts major’s argument for trade liberalization.” The aptness of a term, as that sentence illustrates, is a function of the job for which it’s being conscripted, and the greater the number of available uses, the more important it becomes to be clear about what work you’re expecting a term to do.

So when I quibble with the way Brink uses the term “libertarian,” it’s certainly not because I think we generally need to hew to some very rigorous formal criteria for what will count as a “libertarian” view or individual. I agree it’s best thought of as a looser “family resemblance” classification. My worry, rather, is that a use of the term that may be perfectly descriptively accurate (our approach to sexuality or economic regulation has become “more libertarian”) may be misleading for other purposes.

One concern I have is that even if Brink is substantively correct, the form of his argument will tend to yield evidence for a “libertarian center” under almost any political conditions. Duverger’s Law all but guarantees that, under our electoral system, political actors will cluster themselves into two main groups—liberals and conservatives, say—with the mainstream of each group positioned some distance from the median of voter opinion. (The simplest versions of the median voter theorem have them both at the median, but positioning off-center prevents spoiler entrants on either side.) At any given time, one or both will have an agenda that includes some forms of cultural or economic regulation. Neither will consistently get all they want—in part just as a function of the definitions of “agenda” (which excludes what’s already been achieved) and “poles” (off center). To be left or right is to be left or right of something, after all.

More succinctly put: Any time one pole of the political spectrum favors greater government control, it’s borderline tautological that the “center” will be more libertarian. Of course, the same holds (mutatis mutandis) for an “authoritarian center” thesis. That is not to say it’s vacuous to claim that median opinion is either “libertarian” or “authoritarian,” especially if we’re tracking changes over time, but it is certainly grounds for caution. If I’m awake enough after the third act of Gotterdammerung (mass plenitude apparently includes the ability to offer free public WiFi at Lincoln Center) I’ll offer some more qualified grounds for caution about the longer term trend as well.

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.