Liberals and Libertarians

TPM Cafe is having a discussion between Eric Alterman and Brink Lindsay on liberalism and libertarianism. As is often the case in such discussions, I fall somewhere in between. Philosophically I lean more towards the libertarians while an objective look at the real world forces me to concede that in many (but certainly not all areas) liberals are more reality-based. My Utopia would be far closer to that of the libertarians as opposed to the socialist Utopia which many conservatives erroneously believe all liberals yearn for, but in the real world we often need some of the programs of the liberal state.

I’ll present a portion of one segment of this conversation where Brink Lindsay discusses differences between liberals and libertarians. This also demonstrates an area where I’ve differed from libertarians, having not had the affinity for conservatives which many libertarians have had (and certainly not preferring George Bush to Al Gore).  Brink writes:

As liberals of a certain type, we libertarians have sided with liberals and against conservatives on many important issues: civil liberties, censorship, drug policy, and separation of church and state, for example. Most libertarians I know are pro-choice, and most favor full legal equality for gays and lesbians. And although I was a Cold War hawk, and by misapplying those old attitudes to the post-9/11 environment I came to support the Iraq war (a decision I now deeply regret), the prevailing tendency among libertarians has been to urge restraint in the exercise of American power — a position that, over the years, has had more adherents on the left than on the right.

Yet despite our shared liberal heritage and a good deal of common ground on issues of the day, the fact is that, until recently at least, most libertarians like me have rooted for conservatives and Republicans in the political arena. Most of us cheered Reagan’s victories; most of us were delighted by the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. And most of us, heaven help us all, preferred George W. Bush to Al Gore. We sided with the political right because of its libertarian-inspired support for reduced government spending, lower taxes, and less heavy-handed regulation of economic activity. On these matters of central concern to us, conservatives may have been inconsistent allies, but liberals were dependable and determined adversaries.

Things have been changing in recent years, though, and old ideological identities and loyalties are now in flux. First, America’s political economy has shifted in a decidedly libertarian direction over the past few decades. Nobody believes in socialism anymore. Although there’s a fair amount of nostalgia on the left for the good old days of the Big Government-Big Labor-Big Business triumvirate, nobody really thinks the Galbraithian “technostructure” can be reassembled. Nobody’s looking to revive the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Civil Aeronautics Board, or reimpose fixed interest rates and brokerage commissions, or go back to Ma Bell. Nobody seriously proposes a return to 70% tax rates or Aid to Families with Dependent Children. So while libertarians and liberals can still find no end of things to disagree about, the stakes are much lower than they used to be. And the disputes feel more empirical than theological. These days a free-market liberal may be a member of a minority faction, but he’s not an oxymoron.

Meanwhile, libertarians’ marriage of convenience with conservatives has grown increasingly inconvenient. Fiscal incontinence, extreme assertions of executive power, an arrogant and witless foreign policy — the Bush years have been a libertarian nightmare. And the larger conservative movement has changed in character as well. Small government and free markets are no longer the priorities they once were. Instead, most of the energy on the right these days is generated by immigrant-bashing and dangerous fantasies of a new Cold War with Islam. Such xenophobic impulses are repugnant to anyone with any kind of liberal temperament.

As a result, libertarians’ alliance with conservatism is coming unglued — and a rapprochement with liberalism now looms as at least a possibility.

That possibility is enhanced, I believe, by Eric’s book. To his credit, Eric stresses contemporary liberalism’s classical liberal roots. His definition of liberalism’s big tent — a “bedrock belief in personal freedom” and Enlightenment values — is one that libertarians can embrace heartily. And his unapologetic defense of liberal cultural values is filled with libertarian applause lines.

For those who wonder how I chose the tag line for this blog, “Defending Liberty and Enlightened Thought,” I direct you towards the excerpt above, particularly the final chapter.

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