• Jon

    “I think maybe one of our main issues is that Jonah seems to think actually-existing-politically-relevant conservativism is in some sense “anti-statist,” and that’s why libertarians ought to like that kind of conservative.”

    Gil M suggests, and I’d agree, that Jonah doesn’t mean “anarchist” when he says anti-state. He means something closer to classical liberal.

    But more importantly, I think Jonah is saying that “actually existing” conservativism is a very small part of today’s rightist party, *and that that’s unfortunate.* But he probably sees better prospects for persuading its non-conservative members and voters and those inclined that way in the merits of a minimalist state (or whatever it is he likes) than in persuading the analogous people on the other side.

  • Weren’t Hayek and Toqueville warning us of the same thing? Friedman’s tyranny of the minority was a modernization of Toqueville’s idea that citizens in an unfettered democracy would vote themselves into torpor, into dependence on the state: as long as the cost of preferential treatment of any minority was spread across the polity, that cost would be largely ignored, or generally perceived as negligible, thus allowing or encouraging more and more petitions for government favors. How is this different from the incrementally established totalitarianism described in The Road to Serfdom? Isn’t the result the same whether state power is increased from the top or bottom? And aren’t the only correctives to that increase constant suspicion of the motives of its advocates and reactionary opposition to their policy initiatives?

    You’ve tried to make a lot of hay with the idea that conservatives are less intelligent, racist and homophobic than you and other enlightened liberals. It sounds as though you are trying to ingratiate yourself with the party in power. Isn’t this a kind of rent seeking? And why then would conservatives be wrong to view your interest in liberaltarianism as the last gasps of the canary in the mineshaft? Perhaps liberaltarians will be the bellwethers of social trends towards an even larger government. Why should we not be suspicious of anti-statist’s appeals to statists?

  • HopeyMcRibbits

    Another “civil right” where the right has it over the left is gun ownership. It seems to me the that liberal thought has no tolerance for rational unencumbered gun ownership. I find the left’s attempts are gun control are incremental steps towards total gun banishment. Their stance is almost entirely reactionary based on tragic, yet sensationalized news stories. There doesn’t seem to be much tolerance for opposing views on this issue within their tent. Will, how does this gibe with you?

  • You’ve tried to make a lot of hay with the idea that conservatives are less intelligent, racist and homophobic than you and other enlightened liberals.”

    This makes no sense. I meant to say “conservatives are racist, homophobic and less intelligent than you and other enlightened liberals.”

    Apologies to anyone who cared to notice.

  • WJ

    FWIW, I wish to agree with Gilm.

    Even someone with as low intelligence as this conservative can recognize a strawman argument. Mr. W, do you really believe that the description of a statist you put in your post is a commonly used one?

    A quick look at Merriam has this quote “concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government”.

  • Chris

    “If the right ever loses its anti-statism, we will have a race-to-the-bottom between two statist parties, one cosmopolitan and socialistic one nativistic and nationalistic.” -JG

    Wow. So many things wrong with that, I don’t know where to begin.

  • TGGP

    What the hell does that mean?

  • John

    Where is the Rawls part of Rawlsekianism? Certainly not the cosmopolitanism. Provision of public goods isn’t really the justification of the state in Rawls. It is certainly not the difference principle-I would think Will would be more in favor of something more like Harsanyi’s average utility principle-maybe with a floor. I assume Will is not in savor of the zero growth assumptions Rawls makes or the just savings principle. It honestly sounds like you are a lot closer to Buchanan or Hayek than Rawls. I would stick with those two.

    • Neel Krishnaswami

      Take ToJ, do the whole Rawls-style veil of ignorance social contract thing, but drop the utterly unmotivated difference principle. Result: you get a much more powerful argument in favor of J.S. Mill-style rule utilitarianism than Mill himself ever managed to produce. Since Mill’s politics is basically Will’s politics, there you go.

      • John

        Right. So Buchanan or Hayek. Not Rawls. Attaching the “Rawls” label to this view is just misleading.

        • John,

          I think that depends. Keep the idea of the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, but give the people behind the veil knowledge of public choice economics. Rawls has no way to block this move, because he already grants the people behind the veil knowledge of human psychology and certain other general facts.

          Do that, and you get an argument for a limited state on Rawlsian grounds. I think John Gray makes this move in one of his essays. The people behind the veil have to take into account the “strains of commitment” and other limits to human motivation. Given this, there’s no reason NOT to give them access to public choice. Once you do, it’s a lot less likely they’re going to pick the same principles of justice.

