Brink Lindsey on the Libertarian Center


Up at Cato Unbound is an interesting, lengthy and detailed new essay from reason contributing editor Brink Lindsey, author of our July cover story "The Aquarians and the Evangelicals" (derived from his great new book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture).

It's called "The Libertarian Center." In it, Brink presents evidence for his thesis that the U.S. has turned significantly more libertarian in the past fifty or so years:

Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. Of course there are obvious counterexamples, but on the whole it seems clear that cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver. The many and complex reasons for this trend can be boiled down to one sweeping generalization: in an age of mass affluence, economic development and individualism go together.

But of course it is not all good for libertarian influence in the U.S. of A.:

There are some obvious objections to the idea of a libertarian center. First….there is no libertarian political movement to speak of. Accordingly, there is no organized libertarian-leaning constituency that could ally with either conservatives or liberals to alter the balance of power. Rather, at best libertarianism exists as a diffuse, inchoate set of impulses that operate, not as an independent force, but as tendencies within the left and right and a check on how far each can stray in illiberal directions. Second, as I conceded in an earlier essay for Cato Unbound, American public opinion is noticeably unlibertarian in many important respects. In particular, economic illiteracy is rife; much of government spending – especially the budget-busting middle-class entitlement programs – remains highly popular; and the weakness for moralistic crusades, long an unfortunate feature of the American character, remains glaring (though today's temperance movements direct their obsessive zeal toward advancing health and safety rather than virtue).

Brink goes on to argue, at length and with much fascinating evidence, why both traditional left and right will have a hard time in modern America making any strong changes in their preferred directions. Read the whole thing, and look to Cato Unbound for future commentary and rebuttal from Matt Yglesias, Jonah Goldberg, and reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez.