What’s left of libertarianism?

by John Quiggin on August 13, 2017

Liberaltarianism

…..

This post is mainly an excuse for the pun in the title. But I do want to defend both parts of the pun.

First, liberaltarianism, as represented by the Niskanen Center (notable staff and associates include Radley Balko, Jacob Levy, Stephen Teles, Jerry Taylor, Will Wilkinson) represents an important shift of libertarianism to the left in the US context, and an important contribution to left-of-centre thinking. Compared to the left in general, the distinctive feature of liberaltarianism is scepticism about the effectiveness and beneficence of state action. The break with the Cato version of libertarianism, from which much of the Niskanen Center group has moved, is sharper, including acceptance of the need for income redistribution and action in climate change. We debated some of the issues raised by liberaltarianism in two posts about Jacob Levy’s “The Sovereign Myth”.

As my comments on that piece showed, I don’t necessarily agree with the liberaltarian view on lots of issues. But then, I agree even less with DLC Democrats. A majority coalition needs to encompass a wide range of views. More importantly, after decades of retreat, we need new ideas to respond to the failure of market liberalism and that means being open to a range of perspectives.

What I see as useful in the liberaltarian perspective is scepticism about the efficacy and beneficence of state action, and particularly detailed regulation as opposed to broadbased structural changes. Similarly, as we defend sanctuary cities and state-level action on climate change, it’s worth remembering that lots of progressives have been impatient with constraints on executive action by the federal government. Liberaltarianism provides a check on this.

Turning to the second part of the pun, apart from liberaltarianism, there’s nothing else of significance left of US libertarianism/propertarianism, either as an important political force or as an set of ideas that deserve attention and engagement.

In political terms, the 2016 election and, even more, its aftermath saw a complete failure on the part of propertarians. Electorally, there could scarcely have been a better chance for a propertarian candidate, yet Johnson pulled in just 3 per cent of the vote. Since the election, propertarians have either embraced Trump (notably Rand Paul) or maintained their standard position as mildly dissident members of the Republican base. Rand Paul is the most notable public example of the first kind, and Cato of the second. It’s startling to compare the vitriol directed at Obama (a lawless, warmongering enemy of constitutional government) with the respectful, if sometimes critical, treatment given to President Trump.

(Try Googling Cato+Obama and then Cato+Trump to check that these are reasonably representative)

More significantly, propertarians haven’t had a new idea in decades. As problems have emerged to which their ideology has no easy answer, they’ve resorted to making up their own facts. That’s most obviously true of climate change, where Cato and other propertarain thinktanks have been leading proponents of science denial (the honorable exception being Ron Bailey, who’s been pilloried by the Cato faithful for his relatively limited concessions to reality). But it’s also true of passive smoking (tobacco and coal hack Stephen Milloy got his start at Cato), inequality and lots more.

Engaging with this group is not worth the effort if the hope is to learn anything from the exchange. But, to the extent that any of them can be moved, the liberaltarians are best placed to do it. For example, here’s a piece by Brink Lindsey of Niskanen arguing that conservatives and propertarians should attack corporate welfare rather than the welfare state.

Considering what an outsized role libertarianism has played in US political debate, it’s encouraging to see that something can be salvaged from the smouldering wreck of orthodox propertarianism. I’ll look forward to more productive engagement with the Niskanen group and likeminded liberaltarians.

{ 41 comments }

1

BenK 08.13.17 at 11:57 am

Here’s the proposal.

Wealth needs to be created and distributed, not mere created or merely redistributed.

The state isn’t particularly good at creating, accumulating, and protecting wealth – that happens most effectively in the short term with the market. Of course, it creates long term instability…
The state isn’t particularly good at redistributing wealth either – that actually happens most effectively with informal social settings.

When the state takes over both functions, it ends up destroying both of them.

When Ayn Rand libertarians argue that people need freedom to accumulate, they are actually missing the best of libertarianism – that it gives people the freedom to give stuff away, because unless you own it, you can’t give it away! They defend their proposal basically on its pathologies – which is clear to anyone with some character and a beating heart.

The problem, effectively, is that we don’t trust anyone to give stuff away, despite the fact that it seems to happen spontaneously in unexpected proportions and places!

