Learning from Milton Friedman's Rhetoric

via Mark Perry, here’s a delightful video of Milton Friedman arguing for the abolition of licensure for doctors at the Mayo Clinic. (Busting the monopolies in health care provision is the first item in my fantasy of health-care reform!)

The stark contrast between this class act and the histrionics of conservatives today got me thinking about Friedman’s rhetorical style. What’s so compelling about Friedman is his winsome combination of logic, lucidity, confidence, and geniality. He behaves as though the attention of even a hostile audience is a generous gift to be repaid with respect. And respect is paid by taking for granted the listeners’ intelligence and good will in the search for truth. He gladly accepts the burden of laying out the case for controversial propositions and addressing seriously even badly mistaken objections. He never assumes an antagonistic or combative stance, no matter how antagonistic or combative the audience may be. He is neither apologetic nor defensive about his unpopular positions. He evidently does take some small pleasure in his iconoclasm, and I think this can come across as smugness or self-satisfaction to those inclined to disagree with him. But the same wry twinkle can be received as well as a manifestation of the calm confidence that makes his intellectual independence possible and of his basic happiness as a person. His happiness, I think, was his rhetorical secret weapon. One doesn’t suspect a contented person of currying favor, seeking validation, or compensating for some unmet need. He makes it easy to believe in his good faith, and that makes him hard to dismiss.

Bruce Bartlett on Liberaltarianism

An excellent column from Bruce Bartlett. Some highlights:

But even these metro-libertarians tend to be more concerned about economics than social or foreign policy. The Cato Institute publishes an annual survey of economic freedom throughout the world, but produces no surveys of what countries have the most political or social freedom or those that have the most libertarian foreign policy.

Furthermore, economic freedom tends to be determined primarily by those measures for which quantifiable data are available. Since it is very easy to look up the top marginal income tax rate or taxes as a share of GDP, these measures tend to have overwhelming influence on the ratings. As a result, countries like Denmark, which are very free every way except in terms of taxes, end up being penalized. Conversely, authoritarian states like Singapore don’t suffer for it because they have low taxes.

I’d very much like us to try to measure freedom more broadly. The fact that it is an “essentially contested” concept needn’t cause too much worry. What we should try to do is compile a number of different indices that reflect a variety of widely accepted conceptions of freedom. My hypothesis is that we would find most of them highly correlated with another, and with a wide variety of social indicators. The ones that correlate poorly with the others and/or correlate poorly with various indicators of well-being and human development can probably be just thrown out.

More from Bartlett:

At the liberaltarian dinner, many of the liberals persuasively argued that the pool of freedom isn’t fixed such that if government takes more, then there is necessarily less for the people. Many government interventions expand freedom. A good example would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was opposed by libertarians like Barry Goldwater as an unconstitutional infringement on states’ rights. Yet it was obvious that African Americans were suffering tremendously at the hands of state and local governments. If the federal government didn’t step in to redress these crimes, who else would?

Since passage of the civil rights act, African Americans have achieved a level of freedom equal to that of most whites. Yet I have never heard a single libertarian hold up the civil rights act as an example of a libertarian success.

One could also argue that the women’s movement led to a tremendous increase in freedom. Libertarians may concede the point, but conservatives almost universally view the women’s movement with deep hostility. They think women are freest when fulfilling their roles as wife and mother. Anything that conflicts with those responsibilities is bad as far as most conservatives are concerned.

I think part of the problem is that if you hold up the Civil Rights Act as an example of libertarian success, most libertarians will deny that you are one. I think both the Civil Rights Act and the women’s movement did in fact lead to tremendous net increases in liberty. I think Bruce makes an excellent point. Federal intervention, while certainly limiting freedom of association and trumping more local jurisdictions, resulted IMO in an overall increase in freedom. That many traditional libertarian conservatives, such as Goldwater, seem to have been willing to sacrifice a great gain in overall freedom in order to maintain status quo levels local self-rule seems to me to betray a commitment to ancient ideals of liberty as community self-government in conflict with the modern idea of liberty as freedom from coercion.

