New York Magazine on the "libertarian moment"


Is the moment we've been waiting for?

New York magazine has a long piece out by Christopher Beam that, for a much of its wingspan, makes a pretty fair and quote-rich argument for us living in something that at least approaches a "libertarian moment." Sample:

There's never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like TARP, the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.

Libertarianism has adherents on the left, too—they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry. It's not surprising that the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government—tax cuts and releasing the shackles of "don't ask, don't tell."

Much of Americans' vaunted anger now comes from a sense of betrayal over libertariansim shrugged. Right-wing libertarians charge that the Bush presidency gave the lie to small-government cant by pushing Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and a $3 trillion war. Left-wing libertarians are furious that Obama talked a big game on civil liberties but has caved on everything from FISA to DOMA to Gitmo. Meanwhile, the country faces a massive and growing deficit (too much government!) that neither party has the power or the inclination to fix. If there were ever a time to harness libertarian energy—on left and right—it's now. […]

Name dropping!

Libertarianism gets marginalized in American politics because it doesn't fit into the two-party paradigm. Libertarians want less state intrusion into the market, which aligns them with Republicans, but also less interference in social choices, which aligns them with Democrats. As Massachusetts governor William Weld put it in 1992, "I want the government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom." To the partisan brain, this doesn't compute. "In 1976, people didn't have the vaguest idea of what I was talking about," says Ron Paul. "Why was I voting with the left sometimes and with the right other times?"

Yet libertarianism is more internally consistent than the Democratic or Republican platforms. There's no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella, except that it makes for a powerful coalition. Libertarianism lies crosswise to the partisan split, giving its adherents a kind of freethinker, outcast status. This can be especially attractive for young people.

Have you ever tasted a Somali Sunrise? Delicious!

Beam's piece ends on an extended Big But, in which we hear warnings about doctrinal purity, extreme Randian selfishness, Brink Lindsey leaving Cato, and minarchy being "an elegant idea in the abstract." In the real world, not bailing out banks "would have unfairly punished a much greater number" of homeowners, and so on. Plus, that one Tennessee house burned down, and: Somalia! He ends the piece like this:

It took 35 years for Ron Paul to reach the center of American politics. And it could take another 35 before he or someone like him is back. It's certainly a libertarian moment—but it's not liable to last too long. Libertarianism and power are like matter and anti-matter. They cancel each other out.

Nick Gillespie and I on the Libertarian Moment here. Brian Doherty's history of libertarianism here.

NEXT: Don't Go There

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  1. Amidst all the utter buffoonery that ends Beam's article, I like the phrase, "Libertarianism and power are like matter and anti-matter. They cancel each other out." I've often wondered if you can ever collect a group of...individualists...and get anything done politically. Still, it seems to be happening, slowly, but faster than I ever dreamed possible. Bravo Reason!

    1. There's nothing inherently individualist about Libertarians. A private company is a collective. I like collectivism when I get to choose which groups I belong to.

      It's the forced collectivism that I have a problem with. One world whether you like it or not. I'd have just as much of a problem with any kind of forced individualism.

      1. I'd have just as much of a problem with any kind of forced individualism.

        "Forced individualism" is an oxymoron. Leaving a person alone is not "forcing" him to do anything. Whether he chooses to think and act is up to him.

        1. I think he meant that it would be just as bad to force individuals to live separately and to break up voluntary associations.

      2. Voluntary associations are not the same as Collectivist associations.

        1. But they're often thought of that way. Usually people think that only the individual part of the group/individual dynamic is represented in Libertarian approach. I was just pointing out that that's not the case. You can join any group you want to. It's just that your group still has to respect your rights as well as everybody else's.

    2. I found some major problems in this article. Mostly with banking. The author has no idea what "competing currencies" or "free banking" really is. All he really did was drop a few names to make it appear that he did some research. It should be obvious to almost any self-identified libertarian, that his in-depth analysis of libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism is severely flawed. He draws all of the knee-jerk, statist criticisms and conclusions.

      Free banking is not simply ending the Federal Reserve. The best definition of free banking I have found, is by an economist named Vera C. Smith.

