Longtime Corner readers know this is one of my great peeves: the idea that liberals are “socially libertarian.” It’s an idea that liberals — and even quite a few libertarians — love to perpetuate. It’s also not true. Take, for instance, the recent decision out of New Mexico holding that a wedding photographer had no right to refuse to work at a gay wedding. The libertarian view of the case, broadly speaking, is that the photographer may have been in error morally or economically but he was within his rights. The socially liberal view, broadly speaking, is “Hooray! Victory for gay people, defeat for bad people!”
Sure, liberals tend to sound libertarian about certain specific behaviors and practices they would like to see more of. That’s because sounding libertarian about cultural issues helps them win arguments with cultural conservatives. But, at the end of the day, they aren’t procedurally libertarian about much of anything at all. If they can use the state to put points on the scoreboard for their vision of what society should look like, there’s nothing inherent to today’s liberalism — no limiting principle — that amounts to a truly dogmatic objection to doing so. When they say “it’s not the government’s business to do X,” it’s not because they have much of a coherent argument about why government shouldn’t regulate X, it’s just that they don’t want X regulated (or they want regulations that yield more of X). At the heart of the idea of “social justice” is that you take your victories where and when you can.
Meanwhile, conservatives obviously aren’t libertarians either, but there’s a reason why libertarians are still more at home on the right than the left politically speaking. For starters, most conservatives believe in federalism to one degree or another. In other words, we’re more tolerant of the right of communities to make their own mistakes. And, more important, because we are economically libertarian, we don’t see economic regulation as a legitimate mechanism for cultural regulation — save in a few obvious areas (we don’t believe you have the right to buy or sell child pornography, for example). Of course, it doesn’t end there. We also champion the sovereignty of the individual, the negative rights of the Constitution, and such antiquated notions as the private “ownership” of children.
This is very different from the social engineering implicit in, say, Michael Bloomberg’s approach to governing. He may defend rich people, but he has no problem using economic regulations to boss around poor people to live the way he thinks they should. The press may call him socially liberal, but there is absolutely zero about him that is libertarian. And the same goes for much of the Democratic party. It’s just that the Democratic party generally understands that for marketing purposes you have to talk in terms of expanding freedom even as you take it away. Bloomberg the petty autocrat never really understood this. As Jonathan Chait writes, ”Bloombergism at a national level is merely Democratic Party liberalism stripped of any concern for public opinion.”
Anyway, if I haven’t exhausted the topic here, my column today is something of a rant on the topic.