          (Alternatively, if you adopt Rawls’ principles of justice but plug public choice in at the constitutional stage, you’re still going to get a limited government because a more extensive government would not be to the benefit of the least advantaged.)

          And I think you could still call it broadly Rawlsian because it makes full use of Rawls’ own device — perhaps the most distinctive part of his theory. Rather than diverging from Rawls, it carries his project on more faithfully than he did himself.

          I argued here that Rawlsian fairness considerations can easily lead away from the welfare state if one takes seriously (as Rawls does, at points) that these considerations only kick in once one has reached Pareto efficiency. Fairness picks out a point on the Pareto frontier. It doesn’t mandate accepting less efficient distributions.

          If, as is arguable, the welfare state actually diminishes the expectations of the least advantaged, that’s a good, Rawlsian reason to push for its abolition or reform.

          • John


            I see what you are saying, but I think it is either very misleading or very confused to claim that Will is actually interested in anything similar to a Rawlsian picture of a liberal state. I don’t really think the veil of ignorance story is doing most of the work in his theory-he drops it later in any case. Harsanyi has an original condition that looks more similar to what you seem to be talking about, but regardless, it seems like we are talking about some kind of broadly contractualist theory. Ok, Fine. Why Rawls? What is Rawlsian about this? If you are looking for a contractualist theory, there are plenty to choose from. Buchanan has one, Lomasky has one, Gauthier has one, Harsanyi has one, Gaus has one, etc. I think Will’s position is probably closer to Gaus’s if we were atually to hammer it down into a specific position. The Gausian view is importantly, that is, non-trivially different from the Rawlsian position. Differences that would be important to someone who has classical liberal sympathies and takes public choice seriously.

            I’m not sure why I am arguing about what someone else (Will) should label his beliefs as, but I think the adding the “Rawls” modifier to his view is extremely misleading. I think I get what Will is saying, but there is really not that much that is Rawlsian about it. How much does fairness and reciprocity figure into the picture? I’m going to say probably not that much. Certainly not in the way that Rawls thinks about it. I suspect that all the talk of “sharing in each others fate” would be alien in Will’s version of a Rawlsian synthesis.

            I know that the project here is to signal that Will is close to the left, but Will is just as close to Rawls as he is to Rothbard, which is to say not that close.

  • Kent Guida

    Word games.

    Will, are you a Madisonian? Fine. Which of the two major parties would you say is the more Madisonian?

    The big fracture in old liberalism came with the Progressives, who ditched Madison and Jefferson in favor of Hegel and socialism. Unfortunately, they kept the liberal name.

    Which side of the Madisonian – Progressive divide do you occupy? Which side do today’s mainstream liberals occupy? Which side to mainstream conservatives occupy?

    These should not be difficult questions for anyone to answer.

  • alphie

    I bet Jonah would support doubling the defense budget right now.

    I bet Jonah would support tripling it.

    So would every “anti-statist conservative.”

    What’s his point again?

    • Ok, let’s bet. I bet he wouldn’t support tripling it (and probably not doubling it, but I’ll go for the bet with better odds). I think he really does believe in limits to state power, and scope.

      Is he perfectly consistent? No. Are you?

      Does that mean nobody has a point?

      • alphie

        As a rule, Republicans prefer government money to go to corporations.

        Democrats prefer it goes to individuals.

        Does it really matter where government money goes to a libertarian?

        • As a rule, libertarians care less about how the recipients are organized than about what it’s used for and from whom it came.

  • Kent Guida

    More on Madison.

    There is a brilliant article by Peter Berkowitz that explores the possibility and desireability of reviving Madisonianism as a political philosophy for today’s America and what it might mean for political alignment or realignment. If you are interested in the questions Will is raising, this is a must read. Available online at:

    • TGGP

      All the predictions Madison & the Federalists made about the limitations the Constitution would place on the federal government turned out to be wrong, and the forgotten Anti-Federalists’ fears were proved correct. Madison himself wised up enough to leave the Federalist party. It’s unfortunate that so many fans of limited government, including Ron Paul, fall into this idol-worship of men proven wrong.

      • By the way, I just mentioned Madison as an example of a guy who was in favor of a constitutionally limited, democratically governed state. I wasn’t signing on to something called “Madisonianism” though I might like it. I find the “anti-Federalists vindicated” point total boring. Yes, constitutions don’t constrain in every instance unless they have sufficient cultural back-up, and culture changes. So what?