      Vera Smith wrote The Rationale of Central Banking and the Free Banking Alternative as a doctoral dissertation at the University of London School of Economics under the supervision of Friedrich A. Hayek. She received her Ph.D. degree there in 1935, having enrolled as an undergraduate in 1930. She studied with Hayek, Lionel Robbins, T. E. Gregory, J. R. Hicks, and Dennis Robertson; in 1933-34 she was Hugh Dalton's research assistant.


      a regime where note-issuing banks are allowed to set up in
      the same way as any other type of business enterprise, so
      long as they comply with the general company law. The
      requirement for their establishment is not special conditional
      authorization from a government authority, but the ability
      to raise sufficient capital, and public confidence, to gain
      acceptance for their notes and ensure the profitability of the
      undertaking. Under such a system all banks would not only
      be allowed the same rights, but would also be subjected to
      the same responsibilities as other business enterprises. If
      they failed to meet their obligations they would be declared
      bankrupt and put into liquidation, and their assets used to
      meet the claims of their creditors, in which case the shareholders
      would lose the whole or part of their capital, and the
      penalty for failure would be paid, at least for the most part,
      by those responsible for the policy of the bank. Notes issued under this system would be "promises to pay," and such
      obligations must be met on demand in the generally accepted
      medium which we will assume to be gold. No bank
      would have the right to call on the government or on any
      other institution for special help in time of need. . . . A general
      abandonment of the gold standard is inconceivable
      under these conditions, and with a strict interpretation of the
      bankruptcy laws any bank suspending payments would at
      once be put into the hands of a receiver.


      In my view, libertarianism isn't about simply eliminating or limiting certain aspects of government, it's about eliminating the need for them.

      ex. Once free banking is established, there would be no need for a central bank.

      1. Yeah, there are two Libertarian positions on banking that are floating around, and people don't know the difference.

        The first is pragmatic, and says we should end the Fed and return to a gold standard. These two points are inseperable. But this position is a reaction to the government's monopoly control of the currency. It's not that the gold standard is perfect, it's just that it's far worse to give a monopoly institution free reign over fiat money.

        Not that fiat money is inherently bad. If you got rid of the monopoly, private banks could issue all the fiat money that consumer demand allowed for. That's the second position, aka Free Banking.

        1. There's a third libertarian position on banking which is the monetarist position of Milton Friedman, although that position has pretty much been abandoned in most libertarian circles, however it was, at one time, the position of Cato, which is why Rothbard left and formed Mises Institute.

          1. Friedman:

            "Most of my own work dealing with public policy has had the same character of proceeding as if I were addressing governmental officials selflessly dedicated to the public interest?. I have attempted to persuade the Federal Reserve System that it was doing the wrong thing and it ought to adopt a different policy. This time was ill-spent ? because the public-interest characterization of government is basically flawed.... We do not regard a businessman as selflessly devoted to the public interest. We think of a businessman as in business to improve his own welfare, to serve his own interest.... Why should we regard government officials differently? They too aim to serve their own interest, and in government as in business we must try to set up institutions under which individuals who intend only their own gain are led by an invisible hand to serve the public interest?. The Federal Reserve System puts a great deal of power in the hands of a few people and it is so constructed that it has been in their self-interest to pursue a policy which, I believe, has been very harmful for the public rather than helpful.... Clearly, it was not in the self-interest of the Federal Reserve hierarchy to follow the hypothetical policy [of a monetary rule]. It was therefore a waste of time to try to persuade them to do so."

        2. Free banking does not have fiat money. It has instead notes backed by fractional reserves. It is not fiat because the notes are backed. Fiat money is when a government says "let the notes be backed by... nothing!"

          1. I thought Fiat money was money spent to purchase a poorly engineered, overpriced motor vehicle...

          2. Federal Reserve Notes are ultimately backed by the power of the US government to tax or otherwise collect revenue to pay interest on Treasury bonds.

          3. Sorry, really not just the interest. FRNs are backed by the power of the US government to pay back Treasuries by collecting revenue.

    1. Good morning Rather. Have good holiday?

      1. I had to think about it-so I suppose no. How was yours?

        1. We have never had 5 people over for the holiday meal. It went well actually. My first Christmas in a long time that I didn't feel uncomfortable.

