Saturday, January 16, 2016

Where is the boundary between libertarian and liberal?

My last post defended a libertarian icon’s most famous quote from an assailant who works for a libertarian think tank. This got me curious about the identity of the man criticizing Goldwater, and his own political leanings. His name is Will Wilkinson, and a quick Google search discovered that he shares many of my libertarian sensibilities. He used to be a research fellow at the Cato Institute, where he was the founding editor of Cato Unbound. He has been a program director at the Mercatus Center (the libertarian-leaning economics think-tank at George Mason University) and the Institute for Humane Studies (which runs the popular Learn Liberty program as well as the seminars for young libertarians I attended last June). He also writes for The Economist and “frequently appears in public forums and debates with leading intellectuals.” This makes two things clear. First, Wilkinson is way smarter than me. Second, we agree on a whole lot. Reading these accomplishments left me certain that Wilkinson was a libertarian after all - if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.

Perplexingly, I also discovered that this same man authored an entry in one of my favorite left-libertarian blogs back in 2012, in which he explained why he does not describe himself as libertarian. He implored the sites viewers not to do so either, and to instead “hasten their passage through the liminal ‘bleeding heart’ stage and just come out as liberals.” I would implore them to do no such thing, and this entry will refute that stance. But before I begin, I’d like to thank him for the awesome work he has done to advance liberty and happiness thus far in his career, regardless of the banner he champions. On the very remote chance he ever reads this, I hope he won’t take it as a personal attack.

The bulk of his argument came from this passage:

“I’m not interested in identifying myself a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal”.

But Wilkinson applies this logic rather selectively, because only a few paragraphs later he confesses that “[s]tandard academic liberals badly understate the importance of economic freedom to freedom more generally.” It would appear, then, that what “liberal” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as liberal, is also flatly at odds with some of what Wilkinson believes. And not just some, but much; Wilkinson would surely agree that the errant policy positions which result from the liberal indifference to economic liberty are numerous, and their implications far-reaching.

He acknowledges that this leaves him in “a position that is neither standard liberalism nor a standard libertarian alternative,” and in fact not standardly anything. This is only to be expected, though. The number of philosophical questions in the world is immense, and the number of ideological labels with which one might affiliate is relatively puny. Few informed and independently minded people will find that their political beliefs align exactly with any of these preset configurations of opinion. Affiliation with a political ideology is not presumed to express an exact agreement with everything that ideology would “standardly” be thought to believe.


That Wilkinson still identifies as liberal, but not at all as libertarian, suggests to me that one of two things is true. First, he may believe that liberals and libertarians are mutually exclusive categories – that even their outer boundaries do not intersect. If so, it would seem he defines the parameters of liberalism more broadly and more generously than he defines the parameters of libertarianism.



These definitions strike me as completely arbitrary, which would make his argument for one title over the other unconvincing. Why should liberals get to have a bigger tent than libertarians? Who decides that, say, free market environmentalists who want looser immigration policy and work for the Niskanen Center fall under one tent, but not the other? That Wilkinson is Vice-President of Policy for an organization that unabashedly does describe itself as libertarian suggests there must be significant overlap. It is one thing to self-affiliate with a preferred title, but to essentially scold viewers of a left-libertarian blog for not recognizing what they really are seems mighty presumptuous. Why should he get to police the gate?

Wilkinson asserts that “The argument over which rights and liberties ought to be treated as constitutional fixed points, and thus ought to be off the table of democratic negotiation, is not a debate between liberals and the people who think taxation is theft or that the state is an inherently criminal enterprise. It’s a debate within liberalism between liberals.” But he offers no support for this besides his own contestable definitions. As a former intern at The Federalist Society who blogs on constitutional law, I very much aspire to take part in the debate Wilkinson describes – yet I am not a liberal, by my reckoning, and I do think taxation is more or less theft.

