Will Wilkinson on Liberaltarianism

If you think of libertarianism in terms of the prominent political candidates this year, it looks like there is basically a choice between conservatives who are at very least friendly to racists and white supremacists (Ron Paul) and conservatives who reject white supremacists (Bob Barr). While there are some areas of common agreement on civil liberties and opposition to the Iraq war, for the most part the social conservatism of both makes their views quite distinct from liberalism.

If you think of libertarianism in terms of the prominent political candidates this year, you are also missing a considerable amount of libertarian thought which is much closer to liberalism, especially if we remember the origins of liberal thought. Several libertarians and liberals have written of a fusion of these views, with some reviewed in previous posts.Will Wilkinson has written a brief summary of liberaltarianism.

Wilkinson dispenses with some of the major libertarian disputes, such as those between the anarcho-capitalists who agreed with Murray Rothbard and the proponents of limited government who agreed with Ayn Rand and others. He notes:

Sadly, “libertarianism” has become identified rather strongly with this ideology — an ideology some of the thinkers most strongly identified with libertarianism, like Hayek and Friedman, never shared.

Wilkinson sees libertarianism as more in the tradition of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, James M. Buchanan, resulting in differences of opinion with some other libertarians:

If I tell most highly-educated people that these are the thinkers whose views of desirable institutions are most like mine, they might infer that I am some kind of rabid libertarian ideologue. But when I actually defend something like the arguments for an economic safety net each of these giants of libertarian thought actually set forth, lots of libertarians accuse me of not really being libertarian at all. And many liberals act surprised, as if I’m being saucily iconoclastic by wandering so far off the reservation. I can tell them that Hayek was actually in favor of a guaranteed minimum income and that Friedman basically invented the idea behind the EITC, but they’ll still think I’m some kind of congenial squish. But what I am is a market liberal just like Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan — the same intellectual role models who make me a rabid libertarian ideologue. So, which is it?

Frankly, “liberaltarianism” and “progressive fusionism” don’t really amount to much beyond what Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan thought anyway. So the fusionism here isn’t really a fusion of anything. It’s just seeing our way back to a pre-existing economically literate political liberalism.

When Paul supporters are not propounding some bizarre conspiracy theory or providing arguments to justify racism and anti-Semitism, they can often be recognized for their cries that any government program is evil and their ridiculous accusations that those who don’t agree with them are socialists. Wilkinson sees the absurdity in such arguments:

The death of socialism as a viable competitor to the liberal-capitalist welfare state makes continued slippery-slope-to-socialism thinking look densely anachronistic. Other liberal welfare states, like the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, etc., have moved in a rather more market-liberal direction, becoming rather less of a soft-socialist middle-ground between the American model and full-on economic socialism. The question these days is whether the U.S. will have the good sense to adopt more rational market-based old-age pension policies, like Sweden or Australia, or lower corporate tax rates to a level more in line with the rest of the wealthy world. Slightly higher personal tax rates and slightly more redistribution is a possibility, but a slide into socialism just isn’t on the table. In this context, the negative income tax looks much less like a dangerous concession to the world-historical forces of evil.

The libertarians who have not allowed justifiable opposition to Communism warp their minds are increasingly seeing the mistake of aligning with the conservatives:

Meanwhile, with the obsolescence of the anti-communist alliance with conservatives, many libertarians have sloughed off much of their previously tactically useful sympathy for socially conservative initiatives. Freed to be full-on social liberals, many libertarians are left sensing a much deeper cultural affinity for the left than the right. And this leads naturally to seeing more clearly their ideological affinities with welfare liberals. And then you read thinkers like Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan, and you think: Oh, yes. This is extremely sensible. And now that the welfare-liberal elite has become rather more economically literate and is no longer sighing over five year plans, there is no reason to think they cannot find this sensible, too.

So that’s where I’m at. An old-fashioned market liberal who thinks Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan get it right, and who thinks Rawlsian welfare liberals should be able to recognize themselves in these thinkers.


