Alex Massie

The Liberaltarian Future?

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Liberaltarianism is, in case you haven't been following this mildly esoteric debate in Washington, the notion that rather than hitch their wagons to conservativism American libertarians and libertarian-minded folk should also explore relations with (US) liberals in order to further the libertarian agenda. This has proven an oddly controversial idea and, generally, has been dismissed as a) a joke, b) a fool's errand or c) simply impossible.

Now Brink Lindsey, who first coined the awkward term "liberaltarian" in a now famous-for-DC essay in the New Republic and his colleague Will Wilkinson* are leaving the libertarian Cato Institute. This has tongues wagging. In some circles anyway. See Tim Carney's Washington Examiner column, for instance. Indeed, Carney followed up by asking if there's even any such thing as a liberal-libertarian politician and suggested that "maybe there's something about the socially liberal agenda that draws someone away from economic freedom."

Maybe in America. But does this debate have to be confined to the United States? I don't see why it has to be quite so insular. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation's Economic Liberty Index suggests that, actually, there's little to no necessary contradiction between social liberalism and economic freedom.

For instance: Heritage hammers Denmark and Sweden for high levels of government spending but both countries are ranked "freer" than the US in matters as non-trivial as business, trade and investment freedoms. Indeed, Sweden and Denmark each score better than the United States in seven of the ten areas measured**. (Britain comes out 5-4 ahead of the US with the property rights fixture ending in a draw. Germany is tied 5-5 with the Americans. Canada, Australia and New Zealand also do better than America.)

Now clearly if you were building a libertarian society from scratch you might not end up with something that looks very much like Denmark. And if tax rates are the only - or at least principle - measure you employ then, sure, Denmark and Sweden might look pretty hellish to you. But it depends which taxes you're talking about and, for that matter, what aspects of government spending you're unhappy with. Tim Lee puts it well:

In the conservative (and fusionist) worldview, government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used. This has some unfortunate results. It means that cutting children’s health care spending is just as good as cutting a dollar from subsidies for wealthy corporations. And since wealthy corporations typically have lobbyists and poor children don’t, the way this works out in practice is that conservative politicians staunchly oppose the former while letting the latter slide.

Quite. Libertarians dreaming of nirvana - or conservatives who think libertarians can't possibly forge any meaningful, if even temporary, alliances with the left - are starting from the wrong place. At some point you have to deal with the world as it is, not how it might be had everything been different from the beginning.

So, sure, you wouldn't start with something like the NHS. And you might not sign on to every aspect of German labour laws. But that doesn't mean there can't be liberal (in a classical, european sense) advances in Britain or Germany. Indeed, both countries are currently governed by socially-liberal, economically-conservative coalitions. If you want to see whether "liberaltarianism" is possible then you might look to these countries.

Germany's Free Democrats and, to a lesser extent, some Liberal Democrats in Britain would probably come within a US definition of "liberaltarian". Rock-ribbed libertarians can find plenty to be unhappy with in each instance but these governments are much, much closer and friendlier to what I'd term real liberalism than anything on offer from either party in the US or from any of the alternatives in the UK and Germany.

And anyway, liberaltarianism - or whatever you want to call it - has enjoyed great successes in recent decades. Regardless of how it has happened libertarian preferences have gained ground in areas such as trade, education reform, labour mobility, deregulation, gay rights and a host of other matters. There's even some (small) signs of progress on the drug war. With some obvious exceptions, things like wage and price and currency controls are old hat. Markets, despite the recent unpleasantness, remain vital and much more accepted as such than was the case in, say, 1975.

So, sure, you can argue that governments continue to exceed their legitimate purpose and do so flagrantly and without shame. That's to be expected. But by any sensible measurement the centre of political gravity in Britain and much of the rest of europe has moved towards, not away from, libertarian preferences over the course of the last fourty years. This is a much more socially and economically liberal world than it was. Not perfect, but better. Despite Bush and Obama I think you can make a comparable argument about the United States too.

Liberals' job, then, is to keep poking their opponents on the right and the left. There will be plenty of setbacks but the notion that because the left is hopeless in some areas (as is the right) any alliance, however temporary or limited, is rendered pointless seems a stretch and something designed to keep libertarians in a conservative big tent that has lately proved an uncomfortable berth. Indeed, one could almost argue that to the extent that (some) conservatives are already on board with some parts of the libertarian worldview, the obvious thing to do is despatch missionary expeditions into enemy territory in the hope of (eventually!) winning converts there too.

There's not going to be a "pure" libertarian government in any western country any time soon. Which rather means you need to make the best of matters as they are, not flounce from the field because not everything is arranged as you'd like it to be. Even libertarians are allowed their occasional moments of pragmatism. Perfection ain't around the corner but improvement is.

At the very least any international survey must conclude that it is not impossible to combine economic-conservatism with social-liberalism. Perhaps it may be more difficult in the United States but that's a matter for another time.


**Admittedly, the US tends to be narrowly defeated in some categories but wins big in areas such as spending and tax. Nevertheless, the point stands.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.