He writes that he is “more interested in arguing with standard liberals about the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state than in arguing with standard libertarians about the justification of taxation, publicly-financed education, or welfare transfers.” As it happens, so am I. But since when do you need to be a liberal to argue with liberals? And in the long run, might fewer parts of this euphemistically-described “liberal-democratic nation-state” be settled than would be possible without those fringe libertarian debates taking place? When abolitionists and suffragettes debated whether black women should have the right to own property in the early 1800’s, they were probably greeted with eye-rolling from those focused on short term progress. But in the grander picture of our country’s history, those debates were at least as important to our national progress as were the Henry Clays and Daniel Websters who worked within the system. I am all for the Niskanen Center’s approach, but that doesn’t mean extremism is altogether unproductive.

The second possibility is that Wilkinson recognizes libertarianism and liberalism do intersect, but feels that that where they intersect, the term liberalism should trump by default.



If this is the case, the obvious question is why? Wilkinson never says, but he hints at one possible answer when he writes that ideological labels “publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions.” This is true, but not really relevant unless we are more concerned by what others think of our label than we are by its underlying accuracy. I cannot help but wonder if a desire to be accepted and validated by those “standard academic liberals” (who make up the bulk his policymaker peers in Washington) might play a subliminal but influential role in Wilkinson’s self-description.

Might Wilkinson be embarrassed, in such an environment, by association with the “syndrome of convictions” publicly connoted by the word libertarian? After all, stereotypes about liberals are much more charitable, particularly in Washington. Libertarians are said to be selfish, heartless, paranoid, privileged, and divorced from reality, while liberals, however misguided their opponents may think they are, are usually at least presumed to have good intentions towards the selfless betterment of humankind. If he admits his beliefs fall somewhere in between standardly liberal and standardly libertarian, a continued preference for one title over the other might indicate that he is more fearful of people misjudging his beliefs in one direction than he is of people misjudging them in the other.

Perhaps this is simply a strategic move for public relations, in much the same way many anarchists now prefer the term “voluntaryist” for fear anarchy has too much baggage. Preferring the more socially acceptable of two labels is fine, I suppose, but it doesn’t mesh with Wilkinson’s self-portrayal as “inscrutably idiosyncratic.” On the contrary, preoccupation with the public connotation of his ideas seem to render his idiosyncrasies quite scrutable. I wouldn’t begrudge him for this were the close of his post not so condescending; “I’ve heard some good things about individualism. Maybe some of us should try it” is not a thing I would write if my personal brand of individualism were all about cow-towing to public sensibilities in order to win approval from mainstream liberal academics.

As any self-described liberal should understand, stereotypes about large classes of people are often wrong. There is huge difference between how libertarians are often caricaturized and the reality of their underlying ideology. Will Wilkinson’s general leanings, in his words are as follows: “I am interested in what it means to be free, and the role of freedom in flourishing or meaningful or valuable lives.”

To me, that means he’s libertarian, whether he calls himself that or not. Freedom is a rough synonym or liberty, and liberty is the root word of libertarian. The word liberal has a more complex etymology, but it seems to originally have had pre-political meanings similar to generous. Generosity is well and good, but it ought not be the fundamental objective of the polity. And in the modern day, standard liberalism strikes me as being far more interested in equality than it is in freedom.

That does not mean Wilkinson cannot also be interested in a whole host of issues that are more standardly liberal than they are libertarian, just as I am myself. More of my blog entries these days deal with feminism than they do property rights. But support for those causes in no way negates our overriding concern for liberty and how to maximize it, which places us wholly within the libertarian label as well. That is what left libertarianism is all about: pursuing freedom and social justice as separate but parallel pursuits, and recognizing that their essential goals complement one another more often than they contradict one another.



I suspect Wilkinson already gets this, so I implore him to hasten his progress through the liminal “closeted libertarian” phase and come out as a thinker who, whatever else he may also be, is both influenced by libertarianism and pushing it to new heights.

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