"Liberaltarianism" in the Age of Obama


The National Review's Jonah Goldberg takes a look at the stimulus/bailout/econ debate and is moved to ask, "Whatever happened to liberaltarianism?"

[I]t seems to me that the stimulus debate clearly puts the lie to the idea that liberals and libertarians can see eye to eye on the large questions of political economy, at least for the foreseeable future. The first principles simply aren't aligned. The theoretical arguments in favor of the stimulus amount to rubbing the libertarian cat's fur backwards. And the so-called "libertarian center" hardly seems to be decisive or even relevant to the public debate. In the most important and fundamental debate about the role of government in a generation, the libertarians are lining-up with, and even marching out in front of, the conservatives.

Though I might quibble on details, I think Goldberg is basically right here. Will Wilkinson rebuts:

I understand it is now politically expedient for Republicans to oppose whatever Obama is trying to do. But, frankly, the recent performance of the Republicans in Congress has been pathetic, managing to do little more than fight to get a bit more for their constituencies and a bit less for the majority's. I do not remember hearing a plausible, principled alternative powerfully articulated by the Congressional Republicans. Maybe that's because the great success of the GOP over the last eight years has been to destroy the reputation of free markets and limited government by deploying its rhetoric and then doing the opposite. Partisan Republicans choke on the truth that the emerging shape of the Obama era is the aftemath of the GOP's successful, if unwitting, campaign to destroy the political economy they proclaimed.

There's a lot of diversity within libertarianism. And the most common forms of libertarianism are, I think, still pretty well shot through with conservative reflexes bred by the long Cold War alliance between libertarians and the right. For many libertarians, hating the left just feels like home. So many libertarians will indeed come running home when called to service by the organs of partisan conservativism. Well, good luck to y'all, but I was never on the team, and I've never wanted less to be on it.

Though I might quibble on details, I think Wilkinson is basically right here.

The pivot in this debate is the word "team." Seems to me that if and when team-membership (or its yang, team-nonmembership) ceases to be of primary or even duodenary concern, a lot of this discussion, no matter how high-toned, begins to sound like what I imagine heated baseball arguments must sound like to a French woman.

Actually, that's not the right analogy. I have a vested interest in national politicians embracing limited-government principles, and so tend to be more happy than not on the rare occasions when I hear these ideas cited, but I hold out zero hope that either of the major parties would ever take them seriously once in power. In my blinkered view, libertarianism as an outlook is all at once oppositional, constructive, and optimistic. Oppositional to whatever 19th century political party is in power, because chances are near 100 percent that their overriding M.O. will be anathema to limited-government principles. Constructive because, hey, libertarians actually have some pretty helpful ideas about how to make tax dollars more effectively accomplish such tasks as building roads, educating poor people, and (to cite an Obama favorite) creating jobs. When the politicians run out of money (and they always do), we'll have some plausible suggestions. Optimistic because a large subset of l-worders don't take their mood cues from government, but rather the very tangible and even thrilling progress that humanity and liberalism are making across any number of fronts, even if domestic inter-bank lending is down 11 percent this quarter.

The focus on political teams blurs one central, overriding truth: When it comes to bailout/stimulus/econ, there is no significant break in policy between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, no matter how much it benefits enthusiasts and detractors from pretending there's a sharp break between the two. The biggest economic political* event last fall was not the election, it was the bipartisan, unpopular, panic-driven bailout. So yeah, Obamanomics from the outset precludes much of any warm embrace between liberals and libertarians. Much like Bushonomics did throughout his term. Hmmmm, what do the two presidents (and the congressional majorities that enabled them) have in common? Could it be that they're…politicians?

Political alignments and realignments and coalitions and clubs are all certainly interesting to read (and occasionally write!) about, and probably even to participate in, but I wonder if there's something naive and/or narcissistic about the whole exercise. It was 20 years ago today (more or less) that Lou Reed sang "Does anybody need another self-righteous rock singer // whose nose, he said, has led him straight to God?" So, does anybody need another libertarianesque commentator whose nose, he said, has led him to straight to Democrats or Republicans? Strawman!

* Thanks to commenter Kolohe for the edit.