What Libertarians Understand About Liberalism

by Reihan Salam

Will Wilkinson, who has largely left behind writing bracing polemics to instead write fiction, kindly offers us a thought-provoking blast from the past:

Liberals and socialists often accuse libertarians, not without justice, of acting as unwitting apologists for plutocracy. Many free-marketeers do have a bad habit of confusing our unjustifiably rigged political economy with a very different laissez faire ideal, and their defenses of the actually-existing “free enterprise system” really do redound to the benefit of those the system is rigged to enrich. Likewise, liberals do have a bad habit of confusing actual, nominally liberal states with a very different liberal ideal, and their defenses of the actual “liberal state” do tend to redound to the benefit of the insidiously illiberal segments of the state that cannot be justified or accounted for on almost any standard liberal theory of legitimacy. The point being that too many “liberals” are really conservative apologists for the status quo political order, just as too many “libertarians” are really conservative apologists for the status quo economic order.

Wilkinson is exercised by the fact that though the practices of the national security state run afoul of liberal ideals, mainstream liberals have allowed their distaste for libertarianism to cloud their judgment:

[T]he fact is, mundane liberalism is flatly incompatible with the security state as we know it. That anyone spurred to action against the illiberal security state by the democratic jusificatory ethos of mundane liberalism has come to seem a little “libertarian,” and may even therefore confess some personal “libertarian” sympathies, suggests to me a problem with “liberalism” as it is embodied in actual political discourse and practice. It suggests that liberalism is effectively a corrupt form of statist institutional conservatism, and that the democratic justificatory ethos of mundane liberalism has somehow survived within the ethos of “libertarianism,” even if, as an explicit doctrinal matter, libertarians are generally hostile to the ideas of democracy and the legitimate liberal state. It’s nice that libertarians have kept liberalism alive, but it would be even nicer if it were possible for liberals to espouse liberalism without therefore being confused for libertarians.

I’m more sympathetic to what Wilkinson calls the “actually-existing criminal state,” in the economic and national security domains. (Really, it doesn’t take much to be more sympathetic than Wilkinson.) But I think he is right that most self-identified liberals fail to appreciate the full implications of mundane liberalism taken seriously. I often fixate on the tension between the moral cosmopolitanism embedded in mundane liberalism and the nationalist instincts of most of the electorate, and the analytical nationalism that has traditionally been central to policymaking in nation-state democracies. Wilkinson is pointing to the fact that a similar tension can be observed in many other controversies as well.

The post-crisis era has seen a modest revival of left-wing thinking, and more conventional liberals have started to confront the many ways in which critics to their left seem to have a better grasp on their core principles than they do. It’s unclear whether this self-examination will lead the center-left towards a politically self-marginalizing turn towards ideological rigor, or if this development will be a limited towards a small group of people who mainly talk to themselves. Either way, conservatives have an opportunity to become the party of “what works where” — of pragmatic trial-and-error, test-and-learn thinking – while our friendly competitors focus on adhering to arid abstractions.