I think one could buy into all of this and safely maintain libertarian bona fides. But I think that in order to endorse the freedom-enhancing nature of the influence of the women’s movement, you need to accept that cultural norms and social expectations can restrict liberty without the backing of state coercion (though state coercion very often does reflect and reinforce liberty-limiting cultural norms and social expectations). I accept that you don’t need state coercion to threaten liberty. That’s where some libertarians draw the line. But, please note, if one thinks that culture and convention can limit liberty, it does not follow that one must also think that it is permissible for the state to intervene in order to change convention. One can believe that the state may legitimately act only to protect liberty. But that does not imply that the state must do anything in its power that might protect or enhance liberty.

Democracy and Markets in Government

My post on libertarian democraphobia has elicited a sharp response from Patri Friedman. It’s good stuff, but I think we’re talking a bit past each other. In part, that’s because I was brain-dumping and wasn’t as clear as I might have been, and in part because we have some substantive disagreements. I think maybe I can be clearer on a few points and that we can start to try to get to the bottom of our disagreements.

First, I’m completely sincere in wishing Patri and others well in their exciting visionary project. I’m eagerly watching its progress and I hope it succeeds. But I think one thing we need to hash out is why we think the probabilities of success are what we think they are. At this point, I consider the probability very low that seasteads (or something like them) will create a competitive market for systems of social organization within my lifetime. I also think the probability is low that persuasion and political organization will, by itself, be very effective in moving any already relatively liberal state within the status quo global system of states very far toward more thoroughly liberal ideals. I just happen to think that the prospect of making some progress on this front is better.

I share the view that demonstration is more powerful than argument. And I think that if there is significant further liberalization within the system of states, it will most likely be due to the salience of successful innovations in governance, and that other jurisdictions, competing for talent and investment, will act to copy those innovations. I just don’t presently think the jurisdiction most likely to set off this kind of race to the top will be a seastead. And, furthermore, I think setting off this kind of cascade requires a good deal of intellectual and rhetorical groundwork. Argument and persuasion often makes demonstration possible.

Anyway, let me reply directly to some of Patri’s remarks:

Will seems trapped in the hopeless quest to philosophically define a single just society.  I find the idea that one can determine, philosophically or practically, the best way to organize a society a priori to be laughable.  And that’s even if we agree on a single set of goals for our society – which we don’t. Competition and consumer choice are the answers – why is this so hard for a libertarian to understand?

Not hard at all. And I share Patri’s skepticism about the worth of a priori ideal theory.

We face a very hard problem – the problem of creating a good system of social organization, one with the power to enforce laws,  yet which does not abuse this power.  As liberals, we know how to solve hard problems – use markets.  Which is why I advocate for a competitive market for government.  Will, strangely, seems to like the current oligopoly with its high barrier to entry and high switching costs, and is skeptical that a more competitive market will provide a better solution.

I don’t believe I said anything that implied I like the status quo system of states. As readers of this blog know, I am deeply invested in the conviction that the fundamental human right to move — the right to exit and enter jurisdictions — must be more fully recognized and honored. Competitive markets for government can’t work if people are not allowed to “unsubscribe” from their current provider of governance or “subscribe” to another. Because governance is territorial, the very possibility of anything like consumer choice in governance is based on mobility rights. I’m not skeptical that more competition between jurisdictions will provide a better solution. I’m pretty certain it will. I think Patri has confused my defense of the possibility of progress within existing liberal democracies for complacency about the “current oligopoly” system, which I actively deplore.

Note that this argument has nothing to do with democracy, and doesn’t depend in the slightest on the morality or practicality of the system.  Democracy is simply the current industry standard product that firms offer customers.  If it truly is the ultimate form of social organization, then in a world of competitive government, democratic seasteads will outcompete all other seasteads, attract all the customers, and people will eventually give up trying other forms of government.  Personally, I find the idea that this ancient Greek technology is the best we’ll ever do to be absurd, but even if I’m wrong, even if our Thousand Nations are all different variants of democracy, the system will still improve politics by allowing for competition between those variants. so we can find those that work the best.