A vicious part of it is that people tend to cling more tightly to things that are being wrenched from their grasp. There is a pathetic feedback loop that suggests that more force, more imposition, more coercion, is the answer to an apparent unwillingness to turn over taxes for welfare. Another noxious point: the attempt to argue that generosity is simply self-interest in disguise. This is the wicked maligning the frustrated virtuous, the spirit of the accuser, projecting with a hermeneutic of suspicion – well founded, perhaps, in that sense. It is exaggerated when communists argue that any advocacy of charity is actually just a stalking horse for relentless accumulation.

A problematic methodological point: it takes time for people to relax their grip when they have been struggling for too long. Their fingers are unable to loosen quickly. So there is a hurdle to the kinetic solution.

2

Tom Davies 08.13.17 at 1:10 pm

Cato can be disrespectful of Trump (and amusing): https://www.cato.org/blog/donald-trumps-rules-civility-decent-behavior

3

Glen Tomkins 08.13.17 at 2:30 pm

Was there ever anything to libertarianism?

If we define it down to skepticism about the efficacy of state action, but not a categorical and absolute skepticism, how does it differ from the skepticism we all have about everything as big and impersonal as govt? If you’re not going to be categorical and you’re going to allow govt, then you’re like the rest of us, you believe govt could be good and efficacious for some tasks, and your greatest care is keep it good and efficacious and at those tasks, because it is this big impersonal thing that can really do serious damage in the wrong hands.

4

John Jackson 08.13.17 at 3:07 pm

“As problems have emerged to which their ideology has no easy answer, they’ve resorted to making up their own facts.”

There is a long history of libertarians making up their own facts regarding race. It is no accident that Charles Murray is a libertarian or that libertarians were almost completely silent during the Civil Rights Era unless they were supporting the segregationists.

I have some thoughts on Milton Friedman as an example:
https://altrightorigins.com/2017/08/09/white-ignorance-milton-friedman/

5

bianca steele 08.13.17 at 3:29 pm

The title is good–the only thing they all seem to have in common is that for each of them, libertarianism is the orthodoxy they dissent from (which I surmise is what makes them perceive themselves as left”).

Probably also that they understand libertarianism or “classical liberalism” the way Sandel understands Rawls or Lasch understands ego psychology, or as Matthew Crawford understands Kantianism–as something abstract and valueless that treats people as numbers, or at best as numbers with feelings and self-esteem.

6

LFC 08.13.17 at 4:01 pm

Considering what an outsized role libertarianism has played in US political debate

I don’t know that it has played an “outsized role,” but if it has that may partly be owing to the weird fascination displayed toward it by certain non-libertarians, such as J. Holbo. Just a thought…

What I see as useful in the liberaltarian perspective is scepticism about the efficacy and beneficence of state action, and particularly detailed regulation as opposed to broadbased structural changes.

Hard to see how one makes much progress on climate change or income dist. w/o some regulation, perhaps even detailed. Skepticism about detailed regulation should, I think, be backed up by specific evidence of regulations that have not worked as intended or been counterproductive etc. And that has to be balanced w evidence of regulations that have had beneficial effects, and such evidence certainly does exist (esp e.g. in the environmental and public health (food/drug) areas). As a worldview or philosophical position, I don’t find “scepticism about the efficacy and beneficence of state action” to be esp persuasive or appealing. A particular move toward or away from regulation will sometimes or often have both costs and benefits (see, to take one example, dereg of the US domestic airline industry, which goes back to the Carter admin) and how one judges the outcome depends on how one weighs those tradeoffs.

7

Gary Othic 08.13.17 at 4:16 pm

Interesting, but is it really that recent/new of a shift? Ignoring anarchist thought in general, I think Michael Otsuka has been writing about ‘left-libertarianism’ along these lines for a while.

8

James Wimberley 08.13.17 at 4:33 pm

The pun doesn’t work well for me because of the embedded “altar”. These guys (really no women?) are presumably a very long way from Joseph de Maistre.

