A Horde of Angry Libertarians


Back in '98, Mark Lilla's influential article "A Tale of Two Reactions" suggested that "the cultural and Reagan revolutions are fundamentally harmonious." It might not fit the standard Culture War scripts, Lilla argued, but Americans "see no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace—the Reaganite dream, the left nightmare—and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties."

Lilla wasn't pleased with the world he was describing, but the older article almost seems sunny compared to what he's saying now. In "The Tea Party Jacobins"—published, like the earlier essay, in The New York Review of Books—Lilla tells us that a

new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob….

Quite apart from the movement's effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

Reason readers may remember Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch's "The Libertarian Moment," published at the end of 2008, with its argument that, despite everything coming out of Washington in the age of Gitmo and TARP, we're entering a "new century of the individual, which makes the Me Decade look positively communitarian in comparison":

Already we have witnessed gale-force effects on nearly every "legacy" industry that had grown accustomed to dictating prices and product and intelligence to their customers, be they airlines, automakers, music companies, or newspapers (it was nice knowing all of you). Education and health care, handicapped by their large streams of public-sector and hence revanchist funding, lag behind, but even in those sorry professions, practitioners are scrambling desperately to respond to consumer demands and compete for business. Politics, always a crippled, lagging indicator of social change, will be the last entrenched oligopoly to be squashed like a bug on the windshield of history, since the two major parties have effectively rigged the game to their advantage in a way no robber baron ever could. But the Dems and Reps, more bankrupt as brands than Woolworth's and Sears Roebuck, are already in ideological Chapter 11.

Lilla is giving us a funhouse-mirror version of the same argument: "The Libertarian Moment" as written by someone who greets such changes with anxiety, not glee. His nominal topic may be the Tea Parties, but Lilla understands that the shift he's describing manifests itself most powerfully in areas outside of politics. "Voters pretend to rebel and politicians pretend to listen: this is our political theater," he writes. "What's happening behind the scenes is something quite different. As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals." Where Welch and Gillespie point to airlines and newspapers, Lilla cites homeschooling and health. (Naturally, Lilla focuses on the worst elements of the revolt against medical authority—quack remedies, anti-vaccine cranks—instead of, say, the rise of modern hospice care, the women's health movement, and other products of the push for patient autonomy, informed consent, and human-scale services.)

I could pick a lot of nits with Lilla's historical argument, not to mention his notion that people trading and sharing outside the old institutions are trying to "do everything themselves," but I don't want to get caught up in caveats. The chief problem here isn't the little things that Lilla gets wrong; it's his reaction to a thing that he gets mostly right. But it's that reaction that makes the article so interesting. This is how the world looks to someone who thinks a revolt against bureaucratic institutions is a bad thing.