Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Brink Lindsey. He’s vice president for research at the Cato Institute. So this is our first episode of Free Thoughts since bringing in the Trump regime. We’re going to talk about an article that you recently published at Vox titled “Liberals and libertarians should unite to block Trump’s extremism.” So this goes back to a project of yours for quite some time namely the liberal tyrannism—
Brink Lindsey: Yes.
Aaron Ross Powell: –as you termed it. So what is liberal tyrannism?
Brink Lindsey: Well, it’s a terrible‐sounding word that I didn’t make up, but I wrote a piece for the New Republic back in 2006, 10 years ago, in the waning years of the George W. Bush administration at a time when libertarians were utterly disgusted with republicans in the White House and Congress. And so, liberals and libertarians had a lot in common. They both have a lot of dislike for republican control of Washington. So taking advantage of that opportunity and seeing that the historical ties between libertarians and conservatives were unraveling, I proposed that in place of the old libertarian right wing fusionism, we might explore a libertarian left fusionism, which the New Republic headline writers dubbed liberal tyrannism.
So, the idea was conservatism has in recent years or had in recent years morphed away from any real concern with limited government and becoming more and more of a kind of just raw right wing populism and that—
Trevor Burrus: And this was in 2006.
Brink Lindsey: This was in 2006.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
Brink Lindsey: So I was in Canary in the cold mine back then. At any rate, with the right having so little to offer libertarians, it seemed—and with liberals having been out of power for a long time, it seemed like perhaps it was worth seeing—exploring our common ground and seeing if there were ways to compromise a way the areas where we disagree. So that article went nowhere. That idea was talked about a lot, but at the time, this was just after the 2006 midterm elections where the democrats swept both houses of Congress. So, they were feeling pretty heady and like they didn’t need anybody to tell them how to change liberalism, that liberalism looked like it was on the rise. That feeling was strengthened a couple of years later with first the emergence on the scene of the charismatic Barack Obama, and second with the financial crisis which gave a black‐eye and conventional wisdom at least to free market economics and made liberals even less likely to want to make nice with libertarians.
Then, during the Obama years, this idea of a kind of emergent democratic majority really took hold in center left circles. The idea that with rising percentages of the population counter‐floored by ethnic minorities that there was a kind of demographic destiny to democratic control of American politics in the 21st century. So here, liberals felt like we can do fine on our own, we don’t need any help from libertarians and that was the dominant sentiment.
Meanwhile, libertarians were skeptical from the outset because of deep‐seated suspicious and constantly being rebuffed by people on the left. Those feelings got turbo‐charged with the election of Barack Obama who freaked a lot of libertarians out with his decided left of center viewpoints. And then with the rise of the tea party, it looked like right wing populism had a libertarian flavor to it again. And so, this idea of a liberal‐libertarian fusionism just completely fell by the wayside because liberals thought they were doing great all by themselves and libertarians thought that really their best bet was the populist right rather than gang up with anybody against it.
So, all of this occurred to me—the 10th anniversary of this piece was coming up just with the surprising election of Donald Trump. I went back and looked at that piece and I saw that the last lines of the article were something like, “Can liberals and libertarians learn to work together? Maybe not, but if not, the most likely alternative is for them to languish separately. And so I thought, “Well, that looks pretty much on the money where languishing sounds like a “I wish we were languishing. We’re cowering in fetal position and is terrified of what might happen next.” So, I decided to try this argument out again and see if liberalism’s dark hours, there were any takers for moving liberalism in response to Trump in a more libertarian direction.
Aaron Ross Powell: The overlapping views though of the people on the left and right who seemed to get the electorate excited in this last election namely Trump and then on the left Bernie Sanders because Clinton very conspicuously felt to get anyone excited. It seems like a flat‐out rejection of a lot of what you’re advocating, that if there’s anything the left and the right seem to agree on now, it’s, say, being opposed to trade. It’s being opposed to the dynamism of an economy that you call for. It’s wanting to shut down. It’s a kind of nationalism whether it’s a, you know, right wing semi‐xenophobic form or kind of a left wing—
Trevor Burrus: Trade union form.
Aaron Ross Powell: –trade union form. So, if that’s what they seem to agree on, why would the left in any case decide to jet us in the one thing that the American populace seems to like?
Brink Lindsey: Well, yes. Populism had a big year in 2016 in both parties. The Sanders phenomenon now overshadowed by the amazing rise and victory of Trump. But, if Trump hadn’t happened, we’d still be talking about the incredible Sanders phenomenon because it was so surprising. So, yes, a sort of virulently anti‐market populism was waxing on both sides of the partisan aisle and lots of democrats now—or lots of people on the left now are thinking “If only we had run Bernie, we would have won.” This proves that we need to double down on hard‐core leftism rather than mushy establishment technocratic neoliberalism. And so for sure, there are strong voices on the left side of American politics today urging to—fighting fire with fire that we can fight ring wing populism with left wing populism.
I have two problems with this on policy grounds and on political grounds. On policy grounds, it’s awful. It’s the antithesis of libertarianism, so I’m not interested in that. On political grounds, I think battles between left wing populists and right wing populists tend to have a kind of Bambi versus Godzilla outcome, that if you’re going to organize people on anti‐intellectual passionate us versus them‐ism, blood and soil works a lot better than whatever kind of attenuated class consciousness there is in the United States.
So, I think as a political stratagem for the Democratic Party doubling down on Sanders populism is just a terrible idea. But it may very well carry the day. So I wrote this piece with very low hopes that anything would come of it. There is—within the center left today, the policy views that I would like to see elevated and prioritized, they’re there. That is, there are people on the left who support a kind of pro‐market, pro‐growth reforms. So, this isn’t something like completely alien that you have to graft over onto the left from other quarters. It’s just elevating these voices within the center left and making these reforms a higher priority. But right now, I’m not seeing that working out. We’ll see what happens over the tumultuous days, weeks, months and years to come.
Trevor Burrus: Has it struck you as odd for a while or at least maybe even before the first libertarian piece that there is alliance or has been an alliance between the right and libertarians? Has that always kind of irked you or did it only irk you in that 2006 era?
Brink Lindsey: Yeah, it didn’t irk me until around the time I wrote that article. So, from—I came—I was a teenager and sort of became politically aware during the Carter years. And from that point forward, I was philosophically a libertarian, but in sort of the real world, a conservative sympathizer. I thought that on the three big issues of the day—economics, national security and social issues—republicans were clearly right on two out of the three. I was a Cold War hawk. That made it much easier. And on the issues where they were wrong, social conservatism, it tended to be more lip service than real substantive policymaking. So, to me back then in the ‘80s, it was an easy call to think that my libertarian ideas would on net be advanced by conservative republicans gaining power.
So, be careful what you wish for. In 2000, that wish came true. Republicans had control of the White House and both houses of Congress and proceeded to govern in an extremely un‐libertarian manner. So, it was really disillusionment with getting what you had hoped for and seeing that it didn’t work out at all well and seeing the drift of conservatism away from being really interested in the government and more towards bashing the left and sort of stoking the id of the right wing base with red meat. That seemed much more what conservatism was about in the O’s to me at that time, and so I thought I just don’t see how libertarian ideas are going to have larger sway over American life when they are framed in a package with social conservatism and secular decline and a kind of Neanderthal anti‐intellectual populism.
Aaron Ross Powell: So you’re making these arguments to politicians. You’re saying “Here are the policies that you want on the left ought to advance” if you want a prayer of coming back into power giving a counter‐narrative to the Trump populism. But these people are beholden to their voters, and the voters seem to not be interested in these issues. And so going back to—you know, so part of your—a lot of your argument depends on like, “Look, what we want is we want prosperity. We want growth, but we want to couple that with protections for people who are hurt in a dynamic market.”
But the people seem to think like we’ve—so the argument, say, the argument for free trade and the argument in favor of immigration as a source for economic growth are about as well‐settled as policy arguments get and have been for, you know, since the time of Adam Smith at least, and yet the voters continue to reject them and they seem utterly uninterested in the data and evidence and arguments. And so, why would these proposals work—I guess even if they work, like even if they lead to the policy outcomes we want, why would politicians embrace these things that the people don’t seem to care and seem to want to trade off, you know, America ra‐ra or class consciousness for growth?