9

Joseph Brenner 08.13.17 at 5:26 pm

Well, I see that Nick Gillespie over at Reason has suddenly
discovered there are problems with giving corporations
infinite control over their employees, because Google fired
James Damore:

http://reason.com/blog/2017/08/10/the-google-memo-exposes-a-libertarian-bl

Does that count as “liberaltarianism”?

10

Joseph Brenner 08.13.17 at 5:30 pm

More significantly, propertarians haven’t had a new idea in
decades. As problems have emerged to which their ideology has
no easy answer, they’ve resorted to making up their own
facts. That’s most obviously true of climate change …

I thought it was an aritcle of faith these days that green
capitalism is going to save us all without any nasty
government intervention like carbon taxes. You don’t count
that as a win for propertarians?

11

Sebastian H 08.13.17 at 5:48 pm

This is a very helpful post. I didn’t know what Balko was doing outside of the Washington Post work.

This post also appeals to my dislike of certain types of labels. I have always thought that libertarianism wasn’t that great as an encompassing ideology AND that libertarian critiques of government were often nevertheless correct.

Liberaltarianism appears to be an attempt to keep focus on the libertarian critique without letting it get out of control as a general anti-government screed.

12

patiniowa 08.13.17 at 6:14 pm

LFC @ 6

“I don’t know that it has played an “outsized role,” but if it has that may partly be owing to the weird fascination displayed toward it by certain non-libertarians, such as J. Holbo.”

I don’t know that it has played an “outsized role,” but if it has that may partly be owing to the weird fascination displayed toward it by [the Koch brothers].”

There, fixed it.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/covert-operations

13

alfredlordbleep 08.13.17 at 6:28 pm

@7: Right about Otsuka (at least).

Once more this is worth plugging—see left-libertarianism-a-review-essay.
Now this is an overview!
(BTW misspelled link works)

Barbara Fried’s faculty slot here avoids the publisher pay-wall:
https://law.stanford.edu/publications/left-libertariansim-a-review-essay/

14

alfredlordbleep 08.13.17 at 6:47 pm

In the odd event somebody did try to link—
Oophs, I contradict myself. Free download went away. Apparently, a limited time offer. . . Apologies to any interested.

15

LFC 08.13.17 at 9:06 pm

patiniowa @12

Well, yes, the Koch bros. have been important. No disagreement there.

By “outsized role” I took Holbo to mean that libertarianism has played more of a role in U.S. politics than the numbers of actual libertarians would suggest it should. If that’s the case, then I think there are probably several reasons for it, of which the financial backing of moguls like the Kochs is only one, though a significant one. I don’t know how much in percentage terms the Kochs contribute to the total budget of certain libertarian outfits, and I haven’t followed your New Yorker link (though I may do so at some point).

16

William Timberman 08.13.17 at 10:17 pm

Here in AZ, and in much of the rest of the western U.S., for that matter, libertarianism has always played a significant role in local and state politics, even before it had a national fashion label. Nowadays it seems to come in two main flavors:

1. No goddamned gummint’s gonna tell ME I gotta wear a helmet when I ride my hog.
2. Cliven Bundy (and all the little Bundies, i.e.the Sovereign Citizen Movement.)

When they aren’t playing rugged individualist for the video cameras, you can generally find them feeding at the Koch Brothers’ trough.

17

Peter T 08.14.17 at 5:22 am

I suppose the attraction of arguing about timeless abstractions is that they are, well, timeless and, being abstract, difficult to settle. Still, if Ben K’s propositions are truly reflective of liberaltarianism, why waste time engaging?

“Here’s the proposal.

Wealth needs to be created and distributed, not mere created or merely redistributed.

“The state isn’t particularly good at creating, accumulating, and protecting wealth – that happens most effectively in the short term with the market. Of course, it creates long term instability…
The state isn’t particularly good at redistributing wealth either – that actually happens most effectively with informal social settings.”

Of the six statements here, five have pretty much no empirical support at all, and the remaining one is a truism. There’s no intellectual meat here.

18

John Quiggin 08.14.17 at 5:46 am

@17 BenK is a standard propertarian, not a liberaltarian. So, he illustrates the second part of the pun pretty well.