First, I think it’s more than confusing, on Patri’s own terms, to talk of states as if they are “firms” and as if the people who live within their territories are “customers.” I thought the point was that there isn’t a market and that people within the jurisdictions of states don’t have effective consumer choice over governments. I suppose talking as if the culmination of your work has preceded you may help to create a needed conceptual shift, but it also obscures the fact that the freedom of citizens and subjects all over the world to become globetrotting jurisdictional shoppers remains a largely political question within existing states.

Second, does Patri think democracy has become “the current industry standard” for no reason? As it happens, liberal democracies are in fact the best places in the world to live. They are where people are happiest, healthiest, live the longest, and, yes, are most free, And, as it happens, people who live in advanced liberal democracies generally have significant freedom to emigrate. (In non-democracies, not so much.) When they do move, they tend to move to other liberal democracies.

I understand it’s tough for new entrants to break into the government “market,” and that if attractive non-democratic alternatives were to be offered, people with the freedom to choose them might choose them. But insofar as there has been a limited market test, democracy is the decisive champ. So, if Patri really finds a priori identification of the best way to organize society “laughable,” then I don’t understand why he’s entitled to be so confident that “the idea that this ancient Greek technology is the best we’ll ever do [is] absurd.”  It’s this sort of thing that makes me (and others, I’m sure) suspect Patri’s less than wholehearted about the “Let a Thousand Nations Bloom” rhetoric and is in fact a closet ideal theorist who wants a bit of turf on which to demonstrate the superiority of his ideal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Thus even a democraphilic should want competitive government.  It’s not democraphilia or democraphobia which is the key here, but agoraphilia or agoraphobia (meaning markets, not open spaces, of course).  So my challenge to Will, and any other agoraphilic skeptic of competitive government is to resolve this contradiction.  If you generally believes in the power of competition to offer better products to consumers, why is the market for government fundamentally different?

I do want more competitive government! But I’ll persist in complaining that Patri underestimates the extent to which the possibility of competitive government remains, for the forseeable future, largely a political problem and not an engineering one. The question of “why the market for government is fundamentally different” takes us back to anarchist vs. statist ground zero, doesn’t it? But, that aside, my response to the challenge is simply to deny that I am agoraphobic, or that there is a contradiction I need to resolve.

Here’s a question for Patri: Why do you think building some new territory relatively few people will be politically free and economically able to move to will be sufficient to create a “competitive market in government” significantly different than the current “market”? And here’s another: If seasteads converge on forms of democracy not very different from current ones, will you consider this a vindication of familiar forms of democracy or an indictment of imagination?

There’s more in Patri’s post I’d like to respond to, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

Libertarian Democraphobia

If you’re a new-school classical liberal (neoclassical liberal?) like me, you like democracy just fine. This puts you somewhere between (a) modern liberals in the post-Rawlsian vein who tend toward not-actually-very-liberal Rousseuvian romanticism about democracy and (b) libertarians who tend toward often not-very-liberal renunciations of democracy. I want to talk about these libertarians. Here are some off-the-cuff (that means disorganized) thoughts.

First, I think it’s important to recognize that libertarian democraphobia often comes from a deeply liberal place. The libertarian non-coercion principle is a good abstract first approximation of the liberal presupposition that persons are free and equal. No one has a natural right to rule over another, and no one has a natural duty to obey. The liberal presupposition sets a high bar for the justification of coercion, and thus the justification of the state. Many libertarians think there is no justification. Therefore the only acceptable rule of collective choice is unanimity or full consensus. This is one focus of the debate between anarchist and limited-statist libertarians. On the anarchist side, political power cannot get off the ground, and thus the design of mechanisms to control political power is a non-issue. On the limited-statist side, political power does get off the ground, and thus so does the design of constitutions and democratic institutions. I think this divide is far wider than is reflected in the libertarian community, and part of the reason is that limited-government libertarians tend to internalize more of the anarchist framework than they logically should.

