On his blog Cato staffer Will Wilkinson writes that he’ll soon no longer … well … be a Cato staffer — and the same is true of his colleague Brink Lindsey. This is important because Lindsey and Wilkinson have been the two libertarians most closely associated with the “liberaltarian” project — the idea, spawned during the dark George W. Bush years, that libertarians should finally jettison the rather overripe alliance with the increasingly blood-and-iron-oriented political right and seek to build bridges with the left.
Without further details to go on, this has sparked much speculation that the Cato Institute is pushing Lindsey and Wilkinson out the door now that the Obama administration has proven itself just as pushy and sanguinary as its predecessor — and amidst hopes that the Tea Party movement means that the place to be is on the right, after all.
I have no special insight to offer here. What few contacts I had at Cato have largely eroded over the years, as I’ve drifted from professional concerns to professional irrelevance — and a greater focus on family matters. But I will say that I hope the mutterings are wrong; I’d hate to think that Cato is tossing people overboard because they’re too willing to broaden the search for allies.
That’s not to say that I support a formal “liberaltarian” strategy. It would be awfully ironic if an individualist, do-your-own-thing political movement were to try to evolve a formal strategy for anything, let alone for designating official friends and enemies. But I think it’s just good sense to look for allies where you can find them, without declaring whole sections of the political spectrum to be “off-limits” or “friendly” territory.
Frankly, political labels don’t really tell us much about whether people generally favor liberty or generally oppose liberty. If we’re discussing the left, it’s not enough to mention that the Obama administration is authoritarian, snoopy and war-mongering — we also need to mention the likes of Nat Hentoff and Harvey Silverglate, and the great good they’ve done for the cause of freedom. As for the right … perhaps the Tea Party movement does represent a revival of a right-wing interest in personal freedom and limited government, but did I mention eight hideous years of George W. Bush?
Basically, we shouldn’t be blinded by labels because they obscure more than they reveal. “Liberal,” “conservative,” “left” and “right” have come to cover such a wide range of views (and a multitude of sins, along with some virtues) that they don’t tell us very much at all. We need to look for friends where we can find them, using our own natural affinities, the language and interests of those we’re approaching, and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. Lindsey and Wilkinson are probably best suited for outreach to the left, Lew Rockwell and company are certainly more comfortable with the right, and the rest of us should do whatever seems right and opportune.
Libertarians never should have allowed themselves to be associated as a movement with “the right” and we shouldn’t make the same mistake with “the left.” But we should all be willing to treat anybody with an interest in expanding liberty, if only in one area, as a potential ally.