        • TGGP

          How fast did culture change to result in the Sedition Act? Madison’s error was to think that (to borrow an analogy from P. J. O’Rourke) you could give whiskey and car keys to a teenager and then ensure they drove safely by putting up signs with speed-limits. The “Federalists” were wrong to create a strong central government in the first place, which for public choice reasons was sure to grab back the powers they had restricted from it with the other hand. Culture has adjusted over the long-run in significant part due to status quo biases, so one can make a case for our “living Constitution” resulting in statist culture just as you did the reverse.

  • Excellent piece, Will. It certainly gets beyond the banality of the conservative vs. liberal vs. libertarian post, which is refreshing….

  • I, the self-identified centrist, find this entirely reasonable.

  • jstrummer

    [deleted by author]

  • jstrummer

    Matt Yglesias had a nice post a few years ago about libertarians either being anti-left or anti-statist.

    In what way, Will, would you describe yourself according to Matt’s rubric, or do you think it doesn’t really apply to you.

    BTW, I don’t think “anti-statist” means intractably hostile to the state, but may just mean, very skeptical of the state. I’m anti-statist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the fact that there’s a state, and that the state does accomplish some good things. I just think I am skeptical of the power of the state to accomplish those things as a starting point for conversations.

  • Dan H.

    All of this nuanced analysis misses the large elephant in the room, which is that there is a fundamental philosophical difference between liberals and libertarians.

    Liberals believe that government should be the organizing force of society. They believe that without active government intervention in the affairs of men, the economy and society itself would become chaotic and break down. They therefore see government as the agent of first resort when they feel society is not moving in the correct direction.

    Libertarians believe in spontaneous order. They believe that a market is largely self-regulating, and that when people are left to make their own choices, the response generally drives the market in optimal directions. They are skeptical of government power for many good reasons, and see it as the agent of last resort.

    Is there room between them for some agreement? Sure. Like Will, I believe that government regulation that corrects for externalities or informational asymmetries may not be a bad thing, and I can find common ground with some liberals on issues like that.

    But by and large, I find there is a very large, very fundamental difference in outlook between liberals and libertarians which does not seem to exist between libertarians and conservatives, even though we have plenty of differences with them as well.

    John Stossel noted in a recent reason interview that, as a libertarian, he should be equally liked by the right and left, and equally reviled by them. But that’s not the case. Even though his speeches contain calls for drug legalization and open immigration and other specific issues with which the right disagrees, he is generally met warmly and with great enthusiasm by conservative audiences. On the other hand, even though he was against the Iraq war, torture, and many other policies of the Bush administration, he is met with great hostility by liberal audiences.

    I believe that is very illuminating.

    • I agree with all of this.

      Maybe Will interacts with a much better class of liberal than I do. But, in my experience most liberals have a deep-seated antipathy for economic liberty and individualism. They’re confident that most people would be much better off with the state acting as their parent, and have no problem imposing that on everyone. They don’t appreciate the Hayekian insights, and they don’t really respect individual autonomy outside of the bedroom. This is a pretty fundamental divergence from libertarianism.

      Most conservatives, on the other hand, seem to think adults should be treated as adults by the state; in their economic affairs at least. To me, they seem more open to social tolerance in exchange for more economic liberty than liberals seem open to the reverse.

      Again, maybe it’s just that we know different kinds of liberals, and conservatives.

      I eagerly await the news of the many liberals Will has gotten to agree to massively reduced state interference in the economy, education, health care, retirement, etc.

      • JB

        I agree.

        I still think a decent amount of Will’s “liberaltarian” project stems from him wanting to feel more comfortable at cocktail parties filled with close-minded liberals.

        • I just wanted to add that, while I think he may be wrong about this, I don’t ascribe any bad motives to Will’s arguments.

          He’s a very smart guy and I hope he’s right and I’m wrong about whether this is a realistic path towards progress.

          Time will tell.

          • JB

            I don’t think that’s a bad motive…merely a selfish one instead of philosophical. I’m sure it’s a mixture of quite a few things, but it would not surprise me that one of them is to be better friends with liberals. DC is chock full of those nuts and many of them are not very open-minded.

          • Greg N.

            Will lives in Iowa.

          • JB

            As far as I know, he spent quite a bit of time in the DC area.