  2. "Plus, that one Tennessee house burned down.."

    How many times do we have to go over this? The Tennessee fire department was a PUBLIC institution. The guy offered to pay them "anything they wanted" to put the fire out, but they refused. Only the government would stand by idly with such an offer.

    A real private fire department would have two price structures, a lower one for "members" who paid monthly or what have you, and a higher premium price that non-members could agree to or not on the spot.

  3. "In the real world, not bailing out banks "would have unfairly punished a much greater number" of homeowners"

    Yeah, homeowners who bought more than they could afford, or didn't plan for contingencies like losing their job.

    Instead we punished a "much greater number" of taxpayers, many of whom contributed absolutely nothing to the housing bubble. How is that better?

    1. or could it be we didn't want devalue all of those gub'mint retirement funds on top of the ridiculous promised rate of return.
      should have let them default only then they could have been reset...
      instead: how far can you kick that can?

  4. You can measure the shallowness of this guy's research by a single line:

    "I know my doctor is qualified to treat me because he has a government license."

    That pretty much tells you he read zero source material, after he embarked on this quest of question-begging.

    1. Rating agencies had a government license. In fact, in order to get one of those licenses, you had to show that you were doing "proper" analysis. How'd that work out?

      Maybe if a little bit more "improper" analysis had been done, things would have been better. But that's what you get when you artificially stifle competition.

  5. "....and: Somalia!"

    Say what you will about Somalia, they've done better with their anarchy than they did with their Socialism.

    Anyway, a lot of Libertarians aren't anarchists, and would expect something like what you get with Somalia in an anarchy.

    If you want a better example of a "Libertarian Paradise", look at British Somalia to the north, which has an established, though minimalist government. The people pay almost nothing in taxes and the region is fairly stable and has a relatively strong, if developing, economy. They've done incredibly well given the state of things in that part of the world.

    See the Rahn curve: http://goo.gl/Ip2JB

    1. Some people wrongly equate lawlessness with anarchy. Anarchy is simply "stateless". There were several anarchic societies, mostly in Europe. They, however, were not based on individualism. They were anarcho-communist, anarcho-syndicalist, and mutualist. Hell, even the hippie communes, like Twin Oaks, could be considered a stateless anarchy.

      Rothbard has a fairly good definition of what an anarcho-capitalist society would be like.


      1. I thought we were an anarcho-capitalist collective?

        1. Strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

          1. Be Quiet! or you will be oppressed again!

  6. Libertarians, of both left and right, haven't been this close to power since 1776. But do we want to live in their world?

    An absurd assertion and some annoying fretting right there in the sub-head. Congratulations for being able to read this garbage, Matt.

    1. The left went libertarian because the fall of communism left them with no idealogical backdrop. On the right, many libertarians were lying dormant in the Republican party, comfortable calling themselves "conservatives" until the wars break out, then breaking ranks. Same thing happened post-Nixon.

      1. I don't remember the Left going libertarian in the 90s. All I remember is their deathbed conversion circa 2001.

  7. "Libertarians want less state intrusion into the market, which aligns them with [some] Republicans, but also less interference in social choices, which aligns them with [some] Democrats."

    1. Yeah, Republicans aren't free market. They're fascist. The motto is "what's good for business is good for everyone", which is sometimes the case, but not always.

      Democrats aren't social liberals, either. They just have a different moral code than conservatives. In some cases that means more freedom, in other cases less. They argue the "more" cases on the grounds of freedom, and the "less" cases on the grounds of morality. I just had a leftist tell me the other day that Pat Robertson should kicked off the air after what he said about Haiti. So much for freedom of speech.

      1. "Free" is word I love to use. Most especially when prefixed by "salt" or "trans-fat", and suffixed by "required".

  8. Libertarianism lies crosswise to the partisan split, giving its adherents a kind of freethinker, outcast status. This can be especially attractive for young people.

    Drat! I am discovered.

    Libertarianism is merely a fashion accessory; it's just a means of hooking up with hot chicks.

