Last week the New York Times Magazine ran a story asking “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The editors of libertarian flagship Reason magazine and many fellow travelers hailed the story, which featured several prominent movement figures such as Nick Gillespie and former MTV veejay Kennedy.
Rightbloggers were by and large positive about it — which makes sense as, in our experience, libertarianism is basically conservatism for people with social anxieties.
The Libertarian Moment has been predicted before; Reason‘s editors have been fluffing the idea for years — see “The Libertarian Moment” by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, Reason, December 2008.
In May 2013, David Boaz of the Cato Institute asked, “Is This the Libertarian Moment?” and judged it was, because conservatives who did not identify as libertarians were expressing what he considered libertarian ideas — that is, they were pushing “abuse-of-power stories,” namely the various White House scandalettes conservatives are always going on about. Imagine, conservatives and libertarians coming together against Obama!
But lately outsiders have been getting into the act, too. Last August Molly Ball of the Atlantic told us “Libertarianism is on the march,” and interviewed Boaz, who unsurprisingly agreed with her. The Times Magazine story is perhaps the fullest flowering of this tendency; author Robert Draper claimed “today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side,” mainly because more people are in favor of gay marriage and legalized marijuana, have “deep concern over government surveillance,” and “appetite for foreign intervention is at low ebb.”
Oddly undermentioned in the story was libertarian economics, though the political star of the piece, GOP Senator Rand Paul, was quoted as saying that “we can grow as a country, but government needs to be minimized and the private market needs to be maximized.”
Libertarians, like members of any underpopulated political group, like to portray their movement as a tent big enough to accommodate a wide range of liberty-lovers. For example: Want to free the weed and drink raw milk? You might be a libertarian! In our experience, however, some liberties are less important in libertarian land than others.
Take abortion, for example. In surveys, most libertarians come down pro-choice (57% against tighter abortion laws in 2013). But you wouldn’t know this from reading top libertarian authors who, perhaps hoping to draw more conservatives to the cause, tend to portray abortion as an “agree to disagree” thing, as in this Reason symposium on the subject as described by The American Conservative: “Ben Domenech makes the important point in yesterday’s Transom that all prominent politicians who identify themselves as libertarians — Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie — are pro-life.”
When Arizona tightened its abortion laws in 2012, the Chairman of the Libertarian Party began with the harrumph, “Like so many others, Libertarians wrestle with the moral issues associated with abortion. While our party includes a significant number of people who describe themselves as pro-choice, nearly as many members describe themselves as pro-life…” Eventually he allowed that the Arizona legislation was an “insult” to women, but then returned to the pitch: “And we’re REALLY pro-choice: we also defend the right of a woman (or man) to choose NOT to pay for some other woman’s abortion or birth control.” Now there’s a pro-choiceness Republicans can get with!
Many libertarian writers are fiercely anti-abortion, like Reason‘s David Harsanyi (“Does life really begin on the say-so of a single person–even the mother?… That kind of elastic calculation grinds against reason”) and the Washington Examiner‘s Timothy P. Carney: “Who is the real extremist on abortion?” asked Carney in 2012 and surprise, it was Obama, because he would actually continue to allow it! (Carney also says things like, “The Pill is not just a pill to them. It has become something holy. And they won’t tolerate any burden between them and their Blessed Sacrament…”)
Then there are the libertarians who are mush-mouthed on the subject, like Megan McArdle, who describes herself as pro-choice but hastens to assure her rightwing readership, “that doesn’t mean I view abortion as having the same moral weight as a haircut or a nose-piercing — just another personal choice about what you do with your body,” and who sees “a lot of appeal” in arguments for overturning Roe v. Wade.
Gay rights is generally an easier lay-up for libertarians — remember, many gays are male and white! — but it still presents problems of the sort you don’t find among the statist Democrats, again probably owing to the need to peel off Republican voters. For example, one of the more comical sections of the NYTM story showed Mollie Hemingway, a “self-described libertarian,” trying to explain why denying gay people the right to marry is consistent with libertarianism; she ended with “I don’t know. I feel like I need to think about it more,” which, considering Hemingway is a hardline Catholic Lutheran, seems unlikely to lead to a conversion.
