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Liberaltarianism for Today


Brink Lindsey’s neologism has to be the least attractive name for a political philosophy since “libertarianism” itself was coined. But I can see why some libertarians, and some liberals, would find that philosophy attractive. It is obviously true that there are some points of convergence between liberals and libertarians. Some libertarians make a big point of being classical liberals (just as other libertarians present themselves as conservatives with a twist). Brink argues that a lib-lib alliance would be “attun[ed]” to ”the objective dynamics of U.S. social development.” Most conservatives would instinctively recoil from that kind of naive historicism.

But it is an argument whose time has come. Over the last few decades, American politics has been reconfigured. At least for white Americans, “values” issues now organize party politics. On most of those issues, most libertarians line up with liberals. So it’s not surprising that libertarians would move left, and I think that leftward movement has been happening for several years.

The trouble for libertarians, whether their top issues are economic or social, is that both parties are acting as though their libertarian aspects are political liabilities. (Which may be because they are.) Liberalism’s political strength seems to derive from its unlibertarian views. Again, it is surely true that a libertarianism that has given up on shrinking the federal government, as Brink has, can work with a liberalism that has become more market friendly. They would be able to work together because they would be the same thing: an ’80s neo-liberalism on steroids. But that would require liberalism to reverse a course it has taken for good reasons.

Liberals are more, not less, committed to national health insurance than they were a dozen years ago; more, not less, committed to protectionism (whether or not it travels by that name); more, not less, eager to raise the minimum wage. One of the few issues where liberals have become more libertarian in recent years is on guns–and that’s a play for the social Right more than it is for the bloc Brink has in mind.

I’m a former libertarian, so there is probably not much point in my giving advice to libertarians. Those libertarians who put more emphasis on economic than social issues will probably vote most often for Republicans. Those who have the reverse priorities will probably vote most often for Democrats. And libertarians will keep sharing their ideas and confabbing with everyone, which is as it should be.


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