Brink Lindsey: Well, I’m aiming a policy vision at politicians not at voters. I think if there’s anything we learned over 2016 is that voters don’t start with a bunch of policy positions and then see which team lines up with their views. That’s just not the way it works at all. Over the course of just the past year, republicans have completely flipped‐flopped their views on trade in Russia just because Team Membership and Team Red now entails new views, so really for the typical voter, policy positions are very lightly held. The one deep choice that voters make is what team am I on? And these days, it’s a pretty easy choice to make. It’s the team that doesn’t hate my guts.
So, we have these sort of political identities, cultural identities with very little necessary policy content to them and then scrambles amongst interest groups and ideologues to try to get the elites that match up the identity with the policy program to get your favored things onto that program. So, what policies go along with conservatism and with progressivism are not generally up to the voters just in terms of how things work.
As far as my message to policymakers of either party, I start with forswearing any expertise about what wins elections. I’m a libertarian. Most of my views are very unpopular. The idea that I will say, you know, “Do the libertarian thing and you’ll win a lot of votes,” that’s just—it’s the pundit’s fallacy that people, ideologues of all types are prey to and it’s especially sort of unconvincing coming from the group that never wins elections.
I start with we have a substantive policy crisis in the country. We have the combination of slow growth and high inequality. High inequality meaning that just looking at the growth rate doesn’t tell you how lousy things are for most people because most of that growth is going to people at the top end. So, if you put together slow growth and high inequality, you get to the point where over the 21st century, the typical household today is making less than it was in 2000. Maybe it’s going to catch up this year, but basically it’s been stagnation for the 21st century.
It turns out that—so, first, that’s bad. Just in material economic terms, the average growth rate in the US for the 21st century has been 1% annual growth in real GDP per capita. That compares to the average growth rate during the 20th century of 2% growth in—
Trevor Burrus: Was that that big of a deal though? 1% or 2%?
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. So, it’s half.
Trevor Burrus: Right.
Brink Lindsey: So, it’s the difference between income—national income, the economy per head doubling every 35 years or doubling every 70 years. So, will the economy double over a person’s normal lifetime or quadruple over a normal lifetime? In other words, by the time you’re old, will the economy be size A or size half‐A?
Trevor Burrus: Or it’s to say if it was 1% for the last—for the 20th century, it would be like 1965 now.
Brink Lindsey: That’s right.
Trevor Burrus: That’s the level of wealth we would have.
Brink Lindsey: We’d be dramatically, dramatically poorer. Yeah, compound interest works wonders over the longer term. So, in terms of the—just the stakes and the possibility of rising living standards as possibilities are much narrowed by having a growth rate in terms of sort of political economy, a whole bunch of our government programs are based on this idea served constantly increasing dollars that we can spread around if that’s slowing the problems with the long‐term physical viability of Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security get all that more severe.
But then beyond these sort of dollars and cents issues, there are increasing reasons to worry that economic stagnation is just very bad for liberal democracy. Back 10, 12 years ago, a Harvard Economics professor, Benjamin Friedman, wrote this book, “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth” which argued at length that economic growth goes along with greater openness cosmopolitanism tolerance and, by contrast, bad times or prolonged deterioration or stagnation in economic circumstances lead to kind of defensive crouch values—protectionism, xenophobia, nationalism, scapegoating the other. And this is really a question about rates not levels. So, poor countries that are fast‐growing, people are optimistic and on the go. Rich countries that are stagnant get really—
Trevor Burrus: Irate?
Brink Lindsey: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: Petulant? Pissy? Any of the above?
Brink Lindsey: Trump‐y.
Trevor Burrus: There you go, Trump‐y. Yeah.
Brink Lindsey: So, here when Friedman was making this argument a while ago, it all seems sort of, you know, intellectually compelling. Now it feels viscerally compelling that over the past year, we’ve seen the rise of these populace movements. We were just talking about which—there’s an ongoing back and forth about the extent to which economic anxiety underlies the Trump phenomenon in particular or whether it’s just racism or racial resentment. I don’t think you can separate the two because the data show that bad economic times tend to bring racial resentment and sort of opposition to them, to the surface and make it more salient.
