Liberaltarians

LIBERALTARIANS….Cato VP Brink Lindsey takes to the pages of the New Republic today to mourn the loss of the libertarian-conservative alliance of the past and ask if a new coalition between libertarians and liberals is possible. I almost didn’t bother reading it, but then I changed my mind because I happen to be in a bad mood at the moment and I figured he’d give me a chance to whack away at some of my pet peeves about libertarians. Ducks in a barrel and all that.

But surprise: Lindsey’s piece is a pretty clear-eyed look at whether liberals and libertarians can get along. He avoids pretending that there’s a huge pool of libertarians just waiting to be tapped (though he makes a nod in that direction by claiming that 13% of the population is “libertarian-leaning”). He doesn’t pretend that anyone who believes in individual rights is automatically a libertarian, even admitting that most of the social policies favored by libertarians were originally “championed by the political left.” And he forthrightly admits that social policies don’t matter that much anyway: it’s in the economic sphere where the libertarian rubber meets the liberal road.

Of course, that’s also where the “liberaltarian” dream dies a nasty and horrible death:

Allow me to hazard a few more specific suggestions about what a liberal-libertarian entente on economics might look like. Let’s start with the comparatively easy stuff: farm subsidies and other corporate welfare.

….Tax reform also offers the possibility of win-win bargains. The basic idea is simple: Shift taxes away from things we want more of and onto things we want less of. Specifically, cut taxes on savings and investment, cut payroll taxes on labor, and make up the shortfall with increased taxation of consumption.

….Entitlement reform is probably the most difficult problem facing would-be fusionists….One possible path toward constructive compromise lies in taking the concept of social insurance seriously….Social Security and Medicare as currently administered are not social insurance in any meaningful sense, because reaching retirement age and having health care expenses in old age are not risky, insurable events. On the contrary, in our affluent society, they are near certainties….We need to move from the current pay-as-you-go approach to a system in which private savings would provide primary funding for the costs of old age.

It’s a nice try, I guess, but this just has nowhere to go. Liberals are never going to give up on the idea of progressive taxation, and our overall tax system is only barely progressive as it is. Making it even flatter ? or even plainly regressive ? by cutting investment taxes and increasing consumption taxes is a nonstarter.

Ditto on entitlements. Universal pensions and universal healthcare are bedrock parts of the social safety net, and it’s simply not conceivable that liberals will give ground on these. Nor should we. 13% of the country may be libertarian leaning, but something around 100% of the country likes Social Security and a pretty sizable majority like Medicare too. Universal healthcare will be equally popular eventually, and will also be far more efficient than the pseudo-free market alternative we have now.

And don’t even get me started on growing income inequality. I sometimes wonder if there’s any level of income inequality that conservatives and libertarians would consider high enough to merit an arched eyebrow.

Bottom line: I just don’t see it. Lindsey is better than most at diagnosing where the real differences lie, but those difference are core to the identities of both groups. It’s hard to see the point of even trying to compromise on this stuff.