The Non-Existent Center: Disparaging Conservatives Is No Substitute for Recognizing That Only the Right Takes Economic Libertarianism Seriously

By Goldberg, Jonah | Reason, August-September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Non-Existent Center: Disparaging Conservatives Is No Substitute for Recognizing That Only the Right Takes Economic Libertarianism Seriously


Goldberg, Jonah, Reason


BRINK LINDSEY is both brilliant and sensible. That's part of why I admire his work so much. But I must say I find those qualities largely missing in his case for Liberaltarianism 2.0.

Under Liberaltarianism 1.0, Lindsey endeavored to forge a new fusionism between liberals and libertarians. The old alliance between conservatives and libertarians was either ill-conceived from the outset or had reached the point of diminishing returns. An "honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends;' he famously wrote in December 2006 in The New Republic (the magazine that should be blamed for the un-euphonious moniker "liberaltarian," which, alas, has stuck). Lindsey proposed "a refashioned liberalism that incorporate[s] key libertarian concerns and insights" and "make[s] possible a truly progressive politics once again."

As flawed as I thought that project was, I wished Lindsey luck in at least some of his endeavors. While I think severing the fusionist bond with conservatism would be bad for libertarians, conservatives, and the country, at the same time I would like nothing more than to see libertarians convince liberals to become less statist and less culturally bullying. Moreover, his core point had much merit: The wealth and freedom created by libertarian policies are the best means toward "progressive" (at least in his benign use of the term) ends.

But that's all moot now because under Liberaltarianism 2.0, Lindsey doesn't call for a new "lib-lib" fusionism so much as a libertarian breakaway movement whereby libertarianism fashions itself as the "new center?' This new move is apparently necessary because Lindsey has realized how inhospitable progressive soil is to the flower of libertarianism. Suffused with deference to planners, reverence for the state, and a predilection for running other peoples' lives, contemporary liberalism is largely (though not entirely) liberalism in name only.

Lindsey concedes this fact in an awkward way when he writes: "I do believe that libertarian ideas are better suited to the language of liberalism rather than that of conservatism?' Which is another way of saying that liberals talk a good game about freedom, but their policies have nothing to do with it. Meanwhile, maybe Lindsey is right that the language of conservatism needs to be reinvigorated with libertarianism, but it seems to me that's exactly what the Tea Partiers he so disdains are busy doing.

Many of Lindsey's core assumptions about conservatism's relationship with libertarianism are just wrong. For starters, why should libertarianism be so hostile to culturally conservative values? Isn't libertarianism about freedom, including the freedom to live conservatively if that's what people choose? Secularism in politics is a perfectly admirable and libertarian value, but using the state to impose secularism on society is not. One gets the sense from Lindsey that the greater threat to freedom in this country comes from conservatives imposing their "benighted" religious outlook on the citizenry, rather than from the state scrubbing society of religion while imposing narrow conceptions of "diversity" on every institution and hamlet. Which worldview has more state and corporate power behind it in America today, Christianity or--for want of a better term--political correctness? Lindsey is supposed to be making the case for freedom, and yet so much of his uncharacteristically intemperate essay simply reads like he has chosen sides in the culture war and thinks that a host of political and policy questions should therefore be settled.

Not all of Lindsey's complaints about the right and the GOP are without merit, but there's so much ill-willed tendentiousness and ad hominem embedded in his description of political reality, it's hard not to conclude that his emotions have gotten the better of him. Again and again, Lindsey grabs the most convenient, negative, and often cliched, interpretations of Tea Parties, "birthers," fightwing paranoia and the usual parade of horribles (sorry: "gargoyles") in order to make his case that libertarians need to divorce themselves from conservatives. …

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