When you look at particularly at sort of relative gains over the past 20 or 30 years, everybody who’s less skilled is swimming against the tide of an economy that’s oriented more and more towards people with high skills. But, sort of swimming against that stream has been the lessening of discrimination against blacks and women over this time period. So that despite sort of pervasively less favorable environment for working class people, women and blacks nonetheless have registered strong income gains because the reduction and discrimination has outweighed the economic factors.
So you have smart income gains for women, blacks and men are just absolutely at the bottom of the barrel. White men have been relatively worse off over this period and unsurprising then that you’re seeing these spasms and convulsions of protest and a sense that the governing institutions are illegitimate because they’re not working for me anymore. All of that concentrated amongst white men.
So, I think it’s very clear that the Trump phenomenon and populism more generally is tied in with this underlying economic malaise of slow growth and high inequality. And I don’t see any way to do anything about it except through some kind of libertarian program.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that the conservatives are—are you prepared to—I mean I agree in the sense that—I think you’ve dyed us the problem correctly and there has to be something done particularly on the regulatory side. But, it also seems like you take in conservatives and written them off. And there was a huge Never Trump and those people—I mean there might be more Never Trumpers in two years in the conservative movement than even now if he does particularly crazy things, which I think is a pretty good bet.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. Let me back up. When I say the libertarian program, I mean a moderate libertarian program that combines free market reforms with a reassuring enough safety net that the whole package is viable. I could picture that being situated amongst—I can picture republicans fording that agenda. I can picture democrats fording that agenda. I think this kind of moderate libertarian economic policy fits better with social liberalism than it does with social conservatism, so I’d rather see that package on the left than on the right, but I can—there’s lots of reformicons who are talking about the same kind of deal. We’ve got a revived growth with freer markets, but we have to make that possible and lay people’s uncertainties and fears and anxieties through a more effective social policy.
So, I think that is the program that works, that it works politically in that I don’t see any way we can move forward with free market reforms in the current atmosphere of anxiety where free market reforms are just going to make people feel even more exposed to the volatility of creative destruction, etc., heightened their defensive crouch unless it’s packaged with a program of—with social policies that sort of take the rough edges off of—
Trevor Burrus: You’re talking about—
Brink Lindsey: –creative destruction.
Trevor Burrus: –welfare state kind of retraining or things like this.
Brink Lindsey: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: So those are the—
Brink Lindsey: And in particular, the way I see things, there’s an underlying demand for government backstop against uncertainty, against change, against downward mobility, against whatever. Bad things, the hazards of life. And nobody has done anything to reduce that public demand. That demand is there and so it’s like squeezing a balloon. If you squeeze one‐sided policy to answer that demand, you’re going to get a pooch‐out on the other side.
And conservatives had been relatively more effective at squeezing on spending growth. That is, so redistribution. It’s easy to rail against free loaders and suits conservative rhetoric. It’s hard to get anything done in Congress these days. So, big news spending programs are very hard to pass. So what happens—so, that’s a relatively easy bridge to hold, but when you hold it, what happens? That demand gets pushed into less transparent—it gets pushed into regulations that prop up existing businesses and protect people that way and gets pushed into tax credits that do the same thing as social programs supposedly but on the cheap but end up directing most of their benefits to high‐income people who get the tax write‐offs. So you get policy pushed into even less libertarian‐friendly areas that gum up the economy and that are less visible and, therefore, have fewer constituencies that might oppose them.
The way I see it, the best libertarians could hope for in the current environment is to make redistribution as open and as transparent and on budget as possible, not have it buried in the regulatory code, not have it buried in the tax code, but have it up in front in terms of money transfers. First, governments are pretty good at writing checks. That’s one thing they know how to do, so they can at least do that competently as opposed to micromanaging how people live their lives. They don’t do that very well at all.
Secondly, there is an ultimate constraint on how much physical transfers they can do, which is that they have to be paid for by taxes and people don’t like paying taxes. So, the constraint ultimately on the degree of redistribution is people’s appetite for taxation. That appetite is not voracious, so that puts constraints on government. Whereas, in the current environment, when everything is fair game for expressing this demand for backstopping, there are no constraints because regulation and its effects are just completely invisible to everybody. And so I think we’re in a much less free economy, much less free society today than we would be if instead of pretending that it was possible to eliminate all redistribution possible, we instead focused our efforts on channeling it into those areas where it doesn’t have all these pernicious ancillary side effects.
