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Lindsey’s telling insinuation that the libertarian position is de facto pro–abortion rights would draw objections from those many people who describe themselves as pro-life libertarians. More practically, I think Lindsey misapprehends the “libertarianism” of actual American voters. Even if the majority of people who (accurately) describe themselves as libertarians favor legalized abortion, it is quite clearly not the case that most care about the issue very much. Meanwhile, a great many of the conservatives who are willing to votefor libertarians do care about it very much. I don’t know what Brink Lindsey thinks of Ron and Rand Paul, but it is quite obvious that their political fortunes would be nil were they not pro-life. Either their popularity with conservative Republicans suggests that the right isn’t nearly so hostile to libertarianism as Lindsey thinks or it means that the Pauls have sold their souls to the party of Comstockish illiberalism.
There’s real merit to Lindsey’s claim that the “spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan.” But today’s champions of cosmopolitanism are hardly champions of freedom and devotees of the quintessentially cosmopolitan libertarian Albert J. Nock. Rather, they are the transnational progressive technocrats of Davos and the U.N. who, with increasing frequency, express contempt for democratic sovereignty because the people can’t be trusted to handle such problems as climate change.
Lindsey makes a perfectly fine and correct observation that libertarians—at least true-blue ones—are politically homeless. But it’s worth stressing that this is not the case where it actually matters most: economics.
I am perfectly willing to concede that the GOP’s free- market record has been fraught and festooned with disappointments and betrayals. But at the intellectual level, even among most of the people Lindsey describes as “gargoyles,” economic libertarianism remains largely synonymous with economic conservatism. The Mount Rushmore of libertarian economics—Hayek, Friedman, Mises, Hazlitt, et al—quite simply is the Mount Rushmore of conservative economics. Cato’s economic prescriptions are respected by only one of the major political parties, and it’s not the Democrats.
And yet, as a matter of practical politics, Lindsey would have libertarian spokesmen and advocates alienate conservatives in the hope that this would earn credibility with liberals. It seems far more likely that liberals would pocket libertarian attacks on the right—of the sort found in Lindsey’s essay—while continuing to ignore libertarian arguments on economics and other key areas of public policy. Left-wing environmentalists will not suddenly embrace property rights because libertarians vilify the Christian Right. But the Christian Right may well stop listening to libertarians if they all started talking the way Lindsey does here.
Lastly, this talk of turning libertarianism into centrism is intriguing but no less ludicrous for it. Simply put, centrists aren’t libertarians and libertarians aren’t centrists. Ending the drug war is at the heart of contemporary libertarianism (and has long been the official position of the “benighted” National Review, by the way). But how does Lindsey plan on making that centrist? How will he make an open-borders immigration policy centrist? Social Security privatization? Free-market health care? I know Cato has invested heavily in arguing otherwise, but the reality is that centrists, just like almost everybody else, hold libertarian views on some issues and not on others. And many views held by libertarians simply are not centrist. Like it or not, in America, the more libertarian you are on most economic questions, the more “right wing” you are. Period. (But it is not always true that being libertarian on social issues makes you “left wing.” Progressives embrace speech codes, racial quotas, state intrusions into the right of association, etc.)
If you take all of Lindsey’s talk of being “centrist” and replace it with “popular,” it clarifies his argument enormously. Basically, Lindsey wants full-blown libertarianism to be popular. I do too! But no amount of wordplay, poll-data-torturing, or bridge-burning will make this philosophy genuinely popular, never mind the new hinge for our two-party system. This is not an argument, it’s a wish.
Wishful thinking also lurks under his claim that the right is dying away. This is not only untrue as a matter of public opinion (as of this writing, polls show women, independents, etc. moving back to the GOP), but it’s untrue as a matter of policy as well. One of the main reasons conservatives have emphasized their “illiberal” policies on such issues as national security and abortion is that they are popular (even, dare I say it, centrist). Nowhere does Lindsey provide evidence that support for, say, military tribunals is unpopular, because he can’t. The Obama administration has been learning this lesson the hard way. In fact, both parties have emphasized their more illiberal facades in recent years. Nonetheless, I would still dispute that the GOP is less libertarian today than it was, say, at the beginning of Bush’s first term, when the libertarian-rebuking “compassionate conservatism” was all the rage.
I wish Lindsey had spent a lot less time disparaging conservatives and aping the punditry of The New York Times and more time concentrating on the philosophical argument behind Liberaltarianism 2.0. It’s a fascinating topic with many avenues for agreement and disagreement. Personally, I think he has it wrong in his attitudes toward religion and social conservatism. From the founding, religion was a great engine for liberty. Our constitutional order rests on the conviction that we are endowed by our creator with certain rights. Both the abolitionist and civil rights movements were religious in nature.
As for social conservatism, I think the real way to deal with Lindsey’s disdain for it is to pursue a more plausible and principled solution to the problems affecting both libertarianism and the country: federalism. As Thomas Jefferson knew, big cities will always be cosmopolitan. But there’s no reason why one narrow definition of cosmopolitanism needs to be imposed across the land. Social conservatives and libertine libertarians—and some practical progressives—should be able to find common cause in a campaign that allows people to live the way they want to live in communities that reflect their values. But that is a subject for another day and, hopefully, Liberaltarianism 3.0.
Jonah Goldberg (JonahNRO@gmail.com) is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (Doubleday).
Drink Your Tea
How could you not celebrate the spontaneous emergence of a decentralized movement aimed at rolling back big government?
By Matt Kibbe
I can’t help but wonder what planet Brink Lindsey has been living on for the last 18 months. Lindsey’s harangue against the good men and women who make up the Tea Party movement —utterly dismissive of their important work against an entrenched political establishment—seems disconnected from reality. This massive grassroots revolt against big government is the greatest opportunity that advocates of limited government have seen in generations, yet libertarian intellectuals like Lindsey seem content to sit on the sidelines and nitpick. While the Tea Party builds a whole new infrastructure to house a massive community organized in defense of individual liberty and constitutionally constrained government, Lindsey would rather quibble over the color palette of the wall tiles in the guest bathroom.
His attitude is too typical, I fear. Lindsey views the world from the rarified vantage point of someone perched in a perfectly calibrated, climate-controlled Ivory Tower. From that high up he can’t possibly see what is actually happening on the ground.