Bryan Caplan  

Progressive/Libertarian: The Alliance That Isn't

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My one big disagreement with Ed Glaeser's great piece on housing deregulation is when he says:
Reforming local land use controls is one of those rare areas in which the libertarian and the progressive agree. The current system restricts the freedom of the property owner, and also makes life harder for poorer Americans. The politics of zoning reform may be hard, but our land use regulations are badly in need of rethinking.
Actually, there are four other big areas where the two ideologies converge. 

1. Immigration.  Immigration restrictions deprive billions of basic liberties, impoverish the world, and do so on the backs of the global poor, most of whom are non-white.

2. Occupational licensing.  Licensing laws bar tens of millions of people from switching to more lucrative and socially valuable occupations, all to benefit richer insiders at the expense of poorer outsiders.

3. War, especially the War on Terror.  Since 2002, the U.S. has literally spent trillions fighting the quantitatively tiny problem of terrorism by waging non-stop wars in the Middle East.  We don't know what the Middle East would have looked like if the U.S. had stayed out, but it's hard to believe it would be worse.  And there's no end in sight.

4. The criminal justice system, especially the War on Drugs.  Hundreds of thousands of non-violent people, disproportionately poor and non-white, are in prison.  Why?  To stop willing consumers from doing what they want with their own bodies.

These four issues are so massive, you'd expect a staunch progressive/libertarian alliance would have been forged long ago.  But of course it hasn't.  Why not?  Some progressives flatly disagree with one or more of these policies; see Bernie contra open borders.  But the bigger stumbling block is that progressives place far lower priority on these issues than libertarians.  That includes war, unless the Republicans hold the White House

Why not?  I regretfully invoke my Simplistic Theory of Left and Right.  The heart of the left isn't helping the poor, or reducing inequality, or even minority rights.  The heart of the left is being anti-market.  With some honorable exceptions, very few leftists are capable of being excited about deregulation of any kind.  And even the leftists who do get excited about well-targeted deregulation get far more excited about stamping out the hydra-headed evils of market.

Can we make parallel accusations against libertarians?  Sure.  The second half of my Simplistic Theory says: The heart of the right is being anti-left.  Since most libertarians loosely identify with the right, stubbornly focusing on housing, immigration, licensing, peace, and criminal justice is dry.  Though these five areas are plausibly the biggest and most harmful abridgements of human freedom on Earth, it's more exciting for libertarians to dwell on symbolic issues that drive the left to apoplexy.

Prove me wrong, kids.  Prove me wrong.

COMMENTS (35 to date)
JJ writes:

Your theory is wrong on the left. Leftists dont care about markets. How exactly would your theory square away the fact that leftists hated Trump a lot more than Cruz despite Cruz having more pro-market credentials? Why would the left go all in to prevent Marine Le Pen in France if their bias was anti-market. Le Pen was more anti-Market than Macron.

Alex writes:

I don't think the left and libertarians can agree on open borders. Open border libertarian favour ending the welfare state. How can you have open borders and a welfare state at the same time?
You don't mention the welfare state on your post, as if for the Libertarian perspective ending open borders and ending the welfare state were independent of each other.

To the left, ending the welfare state is inconceivable. The welfare state is much more important than open borders. Therefore, the left cannot possibly support open borders because it will never support ending the welfare state.

blacktrance writes:

If progressives took the libertarian position on those issues, they wouldn't be progressives, they'd be left-wing neoliberals, like the Niskanen Center. Which is an unpopular position, similarly to how its right-wing counterpart (wonkish libertarianism, like that of Scott Sumner) is much less popular than quasi-identitarian conservative libertarianism.

John Thacker writes:

A couple more possible areas of agreement:

On tax law, progressive groups sometimes note that the mortgage deduction favors the rich (and some groups even disparage the state and local tax deduction for the same reason, even though that grows government), but in political terms it's Republicans (Camp, Ryan, earlier Reagan and others) who proposing limiting the deduction and Democrats (who represent wealthy areas) who mobilize to keep them. The Republican plans tend to be in conjunction with other tax cuts and changes progressives don't like, but in contrast I'm not familiar with any Democratic tax reform efforts that eliminate them. (Even in the 1986 effort, it was the Reagan Administration proposing eliminating or reducing these deductions and Democrats saving them.)

Another example is stadium subsidies, or other subsidies in general tilted towards the rich. Progressives rarely organize around eliminating spending towards the rich, and libertarians talk a nice game in opposition but do little thanks to conservative allies.

I do generally find the issues you mention to be the most important ones.

