Why libertarians are not “social liberals”

Politico ran a story today from conservative writer Kevin Williamson on why Senator Rand Paul’s brand of libertarian-inflected conservatism will have trouble appealing to voters.

I don’t know about the politics, but Williamson makes an interesting point about the difference between libertarians and social liberals. Libertarians are sometimes described as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” but Williamson says that liberals actually don’t like Paul’s brand of leave-us-alone social libertarianism:

If the fair-weather fiscal conservatives don’t like Rand Paul, the phony social liberals are going to loathe him. Here’s where the English language fails us: “Liberal” and “libertarian” come from the same linguistic root, meaning “liberty,” and many libertarians will describe themselves among friends as “classical liberals”—political heirs to the Whigs and the Manchester free-traders. But “socially liberal” and “socially libertarian” today mean almost precisely opposite things. If there is one thing our “social liberals” hate, it is liberty. In their view, you’re free to do as they please.

Take the case of the Christian bakers and photographers who do not wish to participate in same-sex weddings because of their religious and moral views. Paul takes the classical liberal view, which is that people should be allowed to make their own decisions based on their own values, and that if a baker’s belief offends you, then you can criticize him, boycott him, give him the full Duck Dynasty treatment—but you cannot use the strong arm of the state to compel him to put two tuxedoed gentlemen on top of a cake.

America’s so-called social liberals think that amounts to Jim Crow for gay people. Paul’s instinct is to get marriage entirely out of the federal tax code and to let the states define marriage for themselves. For social liberals, that is, at best, a punt. On the subject of gay marriage, they do not want a skeptical federalist—they want a president who is categorically in favor of gay marriage. They do not want somebody tolerant, but somebody committed, and willing to use the federal government to make their own preferences national policy. They don’t want marriage written out of the federal tax code—they want gay marriage written into it. They demand a pro-gay president even if, like Barack Obama in 2008 and 2010 and half of 2012, he claims to be against gay marriage for reasons of cynical political self-interest. Liberalism is a subculture; they know their own. Rand Paul isn’t one of them—and probably won’t get their votes. In fact, whether it is abortion, guns, public-school curricula or the all-important issue of dropping the federal civil-rights hammer on noncomformist bakers, Paul can count on bitter, unified opposition from liberal social-issue voters.

Minus the tendentious characterization of liberalism, I actually think Williamson is on to something here. Broadly speaking, liberals care about social equality, while libertarians care about non-interference from the government. This is why, for example, you get liberals arguing that business owners shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation, while libertarians say that property owners should be free to discriminate in whom they serve (or hire).

Sometimes these views overlap in their policy recommendations–for example, both liberals and libertarians generally oppose locking up nonviolent drug users. But it’s worth understanding that these are based in different philosophical viewpoints. Liberals do not see non-interference by the government as the highest political good. In fact, they think that government action is often warranted to ameliorate social inequalities. From a liberal point of view, libertarian “non-interference” leaves people, particularly less powerful people, at the mercy of private concentrations of power–corporations, bosses, intolerant religious and social majorities, etc. Certainly liberals think liberty is an important good, but they don’t see government as the only, or even necessarily the main, threat to liberty.*

Incidentally, this is why I think the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” formula is ultimately incoherent. If social liberalism is about social equality, then you can’t be a social liberal without supporting the material conditions of equality. This means not only that government may need to step in to thwart discrimination, but also that it should ensure access to the basic material conditions of participating in society on an equal footing. This includes such essential goods as education, health care, and a minimum level of income (though liberals disagree on the ideal mechanisms to provide access to these goods). Liberals and libertarians may share some philosophical forbears, but at this point they’re really different species.

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*It’s worth noting that J.S. Mill’s classic liberal manifesto On Liberty was in large part concerned with non-governmental forms of coercion.

Best of the week

I end up sharing a lot of links on Twitter, so I thought it might be worth collecting what I think were the stand-out pieces of the week. (“Stand-out” doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every word, just that these were the most interesting or thought-provoking items I came across).

Anyway, here goes:

–Elizabeth Stoker, “The Christian case for raising the minimum wage”

–Mary Charlotte Ella, “Gladiators of the gridiron” (the moral case against football)

–Isaiah Berlin, “Roosevelt through European eyes” (from the Atlantic, July 1955)

–Eric Reitan, “Civil Marriage vs Civil Union: Why NOT Leave Marriage to Churches?”

–David A. Graham, “Peter Seeger’s All-American Communism”

–Michelle Goldberg, “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars”

–William Saletan “The Work Ethic” (on the economic philosophy underpinning President Obama’s State of the Union address)

–Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism is very strange”

And for fun, Miley Cyrus (yes, that Miley Cyrus) doing a surprisingly good cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”:

The ACA, social insurance, and human solidarity

Most liberals and Democrats admit that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act has been a mess. How serious this is for the long-term success of the law is a matter of debate, but no one thinks this has been anything other than a rocky start. The most visible problem, of course, has been the all-but-non-functional healthcare.gov website, which has prevented people (how many is uncertain) from signing up for insurance plans under the new federal exchange. But more recently the focus has shifted to the architecture of the law itself–specifically changes to the individual insurance market which have resulted in people having their existing policies cancelled and, in at least some cases, seeing the amount they will have to pay to get new policies go up.

There are good wonky liberal responses to this–Jonathan Chait provides a nice overview here. The short version is that two groups–those without any insurance at all and those who purchased individual insurance–were always going to be the ones most affected by the ACA. For the former, the effects were virtually all positive: they would either be able to afford insurance on the exchanges, possibly qualifying for subsidies to help, or they might fall under expanded Medicaid eligibility. In the case of the latter group, things are a bit more mixed. Many of these people would find that they could now afford policies that were cheaper and/or better than what they had before. But at least some of these people (no one seems to know for sure how many) would end up paying more for policies comparable to what they had before. This is the much-vaunted “sticker shock” we’ve been hearing about.

As Chait explains, the reason for this is relatively simple: the whole purpose of insurance is to put people into risk pools in order to spread risk (and hence cost) around. Thus in any risk pool, those people with lower risks (in this case, the young and healthy) are going to end up “subsidizing” those with higher risks (the old, the sick, etc.). So people who were able to get policies for less, because insurers could discriminate based on your health history, may now find themselves paying more because they are in a pool with people who previously would’ve had to pay more, or wouldn’t have been able to get insurance at all. The very same principle operates in the employer-based insurance model, which is how most Americans currently get their insurance. People whose age and health vary widely are grouped into a single risk pool, with the younger, healthier people effectively subsidizing the older and less healthy.

From a certain point of view this all sounds horribly unfair. But only if you take an ultra-individualistic, short-term view of fairness. As David Kaib nicely explained in a post yesterday, the concept of social insurance rests on a sense of social solidarity. We spread risk around because we want everyone, within limits, to be taken care of and have a shot at a decent life. All wealthy societies have implemented forms of social insurance, including the U.S., despite our individualistic rhetoric.

The notion of solidarity rests not only on concern for our fellow citizens, but also a more realistic understanding of our own self-interest. Social and political philosophers like Alasdair McIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Susan Moller Okin have pointed out that much of the Western political tradition assumes that the typical or normative human being is a healthy, independent, male individual, and this has distorted our concepts of justice. In reality, all of us find ourselves, at some point in our lives, dependent on others, whether as infants and children, or because we get sick, or because we get old and frail and lose our minds. We are “dependent rational animals,” in McIntyre’s suggestive phrase. Vulnerability and dependency are instrinsic to the human condition.

This means that even if you are a young, healthy person, you will, inevitably, be an old or sick person. And when that happens, younger, healthier people will be caring for you. Social insurance is simply a way of institutionalizing this, making it less ad hoc and subject to chance.

It should be obvious that these principles are congruent with Christian ethics, which enjoin care for the neighbor, respect for parents, and justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Moreover, the doctrines of original sin and unmerited grace emphasize our common human lot and fact that none of us can save ourselves. Conservative Christians sometimes argue that social insurance is not a proper responsibility of government but that relief for poverty and sickness should come voluntarily from churches and other non-governmental entities. But there’s very little in the Christian ethical tradition per se to support such a restrictive role for government; this view owes more to libertarian conceptions of the “night-watchman state” than anything specifically Christian.

Unfortunately (from my perspective), the U.S. is still caught in the debate over whether the government has a proper role in ensuring economic security for all its citizens. This distinguishes us from most European social democracies, where the debate is more about the means by which the government should do this, the precise levels of expenditure, etc. During the last election, the Democrats emphasized solidarity and interdependence to some extent (e.g., the president’s (in)famous “you didn’t build that,” and in some of the speeches at the Democratic National Convention), but American political discourse still seems largely driven by notions of individual rights and deserts. We need a stronger culture of solidarity to underwrite a commitment to social insurance, and thus the possibility of human flourishing for all.

Romney vs. the 47%

The big political news of the day, of course, is the video released by Mother Jones of Mitt Romney speaking to a room of wealthy donors in which he essentially wrote off half the American public as moochers who will never be convinced to take responsibility for their lives.

Romney’s remarks are a version of an increasingly popular conservative narrative according to which 47 percent of the American public allegedly pay no taxes and are living off the largesse of the welfare state at the expense of the hard-working “makers.”

There have been a number of debunkings of Romney’s comments today, not all of them from liberals. Ezra Klein wrote about it with his usual wonky detail, but National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru and First ThingsMatthew Schmitz also pushed back. The New York Times’ David Brooks pointed out that these “freeloaders” include war veterans, students getting loans to go to college, and senior citizens (who disproportionately vote Republican!). The reality is that there’s no clear sense in which the political coalitions of Right and Left can be divided into “makers” and “takers.”

I’m not trying to make a tu quoque argument that Republicans benefit from government spending too. The point I’d rather make is that the self-made man who inherits nothing and doesn’t owe anybody anything is a myth. Luck is as large a determinant of where you end up as individual initiative is. And liberals believe that government is the only entity in society with the ability to level the playing field a bit and make sure as many people as possible have a shot at a decent life. It does this through redistribution, regulation, and provision of public services, among other functions. As I’ve written before, one of the reasons I became disenchanted with libertarianism was that I realized my life wouldn’t be possible without “big government.”

We all probably have a tendency to exaggerate our own contributions to our successes and to minimize what we owe to others, to circumstances, or to dumb luck. But is that something to base a governing philosophy on?

Rand Paul’s top-down conservatism

Continuing the grand congressional tradition of monkeying with local D.C. affairs, supposedly libertarian G.O.P. senator Rand Paul has introduced amendments to a bill granting the District budget autonomy that would dictate city policies on guns, abortion, and unions.

From the Washington Post:

One Paul amendment would require the District to allow residents to obtain concealed weapon permits for handguns, and would require the city to honor permits issued to residents of other states. Another amendment would make the District “establish an office for the purpose of facilitating the purchase and registration of firearms by DC residents,” in response to reports that there is only one licensed gun dealer in the city.

Paul has also submitted an amendment to codify the city-funded abortion ban. The prohibition — a continuing source of frustration for local leaders that is strongly supported by anti-abortion groups — has been extended via appropriations bills every year that Republicans have controlled one or both chambers of Congress since the mid-1990s.

Paul proposed another amendment saying “membership in a labor organization may not be applied as a precondition for employment” in the District, and protecting employees “from discrimination on the basis of their membership status” in a union.

Note that what’s at issue in this bill is whether or not the District gets to decide how to spend its own money raised by local taxes. (“Wait,” you say, “D.C. doesn’t already have that authority? But that’s crazy!” Indeed.) But for freedom-loving Rand Paul, it’s an opportunity to engage in some social engineering, conservative-style.

Foreign policy and the Golden Rule

Even though I argued in my previous post that liberals are under no particular obligation to support Ron Paul (e.g., vote for him), I do agree with those who say that he is raising important issues and has a perspective that needs to be heard, particularly with respect to foreign policy.

In a recent post at his new Atlantic blog, Robert Wright does a good job of articulating this perspective. What Paul is doing, Wright argues, is expanding our “moral imagination” by inviting us to look at U.S. foreign policy through the eyes of those whom it affects:

It’s certainly true that Paul’s hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success, Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.

It doesn’t lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I’m largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.

Wright cites this impressive pro-Paul campaign ad that explicitly draws an analogy between our occupation of foreign countries and an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas:

Wright comments:

I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of “moral imagination”–the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.

If a lack of moral imagination is indeed the core problem with America’s foreign policy, and Ron Paul is unique among presidential candidates in trying to fight it, I think you have to say he’s doing something great, notwithstanding the many non-great and opposite-of-great things about him (and notwithstanding the fact that he has in the past failed to extend moral imagination across all possible borders).

I think this is right, and I think this is why some liberal critics of Paul are wrong when they reduce his foreign-policy views to nothing more than a selfish, “leave-me-alone”-style libertarianism. One can disagree with Paul’s views on, say, foreign aid (not to mention much of his domestic agenda) and still appreciate the basic point that American foreign policy-makers (and the public) too often fail to exercise the moral imagination Wright is talking about.

In fact, a similar argument has been made often by Noam Chomsky–someone whose political views otherwise have very little in common with Ron Paul’s. Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that justifications of U.S. policy often appeal to a double standard which makes it okay for us to do things to others that we would never tolerate being done to us. Here’s a recent version of the argument where Chomsky points out how the interests and voices of parties who object to U.S. (and Western actions more broadly) on the international are routinely ignored, rendering them “unpeople.” The double standard is that some people’s voices count (usually power players in business and government), while others’ (e.g., those of the people without power–who often end up on the receiving end of our military actions) don’t. Chomsky’s “radicalism” often consists of nothing more than trying to apply the same principles to U.S. policy that we would apply to others.

