“Do Libertarians Fit in a Liberal World?”

And if they do, are they still libertarians?

Two weeks before the 2008 election ushered in a period of Democratic dominance of government, a panel of scholars gathered at Princeton University to discuss the question “Liberals and Libertarians: Common Ground or Separate Agendas?”

The faction of the panel jokingly referred to as “Team Liberal” included three sociology professors from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as well as journalist Chris Hayes, the Washington editor of The Nation. If the goal of the panel was peacemaking, Hayes’ comments may have been the most encouraging.

He noted that cooperation between the left and libertarians has grown in reaction to the government-expanding excesses of the Bush years: “As the national security state has grown, that alliance has deepened.” He also remarked, in friendly and pragmatic fashion, that coalitions tend to start out political and become social. “You start out going to protests and end up going to birthday parties.”

Hayes said he thinks more ideologues of all stripes are beginning to notice that real-world government tends toward neither a social-democratic nor libertarian ideal. “The problem of the U.S. economy in the past eight years has been a kind of corporate socialism…[a] hydra-headed monster of corruption and malfeasance.” He added, “In the current financial crisis, the two groups who come out looking good are the Marxists and the Austrians,” since both schools of economists predicted that government will tend to come to the aid of the already-wealthy amidst cyclical booms and busts.

Those were the only kind words said about Marxism during the panel, however, as the three Woodrow Wilson School sociology professors generally defended middle-ground, mixed-economy views.

Doulgas Massey said modern liberals had learned that in a command economy, “tyranny inevitably results”-but also said, “It was President Clinton who arranged for balanced budgets,” and that “rather than talking about government interventions in markets,” we should ask what governments can do to make markets possible. “Where you draw that line is an empirical discussion,” he argued, is not a matter for deductive philosophy or ideological extremes.

Paul Starr, on the other hand, sounded more willing to defend modern, welfare-statist liberalism on philosophical grounds. “What do liberals and libertarians have in common? The fundamental value of liberty. What do liberals and libertarians disagree about? What liberty means.” Liberals, he argued, see threats to liberty from concentrations of private power and will continue to defend government as a means of combating those threats: “The value of these programs,” such as Social Security, he said, “isn’t just security but liberty itself.”

Paul DiMaggio offered the more conciliatory and cautious observation that in areas where our legal definitions are still in flux, such as intellectual property, libertarians may have a great deal to teach liberals, as with the efforts by “cyber-libertarians” to generate non-governmental rules for regulating a commons such as cyberspace.

Surprisingly, though, it was neither in such nebulous areas of law-nor on the apparent common ground of opposition to military and police excesses-that most of the panel’s “Team Libertarian” half sought to make concessions to the liberals’ worldview. Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, scholars from the Cato Institute, which co-sponsored the panel with the Woodrow Wilson School, actually had some kind words for elements of the welfare state.

Lindsey coined the term “liberaltarians” for an imagined alliance meant to replace the decades-long, arduously-constructed “fusionist” alliance between libertarians and the right. He voted for conservative Ronald Reagan as a young libertarian (calling himself a “con-symp”) but voted for Democrats in 2006. He said he can no longer stomach the pretense by the two near-identical major political parties that, as he put it, “a 35% top marginal tax rate is Social Darwinism but a 39% rate is socialism.”

Indeed, he echoed Massey’s call for open empirical discussion of how large a welfare state would be effective, saying that countries like Sweden suggest that once nations are wealthy enough, they can “afford” welfare states. “That just doesn’t seem like a matter of great importance,” he argued. Instead of an all-or-nothing, “yes or no” argument about whether to have a welfare state at all, Lindsey envisioned a collegial conversation about the size of the government safety net. “Bottom line: I’d rather hang out with the liberals and argue about economics than hang out with the Republicans and argue about Darwin and stem cells.”

Wilkinson also sounded a sympathetic note about the idea of a social safety net, saying he sometimes feels ideologically “lonely” when he tells friends that he likes the positions of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman-including their sympathy for policies such as a guaranteed minimum income. Wilkinson’s friends on the left denounce him as “a market fundamentalist,” but the libertarians can be almost as negative: “They tell me I’m not a libertarian at all.”

Brown University political science professor John Tomasi offered a plan for bringing together such feuding factions. Theatrically arranging three cups in front of himself on the podium, Tomasi encouraged libertarians (and liberals) to drink three metaphorical cups of potentially strange-tasting philosophical ideas: (1) Accept that there is a real distinction between classical liberals (who share a somewhat flexible bundle of ideas such as democracy, constitutionalism, and individual rights) and libertarians, adherents of a strict version of property rights that “not many people believe;” (2) accept that some version of “social justice” will seem intuitively appealing to most political thinkers and must be part of our agenda; and (3) recognize that once 1 and 2 are accepted, a friendly empirical conversation about economic policies can proceed.

Compared to the comments above, McGill University political science professor Jacob Levy sounded like the least welfare-statist member of the panel, since he did not endorse any specific non-libertarian policies (though he said we should prefer progressive to regressive policy results). He was as harsh as any of the panelists, though, in calling for libertarians to part company with Republicans (a position on which he and I have had a friendly disagreement since being fellow undergraduates at Brown two decades ago).

Said Levy: “If our core liberalism-if our roots in the struggle of common law against the absolutist king, or in Locke, or in Montesquieu, or in the American Revolution mean anything at all to us-then it means a four percentage-point difference in income tax rates is less important than removing the party of torture and detention without trial from power. That’s morally so overwhelmingly important as to make my traditional arguments about libertarians leaving the fusionist alliance with the right seem kind of silly.”

Todd Seavey blogs at and This column first appeared at