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conservatives, liberals, and libertarians

I’ve been slow on the posting recently as I’ve been ensconced with the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (see goodreads link to the right, open an account, and add me). I’m also plotting a new task for myself which I’ll document here in the future — a running list of insights that I’ve come across in my readings which I think are crucial to improving decision-making. This post, meanwhile, is considerably less ambitious, but it’s been something I’ve meant to sort through for a while now.

I often find myself hop-scotching from from liberal to conservative to libertarian perspectives on the merits of policies and the role of government in general. Conservative P.J. O’Rourke once said, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” On the other hand, Democrats are the party that says the market doesn’t work and then they intervene in the market and prove it.

After my recent post on conservative efforts to reform the Republican party, Will Wilkinson has a series of blog posts that details how libertarians have now become ‘free agents’ in the political battle:

“20th century libertarian-conservative alliance was based on anti-communism/socialism. The reasonable, sophisticated consequentialist pragmatism of the great 20th century market liberals seemed an insufficient bulwark against the slippery slope from the liberal, capitalist welfare state to full-on illiberal, totalitarian socialism.

I identify completely with Wilkinson when he describes himself as “an old-fashioned market liberal who thinks Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan get it right, and who thinks Rawlsian welfare liberals should be able to recognize themselves in these thinkers.

Wilkinson sees some middle ground, “now that the welfare-liberal elite has become rather more economically literate and is no longer sighing over five year plans.” Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James M. Buchanan supported a societal safety net, so that’s not an incontrovertible divide between liberalism and libertarianism.

Just as the young Republicans see potential to reignite a Grand New Party, Wilkinson sees potential for a liberal/libertarian joint effort to solve the major problems of the day:

“The question these days is whether the U.S. will have the good sense to adopt more rational market-based old-age pension policies, like Sweden or Australia, or lower corporate tax rates to a level more in line with the rest of the wealthy world. Slightly higher personal tax rates and slightly more redistribution is a possibility, but a slide into socialism just isn’t on the table.”

Arnold Kling, for his part, douses the liberal/libertarian loveparty with a healthy dose of skepticism:

I just don’t think that the contemporary American left cares for that sort of thing. Instead, I see an obsession with market failure and the need to centralize power. The basic approach is:

1. X is a crisis.
2. Collective action through government is necessary to solve X.
3. Collective action through government is sufficient to solve X.
4. Government needs more power in order to solve X.

You can let X be anything from the sub-prime mortgage problem to the uninsured to obesity. My view tends to be:

1. X is being over-dramatized.
2. Private initiatives are probably sufficient for dealing with X.
3. Collective action through government to solve X will turn out much worse in practice than in theory.
4. Government already has more than enough power to solve X. The problem is not lack of power–the problem is, well, see point 3.

I’ll let Wilkinson get the final word:

Left-liberal welfare statists, insofar as they are actually liberals and not just progressive-style paternalist technocrats or closeted socialists, would better achieve their distinctively liberal aims by accepting something like the Friedmanite or Hayekian version of welfare statism.”

I certainly agree with Wilkinson, but I share Kling’s skepticism. Your thoughts?


Filed under: Philosophy

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