Libertarianism is in crisis because it refuses to accept big government, says Tyler Cowen. As governments turn away from central planning and embrace free markets, their societies grow wealthier. And wealthier societies can afford bigger governments. According to Cowen, it’s a package deal libertarians need to learn to live with:
Libertarian ideas… have improved the quality of government. Few American politicians advocate central planning or an economy built around collective bargaining. Marxism has retreated in intellectual disgrace.
Those developments have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They’ve also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.
I am not so worried about this paradox of libertarianism. Overall libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.
The important thing for libertarians is freedom. And when Cowen thinks about freedom he’s thinking "what can I do with my life?" rather than "how many regulations are imposed on me?" That’s why he writes blog posts with titles like ‘Why I love Sweden.’
Cowen’s post is part of series in response to Brian Doherty’s lead essay ‘Libertarianism: Past and Prospects.’ (Doherty has recently published a book on the subject — Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.) In another post, Cato’s Brink Lindsey again floats an idea he raised at The New Republic — a liberal-libertarian fusionism on the left to replace the old traditionalist-libertarian fusionism on the right.
At Catallaxy, Jason Soon links to another post in the series by Virginia Postrel. Like Lindsey, Postrel wonders whether it’s time for libertarians to ditch their alliance with traditionalist conservatives:
Brink Lindsey’s call for a liberal-libertarian coalition may sound crazy when you look at the Democratic Congress, the 2008 presidential field, or the Democrats’ reflexive demonization of pharmaceutical companies. But if you want to defend cosmopolitan individualism, including commercial freedom, creating such an alliance could prove essential.
Lindsey argues for an fusion of the right wing liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and the left wing liberalism of John Rawls. It’s an argument his colleague Will Wilkinson has also been promoting. It might sound crazy, but Lindsey and Wilkinson have a point. Hayek himself argued that the differences between he and Rawls "seemed more verbal than substantial". In a recent essay for the Evatt Foundation, I argue that Hayek was right.
It’s difficult to know whether any of this has any relevance for Australia. I suspect you can count the number of serious Hayekian liberals in Australia on your fingers and toes (on second thoughts, you probably won’t need to take off your shoes). That’s a shame because many of the Australian left seems to be headed for a fusion with conservatism which will leave Rawlsian liberals out in the cold. After decades of fighting for what Postrel calls ‘cosmopolitan individualism’, leftist thinkers like David McKnight and Clive Hamilton are reaching out to nostalgic conservatives who worry that the market is undermining traditional morality and the family.
Are there any liberals out there?