About this Issue
In his new book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture, Cato vice president for research Brink Lindsey argues that post-World War II affluence precipitated a renewed quest for meaning in America giving us both the counterculture to the Moral Majority, redefining the meaning of “left” and “right” in American politicians, and eventually settling into a broadly libertarian sociopolitical synthesis, despite the seeming intractability of “red state/blue state” partisanship.
In this month’s lead essay, “The Libertarian Center,” Lindsey elaborates his conception of the current soft libertarian consensus, and the constraints this places on Democrats and Republicans as they seek to cobble together working political majorities. Can any party keep power if they stray too far from the libertarian center? Is there a distinctive, yet-to-be-formulated libertarianish politics of abundance that could ever gather real political steam? Lindsey will be joined in addressing these questions by a polypartisan panel of blogging luminaries. On the left, we’ll have The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias. On the right, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. And in the … libertarian middle? … Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez.
The Libertarian Center
There is no organized libertarian movement of any significance in American politics. To be sure, libertarian academics and intellectuals occupy some prominent positions and exert real influence on the public debate. But they do not speak on behalf of any politically mobilized mass constituency. Only about 2 percent of Americans describe themselves as libertarian, according to a 2000 Rasmussen poll. And the Libertarian Party is a fringe operation that, at best, occasionally plays the spoiler.
Nevertheless, the fact is that American society today is considerably more libertarian than it was a generation or two ago. Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. Of course there are obvious counterexamples, but on the whole it seems clear that cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver.
The many and complex reasons for this trend can be boiled down to one sweeping generalization: in an age of mass affluence, economic development and individualism go together. For a detailed historical argument in support of this thesis, I refer you to my new book, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture.
In the cultural realm, the leading academic analyst of this phenomenon is University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart. As he wrote in Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies, “In a major part of the world, the disciplined, self-denying, and achievement-oriented norms of industrial society are giving way to an increasingly broad latitude for individual choice of lifestyles and individual self-expression.” The central thrust of what Inglehart calls the “postmodern shift” is a “broad de-emphasis on all forms of authority,” whether political, economic, religious, or familial. “This shift in worldview and motivations,” he explained, “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.”
In the new, more individualistic culture, 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. The country is now much more tolerant and pluralistic than before. And people are much less willing to subjugate their personal interests to standards set by families, employers, churches, and governments.
In the economic realm, it was once thought that the progress of industrialization would lead ineluctably to an extreme centralization of economic decision-making. I discuss the rise and fall of that wrongheaded idea in my previous book, Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism. It turns out, of course, that the glittering collectivist future never arrived. While the scale of economic production and that of government planning and control increased in tandem for a while, further progress beyond a relatively simple mass-production economy has required increasing reliance on entrepreneurship by outsiders and vigorous market competition that allows good new ideas to get a tryout.
Through brutal mobilization of resources, the command socialism of the Soviet Union was able to industrialize sufficiently to gain victory in World War II. But it could never produce consumer plenty, and its total incapacity to keep up with the West in the information age eventually spelled its demise. The social democracy of continental Europe preserved enough of the market order to rebuild after World War II and create mass affluence. But here again, even an attenuated collectivism eventually reached its limits: in recent decades, despite some measure of market-oriented reforms, catch-up growth has stalled, unemployment has swollen, and convergence with the United States is now being reversed. The U.S. economic system, always relatively libertarian by world standards, faced its own crisis in the 1970s, but it emerged from that challenge through a wrenching restructuring that significantly expanded the scope for entrepreneurship and competition.
American society has become more libertarian because, more than any other country on the planet, it has successfully adapted to the novel conditions of economic abundance. And because of the way this adaptation took place, a broadly defined libertarianism now occupies the center of the American political spectrum.
As I describe in The Age of Abundance, mass affluence triggered a mirror-image pair of cultural convulsions: on the countercultural left, a romantic rebellion against order and authority of every description; and on the traditionalist right, an evangelical revival of socially and theologically conservative Protestantism. Both arose around the same time, in the dizzying 1960s. Between them, these two movements have played decisive roles in shaping America’s accommodation to mass affluence. But those roles were deeply ambivalent, mixing positive elements and negative ones in roughly equal measure. The countercultural left combined genuine liberation with dangerous, nihilistic excess, while the traditionalist right mixed knee-jerk reaction with wise conservation of vital cultural endowments.
The two movements thus offered conflicting half-truths. On the left were gathered those elements of American society most open to the new possibilities of mass affluence and most eager to explore them – in other words, the people at the forefront of the push for civil rights, feminism, and environmentalism, as well as sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. At the same time, however, many on the left harbored a deep antagonism toward the institutions of capitalism and middle-class life that had created all those exciting new possibilities. On the right, meanwhile, were the faithful defenders of capitalism and middle-class mores. But included in this group were the people most repelled by and hostile to the social and cultural ferment that capitalism and middle-class mores were producing. This is the blind vs. blind struggle of the culture wars: one side attacked capitalism while rejoicing in its fruits; the other side celebrated capitalism while denouncing its fruits as poisonous.
This conflict is still with us today, in the form of the polarized politics of Red America vs. Blue America. The good news, though, is that this polarization mostly concerns minorities of true believers and their media talking heads rather the bulk of ordinary Americans. Most Americans, it turns out, have moved on since the ’60s toward a common ground whose coloration is not recognizably red or blue – call it a purplish, libertarianish centrism. On the one hand, they embrace the traditional, Middle American values of patriotism, law and order, the work ethic, and commitment to family life. At the same time, though, they hold attitudes on race and sex that are dramatically more liberal than those that held sway a generation or two ago. Likewise, they are deeply skeptical of authority, and are strongly committed to open-mindedness and tolerance. Such an amalgamation of views is flatly inconsistent with current definitions of ideological purity. Despite all the talk of raging culture wars, most Americans are nonbelligerents.
There are some obvious objections to the idea of a libertarian center. First, as I stated at the outset, there is no libertarian political movement to speak of. Accordingly, there is no organized libertarian-leaning constituency that could ally with either conservatives or liberals to alter the balance of power. Rather, at best libertarianism exists as a diffuse, inchoate set of impulses that operate, not as an independent force, but as tendencies within the left and right and a check on how far each can stray in illiberal directions. Second, as I conceded in an earlier essay for Cato Unbound, American public opinion is noticeably unlibertarian in many important respects. In particular, economic illiteracy is rife; much of government spending – especially the budget-busting middle-class entitlement programs – remains highly popular; and the weakness for moralistic crusades, long an unfortunate feature of the American character, remains glaring (though today’s temperance movements direct their obsessive zeal toward advancing health and safety rather than virtue).
Notwithstanding these objections, I maintain that the concept of a libertarian center offers useful insight into the current political situation. In particular, it highlights the fact that our ideological categories have not yet caught up with social realities. The movements of left and right continue to be organized around discontents with the new, more libertarian cultural synthesis that prevails today. Thus the reactionary claims of decline and fall we hear from both sides: the right wails about cultural and moral decline, while the left gnashes its teeth about economic decline. Think of the leading red-meat issues for conservatives today. Gay marriage is destroying the American family; an invasion of illegal immigrants from Mexico threatens to overwhelm American culture; stem cell research is leading us to a Brave New World of moral atrocities. Meanwhile, the left is fixated on mounting “economic insecurity” for the most materially blessed population in human history. Endlessly repeated statistics on stagnant median wages, rising income inequality and volatility, and a shrinking middle class fortify true believers in their denial of the obvious reality that we’ve never had it so good.
Our politics today is stuck in a reactionary rut. The right remains unreconciled to irreversible cultural changes from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The left remains unreconciled to irreversible economic changes from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The idea of the libertarian center suggests that the way to break out of this rut is with a new, post-culture-wars politics that embraces both economic change and cultural diversity. I am not saying that some particular package of libertarian reforms is now the key to assembling a winning political coalition. The idea of a libertarian center is about the core of American political culture, not the margins of political change. What I’m saying is that partisans on both sides need to recraft their messages and programs to better reflect the entrepreneurial, tolerant spirit of contemporary America.
Or, at the very least, they should take care not to stray too far from core libertarian principles – or else they will run into constraints imposed by either public opinion or the way the world works. Let’s start with the restrictions that face progressives. Having drifted leftward from Clintonian economic centrism in reaction to the Bush years, and now buoyed by electoral success in 2006 and the prospect of more in 2008, many liberals are allowing themselves to believe that the post-1968 wilderness years are over at last. But hopes for a grand new era of progressive activism and the long-delayed arrival of something like European social democracy are confronted by formidable obstacles.
First of all, the attitudes that sustain the expansive states of Europe do not exist here. Progressives imagine that their cherished statistics on rising inequality are creating the constituency for a big leftward push, but they are fooling themselves. According to a 2003 Pew survey [pdf], only 32 percent of Americans agree that success is determined by forces outside their control – as compared to 68 percent in Germany, 66 percent in Italy, and 54 percent in France. According to the same survey, 58 percent of Americans think it is more important to be free from government to pursue their own goals, while only 34 percent believe is is more important for government to guarantee that no one is in need. In continental Europe the numbers are reversed: 71 to 24 in Italy, 62 to 36 in France, and 57 to 39 in Germany.
Meanwhile, the trust in government that made possible the New Deal political order is gone and highly unlikely to return. Back in 1958, 73 percent of Americans surveyed trusted the government to do what is right “most of the time” or “just about always.” By 1976, the ranks of the trusting had fallen to 33 percent. The numbers recovered for a time during the Reagan recovery and then in the aftermath of 9/11, but as of 2006 they had fallen back to 28 percent. Though the exact percentages fluctuate in response to events, the secular trend is both clear and, as Ronald Inglehart has documented, global: as people get richer, their faith in government and established authority generally declines. Reflect on the astounding success with which the secrets of Roosevelt’s paralysis and Kennedy’s womanizing were maintained, and you will get some sense of the cultural distance we have traveled from the deference to authority that once obtained.
The recent push for card-check legislation shows that some progressives still hold out hope for a revival of organized labor. They are sadly deluded. First, of course, there are the merits of the case: Wagner Act unionism was a plague on the industries that succumbed to it, at least those that eventually faced international competition. Yes, the cartelization of labor markets boosted wage for some workers, but only by depressing them for others: the rise and fall of unionization had no discernible effect on labor’s overall share of income. Whatever the merits, the cause is lost in any event. The late, lamented “Treaty of Detroit,” Daniel Bell’s old term for the entente between Big Business and Big Labor, came only after ferocious struggle: in the single wild year of 1946, there were work stoppages involving 4.9 million workers and causing 116 million lost man-days. What privation, what exposure to risk, could possibly motivate such pugnacity on the part of today’s workers? And what would be the point, anyway? The most attractive organizing targets, service industries that don’t face international competition, are generally too unskilled-labor-intensive for big wage hikes to be in the cards.
