Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Liberalism and libertarianism, again

Last fall's Princeton panel has now had its west coast counterpart, at Stanford.

Liberals and Libertarians: Kissing Cousins or Distant Relatives?



Joshua Cohen / Political Science, Stanford University

Pamela Karlan / Law, Stanford University

Bradley DeLong / Economics, UC Berkeley


Brink Lindsay / Cato Institute

Will Wilkinson / Cato Institute, Blogger at FlyBottle

Virginia Postrel / Dynamist

That liberals and libertarians share philosophical origins is clearly implied by the common Latin root for both words, liberalis, meaning open or generous. Both philosophies advocate civil liberties, individual autonomy, limited state interference in private affairs, and a non-bellicose foreign policy. Where the two stances have diverged is with respect to fiscal and regulatory issues. Although liberals generally view markets as the best way of organizing production and distribution, they have been more sympathetic than libertarians to governmental involvement in the management of markets for the public good. Moreover, whereas both liberals and libertarians generally concur that the public sector should avoid excessive spending, the former have been more supportive of government programs to expand opportunity and provide social insurance.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when the public sector was expanding and government spending was rising sharply, libertarians leaned strongly toward a “fusionist” coalition with traditional social conservatives and generally supported the Republican realignment of the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2000, however, the Republican party has succumbed to ideologies that have shifted it steadily away from core libertarian principles by curtailing civil liberties, expanding government intrusions into private affairs, running up huge fiscal deficits, expanding federal control over local institutions such as schools, and launching costly military invasions in the absence of direct threats.

In the wake of these developments, the “fusionist” coalition between libertarians and conservative republicans has substantially frayed and perhaps the time has come to reconsider the historical estrangement between liberals and libertarians. Given shared positions with respect to civil liberties, state involvement in private affairs, fiscal responsibility, and the War in Iraq, it may be fruitful to search for common ground in other areas. Is there room for compromise on contested regulatory and fiscal issues, or are liberals and libertarians destined to be occasional tactical allies with fundamentally conflicting strategic visions? And regardless of possibilities for closer political cooperation, what libertarian insights do liberals need to do a better job of appreciating, and vice versa?

Brad DeLong posts his remarks here. I do wish I had Brad's way with words:
One way to understand Keynes's General Theory is that Say's Law is false in theory but that we can build the running code for limited, strategic interventions that will make Say's Law roughly true in practice. The modern American liberal economist's view of libertarianism is much the same: libertarianism is false in theory, but it is very much worth figuring out a set of limited, strategic interventions that will make the libertarian promises roughly true in practice.

Two thoughts:
1) Josh Cohen is a leading political theorist/ philosopher and an important figure on the center-left of intellectual life-- but I can't think that I've ever read him describing himself as a liberal. He seems to me an odd choice if one is constructing this as Team Liberal and Team Libertarian.

2) It struck me at the Princeton session that "Team Liberal and Team Libertarian" is the wrong construction for the project. If there must be a debate with sides (rather than a discussion around common issues) then it ought to be something like "Team 'Kissing Cousins' Thesis and Team 'Distant Relatives' Thesis."


Matt said...

Since Cohen's position is quite close to Rawls's (there are few places where there are clear conflicts- it's mostly a working-out of a Rawls-type position in some different directions w/o excessive worries about Rawls interpretation, isn't it more or less a given that he's a liberal? (A political liberal, of course, but clearly a liberal in the Rawlsian sense?)

Todd Seavey said...

Brink Lindsey is misspelled in that announcement, by the way -- unless he's using an alias now for times when he's behind enemy lines.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Matt-- well, maybe, but the differences matter. Insofar as "democratic theorist" and "liberal theorist" are phrases with different meanings, it's clear to me that Cohen is the former and Rawls is the latter.

I certainly see what you mean-- Cohen's not conspicuously *out* of place in the way that Nozick or Sandel or G.A. Cohen would be. But he still seems to me like, at least, a surprising participant.

Matt said...

Have you read Cohen's article in the Cambridge Companion to Rawls? It seemed to me that he thought that the basic "democratic" argument against Rawlsian liberalism was largely misplaced and that there was, or at least needn't be, any serious conflict there, at least insofar as the "democratic" view was an attractive one. Cohen's oven views seem to me to be completely compatible with Rawls's, mostly just differences in emphasis.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Haven't. Thanks for the pointer; I'll have a look!

Matt said...

I hope I'm remembering what he said right! (It is a good article, as is Amy Guttman's on a somewhat similar topic.) I'm very fond of that book since I made most of the index to it.

djw said...

Matt, this is a ridiculously nerdy thing to say, but--I've used it a fair amount, and I thought, at the time, that it was a very well done and helpfully thorough index, so well done!

Jacob T. Levy said...

That last exchange makes me officially happy to have opened comments on the blog, and proud that I attract all the right sorts of readers. :-)

Matt said...

Thanks DJW! I appreciate it. One of the few bright spots of my academic career, such that it is, was when the index was specifically noted in the review of the CCR in the NDPR. Mostly, though I just enjoyed doing it, and not only because the pay for it kept my eating my first summer at Penn. Samuel told me to make it like Rawls's in Theory so I had a good model. The only disappointment was the entry for "Hitler". It's from when Dreben, in his article, says something like, "If you meet Hitler, you don't try to reason with him, you kill him." I wanted very badly to put it in as "Hitler, what to do with" but Samuel insisted it should just be "Hitler" since there were not any other entries. Too bad.

Josh said...

That really is too bad, Matt; but nice try.
I've always thought that Hugh Trevor-Roper (who did his own indexes) was a particularly good indexer in this regard. Thus, we have such gems as (picked at random from his Renaissance Essays: "Calvinism, a revolutionary ideology,106-7; not fit for baroque courts, 230; opposed to art, 232; but not to music (of a kind), 233; gives the fatal push, 237; hated by Burton, 270"; or, better still: "Bassett family in Devon and Cornwall: Anne, planted out at court, 83-4; George, a self-effacing Basset, 84; James, 'a precocious little horror', 84-5, 89-90; Jane, an animal-loving spinster, 84; Sir John, former husband of Lady Lisle, 78; John, a dull dog, 84; Katherine, not chosen at court, 83-4; Mary, granddaughter of More, 56n; Sir Robert, author of life of More?, 84, cf 25n; Thomasine, bolts with the vicar, 84".
I could go on -- but won't.

djw said...

"the index was specifically noted in the review of the CCR in the NDPR"

I hope you found a way to work this on to your CV.