Is Rawlsekianism the Future?

I see the man every day, but today I can’t go two mouse clicks through the political opinion thinkosphere without tripping over Brink Lindsey, Cato’s own VP for research, and his article on liberal-libertarian fusionism in this week’s New Republic. [Free version at Cato.] Sebastian Mallaby features Brink’s piece in his Washington Post column yesterday, though I think misses the intended audience.

Lindsey is not merely joining the large crowd of disenchanted conservatives who believe that the Republican Party has betrayed its principles – spraying money at farmers, building bridges to nowhere and presiding over the fastest ramp-up in federal spending since Lyndon Johnson. Rather, Lindsey is taking a step further, arguing that libertarians should ditch the Republican Party in favor of the Democrats.

Since the New Republic doesn’t have much of a libertarian readership, I’m pretty sure Brink wasn’t so much saying that libertarians ought to jilt the GOP as he was trying to open up a serious dialogue between libertarians and TNR’s centrist Democrats on our common ground as liberals. The project Brink mentions, melding the best of Rawls and Hayek and identifying feasible policies of a Rawlsekian stripe, is very dear to my heart. The point of my 2005 Cato social security paper was precisely to show that Rawlsian liberal moral concerns are best served by relying on the kinds of market dynamics Hayek’s work illuminated.

Rawls and Hayek were, in my estimation, the greatest social/political thinkers of the 20th Century. Rawls understood markets better than he is given credit for, but no one understood markets better than Hayek. And Hayek was a first-rate political philosopher, but Rawls was king of that hill. If you fortify Rawls’ theory of justice with a Hayekian grasp of the coordinating function of prices, and the dynamics of spontaneous order (or fortify Hayek with Rawls’ rather more intelligible normative framework), you will arrive, as Brink argues in less esoteric terms, at something like a system that gives free rein to the informational and dynamically equilibrating function of market prices, while creating a framework for well-targeted and effective social insurance that mitigates counterproductive incentives. Like Brink, I think this synthesis, when followed fairly to the end, approaches canonical libertarianism more closely than moderate Democrats are comfortable with. But there is a coherent and attractive intellectual position in this neighborhood, and there is more than enough overlap between liberals and libertarians for genuine productive conversation that could generate real political results.

Many bloggers seem to be fixated on the immediate political feasibility of libertarian/liberal fusionism. But I think this misses the point. Feasibility is in part a function of the availability of a well-developed and broadly understood position, and a grasp of the kind of policy that follows from it. Fixating on the status quo balance of interest groups is a great way to go nowhere, or just to drift with the waxing and waning of constituencies wedded to superannuated ideas. I think Brink has opened an important conversation for liberals of all stripes genuinely concerned with helping people successfully exercise their autonomy and lead satisfying, dignified lives. I hope both libertarians and liberals will take seriously the opportunity of learning something from one another, and perhaps discover ideas that can get us closer to our shared goals.