Aaron Ross Powell: Does shifting that to a more transparent social safety net and more transparent redistribution policies risk deepening the cultural and racial divides in this country? So, there’s this very deep‐rooted, you know, from the conservative side argument that we don’t want to give money to moochers. We don’t want to enable the lazy and so that’s the problem—one of the problems with redistribution, the other one being the kind of what’s mine is mine argument.
But, at least with our existing system, we’re saying, “Look, if we’re going to give you money, we’re going to help you out because you’re poor. We’re going to give it to you in the form of reasonable things like housing assistance and paying for food and paying for education like stuff that we in kind of a paternalistic sense know is at least good for you. Whereas if we just cut you a check, I mean it is true that—not all poor people are poor because of a lack of—
Trevor Burrus: Self‐control?
Aaron Ross Powell: Self‐control or four‐sided wisdom but many are, that they’re going to just blow it. They’re going to use it in ways that aren’t good. It’s not going to help and it’s going to look—that transparency is going to make it even more apparent that those of us who do earn a living are simply paying for the lifestyles of those who don’t.
Trevor Burrus: Which I mean—to double‐down on that, I’m going to add one more. That was part of, for example, the Hillbilly Elegy book about discussion that the welfare state has destroyed, in his mind, many parts of middle America in a way that is not adequately appreciated. Maybe those people went and voted for Trump for some reason or whatever, but they’re waiting for the government check. They’re not working anymore all this stuff, so maybe it would have the backward effect.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. I think, first, the fears that if we don’t—if we provide cash benefits to poor people rather than in kind benefits, they’ll squander it on junk food and alcohol are widely overblown. All the social science we have on this shows that this is just not a serious problem that, in fact, the money isn’t wasted that way and there are all kinds of enormous benefits to the poor to get the money rather than to be sort of forced to balance crate for all these cobbled‐together in kind benefits, all of which have different often confusing criteria and eligibility requirements, etc.
So there’s a lot of degrading, oppressing paternalism of the poor that could be eliminated and be experienced if poverty could be less degrading and less awful if you just got money rather than having to go through all these bureaucracies to get handouts. Beyond that, I think there’s a big distinction between helping poor people contingent upon work and helping poor people with no work requirement or work contingency.
What I would favor in terms of expanding the safety net would be something that delves on the current earned income tax credit, which is a payment to working poor people, but which currently only covers working families. So the people who are sort of most—that were most focused on now dropping other workforce, etc., are single men. They are not covered by any work‐encouraging social program at all. They face a whole range of social programs that cut against and undermine work incentives, so I would like to see welfare policy very much have a pro‐work orientation which would require rethinking a lot of how we do things right now because of the current welfare state is larded with anti‐work incentives.
I don’t think in terms of the question of deepening cultural divisions or racial divisions, I mean the EITC never comes up as something about free‐loaderism. It just—it doesn’t give off that vibe at all. I think people are okay with helping the working poor get ahead in a way that they are not okay with helping people not work. So, I think that a more moderate libertarian social policy that was much more tied to encouraging work rather than providing an alternative to work would mitigate rather than exacerbate these social divisions.
Trevor Burrus: So—let’s talk about the other side of this too because I’m sure some of our listeners are thinking right now that we have here a purported libertarian saying he’s okay with the welfare state. We can talk what that means. But, what kind of things do you think we can in this sort of trade that we would make with liberals if they would listen where we would say, “OK, you can have your welfare state, but we need this,” so to speak. What are those things that we need? I mean you talked about these restrictions, but what are they?
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. So, first, I resist thinking about this in terms of trading because that looks like two big voting blocks, sort of “OK, I’ll take some of column B and you take some of column A and we’ll put it together and we’ll have this new party.” But, libertarians don’t have that to offer. We don’t have any voters. So all we have to offer is ideas. So, what I’m offering to liberals is, “Hey, these are the ideas that are most associated with libertarians, although you’ll see through the links that plenty of people in the center left buy into the idea that markets work too.” But, if you borrow these libertarian ideas, you will advance your liberal values more effectively and stave off the Trump apocalypse as well.