James writes:

Please visit to see if you can change your mind. From Thatcher, Reagan, and Friedman, to Bush 41, Clinton, and Obama. Macron and Trudeau. Merkel. Sumner, Hayek, Bernanke, and Yellen. We love capitalism, immigration, and globalization. We despise populism. We believe in helping the global poor. Come join our big tent! Checks from George Soros come on the 1st and the 15th, direct deposit is available. Our end goal is taco trucks on every corner.

Matt C. writes:

The libertarian's main lament about the current political climate is that the mainstream Left and Right are ultimately statists; they mainly disagree over how the State's power should be applied. Neither side believes in spontaneous order or the power of enlightened self-interest. Neither side is willing to cede State power as its use benefits their own interests.

On questions like immigration, the Left may nominally agree with the libertarian position, but when it comes to specific policies, they will find many areas of disagreement.

On occupational licensing, I don't see the Left as being at all in line with the libertarian position. Modern progressives are strongly anti-market and anti-business and view consumers as needing protection from businesses.

Kieran McCarthy writes:

I think it's helpful to consider political alliances in terms of "loyalty curves," which is a model to think about the ranking of policies or issues that drive identity politics.

Perhaps for you, the most important issues are 1) markets 2) immigration 3) non-violence and 4) deregulation, in that order.

I'd say that's an atypical loyalty curve.

On the right, a more typical curve might be 1) pro-life 2) anti-immigration 3) pro gun and 4) pro-Judeo-Christian cultural heritage, in that order.

On the left, perhaps 1) pro-choice 2) social justice 3) economic redistribution and 4) greater gun restrictions.

I'm making up these rankings, of course, so don't nit-pick over the exact order. But my point is that the loyalty curves of most Americans' identity politics don't start with the issues mentioned in your post. Markets, deregulation, and pro-immigration policies are low-priority items for the vast majority of Americans. That's why I doubt they'll ever form the basis of a major political alliance.

That said, if you could swing it, I'd be happy to join.

Econanon writes:

Speaking as a leftist sympathizer, I think a lot of us are just anti-rightists. Markets don't matter as much as political tribe and Libertarians, for better or worse, are seen as rightists.

Jorge Landivar writes:

Your mistake is thinking that policy matters that much. It doesn't. Tribal identification and the signs of that trump policy for most general election voters. For primary voters policy matters a bit more, and for actual policy wonks it matters a bit more.

Luke Simpson writes:

At the time of the post about your Simplistic Theory of Left and Right, you said the theory was tentative contingent on evidence supporting it. Is that still your position or do you believe you now have adequate evidence to support it?

(Though I am quick to note one can say "prove me wrong" without implying that one has adequate positive evidence.)

Richard writes:
Can we make parallel accusations against libertarians? Sure. The second half of my Simplistic Theory says: The heart of the right is being anti-left.

If the heart of left is anti-market, and the heart of the right is anti-left, shouldn't the right be more pro-market than anything else? And if that's the case, why ddid conservatives pick Trump in the last election, the candidate who was most ambivalent about free markets?

My theory is that the left is anti-opresser and pro-victim, with the main fault lines being race, sexual orientation, and gender in that order. Charles Murray may call himself a libertarian, but when they shut down his speech it's not because of his views on economics.

Richard writes:
Your theory is wrong on the left. Leftists dont care about markets. How exactly would your theory square away the fact that leftists hated Trump a lot more than Cruz despite Cruz having more pro-market credentials? Why would the left go all in to prevent Marine Le Pen in France if their bias was anti-market. Le Pen was more anti-Market than Macron.

That's another excellent point. The French presidential election was the purest test case imaginable on what the heart of the left is, with a pro-market, pro-immigration candidate going against an anti-market, anti-immigration candidate. Yet what percentage of liberals informed enough to have a position on the French election wanted Le Pen to win?

Even Bernie Sanders congratulated the French on "rejecting hate" after the election, I doubt he even cared enough about Le Pen's economic positions to learn what they were.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

I think your theory was true, 15 or 20 years ago. But I don't think it's true anymore.

These days left and right are pure tribal identity.

The left is pro: woman, non-whites, LGBT, muslim, reform jews but not Isreal, urban-coastal-college-educated-professional

The right is pro: men, whites, christians, Isreal, conservative and orthodox jews, rural-inland-blue-collar.

Whichever of those lists you identify more strongly with probably predicts your politics.

Libertarians and classical liberals are off to the side and the left and right usually don't even recognize we exist. The left just rounds us off to rightists and the right just rounds us off to leftists.

