Tag Archives: Liberaltarianism

Rational Progressivism

…is as close to classical liberalism as a Democrat can get, me thinks. Liberaltarians inquire within. Nate Silver–the clear eyed election forecaster of 538.com–has a nice little essay on two concepts of progressivism:

Rational progressivism tends to be trusting, within reason, of status quo political and economic institutions — generally including the institution of capitalism. It tends to trust these institutions because it believes they are a manifestation of progress made by previous generations. However, unlike conservatism, it also sees these institutions as continuing works in progress, subject to inefficiencies because of distorted or poorly-designed incentives, poorly-informed or misinformed participants, and competition from ‘irrational’ worldviews like religion. It also recognizes that certain persons who stand to benefit from preserving the status quo, particularly elected officials but also corporations, may seek to block this progress to protect their own interests. The project of rational progressivism, then, is to propagate good ideas and to convert them, through a wide and aggressive array of democratic means, into public policy.

The second type of progressivism is what I call radical progressivism. It represents, indeed, a much more radical and comprehensive critique of the status quo, which it tends to see as intrinsically corrupt. Its philosophical tradition originates in 19th Century thought — and specifically, owes a great deal to the Marxist critique of capitalism and the Marxist theory of social change. It also finds inspiration in both the radical movement of the 1960s and the labor and social movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries (from which it borrows the label “progressive”).

So far so good. In fact, rational progressivism seems awfully similar to the classical liberal-institutional economics approach.  The main disagreement, I surmise, would have to be one of emphasis. Silver distrusts the market based institutions of the status quo, but, strange to the libertarian, forgets to apply the same analysis to politics. You could easily rewrite Silver’s most substantive sentence with a slant against government institutions. Consider it with classical liberalism inserted instead: A classical liberal sees these institutions of government  as continuing works in progress, subject to inefficiencies because of distorted or poorly-designed incentives, poorly-informed or misinformed participants, and competition from ‘irrational’ worldviews like religion and economic illiteracy.

Would Silver agree? Perhaps, but he sounds one egalitarian note at the end of it: 

I believe that economic growth is both a reflection of and a contributor toward societal progress, that economic growth has facilitated a higher standard of living, and that this is empirically indisputable. I also believe, however, that our society is now so exceptionally wealthy — even in the midst of a severe recession — that it has little excuse not to provide for some basic level of dignity for all its citizens.

There’s not much that I’d disagree with here on the surface. Dignity is a powerful concept, but when it comes to crafting policy based on the wings of the noble soul, the difficulties multiply in the details.  Just ask Leon Kass.  It’s also worth pointing out, and arguing, that the classical liberal doesn’t disagree on the sentiment here. The main disagreement appears not when considering whom we ought to provide for, but when and how.  If certain economic policies promise higher standards of living for a greater number of people, but require the patience of ten or twenty years for their fruition, the classical liberal will more likely support them over any policies biased towards the present.  If the argument is about reasonable social safety nets or the provision of public goods, then, again, it’s not clear to me that differences are all that big.  However, I get the sense that the rational progressivist seems tied to the present, providing for the present good at the expense of future prosperity.  So it’s not an argument about dignity, but about time and method.


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‘Cause I Ain’t No Democrat! I Ain’t No Republican Either!

I only know one party and that party is FREEDOM!!!!!! Sing it Little Stevie!

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Liberaltarianism: The Turducken Of Politics

Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsay once proposed that libertarians have more in common with liberals than they do with conservatives.  But now that we collectively wait for the Keynesian surge to fry the system, Jonah Goldberg and John Hood wanted to raise the question to libertarians: siding with the left under Bush was one thing, they say, but now, with that side of the boat taking on water, is it time for the libertarians to come back whence they came?

Many have weighed in–Virginia Postrel, Ross Douthat, Matt Welch, and Reihan Salam.

For his part, Wilkinson seems to be framing the debate for the others, and I’m unhappy with Wilkinson’s framing since it’s based on his style of moral philosophy. Let me explain. The most telling comment I can think of relating to this problem occurs during a BloggingheadsTV interview Wilkinson conducted with Jonathan Haidt. Outlining the differences between conservatives and liberal moral sensitivities, Haidt said something to the effect of, “The difference between liberals and libertarians is that the libertarians are liberals who’ve read some economics.” It was clear Wilkinson agreed.  But, even though this may be true for many of us, the observation is false to the spirit of liberty. It’s based on a gross confusion Wilkinson has been sensitive to in other contexts. The confusion is this: the Haidt comment overlooks the fact that we can believe some act to be morally wrong, and yet, at the same time, believe it to be legally permissible.  That is the heart of liberty. One obvious example of a despicable act that fits this mold is infidelity. Cheating on your loved one is wrong–one of the worst ways to hurt a person–and yet no one few in the West believe it should be a crime. What is morally wrong is not always legally wrong. Wilkinson had that right in a post about emotional coercion. 

But I believe this is one of the greatest political problems of our time: how to cleave apart our moral intuitions from our political philosophy.  There is no grand unifying theory here. And so modern freedom, the freedom of Constant, was born out of war along just this divide. It took a century or more of blood shed during the Reformation to cleave apart people’s religious judgments from their political ideals. One of the more troubling tasks for modern politics is to separate the moral–how we interact with others–from the political–how we interact with hundreds of millions on a scale that boggles the mind.

Wilkinson abhors conservative moral sentiments. But in this he is not a lover of liberty. A libertarian is not defined by what moral intuitions he has regarding sacred spaces, the integrity of the body, or even in group/out group biases. Rather, libertarians are defined by their views on the limits of state power, always harboring the doubt that their particular moral judgments may not translate readily into state action. In Haidt’s terminology, we should expect both conservative and liberal moral settings among libertarians. Conservative moral intuitions need not craft policy.

Of course, in recent history, liberals and Republicans have forsaken many checks and balances on state power.  They are one and all eager to base national policy on moral inclination.  Libertarians, insofar as they stand athwart anything, stand in front of that unified, soul-crafting theory of the state. For liberals and national greatness Republicans, this is a problem. I suggest we keep it that way. Let the Spitzers of the world try to fucking steamroll us.

And another thing. Rawsekianism is a nice rhetorical move, but on deeper reflection, it’s misguided.  I’ll hazard a guess that this formulation of Rawls relies on a Harsanyi interpretation of the difference principle.  Rawls spent the second half of his career trying to move away from that.  User beware.


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