Will Wilkinson has scaled the Olympian Heights of the New York Times for the cause of liberaltarianism and the greater glory of the Niskanen Center. But what is liberaltarianism? And who cares about it?
Speaking as a historically oriented political scientist, my first way of attacking this question is to ask where the object under examination came from. What is its origin? The term liberaltarianism was originally coined by my good friend, co-author, and co-conspirator Brink Lindsey over a decade ago in The New Republic. While Brink’s objective in that article was to invite liberals into a coalition—a coalition that liberals like Jonathan Chait quite firmly refused to accept—I think the article’s most immediate target was libertarianism itself. It defined a pole of libertarianism, around which those who were uncomfortable making common cause with conservatism could rally. Brink argued that libertarians should admit that they are not, as many of them had argued going back to the 1970s, equidistant from the two parties. They are natural allies with liberals—albeit critical allies. Their alliance with conservatism was opportunistic, but their alliance with liberalism was on principle.
That pretty much describes where Will is coming from, as well as many of the other folks at Niskanen who came out of the libertarian network of organizations. For them, liberaltarianism is another way of saying “post-libertarianism.” The purpose of liberaltarianism is to describe the political position you get to when you’ve become disenthralled with the mass of positions and alliances associated with institutional libertarianism but retain a substantial chunk of its underlying principles.
While I’ve hung around with a lot of libertarians in my life and learned a great deal from them, I’ve never been one of them. I am and (God willing) will always be a straight-ticket Democrat. So my path to liberaltarianism has a different trajectory than my co-conspirators here at the Niskanen Center. It is worth explaining why I now think liberaltarianism is a reasonable shorthand for my political positions, and what I think the philosophy has to offer for people who come more or less from my side of the fence.
I grew up knowing that I was a liberal, but also knowing that I was not quite like the other liberals I knew. This instinct was almost certainly hard wired, with sources that I may never get to the bottom of. But it meant that I was always drawn to liberals who got into fights with other liberals. In college that drew me to the Washington Monthly and its diaspora throughout the media landscape, and to the thinkers around the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). In graduate school I read and was deeply influenced by William Galston’s Liberal Purposes, which in a very vulgar way you could think of as “higher DLCism.” I had not thought through exactly what my program was, but I knew what my tribe was. Much of my subsequent intellectual career has been devoted to figuring out the program that should go with the tribe.
That program, such as I have been able to develop it up until now, can be characterized as left-liberaltarianism. That is just a fancy way of saying that I come to the liberaltarian project not as a refugee from libertarianism, but as an internal critic of modern liberalism. Liberaltarianism, as I understand it, is thus Janus-faced—it is not the median between conservatism and modern liberalism, for it has criticisms of both. The core of left-liberaltarianism is an effort to combine liberal principles of social justice with a respect for limited government, and a preference for a relatively sharp line between state and market, and between levels of government.
By limited government, I mean a government that operates as much as possible through relatively simple, transparent, direct means that are susceptible to political oversight and citizen comprehension. The primary defining attribute of the state is coercion, and liberaltarians prefer that it use coercion out in the open. In contrast to the increasing attraction of those on the center-left for social policy “nudges,” liberaltarianism has a preference for shoves—large blunt uses of social authority. Instead of a proliferating mass of regulations to combat climate change, liberaltarians prefer a tax on carbon. Instead of a variety of different tax subsidies and clever devices to encourage people to save, liberaltarians have a preference for good old-fashioned tax-and-spend social insurance. In contrast to the confusing welter of rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank, liberaltarians favor blunt limits on bank leverage. The defining characteristic of all these reforms is that they are simple and rule-like, replacing administrative discretion wherever possible with blunt applications of coercion specified in law.
Transparency and simplicity are themselves powerful limitations on government. With rare exceptions, liberaltarians want rules that avoid the excessive entanglement of the state and market, and the interweaving of levels of government. Instead of governments that, at many levels and in subtle ways, sneak up on involvement in a particular social domain, liberaltarians want definitive decisions by the national government to intervene (or not). This serves to enhance political deliberation, since the decision to act must be clear and responsibility for results unmistakably affixed. When the national government operates by steering or nudging or partnering—whether with private firms or state governments—it is unclear precisely who is to be praised or blamed, and it can become nearly impossible for legislatures or citizens to exercise effective oversight. In addition, especially in the case of partnering with private actors—something mistakenly referred to as privatization—this kind of interweaving of state and market creates powerful temptations toward the corruption of both. These temptations can be seen clearly, for example, in the Trump administration’s still-vague infrastructure plans, which promise to turn $200 billion of taxpayer money into $1 trillion in projects by creating incentives, guarantees, and inducements for private businesses, rather than using direct government spending. Something similar can be said of proposals like that of the Democratic nominee for governor of New Jersey, who advocates a state investment bank for small businesses. The opportunities for the government to steer such projects to its political allies would be enormously tempting—which is, in the Trump administration’s case, almost certainly a feature rather than a bug.
This gets to a final feature of liberaltarianism, which is that it is especially sensitive to the ways that the state is not always an instrument of egalitarianism, but can be captured by the powerful and turned to their advantage. This is the subject of my forthcoming book with Lindsey, The Captured Economy. While the state is a potentially very powerful tool to enhance equal opportunity, it is also highly susceptible to the manipulations of those with economic and social power. As Brink and I argue, that influence is magnified in policy domains characterized by policy complexity and multiple, obscure institutional venues, which are easier for the wealthy to manipulate. Dentists, to take only one example out of many, are able to turn the regulatory system to their own advantage because the licensing boards that make the rules are so low-profile that they attract attention only from dentists themselves. Something similar typically characterizes other areas of upward redistribution, from financial regulation to intellectual property and real estate.
This vision of liberaltarianism, then, is primarily institutional in character. Back in the early twentieth century, Progressives who sought to increase the power of government to enhance social justice concluded that the only way to do that was to emancipate government at every level, to remove formal limits on the state (other than individual rights). But it turns out that a system of pervasive intertwining of the national and state governments, and the market and state, is one that is not particularly good for social justice, political accountability, or citizen engagement with politics.
One agenda for liberaltarianism, therefore, is to think about how to pursue important state functions in environmental protection, social welfare, and other areas in ways that are simpler, that sort out more cleanly who is responsible, and that involve the national government either in a way that “occupies the field” or that leaves matters for the market or state and local governments. We want a welfare/regulatory state governed as much as possible by law rather than administrative discretion—rule-of-law big government, you might say. Often that will mean purer nationalization of functions, for example by nationalizing Medicaid (i.e., ending its status as a joint state-federal venture). But it will also mean reconsidering the mass of complex mandates and funding structures in K-12 education. It will mean trying to pull the national government out of the business of subsidizing private savings (through 529s, IRAs, 401ks) and just increasing social insurance. By doing so—by sharply reducing the expectation of mass participation in private equity markets—we could also reconsider how we regulate finance, with less expectation that we need to protect unsophisticated investors. Other than preventing systemic risk (for example, through capital requirements) we could let markets rip more than we do now, since only the well-to-do would be significantly invested in them.
This is not the only vision of liberaltarianism. There are other visions that come more from the left, such as those that are primarily motivated by cosmopolitanism, or an aversion to paternalism. I am less convinced by those visions, although I think they are a necessary part of the larger conversations that should happen under the liberaltarian umbrella. I hope to address them in later posts.
Steven Teles is a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center and Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is co-author (with Brink Lindsey) of the forthcoming The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Become Richer, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality, and (with David Dagan) Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration.