I’m interning this summer for Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, who are two of my favorite political thinkers.  They both do work on “liberaltarianism”, which is something that I’m especially interested in myself.  People often ask me what liberaltarianism is.  I’m not sure that there’s one simple answer, but I’ll try to give a sketch of my conception of it.  In the realm of political theory, I take it to be some combination of classical and modern welfare liberalism (Rawls is taken seriously, Lockean/Nozickian frameworks of absolute negative rights, which provide the philosophical grounding for traditional libertarian political theories, are de-emphasized).

In terms of everyday politics, liberaltarianism holds that libertarians potentially have more common ground with liberals (and vice versa) than with conservatives (thus moving away from traditional, Goldwater/Reagan era libertarian/conservative fusionism).  In the wake of the Bush administration, the Republican party has totally blown its small government credentials and become a cesspool of backward, anti-intellectual nuttiness.  While nobody can say with a straight face that the current liberal establishment in any way embodies the ideas of limited government, there are at least some shared foundational commitments.

I find liberaltarianism attractive for a couple of reasons.  For one, possibly due to my philosophy training at a very un-libertarian Swarthmore department, I’ve become skeptical of rights-based theories.  Therefore, I find unconvincing the traditional libertarian claim that taxation/redistribution is immoral just because it involves state coercion of non-consenting citizens.  Also, more practically, it seems to me that libertarian/conservative small government fusionism only really makes sense if one places an inordinate amount of importance on tax policy.  Not that tax policy is unimportant, but on a host of other issues that libertarians should care about, liberals tend towards much more libertarian-friendly positions that conservatives: defense policy, abortion, privacy/surveillance issues, gay marriage, and immigration.

My conservative grandfather thinks I’m a conservative too (probably because of the past couple of summers I’ve spent interning at libertarian organizations), so a few weeks ago he gave me conservative talk radio show host Mark Levin’s book Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto.  I’ve been flipping through it, and because I spend most of my time engaged with more liberal political thought, it’s been nice to get a rundown of the basic conservative perspective on a variety of topics.  I agree with almost nothing in the book so far, but one passage in particular stood out to me as egregiously misguided:

Is it possible that there is no Natural Law and man can know moral order and unalienable rights from his own reasoning, unaided by the supernatural God?  There are, of course, those who argue this case– including the Atheist and others who attempt to distinguish Natural Law from Divine Providence…. This position would, it seems, lead man to arbitrarily create his own morality and rights, or create his own arbitrary morality and rights– right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad, would be relative concepts susceptible to circumstantial application.

The view that that morality cannot exist without religion seems pretty widespread.  Last semester, I took an honors moral philosophy seminar in which we read Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and a slew of more contemporary philosophers writing from a wide variety of perspectives.  But even though some (or maybe even most) of the authors we read were religious in their personal lives, for none of them did religion play a role in their moral philosophy.  In fact, I think that one would be hard pressed to name any significant works in the entire canon of moral philosophy from the past few centuries that depend on religion to ground morality.  So not only is it true that there are numerous moral systems that do not depend whatsoever on religion, it is also the case that those who study morality almost universally view it as completely independent from religion.  Morality is not dependent on religion, and saying that it is does little more than demonstrate that you’re a few hundred years behind the times.