In any case, libertarians often display a confusing or confused reaction to democracy as it actually exists. The scheme laid out in most libertarian ideal theory is so distant from actual democratic practice that the whole existing system can seem by comparison a comprehensive injustice. When one’s ideal theory implies that politics is by its nature illegitimate and corrupt, one tends to develop a sharply disapproving attitude toward participation in politics. Lots of libertarians, for example, think it’s morally wrong to vote. (There are many structural reasons the Libertarian Party is hopeless, but here’s one reason libertarians tend to be at best half-hearted political activists.) Likewise, incrementalist approaches to policy can never be adequately pure from the perspective of radical libertarian ideal theory. School vouchers are still tax-financed; a system of mandatory personal retirement accounts has a restriction on economic liberty at its heart; and so on. So, not only is politics corrupt and corrupting. There are few democratically feasible libertarian policies that merit support. The public does not want libertarianism. Which means that the public does not want a system that respects fundamental rights. So much the worse for the public, the thinking tends to go.

The confused radical libertarian response is to more or less agree with all of this, and then decide to vote for the Republican because he promises lower taxes or whatever. Whatever else you can say about Patri Friedman and Peter Thiel’s wholesale rejection of politics in favor of flight to a DIY frontier, it is not confused or incoherent. It is to reject the terms of the local democratic game by exercising the exit option. It’s what the Pilgrims did. It’s what the Mormons did. The difference is that there’s no more ready-made frontier left to settle. And I truly wish them the best of luck.

But I don’t think they take seriously enough the problem of governance in the DIY frontier. One can avoid politics and democratic conflict in the short-run through self-segregation. But this tends not to last that long. (See: the Pilgrims in Massachusets; the Mormons in Deseret/Utah) And I have questions about how well the Friedman plan can scale, as newcomers come to the settled frontier, and as pioneers raise children who do not share the consensus of the initial settlement. Sooner or later the problem of pluralism and moral disagreement will rear its head, and there are liberal and illiberal ways to respond. If the response is to maintain the consensus of self-segregation by evicting inevitable dissidents, one begins to wonder what to call those with the power to evict. At a certain point, the differences between a sovereign monarch and a monopoly landlord becomes semantic.

Anyway, not to rehearse Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but I think the prospects for avoiding something like a state are slim. And I think it would be better to design a democratic structure in advance, rather than morphing into a neo-fuedal landlord/tenant model of territorial governance, or trying to cobble together an adequate constitution when the original system starts to break down. Of course, the point of the DIY frontier for its present advocates is precisely to demonstrate that society without politics is possible. So to recommend a democratic constitution at the outset is just to express pessimism about a project meant to show this pessimism unfounded. And why argue when you can experiment? Let’s do the experiment!

Now, as I’ve argued before, I think the anarchist is right about the minarchist: once you accept the public goods argument for state protection of various rights, you have accepted that there are no fully voluntary solutions to certain collective action problems, and you’re logic-bound to ride the public goods argument as far as it takes you, which is further than the minarchist thinks. And you have accepted that it is possible to justify a break from a full consensus or unanimity rule. You’re going to have to settle on a collective decision procedure that can determine what is and is not going to count as a public good, how much it will cost to pay for these goods, what the scheme of public finance is going to be, etc. You have agreed to politics, and there is no guarantee things are always going to your way. I fully accept all of this. And I think other neo-classical liberals (other moderate limited-government libertarians) could do much better at fully facing up to their implicit buy-in to democratic politics. This doesn’t mean giving up idealistic disenchantment with the current dispensation, or giving up hard-headed views on the limits of democracy, but it does mean taking democracy seriously, and I think that means taking more responsibility for public opinion.

Which brings us to Thiel’s boneheaded quip about women’s suffrage. Extending the franchise to women is, in my estimation, one of the great triumphs of the American classical liberal tradition. Like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage was rooted in the rejection of a shameful tradition of paternalism that held that some classes of people are less than fully able to govern themselves. I cannot see how anyone who accepts basic liberal assumptions about freedom and equality can see the establishment of equal political rights as anything but an unequivocal good… unless he rejects the legitimacy of politics in principle. I think this is were Thiel was coming from.

