Why I am not a liberaltarian
Jan 23, 2011
5 minute read

Will Wilkinson offers what Karl Smith calls “Liberaltarianism in one sentence.”

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

My resistance to this idea is not aesthetic. Max g sounds good to me, and fair, non-distortionary social insurance would be a great improvement over what we have now. Nor is it based on a priori taxation-is-theft libertarian dogma. I don’t believe in natural rights. My opposition, if you can call it that, to one-sentence liberaltarianism is practical, intellectual, and moral.

My practical objection is, simply stated, “You can’t get there from here.” If you study public choice, the economics of politics, you learn that there is a logic to why we have the institutions and policies that we have. To invert a title from Buchanan and Congleton, we have politics by interest, not principle. Or if you’re a Caplanian, majority rule means irrational rule.

Public choice issues are unavoidable. The interests that influence the government cannot be eliminated without eliminating the government, and possibly not even then. And if we eliminated democracy and therefore irrational voters, they would simply be replaced by irrational subjects, whose irrationality would constrain the dictator as surely as voters constrain democracy. There’s no way around public choice.

Liberaltarians sometimes point to Denmark (or wherever the example du jour is) and say, “If they can do it, why can’t we?” Leaving aside the question of whether Denmark actually achieves the liberaltarian ideal, most of the world is not Denmark. Certainly America will never be Denmark. It is too big and diverse. We could eliminate the federal government and divide into 50 states or an even greater number of city-states, matching Denmark’s size, but the people of most of these polities would still possess broader divergence of interests than Scandinavians do. In practice, the US will never get anywhere near a fair and efficient social insurance system (or max g for that matter), and the sooner we can all accept this, the better.

Intellectually, one-sentence liberaltarianism is better than pure leftism because it acknowledges some parts of economic reality. To maximize growth means to adopt free trade and low marginal tax rates and to drop the preoccupation with all forms of inequality. But it also adopts one of the worst features of leftism, the idea that there is a we that can choose how society should operate (conservatives and some libertarians think this too). Society is not designed. It emerges from our interactions. I can’t fully support any ideological statement that treats growth or goodness of social insurance as knobs on a dial that we can turn.

What troubles me the most, though, about one-sentence liberaltarianism is the moral poverty of the statement as the intersection of libertarianism and liberalism. I support Will’s and Brink Lindsey’s project of bringing modern liberals and classical liberals together for dialog. I think there is something very important that libertarians can learn from the left. Leftism, at its best, draws attention to the fact that there are people who are vulnerable and can be taken from. There is a caricature of libertarianism that avoids this and should not. What I wish would emerge from the dialog is an acceptance by liberals of economic reality—all of it, including public choice and the idea that society is a spontaneous order and cannot be designed—and an appreciation among libertarians that sometimes this vulnerability is a greater threat to well-being than bad economic policy is.

I think the liberaltarian coalition that I would like to see would come out strongly in favor of prison reform and of changes in criminal law. According to a friend of mine who studies these things, if you are sent to a medium- or high-security prison these days, the guards tell you on arrival that you must join the gang of your race because they, the guards, cannot protect you in there. Victimless crimes are prosecuted with discretion that inevitably gets used against the poor and vulnerable. I would like to see discussion of why in the world there should be criminal law in the first place. If all offenses were handled through the tort system, and tort claims were tradable so that the poor could always afford to prosecute, there would be no offense where there is no harm, and justice would be less discretionary.

Liberaltarians should come out strongly for open borders. Few people are more vulnerable than those who are born, by accident, in crappy places. They should be allowed to leave and live peacefully wherever they wish, including next door to me, by both liberal and libertarian principle.

Children are highly vulnerable in our society. Liberaltarians should oppose compulsory schooling, which in many places is hard to distinguish from incarceration. This is not to say that fewer children should attend school (though they should), but that giving them the right to leave would ensure that the worst abuses are avoided.

While I am gratified that liberals are learning about the enormous benefits of free trade and the very real harms caused by occupational licensing, my libertarianism is not primarily about max g. Rather, it’s mostly a moral judgment about how we should treat each other. Neoliberalism and one-sentence liberaltarianism obscure that to the point that I can’t really identify with either, though I’d be delighted for liberaltarians to meet me where I stand.