So, it’s not this what the libertarians have to give up. Right now, libertarians are completely in the wilderness if a presidential candidate in 2020 or a kind of pro‐market, pro‐growth democrat running against protectionist Trump, I don’t think you would have any problem attracting a fair number of libertarian‐ish voters. So, it’s not like libertarians have to give up something and give up the welfare state. It’s just if liberals would elevate a pro‐growth, pro‐market orientation, they would certainly attract more libertarian‐ish voters or college‐educated whites. Still, Hilary lost to Trump.
Trevor Burrus: So that would be—so we need to get the growth as you said, but at the—that, first of all, growth is something that the liberals are often quite suspicious of and markets too, not just the Sanders type and the deregulation stuff. If we’re talking about deregulation, they run away too and if their opponents in elections can say, “This guy voted to deregulate the economy,” then that could be a cause to lose. So, some of regulations you talked about fixing to fix growth you think are a specific type of regulation that the liberals should be concerned with.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. So this all—this ties into a work I’ve been doing on the policy side. I did a paper last year with the good with wacky names liberaltarians and this paper, “Low‐Hanging Fruit Guarded by Dragons,” which outlines a pro‐growth policy agenda specifically designed with the idea that it might appeal to people across the political spectrum. So, my argument was we’re in a slow growth era. It looks like it’s not just a sort of cycle hangover from the great recession but rather there are kind of deep structural reasons why growth in the 21st century might be harder than growth in the 20th century. And so, unless we improve our policy game, we should expect lower economic performance and that’s a bad thing.
So, we’re in a growth slowdown. We ought to do something about it. The left and the right both have a stake in this. They may have big differences about how they want to spend the extra money that more growth would bring, but that’s an argument for another day and they both have a stake in getting to that other day. The question then is, “OK, what is a common end matter if everybody has got different ideas about means to that end?” So, I was groping, well, what’s a common means? What are policies that might command assent across the ideological spectrum?
Thinking about the problem that way, I started thinking about policies that might fit that bill and then I thought about what they had in common. And what occurred to me was they were all species of what I called regressive regulations or regulations that interfere with new entry competition, entrepreneurship and do so in a way that shifts in commonwealth up the socioeconomic scale. So, regressive redistribution.
So, why are these particular kinds of policies not ideologically polarized? Well, first, even though republicans typically are pro‐market, they’re also pro‐business and these regulations are ones that actually help existing businesses fend off competition from new entrants. And so, the oxen being gored by pro‐growth reform here would be poor republican constituencies in many cases, and so not likely to find these amongst the sort of hobby horses of right wing pro‐growth reform.
Likewise, because they haven’t become right wing hobby horses, they are immediately anathematized by the left. And even though people on the left tend sort of instinctively devalorize regulation as controlling, greedy corporations in the name of the people, even they can smell out a racket and see that sometimes what’s being justified in terms of the public interest is really just a way to redistribute money to politicrats.
So, it seemed to me that this ideologically was sort of a no-man’s land where you could maybe get around the polarization of Washington these days through weird, odd bedfellows kinds of coalitions. And the issues that identified which is high‐skilled immigration, intellectual property, patents and copyrights, occupational licensing and zoning. Those are all areas where there are divisions within the left divisions within the right that are starker than the divisions between the left and the one end, the right on the other.
And so, I think this—when we now shift back to a kind of thinking about liberaltarians, could a Democratic Party actually be more free market‐oriented? Seizing upon this agenda would be less of a stretch than moving in sort of stereotypically pro‐market directions. Stereotypically deregulatory directions.
When people hear deregulation, republicans and democrats, they tend to think about removing cost that burden existing businesses—health, safety, workplace regulations that add cost to business and slow them down and increase their burdens, reduce investment, reduce profits. Progressive automatically have a warm, fuzzy feeling about such regulations. That’s the whole reason we have government is to do those kinds of things.
