Libertarian Ideas and Liberals

The discussion between libertarian Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute and liberals (previously discussed here and here) continues at The New Republic. Jonathan Chait presents objections, with Ezra Klein raising similar objections at Tapped. These objections boil down to how you see an alliance between liberals and libertarians. Obviously this will not work if we are considering hard core libertarianism which sees any government program as immoral, but there are more moderate libertarian viewpoints which are closer to the views of liberals. Repealing Medicare and Social Security are not on the table, and liberals are not going to give up reforming health care as a priority. Even a growing number of my colleagues in the medical profession, which historically has been very conservative on this issue, now recognize that the current system is collapsing and government action is needed.

This does not mean there isn’t a potential for common ground, especially on civil liberties, social issues, and opposition to the war. If conservatives of the religious right and libertarians found common ground in the Republican Party there is certainly hope that libertarians and liberals can find areas where they can work together. Chait prefers an alliance of liberals and populists but I agree with many of Lindsey’s objections in his reply at TNR. Lindsey echoes many of my previous posts when he points out that “economically conservative, socially liberal sentiment runs fairly strong in a good-sized chunk of the electorate–and it’s especially common among the nation’s disproportionately influential socioeconomic elites. In a closely divided country, swings in this group’s opinions and voting patterns can decide elections.”

It was easy to reach agreement in opposing the incompetence and harmful policies of the Republicans in recent years. Now that Democrats are in power there will a diversity in viewpoints as to how to govern. One reason that neither party has been able to achieve an permanent majority is that the conventional party lines often do not reflect the views of a large number of voters. While Americans (with notable exceptions) are becoming more socially liberal, and are more aware of the need for a competent government following Katrina, this does not mean that they support the idea of “tax and spend” liberalism. Populism is a dead end in an affluent nation where most people aspire not to attack the wealthy but dream of becoming wealthy themselves. As Lindsey notes, “the American electorate’s most obvious libertarian characteristic–its aversion to high taxes–imposes real limits on the government’s overall claim on social resources.” Hard core libertarianism will include policies which are not tolerable to many liberals, but that does not mean that liberals should not be considering some ideas held by libertarians, which greatly coincide with the original ideas of liberalism.

Update:  Pragmatism and the Liberal-Libertarian Question

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