Liberaltarians: Liberals and Libertarians Uniting

I’ve often discussed the incompatibility between libertarianism and conservativism as Republcans have increasingly embraced big government and have allligned themselves with the religious right. Brink Lindsey also realizes that liberals and libertarians share considerable common ground (with his article also cross posted at The New Repubic). Sebastian Mallaby also discusses this at The Washington Post.

While we might not agree on every specific, much of Lindsey’s article (quoted below) is consistent with the approach I’ve taken at Liberal Values. I’ve been uncompromising in my commitment to liberalism as a philosophy which has its orgins in support of individual and economic liberty. I disagree with Lindsey on one point but this actually makes the chances of alliance greater. Lindsey believes, “progressives remain stubbornly resistant to embracing capitalism, their great natural ally.” While perhaps true of many progressives, I am a business owner and a capitalist. My objection to conservativism is not to capitalism, but to the tendency of conservatives to support “free markets” as an excuse to allow the fox to guard the hen house, and find their support corporate welfare to be more common than support for true capitalism.

Lindsey wriites that we can find a viable compromise “by treating economic policy issues as technical, empirical questions about what does and doesn’t work, rather than as tests of ideological commitment.” That is exactly how I approach the issue, with a bias towards limiting government involvement unless the value of government action can be demonstrated. This bias should generally assist with reaching agreements, however I suspect that my experince in health care, and seeing the failure of private business efforts as compared to government, would lead to some disagreements on empirical questions of handling entitlement programs which Lindsey also discusses in his article.

A portion of Lindsey’s article follows under the fold:

Can a new, progressive fusionism break out of the current rut? Liberals and libertarians already share considerable common ground, if they could just see past their differences to recognize it. Both generally support a more open immigration policy. Both reject the religious right’s homophobia and blastocystophilia. Both are open to rethinking the country’s draconian drug policies. Both seek to protect the United States from terrorism without gratuitous encroachments on civil liberties or extensions of executive power. And underlying all these policy positions is a shared philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value.

The central challenge in cementing a new fusionist alliance–and, make no mistake, it is a daunting one–is to elaborate a vision of economic policy, and policy reform, that both liberals and libertarians can support. Here, again, both sides seek to promote individual autonomy; but their conceptions differ as to the chief threats to that autonomy. Libertarians worry primarily about constraints imposed by government, while liberals worry most about constraints imposed by birth and the play of economic forces.

The basic outlines of a viable compromise are clear enough. On the one hand, restrictions on competition and burdens on private initiative would be lifted to encourage vigorous economic growth and development. At the same time, some of the resulting wealth-creation would be used to improve safety-net policies that help those at the bottom and ameliorate the hardships inflicted by economic change. Translating such abstractions into workable policy doubtlessly would be contentious. But the most difficult thing here is not working out details–it is agreeing to try. And, as part of that, agreeing on how to make the attempt: namely, by treating economic policy issues as technical, empirical questions about what does and doesn’t work, rather than as tests of ideological commitment.

Allow me to hazard a few more specific suggestions about what a liberal-libertarian entente on economics might look like. Let’s start with the comparatively easy stuff: farm subsidies and other corporate welfare. Progressive organizations like Oxfam and the Environmental Working Group have already joined with free-market groups in pushing for ag-policy reform. And it’s no wonder, since the current subsidy programs act as a regressive tax on low-income families here at home while depressing prices for exporters in poor countries abroad–and, to top it off, the lion’s share of the loot goes to big agribusiness, not family farmers. Meanwhile, the president of Cato and the executive director of the Sierra Club have come out together in favor of a zero-subsidy energy policy. A nascent fusionism on these issues already exists; it merely needs encouragement and emphasis.

Tax reform also offers the possibility of win-win bargains. The basic idea is simple: Shift taxes away from things we want more of and onto things we want less of. Specifically, cut taxes on savings and investment, cut payroll taxes on labor, and make up the shortfall with increased taxation of consumption. Go ahead, tax the rich, but don’t do it when they’re being productive. Tax them instead when they’re splurging–by capping the deductibility of home-mortgage interest and tax incentives for purchasing health insurance. And tax everybody’s energy consumption. All taxes impose costs on the economy, but at least energy taxes carry the silver lining of encouraging conservation–plus, because such taxes exert downward pressure on world oil prices, foreign oil monopolies would wind up getting stuck with part of the bill. Here again, fusionism is already in the air. Gore has proposed a straight-up swap of payroll taxes for carbon taxes, while Harvard economist (and former chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers) Greg Mankiw has been pushing for an increase in the gasoline tax.

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