    1. If only the part about libertarianism being a means to get hot chicks were true! Heck, my wife thinks I should abandon this stuff now that I'm married, since it's obvious that libertarians are just bitter, sexually frustrated upper-middle class men. LOL At least according to her.

  9. I'd like to remind the dummy who wrote this article that the "tax cuts" had nothing to do with stripping down government and everything to do with driving up the deficit another trillion dollars. There is nothing libertarian about that.

    1. Not true. The money would be spent anyway, whether debt or revenue, but the tax cuts left money in the hands of people that they could spend as they chose.

      Libertarianism doesn't say anything explicitly about the size of government deficit.

      1. The government deficit is simply more expensive future taxation. Anything that adds to the deficit is like paying a higher tax rate with a credit card and letting the interest continue to build up year after year instead of paying it all off. I'd rather pay a higher tax rate today* than go in further debt and end up paying more in the long term.

        *not that that actually increases tax revenue.

        1. If you accept the libertarian ideal of "non-aggression", then you must believe that all government taxation is the initiation of, or threat of initiation, of force. Therefore, all taxation is against libertarianism.

          1. I could support taxation on land value (no deadweight loss, naturally progressive, many benefits) and corporate value (for the legal protection of that value for the owners the corporate entity provides) to support the basic functions of a legal system, military and roads, but the overall tax rate would be a max of like 5%.

            My argument above is that debt is even worse than taxation, as it's basically taxation plus interest. If taxation is theft, debt is like convincing a robber not to steal your wallet today by offering to help him drain your daughter's bank account when she becomes successful in a few years.

          2. "If you accept the libertarian ideal of "non-aggression", then you must believe that all government taxation is the initiation of, or threat of initiation, of force. Therefore, all taxation is against libertarianism."

            I'm not sure the second follows from the first. I do think all taxation is the initiation of force, but taxes spent on, say, a police force, are working to prevent the initiation of force. So if I equate government's theft with the burglar's theft (which I do), I might find the government actions here preferable, so long as they're stealing less from me than the burglar otherwise would.

            1. Exactly. The miniarchist argument, boiled down to it's core, is that the net initiation of force is smaller with a limited, fair and effective legal system, police force and military than it would be without them. You need taxes to pay for these things. I would rather the government initiate minimal force but use the loot to protect my rights than the mafia pseudo-government initiate more brutal force and use the loot to continue to violate my rights and my neighbor's rights.

              Moreover, if you don't own land or seek artificial corporate protections, you wouldn't pay any taxes in my version of libertopia.

  10. Libertarians want ... less interference in social choices, which aligns them with Democrats.

    Silly Christopher Beam. It aligns them with a lot of what democrats often say but rarely do anything of substance about. There's a big difference.

    1. Same with economic choice and Republicans.

  11. Fucking matter-antimatter annihilation, how do they work?!

    (Not by "cancellation" that's for sure.)

    1. The anti-matter and matter are destroyed and all that's left is electromagnetic radiation. How is that not "cancellation"?

  12. Libertopia

    Beam uses the term, Libertopia, seven times. What the hell is that. There are no utopias, libertarian or otherwise. Anyone who thinks so isn't a libertarian.

    1. Dude, it's northeast of Liberaltopia and northwest of Conservotopia. Didn't you ever study theoretical geography?

      1. I guess that would make it directly to the far north of Authoritaritopia.

        1. Moderatopia's a barrier state, luckily. They're like the demilitarized zone.

  13. When libertarianism intersects with the intentions of either Dems or GOPeers it's a coincidence not an alignment.

    1. These things happen with too much of a pattern to be mere coincidence.

      There's no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella, except that it makes for a powerful coalition.

      Why does such a coalition occur, and what makes it persist?

  14. Libertarianism is like anything that is missing the Holy Spirit. It is soul dead. Lifeless, without inspiration. A vaporous cloud carrying no life-giving water.

    1. So you're saying libertarians should drink more?

      Perhaps Chris Beam's brother Jim would be more lively, but I doubt he'd carry more water for the status quo than Chris does here. Talk about your vaporous cloud?