So, anytime they hear deregulation, they hear like an attack on truth justice in the American way. When you see though that a big part of a pro‐market deregulation agenda isn’t removing costs from existing businesses but rather removing subsidies from existing businesses is that shield those businesses from competition, then the feeling is very different and one that would be, you know, less of a dramatic shift by democrats to make.
Aaron Ross Powell: This—so our conversation so far has focused almost entirely on economic issues. But there’s the—when you listed the three big ones that you originally thought the conservatives had two out of the three on. I mean there’s more to it. There’s the social issues and there’s the foreign policy, and those are things that, yes, libertarians are free markets but we also care an awful lot about social freedom, about civil liberties, and about a—let’s call it more peaceful foreign policy.
And you say—so in the beginning of your article, you listed kind of the summary of what liberaltarianism would mean from both sides, and so you say with respect to economic issues, the liberaltarian proposition would look more libertarian regulation and more liberal on redistribution, which is what we’ve been talking about. But you also say that regarding social issues and foreign issues, the high‐bred I had in mind would maintain the commitment of contemporary liberals.
I guess I’m—if contemporary liberals are liberals as we’ve seen them for the last at least 8 years, they don’t look all that good or even all that libertarian on social issues and foreign policy. They’ve been pretty consistently pro‐war. They have been fairly opposed to civil liberties or at least not that opposed to the government violating them. I mean I remember shortly after the Snowden revelations came out, it was either Slate or Salon published a piece—because Cato had kind of gotten out in front of that issue and they published a piece that was basically warning their readers away from the libertarians like “These guys may look good on this, but don’t be tricked. They’re really free marketers. They’re just pretending to care about this sort of stuff.” But the left didn’t really care much about that in part because it was their guy doing it.
And then on the social freedom’s issue, yes, they want to elevate the status of gays and blacks, but it’s about elevating the status of traditionally disadvantaged groups often at the expense of other groups, the identity politics. They don’t seem to care much about social freedoms and we see that with what’s going on in college campuses in kind of the declining support for free speech. So, is there really on that side of things, on the social side, the civil liberty side and the foreign policy side, do liberals at least in the contemporary sense offer libertarians much at all or anything really better than conservatives do?
Brink Lindsey: Yes. So, first, I would distinguish between liberals and the entire left. There’s certainly an illiberal left, and I’ve got nothing to say to them. They are not interested in anything I have to say. So, I’m talking about left of the center. It’s a big space in American politics and those people closer to the center are the people who are likely to possibly be interested in what I have to say to those on the far fringes of the left. We’re not going to come to any kind of agreement.
So, and if one always sort of leaps to saying, “Well, the left can’t be partners with libertarians because look at these crazy, loony lefties on the far fringe,” that just doesn’t have anything to do with anything. Life happens at the margins. If more centrist center lefties become more libertarian in their outcome, that pushes the world in a good direction regardless of what people on the fringes are doing. So there’s that.
Secondly, there is a big difference between what liberal people think and what democratic officeholders do. So, yes, the Republican‐Democratic Borg, national security Borg seems to be promiscuously interventionist regardless of, you know, on both sides. Still, there is much more anti‐war sentiment on the left than there is on the right. There’s drug warriors that are democrats. There are surveillance state enthusiasts who are democrats, but you’re going to find more support for ending the drug war. You’re going to find more support opposing the surveillance state on the left than you do on the right.
So, on a lot of social issues, yes, but my opinion on the left and the right isn’t what we want it to be. But I’d say, a number of these issues were historically the left was better than the right. Still, historically, the left is better than the right even if democratic officeholders aren’t. And even if everybody on the left isn’t and some people on the left are getting even worse.
Trevor Burrus: It seems that some of the things you list—I’m not exactly sure why except for maybe Trump.
Brink Lindsey: And meanwhile, I think, you know, I would be unsurprised if over the coming years, this flip on free trade doesn’t really get cemented and it will happen not because liberals are pro‐market. It will be because liberals are against bashing foreigners. So it will be their internationalism rather than their, you know, sympathy with Smith and Ricardo that carry the water, but that’s okay.
