Why I am not a Liberaltarian

Will Wilkinson:

It’s best to just maximize growth rates, pre-tax distribution be damned, and then fund wicked-good social insurance with huge revenues from an optimal tax scheme

Karl Smith

A core hope of my engagement with the blogosphere is to determine why there is so much resistance to this idea.

Perhaps I can explain why, from my perspective.

I’m sympathetic to libertarianism as an outcome, but not as a philosophy. In other words, if Nozick’s Minarchia existed and was stable, I think it would probably be an awesome place to live. But I don’t think it could exist stably, at least not without other, non-libertarian, underpinnings. So for me, politics is about developing coalitions to move, incrementally but stably, in the right direction – and also to provide the moral and political underpinnings of those moves.

If that sounds abstract, then look at it this way: in 1979 most Thatcherite reforms were politically unfeasible. By 1997, it was not politically feasible for Labour to undo them. That’s success.

As an outcome, Wilkinson’s statement of liberaltarianism seems like progress from where we are. But then you start picking a little deeper. Would it really be “wicked-good social insurance,” or just wicked-high government spending on social insurance? What processes would there be to make sure the latter led to the former, given the disastrous state of government provision at present? The reason child social services is so pathetic is not that spending is too low, it’s that it’s run on behalf of social workers, not children. But the left at present don’t want to talk about public choice theory and that kind of thing, so what makes you think they’d be any more willing once we get to Liberaltaritopia? And that’s without even getting into the incompatibility between maximising growth and having high government spending, and the incentives created. I think this situation would likely be worse than what we’re in now – plus it’s unstable.

But if liberaltarianism is a poor outcome, it’s even worse politics. There is no political agreement on what maximises growth – the left somehow believe that government intervention and regulation are growth-positive. The practical effect would be to sign us up for a massive increase in government welfare spending in return for some small adjustments in marginal tax rates. And given the political incentives at work, I’m not even sure we’d get the latter.

For a right-wing coalition to be worthwhile, it needs to have reducing the size of government as a key plank. For a right-wing coalition to be successful, it needs to tap into populist feelings. Wilkinson’s ideas do neither.

Addendum: Eli Dourado also makes great points.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Wilkinson’s greater point is that it’s hard to convince liberals to buy into his liberaltarian vision. I think your objections would be resolved were he successful in achieving liberal buy-in. When you say politics is about developing coalitions to move in the right direction–isn’t this exactly what Wilkinson’s trying to do? Inefficiencies and corruption in implementation of social insurance are things that Wilkinson’s ideal means to address by persuading liberals to examine them–specifically by using public choice theory to explain them.

    Wilkinson considers liberaltarianism a long-project. It’ll take time. But the trend of greater acceptance by liberals of libertarian ideas is there, and I suspect it will continue.

    Reply

  2. Posted by I am not... on January 23, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    To the extent that Wilkinson gets liberals to incorporate libertarian ideas, good. But to the extent that he builds his “liberaltarian” coalition to take control of government, bad. As my post tries to explain, from my perspective his coalition as moving in the WRONG direction. I see him as selling the pass on the most important issue (size of government), in return for very little. And it’s not necessary either. To the extent that we need to pick up liberal votes, I would much rather give them slightly more “progressive” tax rates, in return for a smaller and less intrusive government. This is better in terms of outcome, and it’s also an easier sell to the left – it’s essentially the basis of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in the UK, where I live.

    Perhaps the chief difference between Wilkinson and me is I don’t see a problem with the current coalition on the Right of social and economic conservatism that exists throughout the Anglosphere. And I certainly wouldn’t disrupt much to reach out to liberal elites. I want to reach out to the masses.

    Reply

  3. I suspect this is largely a US/UK thing. My sense is that the UK Conservative party is a much better fit for libertarians than the US Republican party is, and that were Wilkinson in the UK, he wouldn’t be looking to rearrange coalitions. The Republican party is not only more extreme on social issues, it hasn’t been conservative at all economically. The current Republican coalition seems to be social conservatives + older voters who don’t want their entitlements cut, which is the worst combination for libertarians. I sympathize with Wilkinson’s seeing the left as a better negotiating partner than the entrenched right; he might not get anywhere, but he’s trying to work out of a pretty tight spot.

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