Progressives’ brightest hopes for expanding government now focus on health care. Here they may indeed win some legislative victories, but how satisfying will they ultimately be? Ponder these two irreconcilable trends. On the one hand, since 1960 federal tax receipts have bobbed around between 17 and 21 percent of GDP (the current ratio is 18.5 percent). On the other hand, projections based on historical trends show that Medicare and Medicaid spending will skyrocket from 4.2 percent of GDP in 2005 to 11.5 percent in 2030 – a jump of over 7 percentage points. Unless, against all odds, Americans prove amenable to massive tax hikes of historically unprecedented and economy-crippling proportions, our commitments under existing health-care entitlement programs are going to have to be thoroughly restructured (i.e., reduced). How then are we to afford an expansion of the health-care state? Progressives like to think that greater government control will allow runaway health costs to be reined in – but on the basis of what evidence? Medicare and Medicaid outlays have been exploding at roughly the same rate as private expenditures, so why would anyone think that things will change when the government’s obligations are expanded?
Let’s turn now to the constraints that hobble conservatives. Here’s the basic problem: social conservatism in the culture-war era has been defined to a large extent by traditional attitudes on religion and sex, but those attitudes are on the wane. The Pew Research Center has divided evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, and Catholics into “committed” and “other” on the basis of religious practices (church attendance, prayer, declared importance of religion in one’s life) and beliefs (certainty about the existence of God and belief in life after death, heaven, and hell). Between 1965 and 1996, the ranks of committed Christians dropped sharply, from 43.1 percent of the population to 31.4 percent. More recently, the nonreligious have been growing smartly. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, unchurched secularists increased from 8.2 percent of the population to 14.1 percent between 1990 and 2001.
A recent Pew study [pdf] on changing attitudes over the past 20 years documents the collapse of sexual traditionalism. Back in 1987, 51 percent of Americans supported the firing of teachers who are known homosexuals; in 2007, only 28 percent still hold that view. Over the same time period, the share of people who “completely disagreed” with the statement that “women should return to their traditional roles in society” jumped from 29 percent to 51 percent. And the proportion of Americans who say they have “old-fashioned ideas about family and marriage” has declined from 87 percent to 76 percent.
Another core element of modern conservatism has been the populist appeal to patriotism and nationalism – most notably, during the Cold War era, in the form of anticommunism. Love of country, vital to the maintenance of a liberal order, can also inflame the illiberal impulses of xenophobia at home and aggressive bellicosity abroad. At the present time, alas, conservative nationalism is expressing itself in decidedly illiberal ways – on the one hand, nativist-tinged hysteria over Mexican immigration; on the other, an apocalyptic “World War IV” mindset regarding the serious but manageable threat of Islamist terrorism.
However, stoking the darker passions of nationalism is dangerous, not only for the country, but for the future health of the conservative movement. It is too early to tell what the long-term political consequences of the Iraq fiasco will be, but one thing is clear enough. In the absence of major new terrorist attacks, there is no public stomach for anything like the levels of diplomatic conflict and military action that right-wing saber-rattlers seem to be spoiling for. Accordingly, if Republicans do manage to hold the White House in 2008, they will need to backtrack, in both word and deed, from the recklessness of the Bush years.
As to immigration, conservatives may have stopped the recent reform bill, but they haven’t stopped the inflow of immigrants. The Census Bureau projects that between now and 2050, the Hispanic share of the national population will nearly double to 24 percent. Meanwhile, American public opinion generally seems to be trending in a cosmopolitan direction. According to a recent Pew survey of “Generation Next,” 52 percent of people 18 to 25 years old believe immigration strengthens the country, as compared to 39 percent among those 26 and older. Consequently, any political movement that has trouble distinguishing between immigration and invasion is spitting in the demographic wind.
Of course, many traditional attitudes have held up over time, including those on crime, pornography (even as consumption of it has exploded), drugs, and support for additional restrictions on abortion. But on subjects that have been of central concern to the conservative movement, Americans are becoming bluer, not redder, and conservatives will have to change with them or else be marginalized.
I hope that nothing in this essay has conveyed even a hint of libertarian triumphalism. That would be just plain silly, as even the rosiest of tinted glasses cannot hide Leviathan’s many and egregious blunders and injustices. And in all too many cases, the foreseeable prospects for remedying those blunders and injustices are dim to nonexistent.
Yet, grading on a global and historical curve, America is a distinctively libertarian country. And despite the best efforts of ideologues on both the left and right, it has grown more libertarian, on the whole, over the past few decades. A grasp of these basic facts is essential to any sound understanding of the country’s recent history and current political muddle.
Brink Lindsey is vice president for research at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.
The Brink Lindsey Project
First, let me say I am a longstanding fan of the Brink Lindsey Project (BLP) which, given Brink’s fondness for the culturally replenishing effect of the Me decade, fittingly enough sounds like a 70s progressive rock band.
