The Hope and Horror of Liberaltarian Alignments

Tyler Cowen and Arnold Kling have both discussed some or all of this passage from Ross Douthat, in which he expresses concern for the possible damage of a possible flight of libertarian intellectuals toward the left. I’ll take it in two pieces. 

What could happen … is a bigger-tent liberalism – somewhat chastened, perhaps, by some big-government failures in the Obama era – that makes libertarian intellectuals feel welcome, engages them in conversations about smarter regulations and more efficient tax policy, and generally woos them away from their culturally-dissonant alliance with people who attend megachurches and Sarah Palin rallies. This would make for a smarter left-of-center in the short run, but I think in the long run it would be pernicious. It would further the Democratic Party’s transformation into a closed circle of brainy meritocrats, and push the Republican Party in a yet more anti-intellectual direction. And it would produce an elite consensus more impervious to structural critiques, and a right-wing populism more incapable of providing them. The Democratic Party would hold power more often, and become more sclerotic as a result; the GOP would take office less often, and behave more recklessly on those rare occasions when it did manage to seize the reins of state. 

First, I think Ross is right to see this as a game about the distribution of opinion elites. Second, I think he’s right to imply that a GOP with a weakened libertarian influence would become a more “right-wing populist” party. Which I think helps me make my point. Why would an intellectual libertarian want to keep company with a group of flag-waving moral reactionaries? Masochism? Now, if I interpret this as an argument aimed at people like me, it’s an exceedingly odd one. Ross seems to say that a more liberaltarian Democratic party would both produce better regulatory and tax policy and win more elections.

Why shouldn’t I, an incrementalist classical liberal, think that’s an awesome result? Because on the rare occasion the GOP manages to govern they’ll wreck the country? And so thinky libertarian types should remain the redheaded stepchild of old fusionism so that right-populists don’t actually indulge their terrifying instincts? I’m not sure that’s what Ross is saying, but that sort of sounds like what he’s saying.  

This is obviously a political gloss on what is essentially an intellectual project, and I know Will, like many libertarians I admire, prides himself on not thinking in terms of partisanship. But for anyone who cares about political outcomes, I think it’s important to consider the correlation of forces when you set out on ideological projects – especially in a country where the two-party structure has been as durable as it’s been in ours. I understand the impulse for smart, independent-minded libertarians to flee what seems like an increasingly anti-intellectual American Right and seek conversations and alliances with the friendlier parts of the left-of-center. But the vacuum on the Right also militates in favor of smart, idiosyncratic thinkers trying to fill it, instead of fighting for a seat at the crowded liberal table. That doesn’t mean registering as a Republican, attending CPAC, or casting a vote for McCain-Palin (or the next iteration thereof). But it means being open to the possibility that the old fusionism, battered and bruised as it is, may still hold as much promise for the advancement of libertarian policy goals as “liberaltarianism” ever will.

I’m glad that Ross sees that the American Right is increasingly anti-intellectual. But I don’t think that’s best combatted by sticking it out and raising the intellectual tone of an increasingly hostile group of egghead haters. As I think Ross agrees, the balance of elite opinion matters. And I think intellectual capital flight from the right really does threaten the GOPs future success. If Republicans keep bleeding young intellectual talent because increasingly socially liberal twenty-somethings simply can’t stand hanging around a bunch of superstitious fag-bashers, then the GOP powers-that-be might start to panic and realize that, once the last cohort of John Birchers die, they’ve got no choice but to move libertarian on social issues. Maybe. I like to imagine.

But Ross’s crystal ball is no better than mine. So I think my best bet is just to go ahead and try to come up with a more coherent and effective version of practical market-friendly liberalism. I’d like to think that would be attractive to the tens of millions of Americans who think conservatives are vile, that conventional liberals are too deep in the pocket of the Democratic Party to actually promote prosperity and opportunity, and that libertarians are dogmatic, weird, and irrelevant.