At Reason, you’re far more likely [* — see update] to see defenses of the poor bakers who are being forced to bake gay wedding cakes than defenses of gay marriage. When NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay in 2013, Matt Welch explained to Reason readers “The Importance of Allowing People to Say That You Can’t Be a Gay Basketball Player and a Christian,” in which he focused on the real victims of the controversy, such as ESPN’s Chris Broussard, who was “beaten to a rhetoric pulp” (that is, briefly criticized on Twitter) just for saying gay people are Hell-bound. (Hilariously, Welch managed to work Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” into this article.)
And regarding women’s rights, you are less likely to see libertarians identifying as feminists — who, after all, are always trying to get you to pay for their slut pills — than to see them embracing the Men’s Rights Activist movement. The kingpin of libertarian rightbloggers, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, is straight-up MRA; he promoted their convention at USA Today, and at his blog is given to bizarre outbursts like “we subsidize unwed mothers, we give women a pass on sexual behavior that would be considered predatory if it were done by males, we give them all sorts of ‘choice’ that men don’t have…” and “to a certain class of women in the media, it’s always about them, and their various mucous membranes.” His wife, Dr. Helen Smith, is also down with the movement, and at her website offers advice to male clients who claim victimization by women. And MRA advocate Karen Straughan has been appearing at libertarian events to spread the good news about men’s rights (“Among those of us who talk about these issues, it’s called ‘taking the red pill'”).
In our experience, there’s only one liberty that libertarians unfailingly support, and that’s the freedom of money from the tyranny of government. Libertarians may not be quite sure that you deserve control over your own womb, but they are certain that someone with money should be able to do what he wants with it, whatever do-gooder statists may think about the public consequences.
For example, take the libertarian desire to privatize roads — yes, we know, that’s an old joke about libertarians, but a lot of them (including Cato Institute Senior Fellow Dan Mitchell and libertarian TV presenter John Stossel) seem to believe that commie Eisenhower suppressed the liberty of money when he championed the statist interstate highway system, which job should have been left to private firms who could then charge you whatever they want to use them, just like in the 1820s.
If this seems like a recipe for massive price-gouging and hindrances to travel once the rational actors who take over America’s road-building discover the benefits of monopoly (which should take them about fifteen seconds), don’t worry: Professor Bruce Benson of Florida State claims roads would be built and made cheaply available by companies who wanted you to patronize their business — and if they can’t afford to build roads, well, guess that’s the cost of freedom.
Also, if someone with a lot of money wants to dump industrial waste into a river, you shouldn’t use the power of government to stop him; that would be coercive. The Libertarian Party has declared that “strict liability, not arbitrary government standards, should regulate pollution,” and Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Center has said that citizens, freed of statist remedies such as environmental legislation, could “claim damages” in court against polluters — they may have far, far less money to pursue such cases than the polluters have to defend against them, and may suffocate or die of thirst before their case comes to trial, but at least they’d be following the Founding Fathers’ model.
Likewise, you can’t oppress employers’ money by forcing them to pay a statist minimum wage — though, as National Review‘s Katrina Trinko proposed at USA Today, you might “allow tip jars, so that people who wanted to pass on more to the workers had a way to do so.” (Thank you for coming to Lowe’s — rattle, rattle!) Anyway, as Megan McArdle has explained, those who are starving on their sub-minimum wages will also receive ample government benefits — until libertarians take power and get rid of these statist benefits, at which time they’ll come up with new arguments to use against whoever has survived.
Reason milked the NYTM article for all it was worth and then some (“You’ll come for the Kennedy Ron Paul/Nirvana quote, stay for the Nick Gillespie/Lou Reed comparison,” “Robert Draper’s article is a rollicking, essential read,” “You may have possibly heard this morning that The New York Times Magazine this weekend is exploring whether our ‘libertarian moment’ has arrived,” “Some Supplemental Reason Reading (and Viewing) on ‘The Libertarian Moment,'” etc). Most rightbloggers gave it at least a qualified thumbs-up.
Against Crony Capitalism said libertarianism is “respectful of the individual and encourages win/win solutions. Live and let live. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t poop where you eat.” “I don’t see how the Republicans can gain the upper hand [over Democrats] again, without libertarians, short of an all-out war with Russia or a genocidal war with Islamic countries,” said Paul Jacob at TownHall, before hastily adding, “– which would not be a good thing for America or the world.”
