Progressive/Libertarian: The Alliance That Isn't
By Bryan Caplan
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.