Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Wilkinson on Liberaltarianism

Will Wilkinson has been doing some interesting writing on liberaltarianism, a mixture — obviously — of liberalism and libertarianism. A lot of his writing on the subject has been about demographics rather than on how the ideas can be combined, rethought or reframed. But I think he’s also right when it comes to psychology, that libertarian personality types are much closer to liberal personality types than it is to the typical conservative personality type.

There’s been a fair amount of psychological research on this and it confirms, I think, that both liberals and libertarians tend not to be of the authoritarian personality type that is so prevalent among conservatives. I think that’s what Wilkinson has in mind when he writes:

I think there is good evidence that those inclined to favor libertarian policies are closer temperamentally to liberals than conservatives. But the vogue of socialism in the 20th century split the ranks of temperamentally liberal Americans. (Some thought democratic socialism was the fulfillment of liberalism, while others thought steps in that direction would take us down the road to serfdom.) During the Cold War-era especially, the conservative imaginary highlighted libertarian elements of American tradition and identity in a way that was especially attractive to libertarians. Because anti-leftism is a core element of this conservative conception of American identity, older libertarians raised on fusionism sometimes have a hard time telling the difference between loving liberty and hating the left.

However, since libertarian personalities are close to liberal personalities, and since young folks with a libertarian cast of mind have little or no memory of the threat of socialism at home and communism abroad, there is little in the right-wing politics of traditional American identity that resonates with them. The party of liberal-minded Americans, the Democratic Party, just feels more like home, despite its often pointedly un-libertarian economic policy.

I think he’s right about that. It certainly seems to be true about someone like me. On the demographic question, he writes:

In the past, younger voters with libertarian tendencies have leaned Republican. I think there is solid evidence that this has been changing. So over time, I expect the Republican Party to become marginally less libertarian in orientation and the Democratic Party to become marginally more libertarian in orientation. In particular, I predict Democrats will become somewhat more receptive to arguments that certain less centralized, more market-oriented policies do a better job of achieving liberal goals than do the more heavily centralized, technocratic policies favored by current Democratic opinion elites. This kind of increased openness to fresh thinking is especially likely if there is an organized effort to articulate a moderate libertarian philosophy in terms attractive to liberals, which is precisely what Brink Lindsey and I are in the process of doing.

I think this is a very valuable thing. That does not, as he points out, mean anything like a takeover of the Democratic party by libertarians, but there are clear areas of agreement that could be built upon. A blogger at the Economist writes:

I’m pretty sure there is fertile ground out there for agreement between liberals and libertarians, but the first area that leaps to mind, for me, is shrinking the security state. Both in terms of incarceration, and in terms of our bloated national defence budget. And I’m kind of surprised those aren’t the first ideas that leap to Mr Wilkinson’s mind.

That’s certainly true, especially the first. Libertarian-minded folks like me and real libertarians like Radley Balko have been railing about the criminal justice system for years and that’s an obvious area of agreement between the two groups. But there are other areas as well, particularly when it comes to the Bill of Rights.

I also think that there is much that liberals can learn from libertarians about the way markets operate that could help make government regulations more effective. The problem is that many forms of subsidy and regulation favored by both parties ignores the nature of markets and acts to counteract the benefits of a market rather than emphasize them.

For example, competition is the key to a market operating for the good of the consumer, holding down prices and increasing quality. But many forms of regulation and subsidy reduce competition by keeping new companies out of a market and giving unbeatable advantages to one or a few large companies that dominate a market. Those are badly designed regulations.

A moderate libertarianism, one that sees government regulation not as an automatic evil but as something that can be either good or bad depending on how they’re designed could have great appeal for liberals (and could really help make government better). But I’ll leave it to those far better educated on those subjects to work out the details.


  1. #1 david
    April 13, 2010

    @ Troublesome Frog, 74

    You wrote: that a small group of people can claim to be the “true” principled defenders of liberty always annoyed me.

    Me too.

    I like the saying of the British wag, “In America there is too much liberty, in France not enough.”

    Tho I do wonder if the Brit mind does not trend to Regent Street, to Arthur Lasenby Liberty, to liberty style and architecture, to art nouveau, and still going strong, Liberty Department Store.




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