Back in March, National Review‘s Kevin D. Williamson flatly stated in Politico that “the problem for libertarian politicians is that Americans hate libertarianism,” in part because “When it comes to balancing the budget, [Senator Rand] Paul is more likely to cut off aid to your mom.” But when this article came out, Williamson became more optimistic, suggesting there might be a future in “a political movement that is, unlike the sentimental tendency that brought us Barack Obama and threatens us with Hillary Clinton, intellectually alive… After enduring these long years of sterile empathy rhetoric, perhaps we are, at long last, ready to think rather than to merely experience sensation… what is truly radical about Senator Paul is not his philosophy per se but his relatively modest conception of what government can and should be.” Just like conservatives, in other words, but intellectual-like, not merely about “experiencing sensation.”
There were some demurrers — but mostly on the grounds that America was not quite ready for libertarianism. David Harsanyi appeared at The Federalist, for example, to complain that “two of the most frequently cited issues that herald the libertarian renaissance” in the article were “legalized pot and gay marriage,” but “both of them, I would argue, are only inadvertently aligned with libertarian values.” For one thing, pot people and gay people are a bunch of statist sheeple — why, pro-gays are “the most passionate proponents of the government forcing Christian bakers and florists to participate in gay marriages,” and that “doesn’t exactly feel like a victory on the liberty front,” especially if you’re straight and suffer from a total lack of empathy for people different from yourself.
Anyway, “most Americans want nothing to do with libertarian economic policy,” sighed Harsanyi, so the Libertarian Moment hasn’t arrived — though he also said, “Libertarian populism is probably the GOP’s most promising bet, as it offers a tempered and enticing message to a large swath of Americans” — which seems a contradictory message, till you realize that it doesn’t have to make sense for Republicans to buy it.
So how is this Libertarian Moment manifesting in the actual world of American politics? Well, there are some office-holders — nearly all of them Republicans — who call themselves libertarians. One of the more prominent is Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI); though hardcore types like Forbes‘ John Tammy find him less than pure, and though most of his positions are GOP boilerplate, Amash is distinguished by a bill he cosponsored with Democrat John Conyers to muzzle the NSA, which was defeated on a vote that convinced some non-conservatives, as it seemed engineered to do, that Amash is a different kind of Republican — one who believes that an NSA bill was worth bringing to the floor of the House even if it were doomed, on the grounds that something good may come of it: Increased awareness of government overreach, say, or a brighter political future for Justin Amash.
Speaking of showmanship, another big NSA dissenter is the guy getting the most traction from the Libertarian Moment, Rand Paul. He delivered a stem-winding anti-drone filibuster in the Senate in 2013, and later brought suit against the Obama Administration for misuse of the NSA.
Indeed, Paul has taken many seemingly counterintuitive stands for a Republican — at least for a moment. On that gay thing the kids are into, he has said, “I think we can and can agree to disagree on a lot of these issues,” but he also has said that “the party can’t become the opposite of what it is,” i.e., a haven for bigots, and he is even “in favor of the concept” of a new Federal Marriage Amendment. When pro-immigration advocates recently confronted him at lunch, Paul did what any libertarian member of a nativist party would do: He hot-footed it out of there. Paul has also 180’d on aid to Israel, the Civil Rights Act, etc.
Paul’s ability to — what’s that word the media like to use? — pivot on key issues will no doubt come in handy; as President Obama is bombing ISIS in Iraq and Republicans are calling for him to step it up, peacenik Paul is lying low, but if things get hot he can always come out with a counter-counter-intuitive position — just like he did, eventually, with drones (“If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and fifty dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him”).
So maybe the “libertarian moment” isn’t a single historical event, but something more like a “senior moment” — something one can have at any time, only (hopefully) in this case voluntarily, and only when it will do the most good — like, for example, when you’re a Republican whose party has an abysmal popularity rating, and you find it convenient (for the moment!) to associate with a movement which many Americans associate with free weed and free love — which is fine, so long as it gets them to return you to power, where you can continue to loot the Treasury on behalf of major corporations, as Hayek, Ricardo, and Rand intended.
* Update: Matt Welch of Reason objects to my use of “far more likely,” and he has a point — Reason writers have frequently defended gay marriage. Welch also defends his own “The Importance of Allowing People to Say That You Can’t Be a Gay Basketball Player and a Christian” essay, which remains ridiculous.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 10, 2014