The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Libertarian

How far can traditional libertarianism go in modern America?


Libertarians have been delighted by some recent analysis via the Cato Institute's David Boaz and the America's Future Foundation's David Kirby. Their interpretation of polling data from various sources indicates 9 to 14 percent of Americans, depending on the specific poll questions, have political views that can be considered libertarian. That is, those people think government in general should be smaller, that free markets can handle many, even most, social problems, and that social tolerance is good.

I've been out on the road and on the airwaves hawking my new book on the history of the modern American libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, and I've found their data and analysis to be heartening. Proving that you've got election-turning numbers on your side is quite helpful in explaining why a political stance that is clearly in the minority (especially when contemplating the major players in the 2008 presidential field) is still worth minding and understanding.

But generic agreement to principles about small government, free markets, and tolerance in the Boaz/Kirby data doesn't necessarily go all the way to the larger libertarian movement program of the past 60 years. Many Americans believe in free markets, but still believe, say, that the health care system requires further government rationalization. Many believe in limiting government, but still believe, say, that we need to have military forces active around the globe. Many believe in tolerance, but still, say, think people should be locked up for what drugs they choose to take.

An interesting case study in how hardcore movement libertarianism plays to majority of the American people is the presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). Paul is the most libertarian of Republicans, and was himself a former presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, back in 1988.

Paul's campaign is doing better in many respects than I would have guessed back when the rumors of his candidacy first hit the 'Net back in January. For one thing, he's doing better in fundraising than some of the other "second tier" candidates—$640 thousand.

This is all, Paul's campaign press liaison Jesse Benton tells me, from viral spread of the campaign on the net, without much in the way of traditional direct mail or fundraising appearances. Since Paul knows who he is and knows why he's running, Benton says, he doesn't need to burn money on traditional polling and consultants and thus still has $525 thousand cash on hand. That's more than Mike Huckabee and Tommy Thompson, and within $300 thousand of Sam Brownback.

He's been largely shut out of coverage in the major newspapers of political importance—a Nexis search on "Ron Paul" and "president" for the New York Times is nearly as likely to come up with the president of Technomics, a food industry consultant, as the politician. While the Washington Post did a mostly admiring profile of him last year before his candidacy was announced, since then they've only mentioned his candidacy three times, twice as an aside, none of them in articles entirely about him or his campaign.

He's done better for himself on TV—twice now on Lou Dobbs CNN show (most recently last night), once on Fox's Red Eye, on MSNBC, and once on Bill Maher's HBO program.

Looking at these appearances is telling about how his brand of radical libertarianism comes across regarding contemporary political concerns.

Paul has mostly in his political career reached out to the goldbug/hard money and Republican Party portions of the larger libertarian coalition. This marks him with some cultural concerns that are distinctly right-wing in flavor, though still technically libertarian. This is what has made even many libertarians less excited about him as a standard-bearer than you might expect about a successful congressman with the nickname "Dr. No" for his willingness to vote against government actions from the Patriot Act to the Iraq War to federal aid for Katrina victims.

For example, Paul yokes his constitutionalism not only to a belief that the federal government shouldn't do anything, whether it involve education or drugs or whatever, that the Constitution doesn't say it should do, but also with an obsession with "sovereignty" and contempt for the UN. (Not really one of America's major problems; though getting out would be a good idea. Our imperial foreign policy is bad enough, and certainly not the UN's fault.) He has a strong emphasis on American border security and stopping illegal immigration. While he does talk about the welfare state aspect, that kind of talk can make it seem his concern is more with "America's borders" than American liberty—or people's freedom to trade and work with whomever they wish.

Indeed, instead of clearly arguing for the benefits of true free trade, he rather prefers to emphasize, as he did on Dobbs last night, how he's not for government-managed trade pacts. When asked if he's a protectionist last night, the most forceful response he could manage was "not really."

To those who profess disdain for "pre-packaged candidates," Paul should have some appeal. Media training be damned, he treats TV appearances as actual conversations, not just chances to say what he wants to say. On his Maher appearance, he patiently explained how the Civil War was a bad idea, and however historically astute, or at least arguable, his reasons were (mainly, that most other industrialized nations managed to eliminate slavery without a massively destructive war) there's no way to make that a winning position today. However, the Maher crowd did cheer his suggestion that an end to subsidies for Big Oil was a good first step in combating global warming. So small government radicalism can resonate, when it hits the audience's sweet spot.

The Civil War discussion, which became Maher's running gag, feeds into George Will's take on Ron Paul in Newsweek: that his concerns, however brave or amusing to contemplate, are purely anachronistic. The libertarian fight in the American context is already long lost. Will declared Paul's belief that the U.S. government was meant to be one of enumerated powers something believed "with more stubbornness than evidence." (Will then goes on to quote Madison and the Federalist Papers, generally thought to have some authority when it comes to the Constitution, saying the same thing Paul believes.)

That sense of a lost cause haunts libertarians in the public arena. They are often thought to be pushing an outmoded 19th century philosophy of laissez-faire that had been proven wrong in the Progressive Era and the Great Depression. It's hard to argue against history—particularly in a deeply state-embedded world that most people feel quite comfortable in, or if they don't, want the simple and visible expedient of some sort of concerted state action to solve whatever problem is bothering them.

Positing the benefits of a more libertarian world, as I've learned on talk radio across the land, runs you smack into failures of imagination as vast as the federal deficit: anything the government has ever had a hand in, from making cities well-designed and livable to regulating commerce or the money supply to running schools, is thought to be impossible without it.

And when it comes to things like getting out of Iraq—one of Paul's main selling points, and a great one—you run into another of libertarianism's rhetorical difficulties: it is often difficult for a libertarian solution, coming at the end of decades or even centuries of state solutions, to seem to "solve the problem." After all, merely pulling out of Iraq is going to leave a pretty ugly situation in Iraq, and how is your libertarian non-interventionism going to solve that one, pal? One thing government programs are unfailingly good at: creating seemingly legitimate excuses for more government programs.

But if government programs or efforts are unsustainable, they have to stop sometime. Libertarian luminaries as diverse as Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard both recognized that libertarian policy victories are apt to arise from crises, not from a full-on philosophical embrace the moral and practical benefits of liberty. As Friedman wrote, libertarians "do not influence the course of events by persuading people that we are right when we make what they regard as radical proposals. Rather, we exert influence by keeping options available when something has to be done at a time of crisis."

The partial victories and shifts we've seen from his own fertile mind on such matters as the volunteer army and inflation, and general libertarian influence on such reforms or proposed reforms as the 90s welfare reform and Social Security privatization efforts this decade, indicate Friedman was right about the importance of crises. If so, then Ron Paul's problem, and libertarianism's writ large, is that he foresees problems on the immediate horizon that the majority of Americans don't see.

Ron Paul, and many libertarians, see everything from overseas intervention to currency intervention to drug war interventions leading to untenable crisis points. Most Americans don't. If stuck with purely pragmatic arguments, divorced from libertarian moral principle, for radical change, America is rich enough, and for most us feels free enough, that greater moves in the direction of liberty are still something for a future time.

But not an impossible dream. Some changes in mores—as we've seen with gay marriage in the past decade—come surprisingly quickly, and a similar change could be nearer than we think when it comes to the Drug War in particular.

As for the rest of the libertarian package, it may be, as Tyler Cowen has argued, that we are going to buy all the government a rich society can afford. It may also be that a rich society will eventually want the luxuries of social peace, a healthier and more varied economic future, and a dropping of imperial burdens that only more liberty can bring. But until a politician who says what Ron Paul says no longer seems like an impossible eccentric, there's still a long way to go.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor for reason and author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement .