The Libertarian Moment is Everywhere Around Us (Increasing Social Tolerance Edition)

Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals want to keep the world tightly sorted into two categories that describe fewer and fewer Americans.


For the past 15 years or so, Gallup has charted how Americans describe themselves when it comes to social and economic issues.

For the first time ever, equal percentages of us define ourselves as liberal and conservative on social issues:


Even among Republicans, social liberalism is ascendant, with self-described conservatives dipping from a low of 67 percent in 2009 to just 53 percent now. The key issues driving the growth of social liberal views and the decline of social conservative views, says Gallup, are gay marriage and pot legalization. Support for both of those things has skyrocketed in the 21st century, with a velocity that is nothing short of stunning.

I think you can safely add to these issues a more broad-based embrace of what Matt Welch and I dubbed the "Libertarian Moment," or comfort with and demand for increasingly individualized and personalized options and experiences in every aspect of our lives. More and more choices in everything are busting out all over the place and such change is even coming to those areas still controlled by relatively top-down governmental edicts (education, health care, retirement).

According to a composite index of libertarian views on social and economic issues developed by pollsters at CNN, something clearly is afoot. The pollsters look at whether people believe that government is trying to do too many things individuals should be doing and whether or not people think government should enforce a particular set of morals. In 1992, the index of libertarian belief stood at 92 points. It's now at 113 points. Virtually all surveys show trends of people thinking the government is doing too much, is incompetent or untrustworthy, or represents a larger threat to the future than big labor or big business.

This is a major shift that the Republican Party has failed to acknowledge or understand. At the very moment that Americans are embracing skepticism toward government—long a rhetorical mainstay of GOP politics—the leaders of the party are often doubling or tripling down on all sorts of reactionary positions toward same-sex marriage, the drug war, immigration, and social tolerance more broadly. That's no way to win the future (WTF).

The same Gallup Poll that shows record high levels of liberal social views also asks respondents to describe themselves in economic terms. In the case, "conservative" views dominate but are losing ground.


By this measure, there are twice as many economic conservatives as liberals, but the cons have declined substantially over the past five years. In the detailed breakdown, the number of people calling themselves "moderate" has grown in the past five years.


I think it's fair to say that since the Great Recession and finanical crisis, Americans are obviously more worried about long-term, large-scale economic security. That, too, is something that the Republican Party seems to be out to lunch on. Hence, when the GOP discusses agriculture bills, for instance, its members try to cut food stamps first while paying lip service to getting around to ending farm subsidies. Or the GOP talks about an impending implosion due to debt and deficits and then pulls out the stops to spend ever-higher amounts on defense spending. Voters aren't stupid or confused by this. They're appalled. They know a con when they see one. And they remember the years when the Republican ran Congress and the White and increased inflation-adjusted overall by spending about 50 percent.

If Republicans are missing the boat when it comes to recognizing incipient libertarian attitudes of social tolerance and true fiscal responsibility among Americans, so are Democrats and folks further to the left. What does it say that the presumptive Democratic nominee for president is a war hawk who wants to put Edward Snowden in jail, only recently switched positions on gay marriage, and is an unrequited drug warrior? Or that Elizabeth Warren, who is setting progressive hearts aflutter, is a balls-out defender of the Export-Import Bank (as are all congressional Democrats with the exception of Alan Grayson), the single-most obvious corporate-welfare scheme going?

And then there's this sort of epistemic closure further out on the left-wing spectrum. Writing at Raw Story, Greta Christina lays out "7 things people who says they're 'fiscally conservative but socially liberal' don't understand." Her assertion is simply that you can't be in favor of "low taxes, small government, reduced regulation, a free market" and give a shit about the poor and marginalized. Seriously:

Hell, even David Koch of the Koch brothers has said, "I'm a conservative on economic matters and I'm a social liberal."

And it's wrong. W-R-O-N-G Wrong.

You can't separate fiscal issues from social issues.

It's all or nothing, baby. If you are in favor of gay marriage, you must be in favor of…mandatory unions? Christina is obviously talking about rising libertarianism but can't quite bring herself to call it by its proper name. For good reason: Admitting to a third term in U.S. poltics is as disruptive to the left as it is to the right. So you get verbiage like this:

The reality of fiscal conservatism in the United States is not cautious, evidence-based attention to which government programs do and don't work. If that were ever true in some misty nostalgic past, it hasn't been true for a long, long time. The reality of fiscal conservatism in the United States means slashing government programs, even when they've been shown to work. The reality means decimating government regulations, even when they've been shown to improve people's lives. The reality means cutting the safety net to ribbons, and letting big businesses do pretty much whatever they want.

Alas, ennumerating those specific cuts to all those safety net programs seems to be beyond the scope of her piece and at least two of the things she talks about—ending the drug war and ending "racist" policing—are the hobbyhorses less of progressive Democrats and more of libertarian-leaning Republicans such as Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Justin Amash, and others.

It's goddamn messy when you have to fit everything into Column A or Column B. Things don't fit so well, but the right and the left, Republicans and Democrats are going to do their best to maintain their duopoly in a world where even freaking Pop Tarts come in dozens of varieties.

This sort of enforced dualism is anathema in today's marketplace of goods, services—and ideas. That's especially true with millennials, the single-largest cohort in the country and folks who have grown up in a very different world than the black/white, right/left, Rep/Dem world many of us did. Based on various measures, they are presumed to be in favor of bigger government. Reason's poll of millennials from last year suggests that when millennials are confronted with the cost of providing more services, their enthusiasm for Leviathan declines greatly.

As Emily Ekins and I wrote last year in Reason, millennials are in fact less devout partisans than older Americans and are still searching for a stable political or ideological identity:

They are also highly skeptical of government action. Fully two-thirds say that government is usually inefficient and wasteful. That's up from just 42 percent in 2009, at the dawning of the Age of Obama. Sixty-three percent of millennials say that regulators are in the hip pocket of special interests, and 58 percent agree that government agencies and bureaucrats generally abuse their power. Not occasionally, generally.

It's tempting to simply declare that millennials are unacknowledged libertarians, but that's not quite right, either:

Such anti-government attitudes may warm libertarian hearts, but it would be a major mistake to think that millennials are the second coming of Murray Rothbard-style anarchism or even Reaganesque disdain for government solutions. While millennials clearly prefer free markets to state-managed ones, they are split on whether free markets are better at promoting economic mobility (37 percent) than are government programs (36 percent). Seven in 10 support government guarantees for housing, health care, education, and income for the truly needy. Yet almost as many—65 percent—think overall government spending should be reduced, and 58 percent favor cutting taxes.

Read more here.

The two major parties—and the basic ideologies they represent—are like Wile E. Coyote after he's run off the edge of a cliff. They are staying afloat by refusing to look down and admit that the ground has shifted underneath them. Who can blame them, really? They've spent a lot of time building their coalitions and their brands and they've got constituents to feed and all that.

But here's the thing: America is basically a fiscally conservative and socially liberal place in the 21st century. The first party that gets that and (no small thing) changes its policies to embrace what that all means won't just win every election between now and the The Rapture or The Melting of the Polar Ice Caps; it would actually make the country a better place to live, love, and thrive.