Friday, January 16, 2009

Elsewhere: The Life of Levy

My old friend Todd Seavey has an inimitable style of storytelling-as-biography. Every person named in a story is given an appositive description linking them, in every way Todd knows, to other persons named in the story, to intellectual themes or cultural trends he finds of interest, or to noteworthy events. This is so regardless of whether every person listening has already heard the footnoted stories already and knows how they connect or even already knows the person in question. He makes it work; it's highly entertaining, and although he was speaking that way before the advent of html it strikes me that it's the conversational equivalent of hypertext.

In any event, he's now posted a highly idiosyncratic origin story-cum-intellectual-biography-cum-narration-of-shared-cultural-interests of, well, me. It's roughly his standard format turned inside-out-- biography-as-storytelling, in which I'm the framing device for some reflections all his own.

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."