After Socialism

Tim Lee, near the end of an interesting post inspired by Brink Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance, writes:

Too many libertarians seem to define libertarianism as a very specific and restrictive political program: as a laundry list of government programs to be abolished, or equivalently as a very short list of government programs that won’t be abolished. By that measure, libertarianism is nowhere close to successful. But if we define libertarianism more broadly as a set of general ideas and attitudes — pro-market, pro-tolerance, skeptical of authority — the last few decades look a lot better from a libertarian perspective.

But of course one reason “libertarianism” tends to get defined as a very specific — and extreme — political program is that when you open it up the way Tim has it sounds a lot like “liberalism.” Which isn’t to say that Tim, who’d describe himself as a libertarian, and I, a liberal, agree about everything. But it’s to observe that the sorts of things that separate modern liberals from the economic right-wing are of a whole different kind than the sort of things that differentiated socialists from classical liberals. It was once the case that a substantial body of opinion in democratic societies thought that vast swathes of the economy should be either run directly by the government or else run as tightly regulated monopolies. In Europe, huge industries were nationalized and run by the state.

Nowadays, few if any people think that. Instead, you have left-right debates about things like how generously funded should public services be (and consequently how high should tax rates be) or should we make regulations to curb air pollution (of which carbon dioxide emissions now loom as an important variety) or in the name of public health paternalism (restrictions on where you can smoke, bans on trans fats). Say what you will about the “left” position on those topics, but none of these are calling into question the idea that the basic organization of the economy should be as a capitalist free market. At the same time, a lot of these issues weren’t really on the table in the first couple of post-war decades.


The result is just a political debate that looks very different and in which, in particular, different kinds of values seem salient. Most liberals probably wouldn’t describe themselves as “pro-market” unprompted, but nor are liberals are proposing to get rid of the market economy so being “pro-market” doesn’t distinguish anyone in contemporary politics from anyone else.