As we consider the current condition of libertarianism, here in the middle of the 21st century, we might pause to reflect upon the bleak fate that befell the last flowering of personal freedom. That period of liberalism and liberation blossomed in the late 20th century, before coming to a disastrous end in the first decade of this new millennium. We can call that happy period the Rand Era, in honor of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged, a book still intensely and tragically relevant 101 years after its publication.
But let's look back before we look to the present—and to the future. The Randian libertarianism that emerged in the 1950s was a fierce critique of planning and centralization, manifested in its minor (New Deal), major (Swedish), and malignant (Soviet) forms. The school of anti-statist criticism, reinforced by émigré economists, was further strengthened by the obvious failures of American "Big Government" in the 1960s, from the war in Vietnam to the "War on Poverty." Interestingly, during that same decade of the '60s, libertarianism received a major boost from the so-called New Left. These leftists were ostensibly socialist, or even communist, but, in fact, they were more typically, in practice, anarchists and libertarians. Indeed, by the decade of the 1970s, it became clear that radicals and counter-culturalists were mostly interested in "doing their own thing," an attitude leading them toward an insistence on personal freedom-or, as they put it, not being hassled in their "personal space." Thus the New Left helped spawn the New Age, producing a generation of intensely capitalist music producers, natural food entrepreneurs, and then, most portentously, computer geeks and software developers. But of course, in their private moments, these folks retained their youthful predilections for drugs, sex, and rock and roll.
By the 1980s, these libertarian Boomers were in alliance, conscious and unconscious, with President Ronald Reagan. That is, even if yuppies looked down their nose at Reagan over matters of partisan style, they remained in tune with the pro-business substance of the Gipper's "supply side" ideology. The result was a robust consensus for lower taxes and freer trade, in both political parties. And of course, at the end of the '80s came the end of Communism, inspiring some to proclaim that a full-scale "end of history" was dawning—the permanent and decisive victory of liberal capitalist democracy.
Moreover, in the 1990s, the Internet seemed to bring with it the promise of libertarian nirvana, connecting everyone all across the cyber-flattened "borderless world" in a win-win capitalist nexus. Finally, in that same decade, the failed effort by right-wingers to impeach President Bill Clinton—a libertarian Boomer if there ever was one—was seen by many as the high-water mark of censorious "social" conservatism.
|Click above to watch Jim Pinkerton discuss the state of libertarianism in the year 2058.|
But then came the Big Shift, from the Rand Era to the Surveillance Era. We can point to five events in particular that heralded this repressive shift:
First, the 9/11 attacks brought a new sense of terrible danger to the world. After that Tuesday morning, normal travel and normal life took on a new menace, to be alleviated, seemingly, only by monitors, security guards, and checkpoints. "The twilight of sovereignty" didn't seem like such a slam-dunk good idea anymore, as nations instead redoubled their surveillance of borders, airports, and infrastructure. Meanwhile, the Iraq and Afghan wars had a paradoxical effect on American politics. On the one hand, those disappointing conflicts demonstrated the incompetence of civilian planners and would-be nation-builders and democratizers. But on the other hand, the two wars rekindled patriotic ardor in many, engendering a sense of social solidarity and government generosity. An old phrase from the end of the First World War, "a nation fit for heroes," was heard again. As defined by politicians with the power of the purse, such a nation proved, of course, massively expensive.
Second, the long stock market slump at the turn of the century shook people's faith in "shareholder capitalism." The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and some notorious corporate bankruptcies led to the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation in 2002—a bill producing unforeseen legal consequences that echo down to this day. But even before the passage of "Sarbox" white-collar prosecutions spiked; ambitious DAs knew that juries had little sympathy for millionaire and billionaire defendants. So when the subprime mortgage market started melting down in 2007, the legal and political climate was ripe for a long siege of regulation and enforcement. A string of spectacular trials and spectacularly long prison sentences for well-heeled defendants permanently changed the business climate on Wall Street. And there was no escape; from the City of London to the Caribbean to Cyprus to Moscow, prosecution (some called it persecution) ratcheted upward. Yet at the same time, the federal government took on new responsibility on behalf of the property-owning middle class; Uncle Sam would, in effect, guarantee both high stock prices and high home prices. A falling dollar, and rising inflation, be damned.
