Kiss Me, Cato?

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THE PLANK FEBRUARY 19, 2009

Kiss Me, Cato?

A couple years ago, Brink Lindsey wrote an article for TNR called "Liberaltarians," in which he proposed a new liberal-libertarian fusionism to replace the old conservative-libertarian fusionism. In the subsequent issue, I wrote a response, which I intended to be slightly tongue-in-cheek but which probably came across as gratuitously nasty even by my standards. Mostly I took issue with Lindsey's assumption that liberalism desperately needed libertarians to rescuethem from political and intellectual disaster. But I also failed to see a broader philosophical basis for the alliance.

Lindsey's liberaltarian idea has managed to get a fairly impressive shelf life, bouncing around blogs, journals and think-tanks ever since. Now Mark Thompson has a long, interesting blog post making (and updating) Lindsey's argument. (Via a disapproving Ross Douthat.) I find it a much more intriguing proposition.

The main difference is that Thompson does not begin with the premise that liberalism is a failed ideology in need of libertarian takeover. Indeed, Thompson is shockingly concilliatory. He argues that libertarianism has been corrupted by its alliance with the right. Thompson writes,

The simple fact is that true freedom - the principle that is at the
heart of libertarianism - requires that everyone (or as many as
possible) have access to enough resources that they actually can take
advantage of their political and social freedoms.

He argues that libertarians should take a more concilliatory line toward labor unions, and stop assuming "that we live in a perfectly Coasian world with no transaction costs
such that, for example, consumers are capable of being aware of all the
externalities associated with a product.

Those are some pretty big concessions. So big, in fact, that I fail to understand the distinction between what he's proposing and moderate liberalism. After all, liberalism is not knee-jerk opposition to the market. It's a recognition that market failures exist and a belief in a moral basis for level of redistribution from rich to poor.

Thompson writes that he would like to create a "libertarianism that modern liberals are willing to take seriously." I fully admit to not taking libertarianism seriously at all. In my view, once you've removed the lack of concern for material deprivation, the belief in a frictionless world that makes regulation unneccessary, and the conviction that one's income is a near-perfect expression of one's moral desert, I don't see what's left of libertarianism at all. How is Thompson different from a DLC Democrat? Is my conception of libertarianism too extreme, or is Thompson an unrepresentative outlier? I'm inclined to presume the latter, though the fact that Will Wilkinson approves of Thompson's post gives me some pause. I would definitely like to read more about this.

--Jonathan Chait

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