19

ccc 08.14.17 at 7:52 am

The right-libertarian/propertarian view (think Nozick) includes near absolute negative rights to bodily self-ownership and, if generated through a (never in the real world satisfied) process, near absolute rights to world-ownership.

The left-libertarian view (Otsuka, Vallentyne, et al) includes near absolute negative rights to bodily self-ownership but an egalitarian view of world resources, practically cashed out by reframing private property as someone renting some natural resource from the rest of the worlds population.

The liberaltarian views includes… well, what exactly? Is it merely (an arbitrarily humans only limited version of) utilitarianism and a bunch of empirical assumptions? If not then please point me to the best account of liberalterian normative foundations.

20

Dave 08.14.17 at 1:13 pm

The left-libertarians still have far to much love of the marketplace for my tastes. It is much easier to imagine a society without market capitalism than it is to imagine one without government regulation. “Soft” libertarianism can be a useful counterpoint to creeping totalitarianism, but it has little value in and of itself. I’ve never understood what the actual end point of the libertarian agenda would look like. Utopian socialists can point to communes, workers’ collectives, and a classless society. Authoritarians have the dream of perfect order with no crime or dissent. Liberals and conservatives can talk about a society very much like their own, but with more or less tolerance for change.

What can libertarians look to? Perfect freedom? No such society has ever existed nor could it. What’s the line again about your freedom to swing your fists extending only as far as my freedom to not get punched in the face? Societies must govern themselves or they cease to be societies. A free market must be governed or it ceases to be free. There’s lots of talk about the sanctity of the contract and the power of voluntary association, but there still have to be rules to the game or someone will just take the ball and run.

Perhaps there is some form of libertarianism out there that believes in more than just replacing the existing government with a new one built in its own image, but I have yet to meet the libertarian whose utopia couldn’t be summed up as “benevolent plutocracy.”

21

LFC 08.14.17 at 2:48 pm

When I wrote my initial comment @6, I mentioned J. Holbo because I thought he had written the OP — it sounded like him to my ears, for some reason.

Now I actually look properly at the byline and see that the OP is by J. Quiggin. So, my mistake.

22

Mike Huben 08.14.17 at 3:15 pm

There was never anything to libertarianism intellectually. Good ideas do not need public relations strategies on the order of billions of dollars. Libertarianism has primarily been a cats paw of the Kochs and other plutocrats.

Liberaltarians are simply another sad group of former Koch-supported, propagandist true-believers who are trying to put lipstick on the libertarian pig. They are useful idiots, because as any PR person knows, all publicity (even negative) helps reinforce the underlying basic ideas of no taxation, weak government, absolute property and privatized power. Discussion of issues simply provides more repetitions of libertarian dogmas. It’s all a morass of ad-hoc rationalizations floating on top of assumed libertarian ideology.

What’s left of libertarianism is political, the empire that the Kochs built.

See my at .

23

L2P 08.14.17 at 4:19 pm

“Similarly, as we defend sanctuary cities and state-level action on climate change, it’s worth remembering that lots of progressives have been impatient with constraints on executive action by the federal government. Liberaltarianism provides a check on this.”

Is this referring to Federalism? If so, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly libertarian in any sense in Federalism. Federalism can limit libertarian principles (i.e., the Fugitive Slave laws) just as much as it can improve it. If forcing citizens to help subdue escaped slaves has anything to do with liberaltarianism, liberaltarianism is pretty pointless. Traditionally, Federalism has been used more to protect local denial of liberty (limiting anti-discrimination voter laws and so on) than to promote libertarian principles.

If not,

24

Waiting for Godot 08.14.17 at 5:51 pm

“I’ll look forward to more productive engagement with the Niskanen group and like minded liberaltarians.”

Hmmm…I wonder how long you’re going to be waiting. It seems to me that we are a long way from being able to have productive intellectual engagement about political economy and how to create better human beings as long as the existing structures of power remain in place. I am too old to be patient with rhetorical combat in the guise of academic conversation. At this moment when we have a government that is working from the Nazi playbook of 1932, we don’t have time to engage in scholastic conversations about angels, pins and dancing.