Trevor Burrus: Well, it seems that—except for the—I think you might be right about immigration and trade. But, a lot of these things that are strangling the economy are kind of things that Trump has kind of intimated that he might understand. And if he seems to maybe understand anything—and that’s a big if—but he might understand how businesses and growth are hampered by regulations of the types you mentioned.
So, for—I mean obviously on your list of things that we can kind of—the low‐hanging fruit, as you put it, so he’s not going to—the high‐skilled immigration, we’ll just say he won’t get into that. But the other three—patents and copyrights, occupational licensing and land use regulations—aside from the fact that land use is very local, but I bet we do better trying to get this administration to look at those than to try and galvanize the liberals to push that or resist along those lines or anything that you’re discussing.
Brink Lindsey: Yes. So on—just to take those specific issues, on occupational licensing and zoning, they’re both state and local issues. There are limited—not zero, but limited things feds can do about those. And for sure, republican policymakers are increasingly interested in those and would be sympathetic. But, also, democratic policymakers and left of center economic analysts and experts have also been focusing on these issues a lot. The Obama administration did policy papers on occupational licensing and zoning that were both very good. This was doing a policy paper saying this area of policy is problematic is about the least thing you could do. It was just sort of dipping their toe into the waters of this kind of pro‐growth, pro‐market reform.
Trevor Burrus: But they did agree that it was very hampering to growth and mobility.
Brink Lindsey: Yeah. But they put down a marker and one could’ve imagined progress in those areas under our Clinton administration. So, I think on those areas—I think it’s going to be completely—I don’t picture Trump being interested in policy at all. So—
Trevor Burrus: True.
Brink Lindsey: These are too subtle to be the obvious things that someone would do if they want to rev up the economy and particularly if they want to do deregulation. Now, this isn’t—this does not exhaust pro‐growth possibilities for deregulation in the areas where regulation does sort of at least has kind of plausible connection to serving the public interest and protecting third parties in health and safety and environment.
Nonetheless, there are a whole host of regulations that are overkill, regulations that were terrible idea in the first place, regulations that may have been okay once upon a time that are completely outdated, or aggregates of regulation that each individual one maybe make sense, maybe is defensible. But when you pile them together and see all their interactions, the whole thing becomes a mess.
Mike Mandel who’s a democratic policy wonk with the Progressive Policy Institute talks about this kind of regulatory buildup as pebbles in the stream. You throw some pebbles in the stream. The stream of commerce keeps going and no problem and each pebble, no big deals and discernible impact or anything. But over time, you keep doing this, then you’re going to dam the river. You’re going to clog the stream and that’s where we are. So he has proposed a kind of regulatory improvement commission to weed out excessive regulations in areas where typically democrats think this is a good idea we have regulations in this area.
And so on that front, still one can picture more centrist democrats thinking, “OK, health, safety, environment regulation good idea, but we can’t have too much good thing and we need to do some updating modernization paring back, etc.” So, I could picture that kind of agenda possibly attracting a democrat, but easier to picture a republican doing it and that’s the kind of thing that I would imagine and expect republicans to take a whack out in the next couple of years. And good for them if they succeed.
Trevor Burrus: Are you more optimistic this time about the liberaltarian endeavor since—I mean I’m not going to say you’re, you know—
Aaron Ross Powell: You’re predicting it’ll turn out better this time around than it did the last time you proposed it.
Brink Lindsey: Anybody who’s been paying attention and who’s optimistic on January 24, 2017 is I want what they’re smoking. So, no, I’m not optimistic about anything right now. Hopeful? Always. If—so, prognosticators took a beating last year, so I don’t even want to try to predict the twist and turns of American politics over the next coming years. So, who knows how things could shake out? One possibility is that Trump really does succeed in moving this party durably in a Trumpist populist direction and that Republican Party becomes the kind of white nationals party and the Democratic Party becomes the kind of cosmopolitan party, in which case just refugees, the sort of pro‐market refugees from republicans could inject a kind of liberaltarian flavor into the Democratic Party through a process of realignment. That’s something that could happen.
Or, it could be that we have—we degenerate into an authoritarianism on the right versus an authoritarianism on the left, and so I’m looking for hopeful agendas on how to get there. But, no, optimism seems fast, all right.
Aaron Ross Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.libertarianism.org.