Political Hay

Cold Fusion

Liberalism and libertarianism are too far apart philosophically to find much new common ground.

By 12.4.06

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Is the old conservative-libertarian alliance, what National Review co-founding editor Frank S. Meyer called fusionism, dead? Need we replace it with a new fusion of liberalism and libertarianism?

Writing in the current New Republic, Cato Institute scholar Brink Lindsey answers yes. He makes some specific suggestion on where liberals and libertarians might find common ground in economic policy, like reform of agriculture policy and certain consumption-based tax reforms (he approves of Al Gore's proposed swap of payroll taxes for carbon taxes). But Lindsey goes further than merely calling for a political marriage of convenience; he calls for "a real intellectual movement, with intellectual coherence. A movement that, at the philosophical level, seeks some kind of reconciliation between Hayek and Rawls."

The problem with this idea is that classical liberalism (or libertarianism) and modern liberalism (or progressivism, or egalitarian liberalism) are fundamentally at odds philosophically. The crux of the split is the difference between negative and positive liberty, a difference that illuminates how libertarians and liberals are separated even when they seem to be allied. Take some of the areas that Lindsey cites as common ground between liberals and libertarians:

Both reject the religious right's homophobia and blastocystophilia. Both are open to rethinking the country's draconian drug policies.

While it's true that libertarians and liberals both support gay rights, they mean different things by that. Libertarians believe homosexuals have the right to live the sexual, emotional, and financial life they choose without government interference; this is a negative right that demands government restraint. Liberals believe that homosexuals have the right to have societal approval of their choices; this is a positive right that demands government action that encroaches on the fundamental (negative) right to free association that is enshrined in the First Amendment. Matthew Yglesias, a liberal who takes his ideas seriously, has put it this way:
[A] lot of the views liberals tend to think of [as] libertarian-ish liberal positions aren't actually especially libertarian at the end of the day. For example, liberals, like libertarians, don't think the coercive authority of the state should be deployed to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Unlike libertarians, however, liberals generally think the coercive authority of the state should be deployed to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians. We think that landlords shouldn't be allowed to refuse to rent houses to gay men, that bartenders shouldn't be allowed to refuse to serve them, that employers shouldn't be allowed to fire them, etc. Liberals believe in a certain notion of human liberation from entrenched dogma, prejudice, and tradition, but this isn't the same as hostility to state action, even in the sex-and-gender sphere.

The same goes for blastocysts. Leave aside the fact that there are plenty of pro-life libertarians out there (almost every Libertarian Party convention features a platform fight over the abortion plank, which in its current incarnation acknowledges "good-faith views on both sides" of the issue). Even leave aside the Luddite leftism that former Reason editor-in-chief Virginia Postrel has fingered as the most dangerous long-term threat to research. Libertarians who oppose outlawing research with embryos are protecting a negative liberty; liberals go further and actively advocate federal funding for such research. (Some libertarians who write on this topic do seem to like science even more than they dislike government, but that is an imprudent departure from the default libertarian position on the matter.)

One can also see the philosophical divide between liberal and libertarian opposition to the War on Drugs. A couple weeks ago, Reason Senior Editor Radley Balko returned from a Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference feeling "conflicted by [his] co-conspirators in the drug reform movement."

Longtime drug reformer Eric Sterling (a guy I generally admire), for example, said at the conference that his first step toward a post-prohibition America would be "universal health care," accompanied by comprehensive treatment that addicts could obtain rather easily -- in Sterling's words, free treatment should be "as easy as ordering a pizza."

Terrific. If there's one surefire way to make sure America never reforms its drug laws, it's telling the public that step one in "drug reform" would be to have taxpayers foot the bill for morphine clinics, needles, and the local addict's relapses.

This would all still be quite a bit better than today's approach... But it's a far cry from treating American citizens as actual adults, capable not only of making their own decisions about what they put into their bodies, but also of assuming full responsibility for those decisions.


Lindsey believes that "an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends" than between libertarian means and traditionalist ends, the core of Meyer's fusionism. It's true that many traditionalists hew, implicitly or explicitly, to their own version of positive liberty, what in 17th Century Puritan writings was referred to as liberty from sin. But when government itself becomes an engine for cultural upheaval -- that is, when traditionalists are on the defensive -- they join libertarians in pursuit of negative liberty. The Hyde Amendment, which strictly limits federal funding of abortion, is an example of traditionalists meeting their ends by libertarian means.

It is not obvious to me that recent history shows that traditionalists have deployed the heavy hand of government more often than liberals have. But even if they have, the results of the November election should put traditionalists on the defensive once again, making them better allies for libertarians than they have been. And as the new Democratic Congress rolls out the more awful bits of its agenda, it's a safe bet that the strongest pushback will come from conservatives. That makes this a peculiar time to declare the conservative-libertarian fusion a dead letter.

LINDSEY, WHO SUPPORTED THE Iraq War before the invasion and later changed his mind, doesn't mention foreign policy in his essay. It's an odd omission, since it's clear that many dovish libertarians have lately been attracted to the Democrats primarily in reaction to the Bush administration's war-making. Foreign policy divides libertarians amongst ourselves; some libertarians still base their politics entirely on the non-aggression axiom, and a larger group of libertarians are by default skeptical of any use of force (since the Cato Institute's founding in 1977, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is the only U.S. military action that its foreign policy experts have supported). Others -- like me -- believe that a robust foreign policy is both acceptable and prudent. If foreign policy remains the primary fault line in American politics, dovish libertarians may be bound to the left for the foreseeable future. But they will be bound to the left by their dovishness, not by their libertarianism per se. Of course, the same may be true for libertarian hawks; if both parties remain as enthralled with big government as they have been in the Bush era, every libertarian may be forced to become more or less a one-issue voter. But if we do avoid that unhappy fate, our conservative friends are likely to remain our most promising allies.

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About the Author

John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.