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Where have all the liberaltarians gone?

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.

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3 Comments

  • What I find attractive about libertarians is treating people as individuals instead of putting them all in a box. Your guys have a greater ability to hear what people whose political opinions you find an anathema are actually saying. You also have a positive idea of where you want to see things going.

    I got involved in politics as a social conservative because of abortion. I also could see the benefits of smaller government after seeing first hand the trials and tribulations of small business owners. However the SC’s are so obsessed with who and what they hate that they can’t articulate a positive vision what kind of country that they want to have.

    Liberty at least an ideal on which all sides should be able to agree.

  • Basically, we shouldn’t be blinded by labels because they obscure more than they reveal.

    So true. I get seriously annoyed when a discussion degenerates into a pidgeon-holing contest. This actually happened to me recently, when the husband said, “ah, I’ve seen that liberal streak in you before,” and the wife followed up with, “you’ve always been so conservative.” If you don’t fit into the round hole, they shove you there anyhow.

  • What is the Left Right Spectrum Supposed to Measure? by Chuck McGlawn 08/14/2010 [Excerpted, from a full article.]
    When someone objects to the efficacy of the single plane political spectrum, it is because they are trying to measure liberal and conservative values. It cannot be done. The single plane Left/Right Political Spectrum was never designed to measure values. The Left/Right Political Spectrum is a very useful tool if you know what it is you are trying to measure.

    What is the Left/Right Spectrum Supposed to Measure? This question is clearly answered by Murray Rothbard, in The Transformation of the American Right, first published in Continuum, Summer 1964, pp. 220–231. Murray Rothbard correctly observed,
    The modern American Right began, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as a reaction against the New Deal and the Roosevelt Revolution, and specifically as an opposition to the critical increase of statism and state intervention… (Emphasis added)
    According to Dr. Rothbard, the Left/Right Political Spectrum measures increases in governmental power, especially the power to intervene into the daily lives of individuals and businesses. Or, the degree to which government makes the decisions for individuals and businesses, or the degree to which individuals and businesses are free to make their own decisions.
    Reinforcement of that concept can be found , in “Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal” published in 1969, Rothbard further observed: “…we adopted the standard view, (Emphasis added) let me repeat “…we adopted the, standard view (Emphasis added) of the political spectrum: “left,” meant socialism, or total power of the state; the further ‘right’ one went the less government one favored. Hence, we called ourselves “extreme rightists.”
    Stop and think about it, the first Platform of the Libertarian Party was written by an “extreme rightists”.

    The Left/Right Political Spectrum was created to track the power of the Federal Government, or the degree to which government makes the decisions for individuals and businesses, or the degree to which individuals and businesses are free to make their own decisions.
    The standard view of the left right political Spectrum looked like this: (view full screen)
    100% government ß————————————-L-I-B-E-R-T-A-R-I-A Nà 0% government.
    Left (Totalitarian Communist Fascist Nazi) Anarchy . Right

    Our language reinforces this lesson Communism, Fascist and Nazi are examples of totalitarian governments, and total=100%. The opposite of totalitarian is anarchy. Anarchy=0% government.
    If that is not enough for you, additional confirmation is found farther along in that same article Rothbard said.
    Originally, our historical heroes were such men as [Thomas] Jefferson, [Thomas] Paine, [John]Cobden and [Richard] Bright and [Herbert] Spencer. As our views became purer and more consistent, we eagerly embraced such near-anarchists as the voluntarist, Auberon Herbert, and the American individualist-anarchists, Lysander Spooner and Benjamin R. Tucker.
    In other words as they became “purer” and more “consistent” in their Libertarians thinking, there heroes were chosen from men that were closer to anarchy and 0% government of the right end of the spectrum, that Dr. Rothbard called the “standard view”.

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