It’s arguable that what moral progress the human species has enjoyed has largely happened when the majority, or those with power, have been persuaded (or in many cases forced) to look at the world through the eyes of the minority, or of those who have been oppressed or victimized. In Robert Wright’s terms, this is expanding our moral imagination; in Christian terms, it’s learning to treat others as we would want to be treated. Especially when it comes to foreign policy, “American exceptionalism” all too often means refusing to see ourselves as others might see us. To the extent that Ron Paul makes people aware of this, he’s doing us a service.

What would it mean for progressives to “support” Ron Paul?

There’s been a bit of back and forth recently in the left/progressive blogosphere about whether people who meet that particular description should “support” libertarian Texas Republican congressman Ron Paul’s candidacy for president. Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and others have expressed varying degrees of support for Paul’s candidacy, noting that his stances on civil liberties and foreign intervention and war-making are arguably to the “left” of President Obama’s.

Others have countered that Paul is a social reactionary who lent his name to (and profited handsomely from) a series of newsletters in the 90s that trafficked in racist and other inflammatory language as part of a “redneck outreach” strategy among self-described “paleo” libertarians and conservatives. Paul is furthermore a libertarian of a peculiar sort: one who would devolve much of the power of the federal government to the states, a move whose likely effect on individual liberty is debatable at best.

I’m neither a libertarian nor do I have much street cred as a “progressive.” But what I wonder is: what’s at stake in these arguments? What sort of “support” do Greenwald, et al. have in mind? Are they proposing that progressives, who one assumes are mostly registered Democrats, re-register en masse to vote in the Republican primary? Or that they should vote for Paul in the general election were he to get the GOP nomination?

What I think needs to be kept in mind here is that Ron Paul is very, very unlikely to win the nomination and why this is the case. It’s because, among other things, his stances on issues where he is appealing to the likes of Sullivan and Greenwald, are precisely where he is most at variance with the modern Republican party and the conservative movement. The Republican Party and the conservative movement, recall, are largely a fusion of economic, social, and national-defense conservatives. And I agree with the longstanding thesis of Jim Henley that, contrary to popular belief, these factions are not really “in tension” with one another to any great degree. These three varieties of conservatives are, if not identical, largely in sympathy with one another. Among conservatives of whatever stripe, free-marketeerism, cultural conservatism, and military hawkishness are seen as mutually reinforcing. Paul’s eccentric blend of isolationism, decentralization, Austrian economics, and social conservatism are out of sync with what remains the overwhelming conservative consensus.

So it remains unclear what sort of support a progressive or liberal is supposed to offer Paul’s candidacy. Is it that they (we?) should commend Paul for promoting certain perspectives (e.g., a critique of American interventionism) that fall largely outside of the bipartisan mainstream? Liberals can certainly do that without voting for him. But beyond this, what else is “supporting” Paul supposed to mean apart from wishing (and working?) for the success of his candidacy? Are liberals supposed to support (e.g., give money to or vote for) a candidate who opposes every facet of the regulatory and welfare state going back to the 19th century on the minuscule chance that he’ll win the presidency and dismantle the American empire? This seems like an odd allocation of resources for liberals to make. A better use of those resources would seem to be to try to move the Democratic Party–which after all already has a large progressive constituency–in a more progressive direction.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum makes a similar argument, focusing more on what he calls Paul’s “crackpot” ideology:

Bottom line: Ron Paul is not merely a “flawed messenger” for these views. He’s an absolutely toxic, far-right, crackpot messenger for these views. This is, granted, not Mussolini-made-the-trains-run-on-time levels of toxic, but still: if you truly support civil liberties at home and non-interventionism abroad, you should run, not walk, as fast as you can to keep your distance from Ron Paul. He’s not the first or only person opposed to pre-emptive wars, after all, and his occasional denouncements of interventionism are hardly making this a hot topic of conversation among the masses. In fact, to the extent that his foreign policy views aren’t simply being ignored, I’d guess that the only thing he’s accomplishing is to make non-interventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is. Crackpots don’t make good messengers.

Now, if you literally think that Ron Paul’s views on drugs and national security are so important that they outweigh all of this — multiple decades of unmitigated crackpottery, cynical fear-mongering, and attitudes toward social welfare so retrograde they make Rick Perry look progressive — and if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that non-interventionism has no other significant voices except Ron Paul — well, if that’s the case, then maybe you should be happy to count Paul as an ally. But the truth is that you don’t need to. Ron Paul is not a major candidate for president. He’s never even been a significant presence as a congressman. In a couple of months he’ll disappear back into the obscurity he so richly deserves. So why get in bed with him? All you’ll do is wake up in March with a mountain of fleas. Find other allies. Make your arguments without bothering to mention him. And remember: Ron Paul has never once done any of his causes any good. There’s a good reason for that.