Third, the disgrace of Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2008 underscored the expansion of state power into areas thought to be mostly private and thus off-limits to government snoops. Spitzer's fall was ironic, because, as the Empire State's attorney general, he had been a zealous proponent of white-collar prosecutions. And so the business class had no sympathy for Spitzer when he was snared on a prostitution rap. But what was little discussed at the time was the ease with which the federal government had nailed this particular defendant. Spitzer was caught on the basis of cash transactions totaling just $80,000—that is, an $80,000 minnow inside the ocean of the then-$14 trillion economy. That the government could be so effective at threshing out Spitzer's activity should have been a red flag to libertarians, but in the scandalous heat of the moment, few bothered to reflect coolly upon what state power had been able to enforce. (And even fewer paused to think about what it meant for the future of personal freedom if all Americans—indeed, all humans—were on the same easily-searchable Google grid. Only too late did "organizing all the world's information" come to seem like more of a threat than a promise.)
Fourth, the 2008 Beijing Olympics taught a bitter lesson: Capitalism and personal freedom do not march forward together. To be sure, China in 2008 was infinitely freer than China of the Maoist era, but the government's tough tactics against Tibetan protestors was proof that the PRC was not moving in a democratic direction, but rather reverting back to Confucianism, albeit with capitalist-mercantilist characteristics. And speaking of mercantilism, the emergence of a whole new work force in tariff heavy and immigrant-proofed Japan—a huge class of mostly subservient robot-helots—did nothing to advance the idea of personal freedom.
Fifth, and finally in our sad saga, that same year, 2008, saw the election of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as the 44th President, spelling the final end of the Rand Era. In retrospect, we can see that the political triumph of a military leader, carrying his stern message of national service and sacrifice, was made inevitable by the continuation of the Iraq and Afghan wars; in times of severe crisis, democratic electorates naturally turn to the Strong Man. A few lonely figures, notably Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), argued that McCain-style policies were not the solution to America's problems, but rather the cause of the problems. But despite big fundraising totals, Paul's argument was little regarded during the 2008 Republican primary. And in the general election, McCain swept to victory against the Democrats, who, interestingly enough, seemed actually to be more libertarian than McCain. And as president, as we all know, McCain was supremely eager to stride manfully in the Progressive footsteps of his activist-interventionist idol, Theodore Roosevelt.
But America's strenuous efforts in the Middle East proved unsustainable. Even substantial tax increases, as well as the enactment of a "voluntary draft," were not sufficient to maintain the tempo of operations as the fighting dragged across decades. And so most Americans breathed a sigh of relief when Saudi Arabia, engorged with profits from Euro-denominated oil, engineered what was effectively a buyout of U.S. Central Command.
And by then, of course, America faced many other national security challenges closer to home. After Venezuela, and then Mexico, exploded their atomic bombs in the 2020s, Americans concluded, once and for all, that border security needed to be a top priority.
But the biggest shock came in East Asia. The Chinese takeover of Taiwan was a masterpiece of patient and subtle Go-like positioning, followed by a sudden cyber-strike that left Taiwanese and American defense planners blinded and befuddled—until, of course, it was too late to thwart the People's Liberation Army. Only then did it become clear that America's policy toward China had to change.
For a painful and perilous decade, America feverishly worked to rebuild its military computer systems, all of which had to be completely replaced and redesigned, since the turn-of-the-century equipment had been so honeycombed by Chinese viruses and spyware. During that period of American rebuilding, only America's nuclear arsenal kept the homeland safe; in the meantime, China was able to consolidate its hegemony in Asia, regaining its historic position as The Central Kingdom.