A ‘Liberaltarian’ Purge at Cato?

by Daniel Foster

That’s what Dave Weigel suspects:

The libertarian Cato Institute is parting with two of its most prominent scholars. Brink Lindsey, the institute’s vice president of research and the author of the successful book The Age of Abundance, is departing to take a position at the Kauffman Foundation. Will Wilkinson, a Cato scholar, collaborator with Lindsey, and editor of the online Cato Unboard, is leaving on September 15; he just began blogging politics for the Economist.

I asked for comment on this and was told that the institute does not typically comment on personnel matters. But you have to struggle not to see a political context to this. Lindsey and Wilkinson are among the Cato scholars who most often find common cause with liberals. In 2006, after the GOP lost Congress, Lindsey coined the term “Liberaltarians” to suggest that Libertarians and liberals could work together outside of the conservative movement.

I won’t speculate on what’s going on at Cato. But, as much as I respect Brink Lindsey, both he and Wilkinson often expressed contempt for conservatism and conservative libertarians — Cato’s base, as it were — that probably didn’t help their causes. In Lindsey’s case, it was tempered by a kind of anthropological aloofness; in Wilkinson’s, less so.

American libertarianism is queer in that it can admit both rationalists and conservatives in the Oakeshottian senses. Reading Wilkinson it becomes clear that he is a classic rationalist. He derives his libertarianism a priori — a set of propositions on a chalkboard. Contrast with, for example, the average tea partier, who gets his as a uniquely American historical inheritance — a full-blooded tradition. Like most rationalists, Wilkinson thinks this is not just silly and sentimental but pernicious (one of his biggest bugaboos is patriotism).

And so, holding the same set of basic principles, but with different reasons, sends these two kinds of libertarians in two very different directions: the rationalists off toward liberaltarianism; the conservatives toward the classic Buckley-National Review fusionism.