The Point of Liberaltarianism

At NRO, Jonah Goldberg writes:

[It] seems to me that the stimulus debate clearly puts the lie to the idea that liberals and libertarians can see eye to eye on the large questions of political economy, at least for the foreseeable future. The first principles simply aren’t aligned.

and John Hood adds:

The principles of liberty and virtue are certainly in tension within the broadly construed Right, but the principles of liberty and egalitarianism would be perpetually at war within a reconstructed Left. The current struggle against bailout/stimulus mania has been a clarifying moment, it seems to me. In the social-democrat future that the American Left wants, the private sphere must give way as costs are socialized and power is centralized.

As a Rawlsekian, I’m more sympathetic to Will Wilkinson’s take:

I’ll let Brink speak for himself, but I’m not that interested in short-term partisan politics. I’m interested in a much longer-term project. I want to help create the possibility of a popular political identity that takes the value of human liberty, in all its aspects, really seriously. As I see it, this project involves an attempt to reunify the separate strands of the American liberal tradition.

As Will goes on to argue, the actions of the Democratic Party are basically immaterial to this longer-term project, which is

an ongoing project to change who talks to whom, to freshen the stale dialectic of American politics, and to create new possibilities for American political identity.

Hood and Goldberg add an interesting, implicit semantic wrinkle, namely: how liberal is American liberalism? The enthusiastic embrace of the “progressive” label has a clarifying function, insofar as we can identify the social democratic tendency with self-described progressives. The social democratic project privileges political life over private life, and it is communitarian rather than individualistic. My sense is that many on the American left are hoping to move in this direction for lots of different reasons — an effort to draw on the European precedent, sentimental solidarity politics, a religiously-informed sensibility, the lessons of minority movements, etc. In contrast, America also has a liberal left, certainly since the encounter with totalitarianism led to a recasting of civil liberties and civil rights (as David Ciepley has argued — I always cite this guy). Think of this as Castro-not-hating Barbara Ehrenreich on the one hand and Castro-hating Brad DeLong on the other hand.

How is it that DeLong, who found Ehrenreich’s argument in “When Government Gets Mean” reprehensibly stupid, and Ehrenreich find themselves on the same side? This is one of those “incompletely theorized agreements.” On nine issues out of ten, the two will agree on a policy question while agreeing to disagree about why they agree on it. That’s how coalitions work. The liberaltarian idea, as I understand, is to start rethinking coalitions that appear to be natural because they’ve been in place for so long.

Long before the liberaltarian project, the movement conservative project — fusionism — tried to reconcile similarly contradictory tendencies. Southern conservatism was historically aligned with a certain kind of statism: federal aid that didn’t interfere with the internal social practices of the segregationist South were welcomed by Southern political elites as well as by the poor white majority. A new fusionist critique acted to complicate this seemingly “natural” alliance between federal power and local white supremacy. Though conservatives eventually rejected the politics of white supremacy in the South, it took a while because a kind of libertarian conviction stood against the threat of an integrationist federal police state — of course, this conveniently helped conservatives shatter the old New Deal coalition. This is a stylized portrait of what happened that misses a lot of important subtleties, but the point is that no coalition is “natural” — we tell stories about what our interests are and who shares them, and every now and again someone comes along with a better story. The liberaltarians are offering a better story.

I’m on the political right, but I think liberaltarianism is a healthy, constructive development. If social democracy comes roaring back, as I think is very likely, a renewed liberaltarian liberalism could become the new center or even the new right — this was roughly the case in Cold War Europe. I’m more sanguine about this prospect than some conservatives because, like David Brooks, I think that the big challenges we face are what he calls the macro threats that need to be tackled through some kind of collective action:

These voters don’t believe government can lift their standard of living or lead a moral revival. They want a federal government that will focus on a few macro threats — terrorism, health care costs, energy, entitlement debt and immigration — and stay out of the intimate realms of life. They want a night watchman government that patrols the neighborhood without entering their homes.

This is not liberalism, which inserts itself into the crannies of life. It’s not conservatism, suspicious of federal power. It’s a gimlet-eyed federalism — strong government with sharply defined tasks.

For conservatives, I tend to think of this as a good middle-series projection.