2016 has, thus far, been a rough year for libertarians. But despite appearances, it may not turn out to be all doom and gloom. No, really.
Yes, Sen. Rand Paul, the most libertarian elected Republican in the nation at present, tanked in the 2016 GOP presidential primary race, dropping out early and leaving libertarians of a right-leaning disposition to work through some complicated internal debates as to whether Sen. Ted Cruz was an acceptable back-up option.
Indeed, the major parties are both set to nominate perhaps the most anti-libertarian, authoritarian candidates in decades, both advocating big government policies with regard to economics and taking stances that make civil libertarians regularly shudder with fear. One of them is routinely called a fascist, and not just by the usual, nutty, Michael Moore types. The other one is further to the left and simultaneously more hawkish than her reasonably competent, tolerable husband, and narrowly beat out a self-described socialist who honeymooned in the U.S.S.R.
Sure, the public square feels more and more dominated by calls for "safe spaces" and demands that no one's feelings be hurt, whether they're of the "Muslims are the problem" or "Duck Dynasty is the problem" variety. And protectionist and anti-immigrant sentiment is very clearly in your face, and on display.
True, the specter of insanely long, slow-moving airport security lines has been met with few criticisms of heavy-handed, excessive, ineffective security theater or calls to pare back what feel like intrusive, over-the-top measures designed to make people feel safe in a situation that is still less risky than driving on a major American highway. There's minimal discussion of options for focusing resources on less hassle-inducing, invasive, tech and human intelligence-based screening techniques, despite an obvious rationale for pursuing them.
And of course, a major consequence of the terrorist attack perpetrated this weekend in Orlando will inevitably be loud calls to curtail yet more civil liberties. From Donald Trump, this will likely take the form of advocating for more racial and/or religious profiling, enhancing domestic surveillance, and so on. From Hillary Clinton and Democrats, it is already taking the form of demanding more gun control measures.
Hence libertarians looking for small victories and glimmers of hope feeling that in 2016, it's slim pickings.
Yet look more closely, and amazingly enough, there are some good things happening that libertarians should applaud, and push forward, rather than wallowing in depression and resigning ourselves to apparent defeat.
First, there is the presidential race. Undoubtedly, not a day—perhaps not even an hour—goes by when libertarians do not wince at the reality of a Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump presidential showdown and the inevitability that one of these people (most likely Clinton) will become our next president.
But the fact that both candidates are so widely reviled, feared, and loathed also means that perhaps more than ever, 2016 will be a year where actual, self-described libertarians—running outside the two major party structures—perform, electorally.
The RealClearPolitics average of the last five polls testing Trump versus Clinton versus Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson shows Johnson polling just above 8 percent, and with Green Party nominee Jill Stein's name added to the mix, Johnson still holds at 5 percent. In either case, should those numbers endure, they are significantly higher than the roughly 1 percent Johnson received in the 2012 general election. That in turn presents one pathway by which libertarians might be capable of making a greater mark on American politics, given that working from within party structures looks, shall we say, complicated for now.
Second, there has been real momentum on a grassroots level in favor of select, pet libertarian issues both in 2016 and in recent years.
Americans have moved on from debating whether courts should recognize and enforce the terms of gay marriages—private contracts between consenting adults of the same gender—to debating forcible cake-baking and bathroom-usage rules (as ludicrous as many libertarians find various arguments invoked in both of these debates).
While protectionist sentiment is more manifest than many of us would like, and may be about to become dominant in the thinking of administration officials, free trade has expanded under President Obama, albeit more timidly than many of us would like.
Real momentum needed to achieve criminal justice reforms has been built at the grassroots level, making it more likely that something meaningful can be achieved politically on this front.
Marijuana, at least, is less criminalized in practice than it was even two years ago.
In many key respects, American society feels freer now than it did just a few years ago—though of course that trend, combined with hard-to-grasp technological change, economic hardship, ongoing globalization and demographic changes may be contributing to the backlash we're seeing in the form of support for more big government, interventionist presidential candidates.
Third, there are, amazingly enough, some things happening in Congress to advance important libertarian goals—some of them are just concentrated in areas that the public pays little attention to, and which are generally regarded as "hard to understand" (and therefore ignored in much political and policy media).
A good, current example is congressional action emanating from the House of Representatives to both investigate and rein in the data collection operations of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
Most libertarians feel that American government maintains too much information on its citizenry, does too much data collection and too much monitoring and surveillance. That conducted by, say, the National Security Agency (NSA) on the pretext of preventing terrorist acts has been widely discussed and is perhaps the most widely-reviled among liberty-lovers. However, it has not gone unnoticed that for years now, the CFPB has been collecting in data on American consumers' use of different financial services and products on the pretext of preventing abuse, exploitation, and so on, and presumably in order to guide the agency's hand in determining what to regulate.
Data on more than 900 million consumer credit card accounts and 50 million residential mortgages has reportedly been collected in by the CFPB, something that is especially troubling given the federal government's routine failings on the cybersecurity front. When the Office of Personnel Management, the Department of State and other parts of the federal government can't keep the Chinese, or the Russians, or the Iranians from hacking them, it's rational for big questions to be asked about how all this financial data is being safeguarded—as Congress is doing—and to try to limit it—as legislation introduced by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling aims to do.
According to The Hill, under Hensarling's bill, the CFPB "would… see some of its major powers curbed. Among those are the CFPB's ability to bar any financial product in deems to be 'abusive,' and its ability to gather consumer financial data." Congressional commitment to moving this legislation may feel like a small victory, but things like this are actually important—at least for those of us of the legitimately limited government disposition—and little victories stack up to big changes when all is said and done.
Inauguration Day 2017 is almost certainly going to be a deeply painful day for millions of libertarians across America, and indeed worldwide. But the country is not going to hell in a handbasket in every possible respect, and there are opportunities to enhance rather than contract liberty despite some very unfavorable trends on display right now. Libertarians should seize them.