Liberalism “In the European Sense”

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This “five books” interview with Brink Lindsey on traditional and liberal conservatism is very much worth your time. But one thing I noticed that Lindsey didn’t address is that his interlocutor in two cases identified “liberalism in the European sense” with “libertarianism, as we call it” and I think this is a mistake.

European liberal parties are mainstream movements that lead parliamentary coalitions (currently Denmark, Sweden, Norway, soon to be joined by the Netherlands) or participate in them as junior partners (currently Germany, UK). And this happens on a continent that overall has much higher taxes and more generous welfare benefits than the United States. Consequently, European liberal politicians regularly espouse views that would be denounced as socialism by American libertarians. It’s true that European liberals generally want to move policy in a libertarian direction relative to other European political parties. And I suppose it’s possible that Frederick Reinfeldt and Lars Løkke Rasmussen and Nick Clegg and other European liberals harbor secret desires to enact Paul Ryan’s Budget Roadmap, and are merely pretending to support high taxes and universal health care out of political expediency. But I don’t think that’s the case, I think the most plausible story is that these politicians are generally like moderate “neoliberal” US Democrats, genuinely trying to balance belief in free markets with support for the welfare state. But even if so, there are still plenty of voters who are comfortable identifying as supporters of liberal parties without backing extreme libertarian economic policies.

All of which perhaps is to say that one way to think of what Lindsey is talking about in that piece is that he wants to reformulate American libertarianism as something more like liberalism “in the European sense”—an ideology that exists in constructive dialogue with the political forces pushing for egalitarianism and the welfare state, rather than a rejectionist one that identifies with the impulse to stand athwart history yelling stop.