Election 2016

"With Rand Paul's Exit, Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Died Once Again?"

Libertarianism has died more times than Abe Vigoda. But unlike good old Fish, libertarianism is still alive and kicking.


You know the drill: Any time Rand Paul sneezes, libertarianism and the "Libertarian Moment" catches the Zika virus and croaks faster than a Bubble Boy touring an Ebola ward. So when the Kentucky senator pulled the plug on his presidential campaign, all sorts of Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, and even self-loathing libertarians started spiking the football like they were in the XFL.

Alas, like Abe Vigoda, the recently deceased actor who dealt with false reports of his death for the last 34 years of his life (after a premature obit once appeared in People magazine), libertarianism is constantly being written off as dead—or never having really existed in the first place.

And so it came to pass that Washingtonian magazine called me shortly after Rand Paul's announcement to ask, "With Rand Paul's Exit, Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Died Once Again?" From the story, by Andrew Beaujon:

the Moment got thoroughly outpolled in early contests, not unlike…Rand Paul, who dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday, an event Ian Millhiser at ThinkProgress quickly commemorated with a piece called "Rand Paul and the Libertarian Moment That Never Was" and [National Review's] Ramesh Ponnuru marked with "There Never Was a 'Libertarian Moment.'"…

Reached by phone, Gillespie…says the Libertarian Moment is "absolutely independent of what idiot is running for president or dogcatcher." Poll after poll, he says, shows younger people identifying with libertarian tenets like smaller government, unhappiness with government interference into their personal or sex lives, and unfettered business growth.

"If you enjoy the choice coming through your screen via Netflix," he says, you're chilling to libertarian principles….

Paul veered away from classic libertarianism in the race, especially with regard to gay marriage and immigration. (Gillespie and Reason have described him as "libertarian-ish.") "If the Republican Party wants to benefit from its small-government rhetoric," he says, "it has to become libertarian not just in its language but in its action." Besides Netflix and Pop-Tarts, Gillespie sees libertarianism's biggest impact in policies like school choice and forcing government units to compete with private entities to, say, run toll roads. The sum of all that libertarian thought, he says, is a "system that delivers a Whole Foods rather than a 'Socialist Safeway' in Adams Morgan."

Read the whole thing here.

In talking with Beaujon, I stressed that libertarianism is best understood as "pre-political" and that politics is a "crippled, lagging indicator" in American life (this is one of the basic tenets of Matt Welch's and my book, The Declaration of Independents). Virtually everything in our lives that is not either directly controlled by or heavily regulated by government has been getting better over the past 30, 40, and 50 years precisely because innovation and increased personal and economic freedom have allowed for the sorts of experimentation and decentralization of power that accords with libertarian thought. Libertarians believe in giving people more autonomy and allowing them to make more choices about everything that matters to them. To the extent that things like trade barriers have been slashed, regulatory burdens reduced, social and legal sanctions lifted on lifestyles, that's the political dimension of the libertarian moment right there.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

And remember this: The Internet, which embodies libertarian values of decentralized knowledge- and power-sharing, became a mass medium only when the government got out of the way and private companies built out the backbone and infrastructure to allow it to actually be useful to all of us. How did traditional liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans respond to a new way of communicating, trading, and expression? By passing as part of telecommuncations legislation the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would have essentially governed the Internet (including the World Wide Web) as if it were a broadcast TV or radio station. From Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton and Janet Reno (and Hillary Clinton, too), everyone in political power signed on to limiting the freewheeling nature that made the internet different. Luckily, the Supreme Court struck down virtually all of the CDA as an affront to free speech (something which only libertarians, actually respect independent of particular outcomes. Indeed, liberal Democrats such as Hillary Clinton unapologetically seek to restrain speech they dislike (read Matt Welch's "Hail to the Censor" on this score) while conservative Republicans are still trotting out "The Case for Censorship" when it floats their boats.

I would have liked to see Rand Paul get more traction in the 2016 election. For all the faults I thought his campaign had (and I was never slow to voice my opinion), he was by far and away the most libertarian-ish of the crew this time around, in either party. Certainly, I look forward to him resuming his powerful role in the Senate and ushering new and different conversations than we'd be having if he had remained an opthamologist. And there's no question that libertarianism would be moving faster into the political arena if he had maintained the early leads for the GOP nomination he had a year ago.

But for cripes sake, it's ridiculous to be writing off the Libertarian Moment and libertarianism simply because his presidential campaign went tits up. By the end of this year alone, we'll have legalized pot in up to a dozen more states than we do now, school-choice and public-sector pensions will have been reformed in various places according the prescriptions laid out by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), serious criminal-justice reform will have been enacted, the pushback against military interventions will have proceeded apace, and more. And that's just in the political arena. In our commercial and personal lives, you can bet the rent money that there will be more individualized and hyper-personalized options for all of us or, same thing, obstacles to the same will be attacked relentlessly until they fall.