Liberaltarian Reactions

There are a ton of smart responses to my exchange with Jonah on liberaltarianism. (Brink, maybe we need to write that book.) Here’s Andrew Sullivan. Here’s Matt Welch. Here’s Reihan Salam. Here’s Ross Douthat. And here’s Virginia Postrel, not responding to my post, but drawing on her experiences at a couple recent Brink-devised libertarian/liberal events to draw out what she thinks is the real impediment to a reunion of contemporary classical liberals and our much more numerous liberal cousins. 

When you get political theorists together, they assume the big divide is over the relative weights given to equality and liberty–the old Rawls vs. Nosick split. But given the right flavor of liberals and libertarians, that’s bridgeable. The real division, I believe, is over regulation. Contemporary liberals will say, as someone did at dinner in DC, that they are against stupid regulations like the controls on trucking abolished in the late 1970s. And I’m glad for that.

But finding liberals who oppose any new regulation is almost impossible–no matter what the perverse consequences. My particular bugaboo is housing.

But the CPSIA is another good example. John Holbo at Crooked Timber is wondering why the law’s defenders–his fellow liberals, in other words–aren’t addressing the criticisms head-on: “Maybe thrift store shopping for children should become a thing of the past, because it’s too hazardous to life and limb. But, to repeat, I haven’t actually seen anyone 1) argue that the law shouldn’t, as written, have these really very sweeping effects; 2) argue that, even if it does, on balance it’s still a good law.” The comments do not encourage optimism about a liberal-libertarian/dynamist coalition.

Unfortunately, once you are ideologically committed to the idea of regulation, you can’t say that a given regulation is bad–or, worse, that maybe doing nothing new would have been the best course.

Virginia’s right. Regulation has been a particular sticking point. But, the thing is, I don’t think there’s anything particularly intractable about this — as long as the problem is a genuine disagreement about the net benefit of a particular regulation. That can be hashed out. The problem is intractable when it reflects a deep enculturated distrust between classical liberals and contemporary liberals. The latter suspect that even moderate libertarian types reject the legitimacy of regulation altogether, and so are just being coy when pointing out the costs of regulation. Libertarians aren’t really interested in regulatory efficiency. They just hate regulation, period. They’re clever at the rhetoric of reaction, and all this talk of moral hazard or perverse unintended consequences is a front for what they really want: nothing. But, the thing is, Virginia and Ed Glaeser are simply right about housing regulation. The fact that most liberals won’t listen, due to distrust, is a problem not only for liberal/libertarian amity, but for the poor people hurt by bad regulation. From the classical liberal side, we become distrustful when liberals say they are perfectly willing actually to perform the cost-benefit analysis, but then somehow find that there is always a net benefit. That’s fishy! And so we come to suspect that this seemingly reasonable willingness to honestly and rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of regulation is a front for what they really want: everything.

But it remains that there are classical and contemporary liberals who really do share deep common values and common liberal aims. I don’t think you argue your way out of an impasse of contingent historical suspicion. I think you socialize your way out of it.