          • Fair enough.

            I think it’s natural, and probably beneficial, to want to find common ground with people we respect. It’s a good source of criticism of our ideas, and it does make life more comfortable. We just need to be careful that we’re correcting mistakes, rather than adopting them.

            I just don’t know how one could confidently judge someone else’s arguments to stem from this impulse, unless one sees such glaring mistakes that he can’t imagine another plausible explanation.

            I don’t see anything like that. And, although I’m sure Will is very philosophical about blog comments, I think it’s better to avoid seeming rude and presumptuous about his motivations.

            I suspect that Will is more familiar with many areas of liberal thought, and more liberal people, than I am. It’s very possible that his judgment about them is better than mine. I’m just unconvinced about that presently.

          • JB

            I would be very shocked if those motivations didn’t play some part as I’ve been to similar parties and hang out in various circles that likely reflect a similar composition with a large number of liberals.

            I don’t think it’s rude to ask people to question their own motivations and to be honest about what they hope to achieve with various political (and thus social) projects.

            I’ve been in the DC area since 1996 and it’s fairly easy for me to state that my social life would be better if there were more open-minded liberals around these parts.

            I definitely think there is room for more engagement with liberals, but I don’t think it has to come at the cost of purposefully dismissing conservative allies. Why do we need liberaltarians? I would rather see more libertarians who engage with liberals and conservatives on specific issues and make progress there.

  • Farrant

    The public goods argument for the state has been falsified on technical and empirical grounds so thoroughly that only ideology can explain why it is still being taught as knowledge. Throw in some public choice arguments why a monopolist would use its powers not only to protect but to redistribute and there is not much left from Wilkinson’s limited government idealism.

    Wilkinson is too smart not to see the flaws in public goods arguments for the state. I can only speculate about this, but I think that he is so repulsed by the likes of Rockwell and Hoppe that he feels pressed to come out against anti-statism in this reckless fashion.

    I am also puzzled about John Rawls. Libertarian minded contractarian writers like David Gauthier and Jan Narveson have presented a far more coherent individualist perspective without introducing all kinds of arbitrary assumptions in their framework but I rarely see those writers being mentioned as the future for libertarianism.

    All this talk of friends of foes is fundamentally political in nature. It only reinforces the problems that are generated when libertarianism is presented as an ideology or a philosophy to guide public policy.

  • Farrant

    “John Stossel noted in a recent reason interview that, as a libertarian, he should be equally liked by the right and left, and equally reviled by them. But that’s not the case.”

    So true. Some libertarians believe that if they join the progressives on all the social issues it might be easier to persuade them of the benefits of free markets. That sounds reasonable but it simply does not work this way.

    To use an obvious example, in many European countries with multi-party systems, there are liberal parties that basically promote the views of Wilkinson. But these parties are still being seen as characterized as “right wing” for the simple fact that they support free markets. Supporting free markets, freedom of contract, and private property in the way libertarians do is a real deal breaker for most of the “creative class”.

    I admit not understanding this whole reconciliation project in the first place. In a libertarian society “social freedoms” will be a function of private property and contract. There will not be this huge public arena where all these rights can be enjoyed and celebrated. Right there you have a major reason why social liberals object to strong property rights and freedom of contract. They understand very well the tension between their cultural ideals and the restrictions that liberty and property will place on them.

    “Yes, constitutions don’t constrain in every instance unless they have sufficient cultural back-up, and culture changes. So what?”

    That is just a lazy argument. And it can never be falsified. Each time a limited government is transformed into Big Government, one can just claim “well, that is not the fault of constitutional thinking but…. culture.” Playing the “culture” card is something that conservatives often do when rational analysis contradicts empirical observations.

  • Paul McMahon

    The part I don’t get is how you can claim to be a Buchananite and still “accept the public goods justification for the state, more or less…” and “accept that regulations which correctly price negative externalities tend to make everyone better off.” Believing that these textbook justifications describe what our democratically elected overlords are actually up to is tantamount to believing that the $800 billion spending spree called “stimulus” is somehow about the Keynsian multiplier, rather the orgy of rent-seeking is so obviously is. Seems a bit naive, particularly in the present times, and certainly not consistent with my understanding of Buchanan.

    • Paul, I’m afraid your view of Buchanan may be a caricature. Buchanan is one of the great theorists of public goods and externalities and his great work political philosophy, The Limits of Liberty, is a classic statement of the public goods justification of the state.

