As Ferguson Illustrates, Libertarianism Is More Than Just an Electoral Question or Intra-Party Debate


Conservative commentator and former Bush speechwriter David Frum is a pot-prohibitionist and anti-gun crusader who believes that "the bank bailouts probably saved the world economy from a great depression" and that on foreign policy, "there is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust." In other words, he treats libertarianism like an infection to be quarantined. And no, I'm not being metaphorically hyperbolic–this is how Frum reacted when the future junior senator from Kentucky won his first Republican primary back in 2010:

How is it that the GOP has lost its antibodies against a candidate like Rand Paul?

So Frum's distaste for any talk of a "libertarian moment," which Nick Gillespie noted earlier this week, is as surprising as a day ending in "d-a-y." But in his rush to isolate the sickness within a discrete subsection of professional Republican politics, Frum misses an important point that his Atlantic colleague Conor Friedersdorf crystallizes nicely in this post. Namely, that libertarianism's promise and relevance to modern life goes well beyond the question of ballot-box considerations and GOP infighting. Sample:

Washington, D.C., insiders who've dedicated themselves to improving America through the mediating institution of one political party are often blind to different approaches. A substantive policy victory that does nothing to boost movement libertarianism, or the Libertarian Party, or a particular libertarian politician, or libertarianism's place within the Republican Party, may not seem like a "libertarian moment" or "libertarian victory" to an institutionalist like Frum. He may find libertarianism important only insofar as it affects the Republican Party.

Yet many who think of themselves as libertarians (or who are friendly to many but not all libertarian goals, like me) don't particularly care who is ascendant in Washington, or what party affiliation appears beside the name of a legislator. If fewer people are caged for inhaling the smoke of a plant, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer people's doors are kicked in late at night by police officers dressed in combat fatigues, that's a libertarian victory. If more cancer patients can legally obtain a substance that alleviates their suffering, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer assets are seized by police without proof of guilt, that's a libertarian victory. […]

On issues where libertarians have a somewhat realistic chance of winning over their fellow citizens—reining in the NSA, eliminating the most inane professional licensing laws, insisting on due process in the War on Terrorism, avoiding foolish wars of choice, ending the war on drugs, reducing the prison population and the militarization of the police—a "libertarian moment" would have a salutary effect on American life. Commentators like Frum, [Jonathan] Chait, and [Paul] Krugman don't see this in large part because, if their output is indicative of their beliefs and priorities, they aren't particularly troubled by NSA spying, or inane professional licensing laws, or civil asset forfeiture, or foolish wars of choice, or the war on drugs. For them, the path to a better America is further empowering an enlightened faction of technocrats within the political party to which they're loyal. On particular issues, their respective prescriptions are sometimes worth trying. But I notice egregious incompetence and abuses—and lots of innocents dying needlessly—on the watches of the leaders they've overzealously supported. Libertarians have concrete policy proposals to protect against such ills. One needn't embrace their entire philosophy to see the wisdom in them.

There are things I disagree with in Friedersdorf's post—including short shrift for truly fiscal conservative budgeting, which has broad public support that (IMO) was squandered by the dumb Obamacare government shutdown—but it's certainly worth reading in full.

As is this BBC piece by Anthony Zurcher titled "Is Ferguson the start of a 'libertarian moment.'"

Zurcher collects a bunch of libertarian-world responses to the outrages in Missouri, and posits that post-Ferguson comments from the likes of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) "mark a sharp break from the previous conservative embrace of government authority when it comes to public safety issues." He's right about that.

There are plenty infinitely more important considerations in Ferguson aside from how it might reflect on a New York Times Magazine article. But it's also true that 2014 has the potential of being the year when the excesses of the four-decade War on Crime start getting rolled back. And part of that movement, as I discovered at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, is attributable to increasing openness to libertarian arguments within the GOP.

Rand Paul has proposed a half-dozen real reforms to the criminal justice system over the past 12 months. Should even some of those improvements become law, that would mark a more significant advancement of human freedom than the entire life's work of many anti-libertarians out there. Ultimately that's the stuff that matters more than which team wins the next Most Important Election Ever.