Moving In A More Liberal and Libertarian Direction

Libertarianism comes in many flavors. There’s hard libertarianism which rarely allows for any government activity as well as quite a variety of people who lean towards libertarianism who hold various views as to when government action is appropriate. Libertarianism has often been associated with the right, and the Ron Paul movement has definitely shown that social conservatism (often accompanied by the racism and anti-Semitism which have often afflicted the far right) can take on a libertarian name.

With the growing authoritarianism of the Republican Party, the more interesting development of libertarianism has been increased alliance between libertarians and liberals. There has even been talk of a fusionist philosophy of liberaltarianism. This has largely come about as the issues which divide left and right have changed. Attitudes on social issues, civil liberties, and the Iraq war are for more likely to divide people between left or right. There does remain some remnants of leftist economic views among Democrats but for the most part the idea of a market economy has won. There is far less interest in big government programs, except in specific areas, and certainly little support for income redistribution among contemporary Democrats.

It is significant that of the three major Democratic candidates to run this year, the two who embraced populist economic views lost while the more pro-market Barack Obama, who has been heavily influenced by the University of Chicago, is the current nominee. Obama has even been referred to as a left-libertarian by some, and more recently Geogre Will described Obama’s philosophy as one of “libertarian paternalism.” David Friedman has recently written on why he prefers Obama to McCain.

Hard core libertarians will disagree and oppose Obama as well as the current trends in the Democratic Party. Other libertarians find reason to be enthusiastic about the direction the country is taking on both social and economic matters. In discussing The Age of Abundance,by Brink Lindsey, Tim Lee writes:

Over the last four decades, public attitudes have shifted dramatically rightward on economic issues (even with a sweeping Democratic victory this fall, it’s hard to imagine a return to the 1970s’ levels of taxes, regulations, unionization, or monetary expansion) and leftward on social issues (feminism, gay rights, and sexual openness have all made great strides). I think it’s pretty clear that the left has been gradually winning on social issues while the right has mostly won on economic issues. While neither side has been all that libertarian, the net effect has been to push things in a libertarian direction.

I also think it would be helpful if more libertarians talked about things in these terms. Too many libertarians seem to define libertarianism as a very specific and restrictive political program: as a laundry list of government programs to be abolished, or equivalently as a very short list of government programs that won’t be abolished. By that measure, libertarianism is nowhere close to successful. But if we define libertarianism more broadly as a set of general ideas and attitudes—pro-market, pro-tolerance, skeptical of authority—the last few decades look a lot better from a libertarian perspective. Few major government programs have been abolished, but the role of market in the economy has expanded dramatically, and partly as a consequence people are freer than they’ve ever been to live their lives as they seem fit without interference from those in authority.

The Age of Abundance was written from the perspective of a time when the conventional wisdom among libertarians was that Republicans were pro-market and preferable on economic issues. They also believed  Democrats were preferable on social issues but unacceptable due to being anti-market. In recent years Democrats have been far more market-oriented, even if many liberals wouldn’t use that designation (as Matthew Yglesias points out.) In contrast, the Republicans have increasingly been supporters of corporate welfare and redistribution of wealth to the top one tenth of one percent, embracing policies which have little resemblence to lasissez-faire capitalism. Defining libertarianism more broadly as Tim Lee does, there is a tremendous overlap with liberalism, with Lee being right in seeing the overal trend as moving in a more libertarian direction. While George Bush has tried going against such trends, his authoritarian big-government views have been widely repudiated, allowing the country to move in a more libertarian direction in coming years.

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