Hazel Meade writes:

It's mostly tribalism. The left is anti-right, and the right is anti-left, ideology is malleable.
I've speculated that if the right became anti-market, the left might become pro-market, but maybe this is just a libertarian fantasy.
Then again, I think some recent polls showed a significant percentage of Democrats switching sides on free trade in the last few months. It would be one of those most dramatic political realignments in living history, but wierder things have happened, like Trump getting elected, so who knows?

Thomas L. Knapp writes:

Progressives are center-rightists. Libertarianism is the far left limit of the left-right political spectrum. A consistent leftist is a libertarian and vice versa.

James M writes:

@Lawrence D'Anna

Is there any room for someone who doesn't think in such zero-sum terms?

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

@James M

I hope so! We've got to find a way to make room for people who don't think in such zero-sum terms or the identitarians on the left and the right are going to tear us all apart.

Lars P writes:

I'd say the left is not so much "anti market" as "pro government control", which is a small but real distinction.

So, by this theory, letting go of government requirements for professional licensing makes leftist uneasy because the government loses some of its power, and who knows what might happen when things are out of control?

Miguel Madeira writes:

«I'd say the left is not so much "anti market" as "pro government control"»

No - the left (or at least some left) loves (if it is in the name of causes plausible associated with the left) civil disobedience, criminals "who rob the rich to give to the poor" (at least in fiction), factory and school sit-ins, defense lawyers, anti-corporations and/or anti-military hackers (at least, until the last presidential election), etc, etc. This is very difficult to conciliate with being pro-government control, but many of the examples could be seen as anti-market.

Steve Trinward writes:

As I have been noting for several decades now, the oxymoronic term "progressive" is used mainly to describe someone with classic liberal sentiments but a universal blind spot: the only solution they see has to come from using the coercive power of government; there is no true place in their world for choice, consensus, contract or community in solving problems. (The irony is that they often tout "choice" ... seek "consensus" and "community" ... and accept contracts -- but still want "elected officials" and bureaucrats to rule.

Weir writes:

Tyler's talked about casual clothes, and the professionally correct way of combining these pants and that sweater. And it's not as if there was any conspiracy, or a directive. This is just how evolution works, using us without our knowing what we do. This is how privilege reproduces itself. Progressives wear the right outfits and speak the right shibboleths. They're up to date on micro-aggressions and all the useful rhetoric about diversity. The Ku Klux Klan no longer controls Portland, but progressives have successfully reduced the black population of Portland by 11.5 percent in 4 years, according to the LA Times, while insisting loudly that they are against racism and fascism and nationalism. And isn't this the point of being a progressive now? To put up million of walls everywhere throughout the economy, so although you're nominally pro-immigrant or nominally pro-poor, actually you're walling off your kids from losing those privileges you've lobbied for and voted for. Progressives think everyone gets ahead at the expense of someone else, and that's how they act, and how they legislate. That's what all these regulations are for.

Barry Klein writes:

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Shane L writes:

The many left-leaning folk I know simply take for granted that highly free markets are dysfunctional and lead to Dickensian poverty. Hence they dislike highly free markets, but only because they do care about poverty. When they see a politician demanding that free milk for children, paid for by taxes on billionaires, should be cut, they assume that politician does not care about poor children and does care about making grotesquely rich people even richer. It's a pretty simple perspective.

There is a simpler model of politics that shifts attention away from such policy issues and towards identity. I often see partisan friends denounce whatever the other tribe is currently saying, even when it is what their own political tribe said in the recent past. We see comical flips in attitude towards Putin (see Gallup polls, February 2017) and military interventionism by left and right in the US and perhaps even more drastic flips in the UK on things like the unelected House of Lords (typically supported by right-conservatives, recent polls showing suddenly greater support on the left, probably because the House of Lords is currently anti-Brexit) and on the EU itself. Discussing Brexit with a left-wing friend, I pointed out that the British Labour Party proposed unilateral withdrawal from the EC in the 1980s, without a referendum, and Jeremy Corbyn himself had agreed with this. The friend said that Nigel Farage was so disgusting that anything he believed must be wrong!

Another big area of potential friendship between popular left and right/libertarian movements lies in government ties with big business and bailouts. I remember blogging some years ago on the fact that the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party Movement seemed united in their horror at the overlap between government and big business and I suggested this was an opportunity for left and right united to sever these corrupt entanglements. A left-wing reader challenged me on this, insisting that the excellent Occupy movement had nothing in common with the revolting Tea Party movement. The tribes refuse to cooperate because they despise each other.

Hazel Meade writes:

Hence they dislike highly free markets, but only because they do care about poverty.

