Crazy Pills

Rock and a Hard Place by A Milder Despot
February 13, 2009, 5:59 pm
Filed under: A Milder Despot | Tags: ,

Thankfully, my take on the “liberalterian” dustup between Jonah Goldberg, John Hood, Will Wilkinson, and others comes late on a Friday afternoon, so I’ll get the last word. Or at least, I would if anyone read this. (It’s all so incredibly interesting to me.)

I think that Goldberg’s original post was a bit odd and, I agree with Wilkinson, “poorly aimed.” Bringing up the names of prominent writers and claiming that you’d know what they think on any one subject (in this case, the stimulus) or that a small sample size (in this case, Dems/the Left voting on the stimulus) invalidates some grand idea, you’re spoiling for a fight. Which, of course, Goldberg got.

I do, however, agree with Goldberg on the basic point: the project to transmogrify the Democratic party into an inherently libertarian coalition is going to be largely fruitless. Even recognizing that Wilkinson is looking at a far larger picture and longer term than most political operatives are (and acknowledging that I do not fully understand his ‘Rawlsekian‘ fusionist philosophic underpinnings), I see the project as hopeless.

Now I may be looking at the world through my hyper-partisan glasses (they look really cool, I got them at this hipster store you wouldn’t really know about), but the Democratic Party in America seems to be trending less libertarian, if anything.

This isn’t apparent on the face of things. Obama likes to label himself a “pragmatist” rather than an “ideologue.” This was most exemplified when Obama (the leader of the Democratic party, after all, and who I presume to be the person to set the tone for the party for a long time) said, “the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

Now the practical result of such a ‘pragmatism’ might very well be to roll back some portions of the government. But it reflects a dangerous underlying hostility to liberty that simply is not reconcilable in any way with the principles of libertarianism. “Pragmatism” seeks to say “individual liberty has no inherent value in itself.” “Pragmatists”, as such, have no problem rolling back individual liberty or equality under the law if they are deemed to be an impediment to societal organization.

I see this strain of thought, combined with an utterly unskeptical eye toward the limits and failings of government power, combine to make up the philosophic foundation of the modern Democratic party. As I said, I’m looking at this discussion from my incredibly subjective point of view and I’m open to holes (perhaps glaring ones) in my discussion here.

To look at it in a less analytic light, of course, reveals a sympathy to liberty on both Republican and Democratic sides. They both employ the rhetoric of individual liberty in different areas. However, I see the GOP’s social restrictions (abortion, gay marriage, and others) as the philosophic outlier. While Democrats’ commitment to some areas of individual liberty can be described as philosophically consistent, it’s simply the result of luck. Democrats and the American Left see no area of life as exempt from government authority and “pragmatism,” but liberty gets lucky that they simply accept liberty in area x or area y, with no philosophic commitment to liberty.

It’s important to be honest to both sides in this. What I have outlined is not to say that the Democratic party is wholly committed to expanding government without question, just as Republicans (and the libertarian strain of the Republican party) aren’t anarchists. Both sides agree that there are necessary functions of government and necessary areas of individual freedom. It’s simply that the reasons for these areas of agreement are completely disconnected from each other.

Democrats and the American Left have no interest whatsoever in becoming more libertarian. The Bush administration, conservatives in power, and Republicans in general have utterly failed to carry out their principalled commitment to liberty. But a failure of the messengers proves nothing but that men are fallible, not that that part of the coalitional specturm is actually incapable of carrying out the message.


8 Comments so far
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Reihan Salam brings up a salient point: Wilkinson is unconcerned with the actions of the Democratic party at this point as it relates to his long-term project. I simply don’t think that libertarian thought and Democratic thought (and the American Left in general) is reconcilable in any way.

But I take issue with another of Salam’s points:

“Like David Brooks, I think that the big challenges we face are what he calls the macro threats that need to be tackled through some kind of collective action.”

It’s true that there are huge, macro-level things that require centralization of government power to deal with. But conservatism/libertarianism looks at such things with an EXTREMELY skeptical eye, as successes in government power inevitably lead to proposed expanses in government power, and that the American Left, combined with a hyperbolic media, attempt to make almost everything into such a macro-level crisis (as explained, helpfully, by Jonah Goldberg). This marginalizes the real crises that come along and necessitates the skepticism exemplified by conservatives.

Comment by A Milder Despot

I think it’s useful for any discussion of the differences between liberals and libertarians to distinguish (as clearly as possible) between philosophical and empirical disagreements. To what extent is it a disagreement over principles and ends? And to what extent is it merely policy disagreement over means? Wilkinson has touched on this some.

You seem to view Obama’s pragmatism as threatening to certain principled libertarian commitments to liberty. This is the realm of philosophic principles/ends disagreement. Whereas the supposed “unskeptical eye towards…government power” seems to fall in the policy/means category of disagreement.