But if politics is in-principle illegitimate, it was illegitimate before women got the vote, so why bring it up? By bringing it up as a reason why democratic progress is hopeless, Thiel does make it sound like he thinks the problem’s not democratic politics per se, but democratic politics without good prospect of producing the right answer. But liberalism starts from the recognition that free and equal people don’t agree about the right answer but need to find a way to live together anyway. The secessionist instinct does seem illiberal insofar as it’s based in the frustration that reasonable pluralism fails to generate consensus on the right answer — even when the content of the right answer is a radical version of liberalism. And Thiel’s comment seemed to imply that political recognition of the fundamental equality of persons is not only tangential to the right answer, but might even get in the way of arriving at it, which is just screwed up.

If establishing equal rights to political participation in fact created an impediment to the political success of libertarianish ideas, maybe there are some very good reasons for that. People who finally gained equal political rights through a long democratic struggle cannot have been unreasonable to see democratic politics as a morally and politically progressive force. An ideology that damns democratic politics as almost necessarily immoral might not look so good to them. And if libertarian-style politics seems especially unnatractive to members of formerly oppressed and disenfranchised groups, maybe that’s because it is reasonable to suspect that a politics that focuses relentlessly on the inviolability of property rights in a system that once treated people as property, and for centuries denied much of the population the chance to accumulate any property, is a politics meant to protect those who reap the gains of a still-rigged and unjust system.

Libertarianism does have public relations problems, and it’s not because most people are stupid or immoral. It’s because libertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that it’s a uselessly abstract ahistorical ideology for socially retarded adolescent white guys. The sadly common libertarian-conservative penchant for “brave” counter-PC truthiness (e.g., “Women do love the welfare state!” “Blacks really do have lower IQs!”) certainly doesn’t help.

Most libertarians don’t want to move to man-made islands. Most don’t even want to help take over New Hampshire. If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we’ve got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We’ve got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them. Otherwise, we should probably just accept that libertarianism is a niche creed for weird people and reconcile ourselves to impotent, self-righteous grousing. Or get serious about life on the sea. For my part, I’m going to continue to try to convince people that free markets and limited goverment are better than they might have thought.

Libertarian Ideal Theory as Silent Complicity

Steven W. Thrasher in the NY Times a couple days ago:

In 1958, when my mother, who was white, and father, who was black, wanted to get married in Nebraska, it was illegal for them to wed. So they decided to go next door to Iowa, a state that was progressive enough to allow interracial marriage. My mom’s brother tried to have the Nebraska state police bar her from leaving the state so she couldn’t marry my dad, which was only the latest legal indignity she had endured. She had been arrested on my parents’ first date, accused of prostitution. (The conventional thought of the time being: Why else would a white woman be seen with a black man?)

On their wedding day, somehow, my parents made it out of Nebraska without getting arrested again, and were wed in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on March 1, 1958. This was five years before Nebraska would strike down its laws against interracial marriage, and almost a decade before the Supreme Court would outlaw miscegenation laws throughout the country in Loving v. Virginia.

When the good state of Iowa conferred the dignity of civic recognition on my parents’ relationship — a relationship some members of their own families thought was deviant and immoral, that the civil authorities of Nebraska had tried to destroy, and that even some of my mom’s college-educated friends believed would produce children striped like zebras — our family began. And by the time my father died, their interracial marriage was seen just as a marriage, and an admirable 45-year one at that.

I suppose some of you will say that the “libertarian” position in 1958 was that the state has no place in marriage, and so the libertarian, as such, would have had nothing to say about the refusal of many states to recognize marriages between mixed-race couples. But in the world as it was, this stance would have amounted to an active refusal to resist the law’s codification of racial discrimination and segregation. It would have made one a silent partner in injustice. Those making similar arguments today will have to excuse me if I find this stance disgraceful. Many libertarians think there ought to be no government regulation of the economy, for example, but do not hesitate to take the practice for granted when they loudly opine about the extent and structure of regulation. Few say, “There should be no regulation, and so I, as a libertarian, have no opinion about how it should be carried out.” Yet I hear again and again that, since the state should not be in the business of marriage, one should not, as a libertarian, have an opinion about how this business is to be carried out. Increasingly, I find this an obnoxious and shameful form of moral recusal. One cannot use an ideological image of perfect justice to excuse or ignore an obvious injustice within the actual imperfect system. That these injustices could not arise within one’s vision of the best society does not mean that they have not in fact arisen. That a debate would not occur in an ideal world does not mean that it is not occuring or that nothing morally hangs on its conclusion. To decide to sit out the debate, with an eye on utopia, is not a way to keep one’s hands clean.