I don't even it's ONLY because they care about poverty. It's because Marxism is still the root ideology and Marxism teaches that capitalism inherently exploits the poor and enriches the already rich. It's really hard to convince anyone that markets are good if their core ideology very straightforwardly asserts that capitalism is inherently evil.

Derrick writes:

"The heart of the right is being anti-left."

It can also be said that the heart of the the left is anti-right. This explains part of the reason they have shifted more in favor of open borders over the past years. They clearly see expanded immigration as a path to greater electoral success. This is also why so many on the right want lower levels of immigration.

Mellochord writes:

You are not implicitly stating that the left is in favor of smaller government, but you hint that this may selectively be the case. This is about as difficult a position to argue as the left seems to be motivated by a growing protectionist hard-regulatory, pro-government message. Compulsory policies, confiscatory laws; when I speak with people on the left, they rarely, and really never disagree that the state should NOT engage in asset forfeiture. Quite the opposite, I hear that there is not enough of this type of pro-government activity against, and not limited to drug dealers, but also could include: climate-deniers, racists, homophobes. The tone I hear is that the state AND only the state should mete out this kind of "justice." And, only under certain conditions. For instance; it was good when Obama did it. It is perceived as dangerous now. But, it can be good again. I think many on the right agree with some of these policies as well. If we are talking about soft-core Libertarianism, we might find ways not to argue about the lack of virtue in most government polices, but common ground and true agreement are the very rare exceptions.

Rocketman writes:

There's one overwhelming problem with a "progressive/libertarian" alliance. Progressives look at every problem as something that government needs to solve and libertarians look at that from the opposite end. Over the years I've spoken to many "progressives" who say that they are close to being libertarians but when you ask them specifics then you find out that they are like a river that is a mile wide and only a inch deep. Their beliefs can't stand scrutiny.

Thaomas writes:

All these comments sound like people who have never met a Liberal. I do not recognize myself or people I know in these stereotypes about Liberals.

What do they call people who

1. Think Capitalism is a pretty good system, certainly better than anything else that's ever been tried.

2. Think that there really are some circumstances in which state intervention in the economy can improve things for most people but are open to argument that any particular form might be improved or eliminated.

3. Think that it would be a good thing to transfer more income currently high-income people to lower-income, but recognize that different methods of doing so have costs a well as benefits.

4. Think that there are some goods and services that can be produced better (not necessarily perfectly) by the state than privately. I have in mind think like testing drugs for safety and protecting us against asteroid strikes.

Jonathan Gress-Wright writes:

This article on the Democratic shift on immigration is relevant:

Toby writes:


I'd like to try and prove you wrong, but what would you accept as evidence for that your simple theory is wrong?

The way I read it you can point to any case where there is a left - right divide and say that one side is trying to piss off the other side or that it is due to one side being anti-market.

Alternatively, do you have any evidence for your theory that if it would have been wrong it would have meant that your theory could easily have been proven false?

E.g. can you think of any situation that if the assumption that the right does not act to piss off the left is true could provide strong evidence against your theory?

Jonathan Gress-Wright writes:

I don't think the left is anti-market. As the article I posted points out, many on the left argue for immigration using libertarian market-based arguments and they don't see, or refuse to see, the contradiction between claiming to want higher wages for the working class while promoting low-skilled immigration that pushes down those same wages. If they were consistently anti-market, they'd realize that you can't have a tightly regulated labor market with a publicly funded safety net AND open borders and they would become anti-immigration.

I think the left are better characterized as simply anti-right, i.e. the right's mirror opposite.

Tom W. writes:

I think the Left's primary aim is to secure and hold power, and the tactic they use is to offer the "masses" ever-larger amounts of entitlements that "someone else" has to pay for. That's why they focus so much on identity politics and promote envy. They don't care if they harm the economy (and the constituents who sheepishly vote for them) as long as the grasp and hold the reins of power.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"I think the Left's primary aim is to secure and hold power"

If anything, I think the primary aim of the left is to fight what they perceive as the "establishment" - this is the reason for the eternal splits and infighting in the left, with the several factions accusing each other of sell-outs (and, even if a leftist organization has only 15 members, it will always appear an opposition fraction accusing the leadership of "bureaucratization" - in other words, of has becoming a micro-establishment ), and also to the tendency to search for absurd causes (like "cultural appropriation") after their main causes are achieved - the left needs to see itself as rebels fighting against the world, and refuse to accepts its victories (unlike what is more normal, when someone refuse to accept his defeats), constantly searching for real or imagined oppressions.

The Original CC writes:

I think some people were confused by Bryan's "prove me wrong, children" remark at the end. He wasn't trying to be snarky; he was just quoting Principal Skinner from The Simpsons.

Michael writes:

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