What I like about the BLP is that its heart is in the right place. Lindsey wants to create a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans in one guise or another. As a conservative, I’m perfectly happy to listen to libertarians explain why conservatives should let their freak-flags fly a bit more. (It’s hardly a new lecture from that quarter, and I’d worry more if I stopped hearing it). More importantly, if strapping on labels like “progressive” or “centrist” to free market economic policies makes those policies more attractive to liberals, I say go for it.
Let me also say there are many, many, areas where I agree with Lindsey. I think he is right that conservatives are flirting too much with a rightwing populism which, like all populisms, poses the dangers of becoming nothing more than a thinly disguised special pleading. Conservatism is about more than classical liberalism, but political conservatism without classical liberalism as a major component is a conservatism doomed to failure — and one I want no part of.
But, I believe I’m here to offer thoughtful disagreements rather than say “ditto.” And I do have some pointed disagreements. I leave it to others to gauge their thoughtfulness.
First, I don’t buy this libertarian center stuff. As I wrote in response to his original New Republic essay, libertarianism has become something of a shmoo-word. Lots of people call themselves libertarians. But, if you press them just a teensy bit, you discover they’re libertarians about the things they think government should have no business meddling in and pretty gung ho for government intrusions elsewhere. I don’t have polling data handy, but there are pro-life libertarians and pro-choice libertarians. There are people who think they’re libertarians who favor strict gun control and others who support the drug war. Many of these so-called libertarian centrists are either the sort of (occasionally delusional) people who proclaim that they are “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” – that is, run-of-the-mill upscale Democrats — or traditional conservatives who support gun rights and economic liberty but look askance at gay marriage and drug legalization — AKA boring old Republicans. I am deeply skeptical that this is the rough clay for sculpting anything like a new libertarian center. As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru recently observed:
Both parties have strategists that can read survey data, and that is why they have been moving in exactly the opposite direction, with Republicans emphasizing social conservatism rather than market economics, and Democrats emphasizing statist economics rather than social liberalism.
Indeed, for a guy so opposed to hidebound reliance upon the past, Brink puts an awful lot of stock in the present as a predictor of the future. (The beauty of the past is that it’s a much bigger data set than what’s happening right now).
For example, Brink nearly revels in the decline in religious attitudes among Americans and then, a few paragraphs later, notes that the number of Hispanics will double thanks to immigration. Is it really so obvious that a country where one in four Americans are Hispanics — mostly Catholic but also increasingly Pentecostal and the like — will be as un-religious as the trend lines of the last decade suggest? Similarly, is it really true that the “crisis mechanism” of income inequality won’t become more useful for Progressives as we import millions of low wage, uneducated, immigrants who may not be averse to taking advantage of the welfare state or voting Democratic?
I don’t know the answer to either of these questions, but I do know straight line projections rarely illuminate future realities so much as reflect the false assumptions of the given moment.
Indeed, Brink knows far better than I that in the 1960s and into the 1970s liberals had good reason to be confident that current trends would deliver the Age of Aquarius. It’s fine to say that modern capitalism made social correction inevitable, but I’m not nearly enough the materialist — or, if you prefer, the optimist — to put all of my faith in the redemptive powers of capitalism. Don’t get me wrong: What has two thumbs and loves the free market? This guy! But I’m enough of a Whig to think there’s some other stuff at work, too. A little judgmental finger-wagging from conservatives might just have helped some teenagers to avoid drugs or the siren song of trying to emulate Madonna’s slattern chic.
A warning flag should go up when someone devises an argument in which the smartest political strategy, historical forces, and his own personal preferences happen to be in almost lockstep accord. In Against The Dead Hand, Brink chronicles in lucid detail and limpid prose how the very smartest experts of the early 20th century were absolutely convinced that their ideal social policies were confirmed by science, morality and History. There’s a similar whiff of hubris coming off libertarians who are not only sure that theirs is the best path, but that it will also be the most successful path. I like to think I have the best position on most issues, simply by virtue of the fact that if I thought a different position were truer and better, I’d have that position instead. Yet there are all sorts of things I believe ought to be, but I’m not under any illusion that putting Jonah Goldbergism into action would be a winning political platform.
Which leads me to my biggest complaint with the argument behind the Brink Lindsey Project. His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism. And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide. If this is unfair or incorrect, I am eager for correction.
The upshot of Lindsey’s new fusionism is that liberals are right on cultural issues because they are libertarians on cultural issues and conservatives are right about economics because they are libertarians on economics. Conservatives largely are libertarians on economics (with all the failures of the GOP and the exception of Buchananism hereby stipulated and agreed to). But it is simply not true that liberals are libertarians in the cultural arena. They are libertarians on the issues they are libertarian about, just like the centrist libertarian voter Brink celebrates.
One of the biggest con jobs of recent years is liberal outrage over conservatives imposing morality. It’s a staple of Democratic talking points and it is hooey. Yes, of course, conservatives believe in imposing morality to one extent or another. But so do liberals. Indeed, liberals push for statist economic policies out of moral conviction. Sure, many will claim their economic policies are the best policies on the merits. But you don’t need to scratch very far beneath the surface to get even these people to agree that their real aim is to redress wrongs, do good, help the little guy, make society more just, fair, nice and so on.