Classical Liberalism Is Not Colorblind

Jonah Golberg argued last week that there is something “unlibertarian” in pointing out, as I did, that 

American drug prohibition and sentencing policies hit poor black men the hardest, devastating already disadvantaged black families and communities—a tragic, mocking contrast to the achievement of Obama’s election. 

Jacob Sullum has replied in much more detail than I could have, concluding:

From a libertarian perspective, the war on drugs would be unjust even if its victims were a statistically precise cross-section of the American population. But the fact that it disproportionately harms members of a racial minority that was long subject to official discrimination in this country is additional cause for concern, especially since the laws it enforces grew out of explicitly racist anxieties.

But I’d like to single out this claim of Jonah’s:

It seems to me that the classical liberal is supposed to see people as autonomous and sovereign moral actors, not identity politics groups.

This sounds to me like Jonah thinks the classical liberal is supposed to play stupid. Jonah is fully aware that this is a country that for most of its history has been dominated by “identity group politics,” if you want to call it that. Blacks have been legal slaves. Jim Crow established legal racial segregation. We’ve not overcome the legacy of this. We live with urban policies that were initiated as thinly veiled attempts to reinforce residential segregation. We live with education policies that create a de facto segregated and highly unequal system of education. And, as Jacob emphasizes, drug policy has never been color-blind. To point out that it burdens blacks disproportionately is simply to point out that American public policy has never stopped being racist, has never stopped reinforcing a shameful structure of racial stratification squarely at odds with the classical liberal ideal of equal freedom under the law. Classical liberalism is not the stupid idea that there is no history. Nor is it the stupid idea that individuals who are members of groups that have been, and continue to be, victims of discriminatory state action are as fully free as individuals who are not. Classical liberalism is the demand that the state treat mature individuals as equally autonomous and sovereign moral agents, which is why it is necessary to point out the disturbingly discriminatory nature of American drug policy.

[Update: Please also see John Schwenkler and Mark Thompson. Update update: Also and especially John Holbo. How did I miss all this stuff I apparently started.]

The Lump of Liberalism Fallacy

That’s what I’m going to call the error I sense lurking beneath a lot of resistance to moderate libertarianism. The fallacy is based on an implicit denial of the fluidity of ideology and political identity. The bounds of “right” and “left” have shifted immensely over the past two generations. Yet political conversation at any time tends to proceed as if the ideological inclinations and cultural assumptions of the “left” and “right” are natural, essential, and fixed. So, just to pick an example out of the air, the argument that the considerable intellectual, cultural, and psychological overlap between moderate classical liberals and market-friendly modern liberals ought to be given more coherence as a political philosophy and political identity is invariably met with the claim that this is compltely pointless because these groups have traditionally been part of different partisan coalitions, and these coalitions are essentially this or that way. So in order to make something liberaltarianism a going concern, you’ve basically got to find enough libertarians and natural Democrats both willing to sell out everything they believe in and good luck with that. It’s basically the same reasoning that says it is impossible to introduce to market a successful new brand of cereal because all the preexisting cereals brands already have 100 percent of the market share. But there’s something pretty obviously wrong with that way of thinking. I’m a big fan of Kashi U

Meanwhile, see Matt Welch’s puzzling piece on “The Liberaltarian Jackelope.” Matt’s argument seems to be that he’s totally a liberaltarian, that it once looked as though some Western Democrats might make some electoral headway by taking on a bit more libertarian flavor, and this excited him. But it turned out that Democrats aren’t even interested in following the Republicans in using fake libertarian rhetoric for political gain. So liberaltarianism is doomed.