  15. I'm getting tired of the "Somalia is libertarianism in practice" trope as displayed in the poster.

    I can take any 'Sub-saharan' (PC code word for "black") African country - ANY of them - take some pictures, and then say this is an ideology in action implying Epic Fail, because Sub-Saharan Africa is, politically, economically, culturally, and socially speaking, an Epic Fail. Why does only the Somalia trope get pidgeonholed? Why not Nigeria for 'multi-ethnic democracy' or Soweto pix for 'post-apartheid racial harmony.' That shit's too easy.

    1. The Somalia thing is just a smug attempt by Liberals to mis-characterize libertarian philosphies.

      I often wonder where to emigrate to, and Somalia has never occurred to me.

  16. I'm not convinced that libertarianism is growing. You can't put a political movement together out of a bunch of people who don't believe in self sacrifice.

    I think instead the logical fallacies of socialism, and the absolute divorce from common sense Liberal policies posses, are beginning to become apparent to everyone except for true believers on the left, and this creates more widespread acceptance of good fiscal policy among the public.

    1. Yeah, I think its less philosophy and more financial math driving political trends.

  17. "...but also less interference in social choices, which aligns them with Democrats."

    Really? What stripe of politician does Beam thinks supports the list of horribles he mentions at the beginning of the article? Stuff like banning trans-fats is solidly in the center-left of the American political spectrum. They are the kind of policies promoted by Democrats and "moderate" Republicans. I Furthermore, those leftist factions of feminism who look to criminalize occasions of ambiguous sexual consent (such as Julian Assange is accused of) definitely want the government in their bedrooms.

    I am not sure how the Democrats maintain this favorable reputation of social libertarianism while promoting these kinds of interferences in people's choices.

  18. This is not an argument.

    What will never cease to amaze me is the dismissiveness with which libertarians treat the left-wing fringe on which I reside, combined with an equal sensitivity to the idea that they, on the right-wing fringe (and they are), are being unfairly dismissed.

    1. I don't treat the Left dismissively. I think the Left's criticisms of the corporatist state and foreign policy are far superior to the Right's support of said things. But unless the GOP is running the show, the Left tends to support the state, which ends up supporting corporatism and fueling bubbles, while perpetuating war and violating liberty. Their regulatory state ends up burdening small business disproportionately, encouraging conglomeration, and propping up big business. Their fiscal policy disproportionately burdens the poor and seniors who are living on limited incomes/savings by causing price inflation and currency devaluation.

      Many on the Left genuinely want to do good, but can't see outside of their simplistic and coercive government solutions instead of finding superior, voluntary community-based solutions. They have some strange naive belief that politicians are selfless and can be made to care about the "little guy" instead of making policies that will protect their powerful campaign donors. Why the Left refuses to apply their cynicism about corporate executives to politicians, whose powers are far more impactful on our lives, is beyond me. Why the Left trusts the biggest polluter in the world to protect the environment is beyond me. Why the Left insists on increasingly federalizing government, thus disenfranchising voters from having any say over the policies that affect their lives, is beyond me.

      The Left rejects free markets because they don't understand them - corporations would not exist in a laissez-faire economy because corporations are fake legal creations providing nearly free liability insurance to their owners and actors, and businesses would be less likely to engage in fraud or violate the rights of others without said protection.

      Perhaps the Left should spend more time working out the maddening contradictions between intent and outcome in their own philosophy and less trying to create a straw man of libertarianism, which is not "right-wing" contrary to conventional thinking.

  19. When Beam started talking about right and left wing libertarianism and the "quixotic" Ron Paul, he exposed himself as a foolish tool, who is way too cool to give a hoot about liberty.

    He uses a common lawerly debating technique. You will find it in almost all briefs and in the speeches of Barack Obama.
    After his brief history, Beam starts with a principle that everyone will agree with--and praises it. In this case the hack admits the Constitution is libertarian (the extent to which is arguable--but well beyond Beam's knowledge or argument)--and then goes to work showing that libertarians are foolish--and their principles equally unworkable and foolish. So, at the end, he is actually totally repudiating the Constitution. I think that is probably an accurate assessment of Beam's guiding political ideology?he is pragmatic and does not want things like liberty and the Constitution to get in the way of progress?they are the type of distractions Obama calls "partisan bickering."

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