When I was an intern at the Cato Institute this summer, most of the Cato-affiliated people with whom I talked about liberaltarianism were very skeptical.  I remember one distinguished Cato scholar saying something like, “advocates of liberaltarianism are always pointing out potential common ground between libertarians and liberals like Matt Yglesias, but I only ever hear Yglesias arguing for bigger and bigger government.”

A few days ago, Yglesias wrote:

On economic policy, here are the main things I’m trying to accomplish:

— More redistribution of money from the top to the bottom.
— A less paternalistic welfare state that puts more money directly in the hands of the recipients of social services.
— Macroeconomic stabilization policy that seriously aims for full employment.
— Curb the regulatory privileges of incumbent landowners.
— Roll back subsidies implicit in our current automobile/housing-oriented industrial policy.
— Break the licensing cartels that deny opportunity to the unskilled.
— Much greater equalization of opportunities in K-12 education.
— Reduction of the rents assembled by privileged intellectual property owners.
— Throughout the public sector, concerted reform aimed at ensuring public services are public services and not jobs programs.
— Taxation of polluters (and resource-extractors more generally) rather than current de facto subsidization of resource extraction.

Which of these ten items would a typical libertarian disagree with?  The one about more redistribution, obviously, and perhaps the one about macroeconomic stabilization.  Eight out of ten is pretty darn good though, especially considering that these are specifically economic policy goals, and economic policy is usually where libertarians and liberals have the least common ground.

I think that it’s a testament to libertarians that fairly mainstream liberals like Yglesias accept market-based policies to such a great extent.  But why do libertarians seem to have so little appreciation for this, leading them to think about liberals like Yglesias the way the Cato scholar I mentioned above does?  I think it’s at least partly a framing issue.  Conservatives and libertarians both like to use a lot of rhetoric about shrinking government.  Yglesias, though he advocates for fairly free-market policies a lot of the time, doesn’t use this sort of language at all.  It’s a shame that this keeps people from recognizing the significant amount of substantive agreement between libertarians and the left.

In addition to the post arguing against the mandatory licensing of barbers that W. Jerome highlighted last week, Matt Yglesias has gone on something of a liberaltarian rampage recently (see here, here, here, and here).  He’s taken some flack from his commenters for it.  His response:

A colleague mentioned to me the other day that I’m “pretty conservative” on some state and local government issues, with reference to some recent posts on occupational licensing…. I’m not. And I think that whole framing represents a bad way of understanding the whole situation.

I think it’s pretty clear that, as a historical matter of fact, the main thing “the state” has been used to do is to help the wealthy and powerful further enrich and entrench themselves…. The “left-wing” position is to be against this stuff—to be on the side of the people and against the forces of privilege… dismantling efforts to use the state to help the privileged has always been on the agenda. Don’t think to yourself “we need to regulate carbon emissions therefore regulation is good therefore regulation of barbers is good.” Think to yourself “we can’t let the privileged trample all over everyone, therefore we need to regulate carbon emissions and we need to break the dentists’ cartel.”

Our ideologies tend to encourage overly simplistic thinking on these issues.  Liberals make arguments about the existence of market failures to justify a pro-regulation stance, and conservatives/libertarians make arguments about the efficacy of free markets or the unavoidable ham-handedness of government intervention to justify an anti-regulation stance.  This ideological division makes it so that if a conservative allows that, in a given circumstance, regulation may be justified, it seems like she’s conceding something to the liberal, and vice-versa.  This makes people become increasingly entrenched in their ideological priors so that analysis of real-world issues involves little more than post-hoc justification of a forgone conclusion.

It’s too bad that political discourse is so often conducted in this way.  The world is complex; sometimes regulation is justified, and sometimes it isn’t.  It’s nice to see somebody like Yglesias who is a sophisticated enough thinker to recognize this and move beyond the one-size-fits-all arguments that are favored by his political tribe.

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.