  1. 1
    Mark says:

    Wilkinson’s post was actually one of the best reads I’ve had in a long while.  I’ve been meaning to write on it in more detail, but the bottom line is that it’s the most coherent explanation for why a realignment of sorts is a wise idea for libertarians right now.  Obviously, this is something that you and I have both been hoping for and arguing as a distinct possibility should the cards fall the right way in the next few months. 
    One of the things that Wilkinson most correctly points out (and that I wish he had fleshed out even more) is that we are not about to head down the road to massive, widespread socialism.  I’ve been calling that fear “libertarian millenialism” and it was the biggest driving factor in that portion of the Paul die-hards who were neither racists nor conspiracy theorists.  I found this subgroup to be almost as intolerable as the other two subgroups- they were (and remain) completely convinced that the US will become Soviet Russia if we don’t elect Ron Paul this November…hence the phrase “libertarian millenialism.”

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    Your post wound up covering similar ground which I planned to discuss in a follow up to this post. Basically the questions of libertarians and liberals uniting is based upon a couple of factors which you’ve also discussed.

    First you have to keep in mind that there is a wide range of views held by both liberals and by libertarians. Some in each group have views which are compatible and some do not.

    This also must be viewed somewhat like current coalitions are, and not in terms of libertarians and liberals uniting to share exactly the same views. Just as the Republicans have been a coalition of very diverse groups, ranging from right-libertarians to the religious right, there are grounds for liberals (minus the conservative populists like Clinton) and some libertarians to work together.

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    Mark says:

    Absolutely agreed. And as much as I may like to see it, I am not expecting a radical transformation of the two primary coalitions to occur overnight. Instead, I suspect that this transformation began with the 2006 elections (when about 40% of “libertarians” voted for the Dem in Congressional elections), and will continue to occur gradually over the next 10-15 years. This campaign has made clear to me that the New Deal coalition is no longer sustainable- while Obama supporters and Clinton supporters technically agree on most policy issues, their political philosophies are terribly different. I suspect that as the Clinton-ites slowly move to the Republican Party, with which they have more in common philosophically, so too will libertarians and moderate Republicans slowly move in the opposite direction.
    While it is true that some views of liberals and libertarians are utterly irreconcilable, that is nothing new in American politics. What will wind up happening, for better or worse, is that libertarians and liberals, as well as Clinton-ites and conservatives on the other side, will wind up making compromises for the sake of coalition building. So, for instance, the netroots-type liberals who care primarily about civil and social issues will consciously or subconsciously adopt a more accepting attitude towards free trade, about which libertarians care much more. This does not mean that philosophically they will necessarily agree with free trade policies, but it does mean that they will be willing to go along with them as long as it allows them to get their primary issues pushed through. Similarly- again for better or worse- we may see all but the most ideological libertarians adopt or at least accede to less strongly anti-tax positions or to perhaps be more tolerant of international organizations like the UN, amongst other things.
    This is essentially what happened with respect to the role of libertarians in the Republican Party – in order to fight the specter of socialism and Communism, they wound up compromising their positions on a lot of social issues (the War on Drugs, gay rights, etc.) in order to maintain a coalition with social conservatives; meanwhile, social conservatives sacrificed the use of government as a mechanism for Christian charity, which was the subject of Huckabee’s rant last week.
    At this point, the unifying issues that kept religious conservatives and libertarians in the same coalition have ceased to be top priorities for either group, and so the two groups have largely ceased to conform their views in order to maintain the coalition.
    Mind you- I don’t think this drive to conformity was, is, or will be done consciously. However, the survey I referenced in my post suggests quite strongly that it is a critical element of coalition building that happens more or less subconsciously.

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    Mike R. says:

    Geolibertarians have a solid idea on taxation:  taxes on natural resources in the form of land value (i.e. the land itself, water, minerals, the air, broadcast waves, etc…), with little or no taxation on income, sales, and human-made property.  Surpluses on natural taxes could then be distributed equally back to all citizens in the form of a dividend.  This is something more Democrats should be embracing.  Yes, there is a Democratic Freedom Caucus, but  their members seem to consist of too many right wingers.

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