For example, in 2004, John Kerry (the Democratic presidential nominee in case you’ve blocked it out), insisted that his religious faith is “why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.” But, at the same time, he said that when it comes to issues like abortion, “What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn’t share that article of faith.” In short, when it comes to the specific topic of abortion he’s conveniently “libertarian” but at all other times he sees nothing wrong with imposing his moral vision on American society.
It is an enormous strategic and philosophical error to confuse liberal rhetoric about tolerance and personal choice as evidence that liberals are libertarians on everything but economics. If that were the case, the Democratic Party wouldn’t favor racial quotas, hate crimes laws, campaign finance reform, environmental statism and scads of other regulations and intrusions. Brink’s scheme gives liberals a benefit of the doubt they do not deserve. They are just as eager to impose their moral vision on society as conservatives are, they just hide it better.
Perhaps, as I’ve suggested, it may be the case that libertarians have become more culturally liberal themselves and so they are simply more eager to pick fights with cultural conservatives than cultural liberals. Frank Meyer, the author of libertarian-conservative fusionism would be horrified by what often passes for libertarianism these days.
Still, it’s worth noting that Meyer’s Fusionism didn’t work too well on paper either. But it was a very useful Sorelian myth for conservatives and libertarians alike, yielding some enormous political and policy gains over the last half century.
The Brink Lindsey Project might be another useful ideal. And if it succeeds in making progressives more market-oriented, I’m all for it.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a columnist for the LA Times and a member of the Board of Contributors to USA Today. His book, Liberal Fascism, will be released this December by Doubleday.
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.
First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin
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.
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?
Depends on What You Mean by “Social Democracy”
Brink raises the issue of whether or not a “European-style social democracy” is likely to emerge in the United States. In my view it depends on what one means. As he notes, contemporary European social democrats have substantially reined in their ambitions, privatizing state-owned firms and the like. It seems exceedingly unlikely that the U.S. is going to nationalize the mines and everyone seems to agree that airline regulation of the old school is gone for good. Nor does America seem likely to me to adopt German- or French-style labor market regulations, less because the fondest dreams of progressive America are likely to go unfulfilled than simply because there’s fairly little support for such ideas even in America’s progressive community.
What I do think is likely is that the trend toward increasing government involvement in the provision and finance of health care will continue. Similarly with the trend toward government involvement in the provision and finance of preschool and day care. And, again, with the trend toward increasing federal involvement in the finance of primary and secondary education (this last perhaps paired with a more libertarian evolution of the actual administration of schools). These would be moves in the direction of social democracy, but also moves that are very much in accordance with Lindsey’s vision of happy, freedom-seeking postmoderns, and they seem to me to reflect things that voters want.
Liberals: Wrong on More Than Just Economics
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.
Cyclical versus Secular Change
A recurring criticism of my “libertarian center” thesis — see Jonathan Chait, or Ramesh Ponnuru, or Jonah and Peter Beinart in a recent “What’s Your Problem” segment — is that it’s obviously wrong because it’s at odds with current political trends. In recent years, the argument goes, politicians have been winning elections by stressing social conservatism and economic populism, i.e., the very opposite of the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” position I’m touting.
I have some quibbles with that analysis of current trends, but I’ll concede that, especially on economic and spending issues, anti-libertarian forces have the momentum right now. But that’s really beside the point I’m trying to make. My critics are focusing on which way the pendulum is swinging. By contrast, I’m talking about which way the whole clock is moving.
Of course there are political cycles, which on economic issues are often influenced by business cycles. So, let’s see, after the ’90s experience of superheated labor markets, stock market booms and then bubbles, the explosion of the Internet, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and endless triumphalist hype about globalization and the “new economy,” we’ve been confronted with a recession, a prolonged stock market bust, a prolonged funk in job creation, accounting scandals, terrorist attacks and anxieties, and a failed war. Further, presiding over this hangover period has been a bumblingly incompetent administration that is at least nominally associated with free-market views. Is it really surprising that, at this juncture, there is an increased appetite for populist rhetoric and nostrums promising greater economic security?
What I’m interested in, though, is net movement over the course of numerous political and business cycles. My claim is that this net movement has been in a direction that can fairly be called libertarian. In certain key dimensions of social life, I really think this is beyond serious dispute. Conservatives today are much more liberal than their counterparts a generation ago when it comes to race relations, sex, the role of women, and censorship. And liberals today are much more appreciative of the power of market competition, and much more aware of the limits of government policy, than their predecessors in the days of the New Frontier and Great Society.
Looking ahead, I believe there are sound reasons for expecting, if not breathtaking further libertarian breakthroughs, at least the preservation of the basic character of the new, more libertarian social order. And, in response to Julian’s essay, let me say that these reasons go beyond the connection between the progress of mass affluence and a shift toward more libertarian attitudes. In addition, mass affluence produces conditions that create pressure for generally libertarian policies, regardless of what various political factions may happen to want. First, abundance leads to greater pluralism — and thus a “thinner” consensus on values, and thus strong opposition to government enforcement of one group’s creed at the expense of others. Second, under conditions of abundance, continued economic growth is increasingly reliant on a more decentralized, more flexible, more entrepreneurial economic system. For healthy growth to continue, market-friendly policies are a necessity.
If I’m right, then over the longer term, a libertarianish political movement would have the big advantage of riding a historical tailwind. No movement can avoid reverses from time to time, but a movement dedicated to market-led growth and tolerance should be able to achieve real successes over time. And should such a movement fail to emerge, then I expect we will continue to see economic populists and traditionalist conservatives winning some battles while losing the war.