      Try this passage from Geoff Brennan’s preface to The Demand and Supply of Public Goods on for size:

      “One central ambition of public choice scholarship was to insist that “political success” needed to be demonstrated before the market failure in question could establish a preference for government activity—and to demonstrate that such political success might be more difficult to achieve than the public economics presumption might suggest. Put another way, market failure was itself assessed by reference to a benchmark that economists came to understand only by contemplation of market operation in other (private goods) arenas. Market failure on its own meant nothing: Politics would have to submit to the same test. This much is familiar. And Buchanan’s work has been critical in making it so.

      It is, however, important to note that the public choice tradition has never denied the logic of the market failure argument as such. Indeed, Buchanan himself made extremely significant contributions to the market failure-public goods literature. For example, what are almost certainly Buchanan’s two most famous articles—”Externality,” with W. C. Stubblebine, and “An Economic Theory of Clubs”—fall precisely into this area of inquiry. In fact, public goods theory constituted a major (perhaps the predominant) element in Buchanan’s research agenda throughout the 1960s. The Demand and Supply of Public Goods is to be seen as an important part of that body of work and should be read alongside the articles in volume 15 in the Collected Works, Externalities and Public Expenditure Theory, as Buchanan’s attempt to synthesize and focus his views on those “public goods” issues.”

  • Will: “I want a state, I want its power constitutionally limited, and I want it democratically governed.”

    What reason do you have to believe the state CAN be truly limited? I ask because, IMO, your remark is like saying “I want a T-bone steak, I want no meat on it, & I want no bones on my plate.”

    • This is an amazingly easy question to answer. The answer is that all wealthy liberal democracies are in fact very successfully limited! They may be less limited than you like, but the fact that measures of economic and political freedom are relatively high in Canada or Sweden or the United States is a possibility proof of limited government. We are getting T-bone steaks. If you want to complain that it’s overcooked, then you probably have a good case.

      • Does the ability of the people who (allegedly) follow the constitution to interpret it to allow whatever they feel like not strike you as a huge loophole? Or their tendency to narrow the concept of representation down to “if you’re good at demagoguery or you can funnel money to me I’ll vote how you want”?

        If we’re talking radical decentralized, local level direct democracy, then it can work. But you don’t need a state to do that, in fact a state defeats the purpose.

        BTW: in the US’ case, I’d say what little limit can be discerned within is more than obliterated by the lack of limit w/r/t our foreign policy. It wouldn’t matter for obvious reason (majority absolutism never works in the favor of liberty & peace), but I suspect if our military dominance were put to a vote it’d lose.

      • You can claim that ANY state is successfully limited unless you give some criterion by which that claim can be falsified. Someone like Anthony de Jasay would argue that no state has been successfully limited.

  • radar

    Ultimately, all I derive from any of this is, “I’m a libertarian! Except for when I’m not.” You can jump through all of the rhetorical hoops you want, and it still will not change the basic fact that the current American left is not a movement that recognizes or respects individual liberty. No, neither is the right, I get that much. But I see absolutely no value in wasting time and effort with those who scorn the principles that libertarianism rests on. Wilkinson’s entire project seems to rest primarily on cultural affinities. He feels that he closely shares social mores with leftists – they are the “intellectuals” for whom he obviously has much esteem. So he’s attempting to shoehorn his beliefs into the statist framework of his social peers, because he thinks that logically they should be simpatico. Which is swell and all, so long as you’re being intellectually honest about the fact that there is little in the modern Democratic party that promotes individual liberty.

  • Jer

    I’d normally not enter into these waters because of simple and stupid replies but I’ve had a few positive interactions on the site so far. Here goes:

    Will, when I think of negative externalities, legally-favored unions come to mind. Environmentalists stopping nuclear power generation come to mind. To me, they thwart the public good. To me, these are large-ish issues.

    Any chance we can move (name a qualifier) liberals on these issues?

    This isn’t a loaded question. A few liberals argue against public sector unions and antipathy to nuclear power, I don’t view it as impossible.

    • Jer

      Let me rephrase: current union law (and new card check!) increase unemployment, shoot from the hip environmentalism increases energy costs, oddly compensated lawyers hurt honest businesses.

      If I take pollution (easy public good example) as my guide I’d pass onerous anti-union, anti-environmentalist, anti-lawyer (I skipped my qualifiers for all three) taxes on the lot.