I wonder… would you consider a pragmatist who favored free markets, limited government, and political freedom for reasons of expediency rather than principal to be, in any way, actually a libertarian

I’d also suggest Joshua Cohen in the Boston Review:

Comment by Movers&Shakers

You raise some good points, M&S.

I’m always hesitant to apply a possibly inappropriate label to someone who would personally reject it. I’m not in the business of saying libertarian John is a real libertarian, whereas libertarian Karen only calls herself that but really isn’t. Perhaps I’m libertarian enough to allow people to label themselves rather than apply a top-down categorization? Har.

I’m skeptical of “pragmatists” because of the empirical impossibility of studying markets and human interactions/behavior within “the marketplace.” The entire exercise is simply too big to really measure to the accuracy of being able to predict results. The best we can get is an educated guess. On the flip side, it’s easy to “plan” something with top-down authority. We allocate this much money, hire this many people to do it, and it “gets done.”

A “libertarian pragmatist” is obviously possible, and I’m not going to say that they’re not a “true” libertarian or that “true” libertarians place some mystical value on liberty. Though I would love to have a conversation with that person.

As far as means/ends, this is another way in which the right/left political categorization fails. People all over the spectrum agree on ends but not means. You and I, for example, both want to provide affordable healthcare to as many people as possible. We disagree over the means to do that. Indeed on the most general of “ends” questions, we agree: we want to improve the general welfare of our society. It’s only when you start parsing the ends (and, indeed, many of the ends may be classified as means to this, the greatest of ends) that we diverge.

Um… /rambling comment.

Comment by A Milder Despot

So Ross Douthat had a post that caught fire in the blogospheroidzilla about a theoretical (and he seems to believe inevitable result of Will Wilkinson’s “liberalterian project”) reorganization of the U.S. major party system into an “intellectual elite” party and “populist anti-intellectual” party. I think this is very silly.

Perhaps I’m overly honest to a fault to all sides, but I believe there are legitimate intellectual arguments to be made for almost every segment of the populace. Indeed, there’s very little agreement amongst so-called intellectuals, so little that it’d be impossible to get a party as such organized to move in the same direction on any issue at all.

Like Douthat, I do sense an “anti-intellectual” culture within the modern GOP, and while this may create an internal dialogue problem or an external perception problem, it in no way invalidates the foundation philosophy of the GOP.

I also think that Arnold Kling’s response is a good one, and worth reading.

comment edited to fix link

Comment by A Milder Despot

I agree with Wilkinson here:

“First, I think Ross is right to see this as a game about the distribution of opinion elites. Second, I think he’s right to imply that a GOP with a weakened libertarian influence would become a more “right-wing populist” party. Which I think helps me make my point. Why would an intellectual libertarian want to keep company with a group of flag-waving moral reactionaries?”

Comment by Movers&Shakers

The intellectual libertarian will want to keep company with flag-waving moral reactionaries because the flag-waving moral reactionaries, at the very least, are worried that the federal government will come into their homes and take their guns away from them by force. Now this isn’t much, but it is some semblance of agreement on the proper role of government coercion in society.

I think it’s perfectly fine for Douthat to view Wilkinson’s “liberalterian project” in terms of the distribution of opinion elites. That’s something I’m completely unconcerned about. Douthat’s vision of some kind of “intellectual elite” party vs. an ignorant and anti-intellectual party is something that, quite simply, could never and would never come to pass.

The reality of the matter is something closer to Kling’s view:

“Suppose that we could “out” the top policy wonks and leaders of both parties. My guess is that we would see a Democratic elite that views poor people with more disgust than sympathy. And I suspect that we would see a Republican elite that finds religious fervor more disturbing than congenial.”

This is to say that the ‘upper crust’ of the policy wonks and thinkers of both parties and, indeed, of philosophic discourse when relating to real party politics hold views that are irreconcilable on a fundamental level, and these elites “use” their constituencies as useful idiots to build a real party coalition.

It’s an incredibly cynical view of the population at large to say that they simply don’t really understand the intellectual underpinnings of the parties or political views that they support. And the truth is that it’s far more complicated than that. But the parties and political persuasions are at odds with each other on a fundamental level.

This is a long and roundabout way of saying that the reason that intellectual libertarians would keep company with a group of flag-waving moral reactionaries is the same reason that the intellectual progressive American Left keeps company with the underprivileged and economically downtrodden extremely anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage white and minority classes: they agree on some fundamental issues and feel that this class of people are useful for getting into power and implementing their policy preferences.

Comment by A Milder Despot

Jonah Goldberg’s response. Worth reading for those following the debate, and Wilkinson promises a response to that soon!

I’m so psyched this whole debate is happening.

Comment by A Milder Despot

I’m going to read more Rawls in order to try to understand this “Rawlsekian” thing. Seems… either boring or radical to me, and I can’t decide which.

Comment by A Milder Despot

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