25

Ogden Wernstrom 08.14.17 at 6:26 pm

I started calling myself a “liberaltarian” some time during the early 4th quarter of the 20th century. Mainly to parody and annoy the libertarians, who may say they want to maximize freedom and minimize coercion, but turn out to be an Ayn Rand cover band. They’ve had 40 years to solidify their assumptions (see BenK @1 for sample axioms) and narrow their definitions to freedoms-of-the-monied and coercion-by-government, all the while ignoring the fact that corporations are a government construct.

James Wimberley 08.13.17 at 4:33 pm:

The pun doesn’t work well for me because of the embedded “altar”.

ccc offers an alternate spelling containing “alter”. Maybe the most-neutral spelling would be “liberalt-rian”. Or not.

26

PatinIowa 08.14.17 at 7:07 pm

LFC at 15.

Fair enough. I think you probably know enough about what the Kochs have been up to without the link. It’s a good read nonetheless.

27

Jake Gibson 08.15.17 at 1:53 am

Free Market libertarians remind me most
of the deadender Stalinist left.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, they
cling to the FAITH that markets can regulate themselves. The markets cannot fail , they can only be failed.
We may not be able to trust the state to regulate markets and redistribute
wealth. However, we cannot trust the markets to do either.
To me the imperfections of state intervention
are better than the the disaster of unregulated markets.

28

Dr. Hilarius 08.15.17 at 6:25 am

What’s left of libertarianism? There wasn’t much there at the start. I’ve met very few professed libertarians who have read Rothbard or Nozick. Most had only a few catch phrases about coercion and freedom to contract. They have a schizophrenic relationship to government, claiming it to be an unnecessary evil while wanting it to protect property that exists solely as a function of governmental authority.

My stock challenge to libertarians is to explain how their idealized society would manage sewage treatment. Forcing people to hook up to sewers? Getting easements across private property? Financing public works that don’t generate profits? Any society than can’t even manage to treat its shit isn’t worth talking about.

29

Pavel A 08.15.17 at 6:50 am

BenK@1

“A vicious part of it is that people tend to cling more tightly to things that are being wrenched from their grasp. There is a pathetic feedback loop that suggests that more force, more imposition, more coercion, is the answer to an apparent unwillingness to turn over taxes for welfare.”

What second grade pop psychology is this? Swedes and other nordic nations are by and large happy to pay their fairly high income taxes (~50%) because they understand that they’re paying for the improvement of their neighbours lives and also assuring all the fundamentals of a good life for themselves: health care, education, mat leave and vacations. Americans are pathological about the need to hoard their wealth, and their supposedly higher charity is mostly corporate tax write offs that in the end account for less than 5% of all social safety net spending. Basically, for charity to line up with actual social welfare spending, they would have to contribute whatever they would have contributed in taxes anyway. Finally, as an engineer of sorts, I value consistency over spontaneity. If I want steady cash flows to keep my social safety net running, regularly collected taxes instead of haphazard charity are the clear winner.

Dr. Hilarius@28:

“My stock challenge to libertarians is to explain how their idealized society would manage sewage treatment. Forcing people to hook up to sewers? Getting easements across private property? Financing public works that don’t generate profits? Any society than can’t even manage to treat its shit isn’t worth talking about.”

Nah, poor people can just shit in buckets. And if they don’t like it and want to vote themselves a real government, they need to be incinerated in a train explosion in a tunnel, as per Ayn Rand.

30

Eli Rabett 08.15.17 at 2:16 pm

Perhaps you ought to take strong issue with

““The state isn’t particularly good at creating, accumulating, and protecting wealth – that happens most effectively in the short term with the market. Of course, it creates long term instability…”

There are such things as paved roads, internet, water systems, electrical distribution, health care which the state tends to do better and without which there would not be much wealth.

Even when these things are privatized, they have to be strongly regulated to avoid collapse in the short term.

31

RD 08.15.17 at 3:11 pm

Only Libertarians I’ve met were Sophomores in the dorm.
Except for my tax resister neighbor who worked at Amtrak and drove to the yard on a Federal Interstate.

32

Eli Rabett 08.15.17 at 3:14 pm

and, of course strong regulation is needed to stop the libertarian types from gaming the system.

