To no one’s surprise: Will Wilkinson “comes out” (his phrase) as a liberal.
I’m not interested in identifying which among the many kinds of bleeding-heart libertarian I am because I’m not interested in identifying myself a libertarian. Ideological labels are mutable, but at any given time they publicly connote a certain syndrome of convictions. What “libertarian” tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal; the bleeding heart goes without saying.
Fine. Thank you, and goodbye.
The reason this is galling, of course, is because Wilkinson has been allowing people to think of him as a libertarian for a long time now. As recently as 2008, he was arguing vehemently with Todd Seavey that libertarianism is about more than the political non-coercion principle, nominally from the point of view of a libertarian insider. And it was only this September that he was giving us a “libertarian” perspective on Ron Paul for The New Republic. I haven’t noticed any shift in his views since then, nor have I noticed any shift in the standard meaning of the libertarian label, and yet only now do we hear that “ideological labels … connote a certain syndrome of convictions,” and that his ideological label is “liberal.” Well.
The only thing to read in to this, really, is that now that he has a column at The Economist, he won’t be needing his libertarian fans after all, since his next stop is presumably Salon. It was great to be thought of as a libertarian when Cato was the best gig on offer, but that was then, you know?
I don’t mind sounding my own trumpet a bit here – I saw this coming a long time ago. But only a bit, because I’m hardly the only one. Indeed, Todd Seavey put it best three years ago when he wrote that “you have to admit that [Wilkinson's] shtick is arguing that libertarians ought to accept elements of the welfare state.” Indeed.
Labels aside, I’m more interested in arguing with standard liberals about the nature and scope of specially-protected rights and liberties within the settled context of the liberal-democratic nation-state than in arguing with standard libertarians about the justification of taxation, publicly-financed education, or welfare transfers. After all, there are many orders of magnitude more standard liberals than standard libertarians, and they possess many orders of magnitude more influence. We pick our fights, and I’d like to pick ones that stand a chance of making a real difference.
Which is hillarious, because “labels aside,” he’s arguing that switching his label lets him talk to more people.
But actually, he’s not wrong that his talents are better put to use trying to talk liberals out of some of their more coercive policies than trying to talk libertarians into being more coercive. And I do believe he will do that, so good luck to him. He may not be a libertarian, but he’s hardly a standard liberal either, he’s certainly more pro-market than most liberals, and he’s intelligent and thoughtful besides. I would argue that self-identified “liberals” are the area of the political spectrum most in need of self-examination right now, and Matt Yglesias can’t hold that torch by himself forever. So, here’s hoping that goes well for him, and that he doesn’t spend too much more time buying influence by playing up his “ex-libertarian” status. The last thing we need is someone who is to liberals vis-a-vis libertarians what Noam Chomsky is to hip foreigners vis-a-vis America – the cute party guest who tells them exactly what they want to hear.