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Goldberg: Sure. I think that’s perfectly fair. In the 1960s, there were a lot of libertarians who believed in crushing monogamy and all of this kind of stuff and crushing the institution of marriage. And now they’re all cheering when they see two gay guys with wedding rings pushing a baby down Broadway. They think it’s fantastic, it’s a nice turn. And I think that is a nice turn. I think that if you’re going to have a position on homosexuality in life it’s better that they bourgeois-ify and pair up than live in pagan society. I think it’s great.
But what’s interesting is that you have left-libertarians who basically have shut up because they lost that argument, as the conservatizing forces of American life have worked their way, even through the argument about gays. And now you have conservatives sort of not knowing how to respond to the fact that they’ve basically won the argument.
Where libertarianism matters still, and where it’s distinct from what I would call libertinism, it’s still basically on the right. The fundamental point about politics is about what the government should do. What the government should be involved in. And on seven issues out of 10, libertarians are on the right—I mean literally the conservative side—of that argument. They’re for less government, for less government intervention, regulation, and all of the rest. Cultural libertarianism is all very interesting and fine and good, but it seems to me less relevant, and the stuff that most cultural libertarians draw on is not the intellectual canon of libertarianism or conservatism properly either. It’s a cultural pose as much as anything else, I would argue.
Welch: Libertarianism, I would say, has the best magicians out there of any political tendency. Penn Jillette has an idea about politics, answering that question, which I always find good. It goes like this: I’m so libertarian I don’t even want to tell anyone how to vote. I feel super uncomfortable most times being considered part of the libertarian movement. I’m not part of a movement! I’m a special flower, standing in the corner!
The character that Jonah humorously portrayed of these sort of [people] who wake up on Election Day and kind of figure out where they’re at—that’s becoming less true over time. Gallup last year measured 40 percent of Americans who self-identify as independents. I don’t think it’s necessarily because they don’t think it’s cool to join a team; it’s just not who they are. It doesn’t speak the language that people are normally speaking.
Rothschild: What makes a bigger impact: libertarians influencing the GOP from within or via a third party?
Welch: Right now, within. You have to be kind of blind to not notice that there are people who are talking a lot of libertarianism who are competing for mind share in the Republican Party in 2012. Whether that’s going to be true after libertarians don’t vote for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama wins re-election is another story entirely.
Goldberg: Richard Hofstadter, I’m not a huge fan of his, but his description of third parties is basically right: “They’re like bees. They have their impact by stinging and then they die.” And if you had a Libertarian Party form in 2012, it would be—other than Mitt Romney’s personality—the most important guarantee that Barack Obama will win.
But this sort of proves my point, right? You have this libertarian figurehead of [Texas Rep.] Ron Paul attracting people to the Republican Party. A lot of the people, when you actually ask them why they’re voting for Ron Paul, they don’t say they’re voting for Ron Paul because he’s the best libertarian in the race, they say they’re voting for Ron Paul because he’s the best conservative in the race. And the distinctions there at the ground level are very blurred.
There’s no way Ron Paul would be having this success in a Democratic primary. I mean, you can talk in a Republican Primary about getting rid of five Cabinet agencies and cutting a trillion dollars from the government. They start shouting “Nurse! Nurse!” when you say that in a Democratic primary, and they cart you away and they fill you up with Thorazine. And this just sort of proves my point. There are disagreements, but there’s a home for libertarian candidates and libertarian people in the conservative movement, while there simply is not on the Democratic and liberal side of things.
Welch: I don’t care what the pin on your lapel says at this point. I just want to know what are you going to do with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and military spending. How are you going to get rid of this $1.4 trillion deficit in a way that makes any kind of sense, on the federal level, local level, and state level? How can you positively articulate freedom, right now, in a way where you’re changing the conversation from “Oh my God! If you cut a federal agency, poor people are going to die in the street!” to “No, actually, in the ’70s, when we were getting rid of departments (under Democratic leadership in many cases), it made people more free and more prosperous.” There hasn’t been this positive discussion of how limiting government actually improves peoples’ lives. Even in libertarian circles, there hasn’t been a focus on this as much as there could have been over the years.
For the people here who are Republicans and think libertarians are blue-faced weirdoes in their mothers’ basements, that’s great. But can you please focus on this, especially if you have any proximity to power? Because it’s really the only issue that matters. Ultimately, we have this huge problem right now and everything else is kind of a sideshow, including, on some level, talk of political coalitions. Let’s talk about that and find a way to get that done, by any means necessary. The rest of the stuff will sort itself out.
Goldberg: Bill Rusher, the longtime publisher of National Review, passed away last year. He used to give young new staffers at National Review one solid piece of advice, and it was this: “Politicians will always disappoint you.” Because they’re politicians. They’re inherently conflicted between their desire to be popular and re-elected and their desire to live up to their ideals and all of the rest. It doesn’t mean that some of them can’t do it; it just means there is that conflict there. And that’s part of the essence of politics, the essence of real life.
I was not on board with a lot of the George Bush agenda. I used to say when Bush was in office he spent money like a pimp with a week to live. And now the guy looks like Calvin Coolidge in comparison [to Obama]. I never liked compassionate conservatism. My last name’s Goldberg; I’m sort of an Old Testament guy. I like my conservatism with more smiting and wrath.
But all of that said, when you listen to Matt talk about how the impending debt apocalypse is the only really important issue that we’re facing right now—with all the usual caveats that are also really important, but this is the one that is barreling toward us at very fast speeds—to me, it’s very similar to the Cold War.