Libertarianism

UPDATED 8/11!: Liberals, Conservatives Say The "Libertarian Moment" Is So Far From Happening That It's Not Even Funny, Man.

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Note: Updated below on Monday, August 11.

As my colleague and co-author Matt Welch has noted, The New York Times Magazine has had the temerity to ask, "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?" (the first time it waded into such territory was in 1971, when Stan Lehr and Louis Rossetto (the latter of whom would go on to co-found Wired magazine in the early '90s) touted libertarianism as the next big youth movement).

Robert Draper's article is a rollicking, essential read—and not simply because he quotes Matt, his Fox Business Independents co-host Kennedy, Reason's polling director Emily Ekins, and yours truly at length ("If we can have 20 different types of Pop-Tarts, maybe we can have more than two types of political identification"). It's because something new and different is in the air. You can see it in the bizarre, black-swan cashiering of politicians as varied as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the sitting Democratic governor of Hawaii (who just lost his primary). You can see it in historically low ratings not just for Congress as an institution but in the way people feel about their own representatives. Mostly, though, you can see it in the way people are living their lives beyond the puny, zero-sum scrum of politics, where people as different as Glenn Beck and Glenn Greenwald are building new forms of media and storytelling and community. Whatever else you can say about politics as bloodsport, Obama sucking even worse than Bush, etc., this much is true: People are also getting on with their lives and building new businessess, communities, and worlds in ways that are pretty damn amazing.

Which doesn't mean anything to folks deeply invested in maintaining the conventional left-right, liberal-conservative status quo. The Times' Paul Krugman, who doesn't even pretend to read people with whom he disagrees, writes off the idea that interest in "free minds and free markets" is growing as just more "libertarian fantasies." Because he can only conceive of things in the narrowest, dumbest ways, he writes that "libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don't have," as if the drug war, a continually failing foreign policy, legal discrimination against gays, immigration policy that punishes people yearning to be free, dead-broke entitlement programs, and so much more aren't really problems. Now that he has a no-show job at CUNY[*], does he even get out of his house anymore? There's nothing short of a revolution in how people conceive of work as a form of self-expression going on all around him. Over at places such as National Review, even conservatives who are themselves essentially libertarian pooh-pooh the idea that anything much can or will be done to reduce the size, scope, and spending of government. "Rand Paul can't win" is the essence of this formulation by Kevin Williamson and others there, again reducing complex shifts in cultural, social, economic, and political dynamics to electoral outcomes that threaten a dying post-war coalition of special interests. Gallup finds something like just 25 percent of Americans copping to being Republicans. That number will only decline if the GOP insists on doing the same thing it's been doing since the Gingrich Revolution. Which is to say: Spend, regulate, carp, and grow the size of the state even as it claims to be anti-government and pro-freedom.

I have no idea who will be the next president of the United States, but I'm certain that the outcome of that contest will matter far less than the broad currents in American society that are clearly moving in the direction of greater social tolerance and fiscal responsibility. That's one of the main trends that Reason picked up in its poll of Millennials—not some self-congratulatory discovery that the kids today are junior-varsity libertarians—and folks who don't want to grapple with that and all its implications will have less and less relevant to say about politics, culture, and ideas. That won't make a difference to the Krugmans of the world and the pols who are in truly safe districts, but it will to the rest of us who are keenly interested not just in seeing what the future holds but also in helping to create it in the first place.

[*]: In fact, Krugman's gig at CUNY doesn't start until next academic year apparently, meaning he's still the pride of Princeton, the second-best college in central New Jersey. Hat tip: Chris Conover.