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.
Libertine Elites Put Poor in Peril
As I’ve been concentrating mostly on where I disagree with Brink, let me say that I do agree with the basic thesis that wealth creates a libertarianish ethos. The richer you get, the less you think you need the government because – duh – you need the government less. People who can afford to use FedEx and online banking instead of the mail, have employees to cut through government red tape, drink bottled water, send their kids to private schools, and live in crime-free neighborhoods will see government as minimally intrusive or minimally necessary in their lives. I don’t think the political repercussions are as clear cut as Brink does, but I do agree that politics will be increasingly constrained or at least influenced by this essentially libertarianish lifestyle.
But let me suggest a way in which the libertarianism of the affluent may not have the consequences Brink (or I) would like. Take Hollywood millionaires, whom I will caricature in order to make my point more clearly. In many respects they are the most libertarian people in America. They rely on government for nothing and have precisely the libertine cultural mores Brink calls libertarian. They believe sexual liberty and free expression are the highest values in civilization. They are pro-choice, and so “open-minded” on social issues their brains often fall out. And yet, your standard hyper-rich Hollywood liberal supports government intervention more than any other demographic I can think of. Wealth has always had a tendency to create a noblesse oblige among aristocrats, even when the aristocrats see themselves as libertarians of a sort.
This creates a challenge for conservatives — but also for libertarians. A classic conservative argument (with Tory and neocon variants) is that poor people cannot afford the values of libertine rich people. Madonna admits she has never changed a diaper and has a gaggle of handmaidens tending to her and her children’s needs. She can afford her slattern chic. A female cashier at a supermarket cannot afford Madonna’s values. The conservatives were basically right about Murphy Brown. But because libertine elites are also egalitarians they believe that if it’s wrong to judge their lifestyles, it must also be wrong to judge anyone else’s. The elite culture’s obsession with the evils of hypocrisy demands that what’s good for the millionaire be good for the waitress too. But, as a simple fact of logic and common sense, poor people cannot afford to make the mistakes rich people make.
This has very real consequences for the culture and, more relevantly, the role of government. Because the poor cannot afford a sinful lifestyle (sorry for using the “s” word here at Cato) the need for government to help becomes greater. Now a good libertarian might argue that the poor should simply learn from their mistakes and, even if they don’t, that doesn’t justify state intervention. And I largely agree with that argument. But lots of people don’t. And that’s where the noblesse oblige kicks in. Libertarianish elite liberals want the state to buy for the poor what the rich can buy for themselves.
Meanwhile, old fashioned middle-class values — upon which wealth and abundance depend — are routinely mocked from all sides. Indeed, when it comes to the cultural arena, libertarians spend much of their energy tittering at conservatives for caring about such fusty concepts as values and morals. I would argue that’s counter-productive to the Brink Lindsey Project.
Matt’s Crystal Ball
Surveying the future of social democracy in America, Matt sees bright prospects for increased government involvement in health care and preschool education. I think this is a plausible forecast. As I’ve argued, there are strong pressures that work to ensure that our relatively competitive and entrepreneurial economy stays that way. Which means that economic growth is likely to keep rolling along, which in turn means that the pot of money available for redistribution will just keep getting bigger. This is the dynamic that Tyler Cowen had in mind when he wrote that libertarian successes bring bigger government.
Still, however, there are limits. At some point, economic and political constraints on the level of taxation start to kick in. And those limits are likely to be tested in the coming years even without an expansion in the health care state’s commitments. Does Matt think that federal tax receipts as a percentage of GDP can be jacked up dramatically over the next couple of decades? It’s possible, to be sure, but not without a huge fight. And if it turns out that America’s historic aversion to European levels of taxation ultimately prevails, Matt’s vision of social democracy is going to get caught in the squeeze.
Social democracy can beat the tax squeeze if the runaway escalation of government health care costs can somehow be reined in. Good luck with that! Can Matt find anything in the history of Medicare or Medicaid that inspires confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to control health care costs?
Brink Lindsey raises a valid issue — the public’s demand for more health care benefits seems to be colliding with its distaste for a large increase in tax revenues. The circle could be squared by having Medicaid and Medicare implement cost-saving measures, but that seems unlikely as well. And it’s true, none of the possible approaches to health care — price controls, entitlement cuts, or substantially higher taxes — seem especially likely. I’m far from certain as to which path the country will take.
The least-likely path of all, however, is the libertarian one in which the government steps back from a commitment to ensure the health of its citizens. As I speak, the president is threatening to veto a popular bill to expand the SCHIP health insurance program for children, a measure that will certainly become law if the Democrats win in 2008 and that it seems unlikely a Republican president would be willing to veto if he weren’t a lame duck. The political struggles in this area will, no doubt, become extremely intense in the future, but I’m reasonably confident that the predominant approach will be some combination of higher taxes and price controls. Lindsey mentions Tyler Cowen’s observation that it is precisely the prosperity generated by a well-functioning capitalist system that makes higher tax levels affordable which is, I suppose, “ironic” to a libertarian expecting to find Marxists beneath the bedsheets everywhere, but fairly unsurprising from a liberal perspective. Indeed, I’m not really sure why someone with Lindsey’s outlook would find this prospect threatening — entitlement spending has, after all, grown steadily over the past thirty years and Lindsey is enthusiastic about that period, why should the future be any different?