33

KevinDarrylIrving 08.15.17 at 6:51 pm

None

34

Manta 08.15.17 at 8:58 pm

OT: some time ago you predicted the demise of bitcoins; I’d like to see a new post of yours on the subject.

35

Moz of Yarramulla 08.15.17 at 10:48 pm

John: the distinctive feature of liberaltarianism is scepticism about the effectiveness and beneficence of state action

I know what you mean by this, but I think it’s important to remember that the distinctive feature that led to the splitting off of libertarians from other anarchists was the Libertarian need for a strong state to enforce property rights. Libertarians today generally have no problem at all with the state extorting taxes to support a military and police for that purpose. Some of them even maintain the anarchist dislike for democracy, but for the opposite reason – fear that “the will of the people” will not support absolute property rights and civil war to maintain them.

maximize freedom and minimize coercion

Sadly this turns into an argument between theorists and empiricists. The theorists are invulnerable in their belief that when their theories don’t work in practice it’s because the theory was not applied sufficiently vigorously. The empiricists observe that freedom seems to be greater under democratic socialism and try to reason from there, leading to results incompatible with Libertarian philosophy… they become ex-libertarians.

There are also supporters like the Koch brothers who appear to be that rare beast, economic rational actors – they care exclusively “what’s in it for me” with no regard for truth or justice (or “the american way” :).

36

Ebenezer Scrooge 08.15.17 at 11:26 pm

Libertarian(n): Republican who wishes to remain respectable in Coastal society.

37

Cranky Observer 08.16.17 at 1:21 am

Libertarian(n): Republican who hopes to retain the option of dating liberal women.

38

J-D 08.16.17 at 4:10 am

Moz of Yarramulla

Sadly this turns into an argument between theorists and empiricists. The theorists are invulnerable in their belief that when their theories don’t work in practice it’s because the theory was not applied sufficiently vigorously. The empiricists observe that freedom seems to be greater under democratic socialism and try to reason from there, leading to results incompatible with Libertarian philosophy… they become ex-libertarians.

‘In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory, but in practice there is.’
‘I want to move to theory; everything works in theory.’

There are also supporters like the Koch brothers who appear to be that rare beast, economic rational actors – they care exclusively “what’s in it for me” with no regard for truth or justice (or “the american way” :).

I think they definitely stand for one American way.
(How can we tell that Superman has a split personality? Because he stands for truth, justice, and the American way.)

39

Dave 08.16.17 at 10:56 am

@ Manta 34. My understanding is that bitcoin still exists largely because of its utility for money launderers and black market traders — hence why about half of the trade is coming out of China in an era where the CCP has been trying to crack down on currency off-shoring. Many of bitcoins doomsayers were treating it as a Ponzi scheme or investment bubble with no inherent utility, but many of the things that make it unreliable for investors (volatility, lack of oversight, difficulty of liquidation, etc.) are actually useful features for people committing crimes. It’s been theorized that one or more criminal syndicates are effectively playing central banker for the bitcoin market while relying on the “honest” investors to prop it up.

40

Moz of Yarramulla 08.17.17 at 3:23 am

‘I want to move to theory; everything works in theory.’

We should call our sea-stead “Theory”. It would be incredibly humorous and a great source of amusement for a lot of people. Like Boaty McBoatface, it would cost us very little and attract a lot of positive attention.

Of course, when it turned out that to no-one’s surprise seasteading is just an expensive way to make artificial reefs there would be a whole new round of bad puns and laughter. We’d go down in history. So to speak :)

41

John Quiggin 08.17.17 at 6:41 am

Manta @34 I haven’t seen anything that leads me to change my assessment, though obviously, I would be happier about my prediction if it had already come to pass. From what I can see, even though the price of bitcoins continues to rise, merchant acceptance is declining
http://markets.businessinsider.com/currencies/news/bitcoin-price-rises-but-retailers-wont-accept-it-7-2017-1002168071
and there is no prospect of it become legal tender, in particular for payment of taxes.
So, pretty much what Dave said.
In terms of the scale and durability of the Ponzi, the fact that Bitcoin has now become popular in China obviously implies a much larger scale than if it were primarily a US phenomenon, but there’s only one China, and one India after that.

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