Update: Over at The Atlantic, David Frum responds to The New York Times Magazine article. In the article, he calls libertarianism "a completely closed and airless ideological system that doesn't respond well to reality," continuing, "Libertarians are like Marxists in that they have prophets like von Mises and Hayek, and they quote from their holy scripture, and they don't have to engage." In his response, he argues that the author of the piece, Robert Draper, is "wrong, emphatically wrong. Young voters are not libertarian, nor even trending libertarian." What's more, nobody else is either. Sure, people of all ages may be more skeptical of power and authority than in the past, but that will pass. And there's this: "Much of the libertarian appeal is probably as simple as the isolationist reaction that tends to overtake the United States after military conflicts."

There's some truth to that: After a dozen years of bipartisan failure in waging two wars—neither of which seems to be finished yet, despite various claims of "mission accomplished" and troop pullouts—what Frum euphemistically refers to as "assertive nationalism" is in a pretty bad odor. And likely will be for a long time to come, as it should be. As important, the nation's finances remain troubling at best (Social Security's disability trust fund is just two years away from complete exhaustion), and evolving problems with everything from Obamacare to Dodd-Frank are not going to make future politics any easier. Relax, says Frum (though it's hard to hear him with his head stuck firmly in the sand), "The 'libertarian moment' will last as long as, and no longer than, it takes conservatives to win a presidential election again."

One wonders, though, exactly how an old-school conservative (is there any other kind?) will win election without becoming more libertarian in significant ways. Is bashing gay marriage, which 55 percent of Americans support, a ticket to the White House? Or trying to roll back pot legalization (an even higher amount of Americans support legalization, even as Frum has teamed up with Patrick Kennedy to stop the madness on that score)? By Frum's own reckoning, "Assertive Nationalism"—which has nothing to do with a strong national defense or a sane foreign policy—isn't likely to be a big winner with the voters. It remains an article of faith among conservatives (that is, Republicans) that they will regain the White House. I mean, look at what a rotten, terrible, failure Barack Obama was. No wonder he lost re-election in 2012.

But libertarianism is the closed and airless system. On the other side, liberals/Democrats presume, not without some evidence, that any Republican presidential candidate will be generally repellent to Americans. But who exactly do they have on their bench that will warm the cockles of Americans? Hillary Clinton's early big numbers (even in the Reason-Rupe Poll!) are almost certainly more a function of her name recognition than her popularity, especially in the wake of the utter disaster that was her turn as Secretary of State. After her, who?

More important, at least from my perspective, is to understand "the libertarian moment" (such as it is) is profoundly pre-political. It will inform electoral politics but is separate from and prior to politics. As Draper writes it up:

Gillespie likes to point out that unlike the words "Democrat" and "Republican," "libertarian" should be seen as a modifier rather than a noun — an attitude, not a fixed object. A cynic might assert that this is exactly the kind of semantic cop-out that relegates Gillespie's too-cool-for-school sect to the margins. Not surprisingly, he begged to differ. "It's wedded to an epistemological humility," he told me, "that proceeds from the assumption that we don't know as much as we think we do, and so you have to be really cautious about policies that seek to completely reshape the world. It's better to run trials and experiments, as John Stuart Mill talked about. The whole point of America — and this is an admixture of Saul Bellow and Heidegger and Jim Morrison lyrics — is that it's in a constant state of becoming, constantly changing and mongrelizing. We're doing exactly what free minds and free markets allow you to do. Part of why I'm a libertarian is that if you restrict people less, interesting stuff happens."

Continuing his riff with beatnik locomotion, he added: "It's like what happens in garages. Rock bands form in garages. Computer companies. And O.K., occasionally serial murders. But as long as you're not just parking your car there, garages are always interesting."

If you can't recognize that we already live in this world, you need to get out of your own head more. For the entirety of the 21st century, Americans have been smothered by godawful politics, first from the right and then from the left. And yet, folks are still getting on with their lives regardless, asking less permission and figuring out workarounds to live the lives they prefer (this is the large point of my and Matt Welch's Declaration of Independents). And if you don't understand that such attitudes are growing and flourishing in every aspect of contemporary America—in churches, in business, in education, in entertainment, you name it—you'll never understand that it's coming soon to politics too.