Can Conservatives Rediscover the Cultural Center?
In his most recent post, Jonah makes the point that our expanded cultural freedom has had very different consequences for people at the top and bottom of the socioeconomic scale. I agree, and I said so in my book.
It’s not just that the rich have the money to buy their way out of jams. More important, people from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds live in a cultural milieu that fosters long-term planning and the self-discipline on which such planning depends. No longer the repressed squares of bourgeois yore, they yield to the temptations of the flesh — but moderately. They are enlightened hedonists.
The enlightenment that makes the hedonism possible is a fundamental commitment to socioeconomic success, including the assumption of personal responsibility for achieving that success. This commitment takes the form of the core middle-class values of strong families, education, and hard work.
I agree with Jonah that the survival and spread of these core middle-class values is vital to the continued health of American society. Indeed, in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, I argued that cultural renewal in the bottom half of the socioeconomic scale is the key to reversing economic inequality.
And I agree further that conservatives are the natural champions of the values of upward mobility. But instead of identifying these values with America’s broad cultural center of enlightened hedonism, conservatives have fallen into pandering to the crudest forms of populism — gay-bashing, nativism, and jingoism. Consequently, conservatism is now more associated with cultural and regional outliers (i.e., evangelicalism and the South, respectively) than the broad American mainstream. As I wrote recently in National Review (here and here), conservatives need to give up the divisive mentality of the culture wars and rediscover the cultural center.
Escape from Freedom
As I mentioned in my previous post, I find Brink Lindsey’s argument for the tendency of broad affluence to promote libertarian values much more plausible as macro-level historical analysis than near-term punditry. Encomia are tedious, though, so let me try to play devil’s advocate here as well, starting where the case seems strongest, on the cultural front.
We might imagine Lindsey’s scholarly ancestor Brinkonius of Cato, writing in the mid 16th-century. Observing that movable type printing (presciently named after the popular blogging software) will enable lay access to and interpretation of scripture, he predicts a proliferation of religious views and practices, inaugurating a new era of theological pluralism in which state establishment of religion falls away and citizens share a deep commitment to freedom of conscience as a political principle. And, indeed, he’s right. It’s just that there will be a few bumps in the road on the way.
Perhaps all of this is irrelevant to us in the developed West—we’ve had our Westphalia, we’re over the hump. But it does seem early yet to be terribly confident about this. Cultural liberalization and repression are usually locked in a complex tango that frustrates any linear attempt to predict its path, even when the start and end points are stipulated. Erich Fromm, for instance, offers one account of how growing affluence and autonomy can spawn totalizing mass movements in his classic Escape from Freedom. The loosening of traditional restraints and the explosion of novel identities and life-plans from which to choose is experienced as enormously liberating by many, but has proven so disorienting to others that it can also stoke demand for new, still more all-encompassing identities. Neither is straightforward backlash the only potential problem. Consider sociologist Olivier Roy’s account of the emergence of radical Islamism. Roy rejects the narrative—perhaps most familiar from Benjamin Barber’s book Jihad vs McWorld—that identifies extremist salafism as a form of conservative tribalist reaction against pluralism, cosmopolitanism, and mass affluence. Rather, argues Roy, it is a product of these very phenomena: an attempt to reject traditional local practices and reconstruct a “pure” Islam, precisely because globalization had made increasingly and vertiginously clear how varied and contingent those practices were. In response, the movement’s radical theorists sloughed off the domesticating adaptations acquired over the centuries and, in the name of tradition, constructed a new and radical doctrine.
Fortunately, the Veggie Tales seem unlikely to begin preaching martyrdom anytime soon. The sound and fury we hear on the right about the hegemonic threat of “secular humanism” has to date been just that—louder and more furious for its impotence. But it has also come, recall, in a context where 80–90 percent of Americans profess belief in God, and more than half tell pollsters they would not, under any circumstances, vote for an atheist. It may prove interesting—in the sense of the old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”—to see what happens if and when the trends Lindsey describes really do begin to yield a genuinely mass secularization. My own inclination is to think that the process will be smoother than those who fear some kind of Dostoyevskian descent into nihilism predict. But the Scylla and Charybdis of a more broad-based traditionalist retrenchment, on the one hand, or some new wave of totalizing substitutes, on the other, cannot be entirely discounted.
On the economic front, since everyone seems to be focused on healthcare, it’s not entirely clear to me which way technological progress in the medical sector is going to push. It may be that ever-rising costs make clear that public provision of cutting-edge care for everyone is unsustainable. But, paradoxically, medical innovation might also undermine the sense that we live in a “post-scarcity” economy, even in the colloquial sense. Suppose, for instance, that Ray Kurzweil is right that cascading and accelerating development will soon entail that buying a few more years of life with current state-of-the art tech allows people to survive until the next innovation, which will give them enough of a boost to reach the next horizon, and so on indefinitely. It might become possible to radically extend the human lifespan, but only at massive cost. Would we countenance a situation where the very wealthy enjoyed a century or more of middle-aged vigor while the rest of us were stooped and grey after a mere 80 or 90 years? Or would our conception of what constitutes an acceptable amount of “survival” expand to fill the available space? This may sound like sci-fi speculation, but again, if we consider the scale at which Lindsey’s argument works, if it works, we need to consider the kind of changes we should anticipate by midcentury, not the next midterms.
