The Promise and Spectre of Liberaltarianism

In a comment to yesterday’s post on liberaltarianism, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen’s Mark suggests that I may not grasp the full purpose of the proposed alliance. This is possible, since there’s much dialogue right now about it that I haven’t read. But I don’t think so, as I’ll try to explain.

He’s right to challenge me, though, because I should delve deeper into the topic. This is the only possible alliance in the near-term political future for libertarians. I’d accept it as a practical step to something better than we have now, if I thought it would be successful. I try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, which is part of the reason I’m not an anarcho-capitalist. But I don’t think it would be successful. Maybe I’ve let my natural skepticism slide too far into cynicism?

I think Mark and I agree that libertarianism is distinct from both liberalism and conservatism as we know it today, and that modern liberalism is closer to libertarianism than modern conservatism. This point seems obvious, although I wonder whether liberals would agree if they thought about it. And I don’t think liberals will treat a potential alliance the way libertarians would. I don’t mean to imply that libertarians are more noble, but in an alliance, liberals have political power and libertarians mostly don’t. Liberals would have to cede some power to libertarians. I don’t see that happening.

Sure, it makes sense for liberals in the long-term if we’re correct that libertarians are a powerful voting bloc with good ideas. I want to leave aside the question of whether or not we are a powerful voting bloc for this; I’ll assume we are and that liberals agree. I don’t think they’ll conclude we’re right in ideas because there are legitimate philosophical differences. Do libertarians give up the individual or do liberals give up the collective? Who concedes? That’s a dead-end to me.

In the short term, I think the prospects are worse. Liberals have the White House and Congress. They don’t need us. Just as Republicans demonstrated during the middle (and latter) part of the Bush years, partisanship almost guarantees arrogance when one’s party has control of both. Liberals are already showing signs of this. It takes a principled statesman to overcome that. I don’t need to question principles to suggest that our politicians aren’t statesmen in that way. Partisanship corrupts principle, so until we have a more diverse party system, liberals have a party identity and we don’t. (We mostly don’t want one, of course, which exacerbates the problem.)

I don’t think liberals want to go back to their classical liberal roots. And, although we have more in common with today’s liberals, libertarians should’ve learned from the ongoing death spiral of the Republican Party that being a pawn will not advance our position to any worthwhile degree.

That is not to say that Mark’s purpose is flawed. In this recent post he states:

Simply put, the promise of liberaltarianism is that it can help to build a libertarianism that is more true to its classically liberal roots. …

If the call is for ways to shed some of the modern Right’s infection into libertarian thinking, yes, I’m behind that. Primarily I’m thinking of the paleolibertarian and the false promise of Ron Paul. That needs to go, and quickly. Liberty is more than just being able to buy an unregistered gun.

But, again, I don’t think looking to liberals will be successful. Mark offers an example:

So where are some of the areas where libertarianism has been corrupted by its affiliation with the political Right? One area is in what tends to be our reflexive opposition to labor unions; there is a false assumption that labor unions exist virtually entirely because of government intervention and that they are therefore inherently coercive. …

To an extent I am guilty of this. But when I think about my opposition, it’s not to unionization. That process is structurally unsound in the 21st century, but the ability of people to freely organize is within my concept of liberty. Voluntary associations I don’t like shouldn’t be a problem if they don’t harm me. The idea of a union fits that.

The reality, however, is different. My problem with looking to liberals as we reevaluate our reflexive opposition starts and ends with card check. It’s want thing to encourage free association and another to legislate the form. Modern liberals do not seem to want unions to be voluntary associations. Am I going to find common economic ground with someone who supports the Employee Free Choice Act?

Mark seems to agree, because he writes:

The trouble with all of these blind spots is that they largely leave libertarians on the sidelines when it comes to debate on relevant issues, reduced to more or less relaying the plays called by the political Right. So, instead of arguing for at least a partial repeal of Taft-Hartley, which would actually advance libertarian ends, as an alternative to EFCA (which really is a terrible law from a libertarian standpoint), we are reduced to union-bashing, resisting EFCA (and thereby neither advancing nor hurting the cause of individual liberty) without offering any kind of alternative.

This is where I think the issue rests. How do we as libertarians stop hindering our chances for eventual success? Project management isn’t Step 1, start, Step 2, finish. Right now, we’re behaving more like Underpants Gnomes than political tacticians. So, yeah, we have work to do. Whatever we propose as Step 2, will liberals agree to negotiate? Again, why should they?

In short, we need to scrub the anti-liberty nonsense from libertarianism by challenging those who spew it. While we accomplish that, if it can be accomplished, we need better marketing ideas. We need to offer constructive solutions, as Mark did with Taft-Hartley and EFCA. We need to sell our vision. That’s Step 2, not an alliance with people who don’t share that vision. This makes our task harder, but it has a chance of success.

4 thoughts on “The Promise and Spectre of Liberaltarianism”

  1. Forget “conservatism,” please. It has, operationally, de facto, been Godless and thus irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:
    ”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It .is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”
    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).
    John Lofton, Editor,
    Recovering Republican

  2. I’m sorry, I fear I’ve missed your point. Of course today’s conservativism is a conservativism of expediency. So is today’s liberalism. My goal is limited government and liberty. Each person is free to worship (or not) as he sees fit, including restricting himself according to what he believes God demands. But God has no place in government.

  3. Tony: You’ll probably want to delete that comment above. That guy leaves the same comment on every blog post in the universe that even touches on the idea of reform conservatism.
    Anyways, I think you’re pretty much spot on with this post. The big difference that I have – and which I’ve still done a really poor job explaining, even in my post on this today – is that we really don’t know what liberalism will look like in 10 or 20 or 30 years, because we don’t know what the makeup of the Left will look like then. And that’s really the timeframe that matters to me because I am fully aware that the idea of a permanent alliance beginning ASAP is both impractical and non-sensical (and FWIW, I think the originators of the concept would agree with the latter part of that sentence). My expectation is that, if libertarians became political free agents in the next few years by looking to reform libertarianism to be more classically liberal, this would allow conservatives to form a more coherent coalition. My further expectation (and this is where I have the most doubt) is that the new conservative coalition would have a lot of appeal to some of the least libertarian Dem constituencies (especially labor unions). As those constituencies left the, err, Left, the Left’s economic views would no longer be tethered to those groups, nor would they need to pussyfoot around those groups on social policy. Then – and only then – would a libertarian/liberal coalition make sense.
    But I’m not at all certain that will happen – there’s just too many variables at play. If it doesn’t, though, we just wind up back on the Right after a few elections of having had time to create a better libertarianism and of giving the Right time to create a better conservatism. So it’s win-win. Until eventually we and they corrupt each other again….but such is the nature of a two-party system.

  4. Mark,
    Your response clears up a lot. I think projecting both liberalism and conservatism into the future is worth the effort, for self interest. I have a gut reaction on liberalism, but I want to think on it some before rambling too much.
    As for conservatism, I think any speculation is a guess. It has to implode first. It needs a new and improved Reagan, but first they have to purge the embrace of Palin-style mindlessness. I don’t think they’re ready. But once it implodes, as it will, I’m not sure how the power play will end. It could get worse than what we have now. (I doubt it, but…)
    As for Lofton’s comment, I figured out it was a canned response. I see enough from the circumcision posts to recognize the feel. I looked at his site, and that comment is a direct quote from his group’s mission statement. Unoriginal, but I left it to call him out. I should’ve been less delicate in suggesting that I missed his point. I didn’t.

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