Can Libertarians Become Liberaltarians?

Cato’s Brink Lindsey in a provocative essay in The New Republic argues that the recent election results argue for a realignment, Democrats, he suggests, should reach out to disaffected libertarians, to find ways of forming “a lasting relationship” with us. Lindsey then spends much of the remainder of the article outlining a fusionist strategy that he hopes might make the liberal/libertarian alliance viable. He calls for an expanded “safety-net” suggesting that a “reasonable” welfare state poses no major problems (in this, of course, he follows the lead of Hayek who also provided considerable scope for the state in the poverty area). He then turns to less contentious issues — alliances to eliminate business subsidies and shift toward consumption taxes. He endorses the “sin tax” approach — less on tobacco and alcohol but rather on energy, the most sinful consumption item to liberals today. Libertarians, he argues, should abandon any hope of shrinking federal spending. Entitlements can’t be curbed but they might be curbed and diverted (in part, at least) into private provision avenues. Lindsey is not overly optimistic about the prospects for such a re-alignment, arguing only that pressures are mounting for some movement on some of these issues and that we should be prepared to take advantage of those.

Perhaps. I’m sure the liberals will be happy that some — even at Cato — view it desirable to curb our wicked consumptive ways, endorsing some form of Kyoto style energy rationing plan. To paraphrase, G.K.Chesterton, “It is not that libertarianism has been tried and found wanting; rather it is that libertarianism has been found difficult and not tried.” My own reading of all this is twofold: first, we (classical liberals, libertarians, limited government conservatives) have spent too little time thinking how to market our ideas and, two, we’ve failed to realize that many liberals/progressives/democrats today will never come to favor liberty as a primary value but they might come (again) to believe that their egalitarian values can best be advanced and protected by promoting the institutions of liberty. I say “again” because, prior to the progressive era, most egalitarians (populists, Jacksonian democrats) distrusted and opposed centralization of political power as much as did those favoring individualism. The Progressives captured the egalitarian value for the state — our goal (as I see it) is not to validate that victory but rather to reach out to our liberal friends, seeking to restore their former faith in decentralization of power as a preferable way of helping the little guy. Those favoring an ever larger role for the state have prevailed — not because of the wisdom of their policies, nor even the fervor of their ideological commitment — but rather because no one has challenged their command of the powerful cultural value of fairness.

In brief, the Lindsey approach seems to accept defeat and focus on acceptable surrender terms. I disagree.