Anyone who reads my blog posts (on those occasions when I decide something bothering me requires lengthy explication) or who is familiar with my Twitter feed is probably aware of my admiration of Will Wilkinson’s blogging. He’s in my Google Reader, I read almost everything he writes, and I tend to agree with the substance and enjoy the style.
That being said, I’m a little confused about Wilkinson’s handling ideology.
At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, he has, in part, the following to say:
I’m not interested in identifying which among the many kinds of bleeding-heart libertarian I am because I’m not interested in identifying myself a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.
Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity. (See Steven Pinker’s new book.) Democracy is about as good as it gets. The institutions of modern capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights. I could go on.
There is a point here. This tension is the very reason why left-libertarian blogs like BHL exist. I think the problem is that there are two ways of thinking about what it means to be libertarian, liberal or conservative in America. There’s what you think qualifies as philosophically justified beliefs in the subset of each respective ideology, and there’s the practical political coalitions that lay claim to those ideologies.
Wilkinson is great at articulating the former. I think a lot of what “liberaltarians” believe could easily be philosophically aligned with liberalism more than libertarianism. But I remain skeptical that libertarians who are particularly interested in positive liberty should abandon the right and/or claim the title “liberal.” I just don’t think they are what liberalism means as a political movement in the United States. Libertarianism is it’s own small tent with various groups but it’s a tent outside of what is politically liberal or conservative. That’s crucial.
The most glaring issue with overplaying the liberal connection is economic liberty, which Wilkinson concedes is a sharp point of divergence with the left.
Standard academic liberals badly understate the importance of economic freedom to freedom more generally. This conviction, that the protection of robust economic rights is essential to any regime shaped by a genuine concern for liberty–is essential to a fully liberal regime–is more than enough get you branded a sort of libertarian by many standard liberals. But one can hold to that conviction while siding with standard liberals against libertarians on many, many other important questions.
It’s one thing to hold this conviction while siding with liberals where you can and against libertarians where you should. It’s another thing entirely to be welcomed into a coalition with liberals while holding this belief. Wilkinson can’t demonstrate that American liberalism is willing to do this and I suspect it’s because it isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong: conservatism today is a philosophy of statism. But so is liberalism and to a greater extent. Our liberal transformative president has failed to lead on important issues of social progress and on instituting a more humane and modest foreign policy, while expanding the welfare state in ways that seem hardly optimal at actually helping Americans. On the other hand there’s at least some indication that libertarians have made headway with conservatives in supporting economic liberty. While such liberty need not be the end of the project, it is foundational and crucial. And while I wish that a more enlightened and sophisticated libertarian wing of the GOP electorate existed, I, like Wilkinson, can’t deny that there are at least some benefits accrued from the populist Tea Party/Paulista factions — especially on foreign policy. But it’s more than that, even. Go to CPAC and see the Campaign for Liberty people: young guys, often with dreads and copious body art and jewelry. They could be at Occupy encampments but instead they are at a yearly establishment event, warping conservative conventions. Gary Johnson stands up and rails against the drug war to cheers. These people don’t run the party but they’re an increasingly vocal minority. In the case of Paul, it’s, among other things, proof that paleoconservatives have in the past married racism and libertarianism into a workable coalition. In the case of Gary Johnson, it’s proof that someone from the right can govern a state on good libertarian principles and remain popular. There’s good on both fronts, especially Johnson’s. The establishment wants to suppress him from rising further in the party, but time and momentum could be against them.
American liberals — Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in particular — masterminded the foreign policy doctrine that has brought us so much grief. Neoconservatives cooped it, but we have every indication that conservatism is at least in part drifting away from it. Surely not enough. But the left is going to perpetuate the same thing, if begrudgingly, because Americans like America beating up on other people in the name of liberation. That’s the pragmatic fact of the matter. All the Glenn Greenwalds and Matt Yglesias-es in the world won’t change it. Time and the progressive forward march of the Enlightenment might, but that has implications for both political wings. Philosophically, there’s every reason to believe that endless war is a great neo-Jacobin liberal project. But that’s another debate.
American liberals have also doubled down on supporting public sector labor unions as a way to preserve a vital part of its coalition (labor) that was previously shrinking (private labor unions). As such, they have declared war on anyone who thinks it’s unreasonable for organized political organizations to lobby for and extract rents from tax payers for the employees who serve their public needs. The point here is that for those who are frustrated with social conservatism and it’s attendant racism and bigotry (however soft it may be), I see no reason to think that running to the left would be much less dissatisfying — just in other ways. What’s more, far right ideas skew older. Hateful people are dying off and being replaced by less hateful. The world is becoming more moral. I can’t say if liberal ideas I find anathema are so monotonic.
Philosophically, Wilkinson can be whatever he wants to say he is. He’s well-versed and can make a compelling argument for being liberal if he thinks that’s what he wants. I’ll take his word for it. Wherever he is, I’m nearby. Like I said, I almost always agree with his writing.
But politics isn’t philosophy. And in America there exists, crudely, two spheres: social/economic liberals and social/economic conservatives. I absolutely believe Libertarians have it right that liberty is most compatible with the classical liberal formulation that takes parts of both spheres, and that it’s at least the best foundation for liberty to build upon. As such, I’ll keep calling myself a libertarian because in American politics, that’s what I am.
And why will I stick, for now, with the American right? Wilkinson says:
Labels aside, I’m more interested in arguing with standard liberals about the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state than in arguing with standard libertarians about the justification of taxation, publicly-financed education, or welfare transfers. After all, there are many orders of magnitude more standard liberals than standard libertarians, and they possess many orders of magnitude more influence. We pick our fights, and I’d like to pick ones that stand a chance of making a real difference.
Let’s argue philosophy with anyone and everyone, left and right. But politically, the above dichotomy is less relevant. The seminal question libertarians face and have always faced is whether our battles for political change are best fought on the left or right. People on the right read Hayek and Friedman and not Rothbard. Bring any of these names up and it’s those on the right who are most interested in discussing how to translate the noble aspects of Hayek and Friedman — and there is much nobility — into political programs. You can argue this is circular — libertarians find reception on the right because that’s where they made efforts to be, but it was a mutual marriage with a receptivity by the right that I don’t see on the left.
That being said, I strongly believe libertarians should be willing to reach out to the left where it can, at least standing with liberal thinkers who oppose racist over criminalization and endless war against the rest of their coalition. But we ended up on the right for a reason, and have been embraced if not always heeded. Even if a viable left-libertarian coalition can exist — a possibility we should explore — I will never, politically, call myself “liberal.” I think Wilkinson downplays how important that is. Politics is the medium through which we will translate our philosophy, whatever it is, into reality. And politically, libertarian still best-encapsulates what we are and what we are not.