The Libertine Center
I think Jonah is on to something in his last post, but his use of of wacky leftist Hollywood millionaires to make his point, even if an admitted caricature, is probably a red herring. I wrote a review about a year back of an excellent book called Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. And while the argument deserves to be read in full, here’s one key part of the account sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas promise in their subtitle: The sorts of economic changes Lindsey talks about have produced a broad middle-class trend toward delayed childbearing. Where once marriage was a central rite of passage into adulthood, it’s now utterly unremarkable to find men and women alike who postpone any serious consideration of marriage until their late 20s or early 30s, when they’ve finished college, and perhaps some post-graduate education, and become established in careers. Even most conservatives aren’t prepared to say there’s anything wrong with this as such. But where middle-class couples are delaying both marriage and childbearing, their poorer counterparts, lacking realistic opportunities to build satisfying identities around ambitious careers, are far less willing to forego the meaning and validation parenthood provides, and correspondingly less likely to view early pregnancy as a life-derailing catastrophe to be avoided at any cost. The problem, in other words, is not “Hollywood values,” or even “middle-class values,” but the unstable combination of two independently viable value sets—what the late social theorist Jane Jacobs might have termed a “monstrous moral hybrid.” Relative to the broad shift in expectations about marital timing, the effect of a tiny handful of affluent women voluntarily choosing single motherhood is negligible, and the focus on it distracting.
This account is actually fairly congenial to Lindsey’s thesis, since it both identifies economic development as a source of this particular culture war and holds out the hope that still more broadly shared affluence may complete the shift from the unstable, transitional value set to the modern middle-class one. Or, to put it in the form of a Simpsons paraphrase for Jonah’s sake: Here’s to mass affluence—the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.
Why Worry about Entitlements?
Matt observes that entitlement spending has been rising over the past few decades, and that I think the past few decades have been pretty good ones. So, he asks, why should I worry about the continued growth of entitlements?
C’mon, Matt, you can do better than that. I think you’ll grant as well that recent times have been pretty good, even as Republicans have won seven of the past ten presidential contests. Does that mean you’d be happy with a continuation of the GOP’s winning streak?
Yes, we can have a thriving free society and a bloated, costly welfare state — after all, we do right now. But I think we can do better.
I worry about entitlements because I’m a liberal, not a social democrat. Which means, I don’t support collectivization for collectivization’s sake. If people can handle things on their own without government assistance and control, they ought to, for a whole variety of reasons. And since most Americans have the capacity to provide for their own retirement and (whether directly or through insurance) health care, there is no need for universal entitlement programs in those areas. I support means-tested retirement subsidies. And I support health care subsidies for the poor and chronically ill (i.e., those unable to provide for their own health care). But I oppose on principle programs that slosh gigantic sums from one cohort of the middle class to another.
And I think there are good reasons for other liberals to share my worries, even if they’re much more enthusiastic generally about redistributionist policies than I am. Matt acknowledges that the public’s aversion to high taxes imposes political constraints on government spending. Which means there are opportunity costs to spending on this rather than that. Specifically, spending profligately to subsidize people who don’t need the help means spending less on people who do. Already more than a third of federal spending goes to support people over 65; that share is projected to keep going up and up. The result is that other, worthier causes go begging for funds, and the squeeze is only going to get worse.
There’s more to liberalism than serving as tax collector for the gerontocracy — isn’t there?
Fighting Pessimistic Bias
In his post on “Escape from Freedom,” Julian offers some interesting observations and speculations about various ways in which freedom’s momentum could be throttled or reversed. Of course one must always keep such dark possibilities in mind — eternal vigilance and all that.
But I really think that, while I may be a cockeyed optimist, most people are more vulnerable to — and should be on their guard against — slipping into the opposite kind of error. In The Myth of the Rational Voter (see here for a helpful, busy-reader-friendly excerpt), Bryan Caplan tells us that public opinion, on economic issues at least, is afflicted with what he calls “pessimistic bias,” or “a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the (recent) past, present, and future performance of the economy.”
A similar kind of pessimistic bias is almost de rigueur for intellectuals contemplating the human condition and its prospects. Anything that hints of a belief in progress is vulnerable to being dismissed as simple-minded Whiggish naivete. Serious people are supposed to sound like Woody Allen:
“More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Personal experience has stripped me of pessimistic bias. I was born in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. When my parents built the house I grew up in, they installed a fallout shelter in the backyard. I remember going to bed as a kid and hearing sirens, and wondering to myself if it was a civil defense warning and I should wake my parents. I fully expected to live my whole life under the shadow of endless global conflict with communism. And then, in my twenties, communism went poof.
I came to political awareness during the ’70s, when the economy and the country seemed to be falling apart. And then, just a few years later, inflation went poof and we embarked on a quarter-century-long boom that’s still going strong.
Taking the longer view, I look at graphs of one indicator of human well-being after another, and each one looks the same. Time after time, the line runs along the bottom of the page for 10,000 dismal, dreary years until, a couple centuries ago, it starts rocketing upward. Looking at these graphs, I just can’t shake the conviction that, as the subtitle of one of my favorite books puts it, there is a logic of human destiny. And that this logic is inextricably connected with the unfolding of human freedom.