The View from the Bearded Mirror Universe

Regarding my latest “liberaltarian” post, John Markley writes:

Will Wilkinson has what I would consider a deeply misguided post about the alleged affinity between libertarianism and big government welfare statist left-liberalism. It’s sort of the bearded mirror universe double of left-libertarianism; left-libertarians like Long, Johnson, Carson, et al. want to radicalize libertarianism and unite it with the anti-statist elements of the Left, whereas Wilkinson proposes to repudiate libertarianism’s more radical strands and draw closer to the Left’s more statist mainstream elements.

I think perhaps John has misunderstood me. I am arguing that (a) libertarian welfare statism is not only a possibility, but is actually espoused by canonical libertarian thinkers, and (b) that left-liberal welfare statists, insofar as they are actually liberals and not just progressive-style paternalist technocrats or closeted socialists, would better achieve their distinctively liberal aims by accepting something like the Friedmanite or Hayekian version of welfare statism. I’m not interested in “repudiating” libertarianism’s more radical left-leaning strands — I have a lot of sympathy with elements of Long, Johnson, and Carson’s philosophies. I am interested in promoting a tendency of thought and a set of policy reforms that I think will, as a matter of fact, make people better off.

As a reminder, behold Hayek in Constitution of Liberty, a core reading in the libertarian syllabus:

All modern governments have made provision for the indigent, unfortunate and disabled and have concerned themselves with questions of health and the dissemination of knowledge. There is no reason why the volume of these pure service activities should not increase with general growth of wealth. There are common needs that can be satisfied only by collective action and can be thus provided for without restricting individual liberty. It can hardly be denied that, as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance which the community has always provided for those not able to look after themselves, and which can be provided outside the market, will gradually rise, or that government may, usefully and without doing any harm, assist or even lead in such endeavors. (pp. 257-258)

Should you be a state-smashing radical or a milquetoast piecemealer? I don’t know. The debate over reformism versus radicalism is never-ending. For my part, I have a fairly radical ideal theory of a cosmopolitan liberal global order of trade, migration, and peace. I think the “nation state-as-primary-moral-community” assumption at bottom of most modern liberal arguments for the welfare state (and in many libertarianism-in-one-country arguments, for that matter) is morally backward. But I also have a fairly conservative theory of incremental social change. Whether or not all our institutions are legitimate — and certainly they are not — they are also very good in relative terms, both historically and contemporaneously. My immediate interest is in taking steps to make those institutions better in a way that opens up to the possibility of expanding liberty and thereby well-being the world over.