Monday, November 1, 2010

Me and the Libertarians

So, going to that talk yesterday made me reflect on something I'm kind of forced to reevaluate every once in a while: what is my relationship to libertarianism? When we were introducing ourselves I mentioned being a research associate to the Urban Institute and I said "I have sympathies with and an interest in libertarianism". It just kind of came out of my mouth, but what did I mean by that?

First, I do see myself as an American classical liberal. I generally feel like a Jeffersonian although I have strong Hamiltonian sympathies as well, especially on certain topics (I like to think this Jefferson/Hamilton blend makes me a Washingtonian). Locke and Smith have both been important for me. I don't define classical liberalism in the same way that a lot of libertarians do. I see the communitarian elements of classical liberalism that have blossomed into what we might call "modern liberalism" as being original and indigenous, not fundamentally socialist in origin. There have been some interesting socialists over the years, and there has been some useful cross-pollination, but I don't see my framework as having its origin in anything other than classical liberalism. Again - libertarians will probably take issue with some of this, but I personally feel like libertarians are close cousins (regardless of whether they would agree). And they are close cousins that deliberately engage (despite the fact that I think they sometimes misinterpret) the classical liberal tradition in a way that many modern liberals don't. So my relationship with libertarians is, if nothing else, genealogical.

Libertarians are also to a large extent contractarians, and this is something that I am in strong agreement with as well. Again, I don't always interpret it in the way they do - I think of any sort of rights-contract in the same way that I think of economic contracts, and I place a lot of emphasis on the externalities and institutions that govern contracts. This leads me to differ in my contractarianism from libertarians in important ways. But it's another common thread that I see more explicitly in libertarians than in "modern liberals". I may agree with a lot of what "modern liberals" have to say, but I arrive at it in a way that is more reminiscent of the libertarian approach. Libertarians get it on the point of free contracts in a way that a lot of people don't. I suppose in that sense I feel like there's some hope of conversion to my position, since they have the fundamental building blocks right. I think their perspective on the Constituion is very similar - they get an awful lot wrong about the Constitution, but they explicitly care about it in a way that a lot of people don't - and I appreciate that.

Finally, libertarians' enmity against the federal government makes them usually fairly sympathetic to federalism, which is of course something that's been important to me. The whole reason why I don't think of government as an unalloyed bad thing is that some things are better solved collectively, deliberatively, and with everyone on an equal footing than individually or in a market. Circumstances with substantial externalities, substantial implications for future generations, or situations where we don't think "ability to pay" should be a factor in decision making make sense to solve with a classical liberal, republican, constitutional government. But the level of government at which it is appropriate to decide these things of course depends on the situation as much as the question of whether it is an appropriate task of government in the first place! Modern liberals who understand the proper role of government shouldn't have trouble understanding that different things that are "proper" to government are "proper" at different levels of government. Libertarians at least say they understand this too. How well they understand it is a little unclear to me. Let's say we did devolve a lot of federal activities to the states. Would libertarians then just turn around and say that the states are out of line for engaging in these sorts of things? They promote the idea of letting different states and localities go off on their own and do their own thing, but would libertarians really countenance this in practice? I just don't know - I hope so, but I don't know. Anyway, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and so a respect for federalism is another thing that draws me to libertarians.

Finally, I simply find libertarianism interesting. It's a political and social phenomenon that has grabbed my attention, and to a large extent that motivates me as well.


  1. Daniel, you're the best left-liberal blogger around.

    Although I disagree with many of your views, I highly respect you and find your blog very interesting.

  2. Thanks! I enjoy the thoughts and comments.

  3. I'll second Daniil's motion, and I think having a critic of libertarianism and Austrian Economics that, while "outside the fold", still has some sympathies, helps reduce the "echo chamber" effect that they seem prone to.

  4. Let's say we did devolve a lot of federal activities to the states. Would libertarians then just turn around and say that the states are out of line for engaging in these sorts of things?

    Anarchists - absolutely yes. Minarchist libertarians - maybe.

    I also agree with the above description. I appreciate your sympathies to libertarianism and Austrian economics in general. It's what keeps me returning.

  5. Don't you know a libertarian is a liberal with economics training? I was converted by Howie Baetjer's comparative economic systems class. I kept saying...I agree with him...I just never thought about getting there that way before!! Maybe the process matters more than the ends.

  6. I don't know, I entered economics as a libertarian and came out something like a liberal...

  7. Which I suppose is another tie to libertarianism I shuold have mentioned in this post - six or seven years ago I called myself one.

  8. The post reminds me of this paper:

    Good discussion of strengths and weaknesses of libertarianism (the author is cleary libertarian, though)

  9. I came into economics as a neocon and emerged a libertarian.


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