February 12, 2009
Liberaltarianism: Stimulated to Death, or Still Kicking?
by Micah Tillman
“Whatever happened to liberaltarianism?” Jonah Goldberg (National Review’s resident libertarian watcher) wondered aloud yesterday. Referring specifically to the work of Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, Goldberg wrote:
“It 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.”
He added later:
“[L]iber(al)tarians make a terrible mistake when they assume that a few shared values about what constitutes "social goods" or "tolerance" means that libertarians and liberals actually share a common vision of the role of government.”
Mr. Wilkinson has had some things to say in response since. For instance:
“So ‘whatever happened to liberaltarianism’ is that it’s an ongoing project to change who talks to whom, to freshen the stale dialectic of American politics, and to create new possibilities for American political identity.”
It’s on the point of identity that I think the reunification project that Mr. Wilkinson envisions (“As I see it, this project involves an attempt to reunify the separate strands of the American liberal tradition”) will face it’s greatest challenge. The liberal (=progressive) and libertarian personalities may differ too drastically to ever be welded together.
In fact, the idea that they both come from the same tradition of liberal politics, and therefore have a primordial unity that can be gotten back to, may turn out to be one of those facts that’s too distant or abstract to have any effect. (We’re all supposedly descended from Y-Chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve, but that hasn’t helped get the Family back together yet.)
Furthermore, the unity between the libertarian and conservative personalities goes deeper than Cold War camaraderie. (Wilkinson: “[T]he 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.”)
Goldberg is right when he says, “The first principles” of progressives and libertarians “simply aren’t aligned.” And he’s also right when he says “the overlap” between libertarians and liberals on social issues “isn't nearly so transparent as it is between conservatives and libertarians on economic issues.”
The conservative-libertarian alliance is as fundamental as it is often troubling. There are three ways in which libertarians and conservatives are ultimately the same (and in which conservatives and libertarians differ radically from progressives):
(1) Libertarians and conservatives agree on what kind of thing government is. (2) They agree on what humans are. (3) They experience themselves in the same way.
That is, the basic libertarian and conservative positions are consonant with respect to (1) the ontology of government, (2) anthropology, and (3) personality.
With regard to government, conservatives and libertarians agree with John Locke:
“POLITICAL POWER, then, I take to be a RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.”
Progressives, on the other hand, experience governmental power as being economic.
Starting from the progressive view of government, you come to see government as a potential partner or donor.
Starting from the libertarian/conservative view, however, you come to see government as a potential threat, whose only virtue is that it can minimize other threats.
Start from the progressive point of view, and you want to see how involved you can make government (how much of its money can you appropriate?).
Start from the conservative/libertarian point of view, and you want to see how small you can make government, without negating its ability to minimize legitimate threats.
Start from the progressive point of view, and you think government comes to have the biggest guns because it has the most money. Start from the libertarian/conservative point of view, and you think government comes to have the most money because it has the biggest guns.
Same facts. Different starting points. Different viewpoints—even when they seem to be standing on the same spot.
Beyond the radically different views of government, progressives and conservatives have radically different anthropologies (as I’ve argued elsewhere). And, once again, the libertarian and conservative personalities are—at the most meaningful and basic level—the same.
For the libertarian and conservative, people are to be respected by giving them space in which to blossom.
For the progressive, people are to be respected by giving them the assistance they need to blossom.
As I’ve also argued elsewhere, the differing progressive and conservative anthropologies depend on fundamentally different kinds of self-experience. And, once again, the libertarian and the conservative are the same.
The libertarian and conservative experience themselves as having self-actualizable potentials. Given that others don’t stand in their way, the libertarian and conservative feel they can become all that they can be, without having to be nannied by others.
The progressive, on the other hand, experiences himself as having potentials that are only fully actualizable by others. Only in the right environment and community does the progressive feel he will be able to give and receive in a way that makes him all that he can be.
The libertarian and conservative personalities diverge in ways that I can’t fully explore at the moment. (E.g., the questions of  whether one’s group-membership/citizenship defines one’s being/personhood, and  whether the groups we form have an existence or life that transcends us.) But, I would argue, they only begin to diverge as the conservative and progressive personalities begin to converge.
A quasi-collectivist tendency can arise in both the conservative and progressive personalities-types, a tendency that can lead both conservatives and progressives to be able to sing with equal vigor that they are, “Born Again Americans.”
And as the chorus begins, libertarians run screaming for the hills.
So, add a conservative/progressive urge to sing to the fundamental differences on governmental ontology, on anthropology, and on personality, and you see just how large a task Lindsey and Wilkinson have set for themselves.
My best wishes go with them, naturally. But. . . .
Micah Tillman is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
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