The Obama Budget

Clive Crook’s gloss is right-on:

Take this budget at face value, and when Mr Obama talks about “a new era of responsibility” he does not mean: “We are all in this together.” He means: “The rich are responsible for this mess and it is payback time.” Leftist Democrats are thrilled, and rightly so. The budget has three themes: healthcare reform, public investment and unflinching redistribution. This is indeed a new social contract: we get, they pay. 

This is, in fact, one of the reasons I am increasingly optimistic about liberaltarianism. I predict Obama’s unabashed embrace of throwback, dirigiste, soak-the-rich “liberalism” will not prove popular with generally pro-market, well-to-do voters who crossed over for the first time to pull the lever for a Democratic president. Yet the not-very-religious remain repelled by social conservatism all the same. As I’ve said, it doesn’t matter to me whether the Republicans become more liberal on “values” issues or whether Democrats adopt more sensibly market-oriented social and economic policy. Either way, by signaling the desire of contemporary Democrats to move even further left than is feasible in the U.S., Obama draws attention to the unoccupied space in American politics.

Big-Government Libertarianism vs. Limited-Government Liberalism

I’ve really been enjoying all the terrifically smart comments in the last two posts, which have been really helpful to me. 

Maybe one way to frame my argument is that I’m not arguing for “big-government libertarianism,” but for “limited-government liberalism.” (I see that this may confuse my prior attempts to distinguish “small” and “limited,” but bear with me as I circle and recircle looking to illuminate some things that have long nagged at me.)  My sense is that most people don’t see a difference and what I’ve been doing is groping for a way to make the distinction between the two plausible and clear.

One way to think of it is to consider where you’re starting from. I am, more or less, starting from a fairly typical liberal account of the state and it’s aims. I’m then arguing that those aims are best achieved through appropriately limited government. I believe this is a principled and coherent stance that stands or falls with the background arguments about the legitimacy and desirablity of liberal democracy. If you reject the basic argument for the liberal democratic state, then you’re not going to be impressed. But if you accept the desirability of liberal democracy, you have every reason to listen.  

On the other hand, if we start from traditional minimal-state libertarianism, we’re starting with a deep suspicion of the possibility of anything more than governance of very low quality; it’s just that the anarchist alternatives (which may be feasible and worse, or just infeasible) are worse. So, to this sort of libertarian, “big-government libertarianism” sounds like one of three things: (1) A libertarianism that can’t possibly work–a hopeless oxymoron. The argument for keeping the state strictly minimal is that a more-than-minimum state cannot be kept from bloating into a rights-stomping superstate. You’ve got to choose between almost nothing or almost everything, but big-government libertarianism tries to have it both ways. No dice.  (2) A strategy for getting liberals to trust libertarians enough to listen to libertarian policy arguments. Some libertarians seem to think this is worth trying (how could we do worse?) while others seem to think liberals are too hopelessly statist to be worth bothering with. But the real problem with (2) is that liberals will plausibly suspect libertarians of indifference to their conception of basic liberal values, and so  libertarian policy advice dressed in liberal language looks like insincere Trojan Horsing on behalf of the powerful. Why listen? (3) Libertarian non-ideal theory. One might think minimal state libertarianism is correct, as a matter of ideal theory, but see that it is politically infeasible, and so conclude that a  libertarianism that makes some concessions to welfare state liberalism is second-best, and steps in that direction are small movements toward the ideal. One problem here is: How do you tell the difference between someone who actually thinks mandatory retirement accounts, for example, are the best policy for limited-government liberalism (that’s me, on days when I’m convinced that means-tested alternative can’t work), and someone who argues for mandatory retirement accounts as a small step down the road to libertopia?

So, “limited-goverment liberalism” starts with liberalism and then argues that libertarianish policies and institutions will best secure liberal aims. “Big government libertarianism” starts with traditional minimal state libertarianism, but moderates it to make marginally more libertarian policy politically feasible.