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Mailbag 4.25.06


Editor’s Note: Ken Farber and Chris Nolan have been discussing Progressive libertarians and her use of the term.

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your expanded description of Progressive libertarians and your invitation to the Spotlight. This should be fun.

My interest in your concept stems from my interest in libertarian thought and my hope for its influence on public policy. You seem to be describing something of interest to me: a type of libertarian, maybe even a class, that could, someday, somehow, have an impact on public policy.
But I’m looking for more than an expanded description. Like most self-described libertarians (and that’s a big group, not always in agreement), my politics are (I like to think) derived from values. What I’m looking for in your description of Progressive libertarians is a clear definition of their values and the relative importance of each.

To understand the values of Progressive libertarians, I look to the examples you give – women’s suffrage, zoning and health codes, the 8-hour work day and the end of child labor. The first and the last would be supported by most libertarians today. Zoning and health codes and the eight hour day, however, are clear violations of property rights (in the first two instances) and the right of contract (in the last). I don’t think anyone who supports these policies should consider themselves a libertarian. They wouldn’t support many of the premises or positions that other libertarians do and probably wouldn’t get half the jokes.

By describing the early Progressives with, “good-hearted, well-intentioned and wanted nothing less than a total remaking of their society to create a more livable world”, you do them, from a libertarian perspective, an unwarranted series of favors. Like our current president, Hofstadter was apparently seen “into their heart(s)”, and likes what he sees. I don’t. Their intentions were, plainly, to remake society, according to their evangelical Christian-based morality. A skeptical view would be that those seeking political power during the Progressive era saw an opportunity to exploit public awareness of the Third Great Awakening. The natural path for this was to translate Christian values into public policy. As a beer-brewing atheist, my issues with these policies are obvious. As a libertarian, I disagree with their fundamental premise – that God tells us how to live a moral life.

To wrap up with a constructive suggestion: what you are actually describing may be more a “free market Progressive”, rather than a Progressive libertarian. This new label shows that the fundamental values are those of the subject (Progressive) – defining and pursuing public policies that support the social safety net and expanding government’s role in making everyone’s lives “better”, while keeping an eye open for market-like mechanisms for doing so. As it stands, “Progressive libertarian” might pique some interest in libertarian circles, but that interest will soon turn into backlash (unlike this polite missive). In short, I would address the group that is most likely to endorse your concept – go talk to the Bobos.

Thanks again,


Hi again, Ken,

I agree, I could probably call this group “free market Progressives” as I could “Progressive libertarians” but I am trying to capture the zeal, enthusiasm and – yes, good-naturedness – of this group’s desire to change the world.

As for the Libertarian aspects – this is a case of self-identification. I noticed a long time ago here in Silicon Valley that many folks described their politics as “Libertarian” all the while giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats!” So they’re not really Libertarians – I agree with you about that – but they’re also not Democrats. And really they don’t want to be Republicans. They’ve settled on the term “Libertarian” as a convenience.

One of the problems with trying to get your arms around a political movement is that you’re sort of predicting the future. We do know there’s a large group of people out there who are unmoved by any political party, who thrive on change and who have no use for the political system as it currently works. They think of themselves as independent entrepreneurs or work in businesses where they can think of themselves as entrepreneurs. They are often very wealthy but have not come not from wealth but, rather from the nation’s nicer suburbs, it’s good public schools, its best private institutions. In this respect, they are the direct heirs of the Protestant elite that made the original Progressive movement possible and yes, the values they embrace are very much in keeping with that ethic. So we have a mix of two philosophies that in our past seem at odds with each other but moving forward, I think – as your note and comments indicate – will come to be commingled in a way that’s going to change U.S. politics.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 6:48 PM | Permalink

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