Hit & Run

Donald Trump and the Libertarian Future

We need a new, individualized operating system for politics and it will happen on the new president's watch, whether he wants it or not.

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Nick Gillespie, Time, Reason

Donald Trump is nobody's idea of a libertarian but his presidency provides a tremendous opportunity to advance libertarian policies, outcomes, and aspirations in our politics and broader culture. Those of us who believe in reducing the size, scope, and spending of the federal government and expanding the autonomy, opportunities, and ability of people to live however they choose should welcome the Trump era. That's not because of the new president's agenda but because he enters office as the man who will inevitably close out a failing 20th-century model of governance.

Liberal, conservative, libertarian: We all understand that whatever the merits of the great political, economic, and cultural institutions of the last 70 years—the welfare state built on unsustainable entitlement spending; a military that spends more and more and succeeds less and less; the giant corporations (ATT, IBM, General Motors) that were "beyond" market forces until they weren't; rigid social conventions that sorted people into stultifying binaries (black and white, male and female, straight and mentally ill)—these are everywhere in ruins or retreat.

The taxi cab—a paradigmatic blending of private enterprise and state power in a system that increasingly serves no one well—is replaced by ride-sharing services that are endlessly innovative, safer, and self-regulating. Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson's campaign slogan—Uber everything—was the one self-evident truth uttered throughout the 2016 campaign. All aspects of our lives are being remade according to a new, inherently libertarian operating system that empowers individuals and groups to pursue whatever experiments in living they want. As one of us (Nick Gillespie) wrote with Matt Welch in The Declaration of Independents, the loosening of controls in our commercial, cultural, and personal lives has consistently enriched our world. The sharing economy, 3D printing and instantaneous global communication means businesses grow, flourish, adapt, and die in ways that perfectly fulfill Schumpeterian creative destruction. We live in a world where consuming art, music, video, text, and other forms of creative expression is its own form of production and allows us to connect in lateral rather than hierarchical ways. Pernicious racial and ethnic categories persist but they have been mostly supplanted by a tolerance and a level of lived pluralism that was unimaginable even 20 years ago, when less than half of Americans approved of interracial marriages. Politics, Welch and Gillespie wrote, is a lagging indicator of where America is already heading and in many cases has already arrived.

Thus the White House Donald Trump enters and the government he heads is being dragged into the 21st century by forces against which he will ultimately be proven impotent. He famously wants to "make America great again," by which he means to return to the imagined world of his younger years, when the United States could dominate (or pretend to, anyway) the global economy, keep jobs from leaving, and successfully direct foreign affairs from the barrel of a tank or via international accords. That for his entire baby-boomer life the country was rarely "winning" on any of those scores is beside the point to Trump, even as it's important for the rest of us to realize that even as we were "losing" all wars (except the one that mattered most, the Cold War) and losing manufacturing jobs and gaining immigrants, our standards of living increased massively. What Donald Trump fundamentally doesn't understand is that our politics and culture aren't about winning and losing; they are about improving our options, opportunities, and possibilities.

Trump enters the White House with historically low approval ratings. This is not merely his fault by any stretch. His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, was similarly distrusted, a reflection of broad loss of faith not in this or that candidate but the entire political system and especially the two major parties, Congress, and most parts of the federal government. Our declining faith and confidence in government are direct results of failures in government to deliver what it promises and, as a majority has long believed, a belief that it is trying to do too much. Trump is coming after not just eight years of an imperial presidency but 16 years of such behavior. For the entirety of the 21st century, the White House has been occupied by men who consistently arrogated more and more power to themselves, often only advancing their complex and self-serving legal arguments in secret or amongst their own advisers.

Trump's bullying personality, seemingly boundless egotism, and personal vindictiveness simply pour gasoline on the fire that is already lit. Serious conservatives and, at least temporarily, many conventional liberals have a heightened appreciation of limiting government power, especially in the executive branch. From secret kill lists to limitless surveillance to an endless list of presidential orders on everything from workplace rules to immigration, Obama "leaves a loaded gun in the Oval Office" for his successor.

The hysterical left, who dream of political concentration camps, and defense hawks, who conflate Putin's beggared Russia with the Soviet Union at its height of power and influence, see Trump as without any redeeming potential. They're wrong, at least from a libertarian angle. He is an iconoclast and has uttered many statements that suggest he may well be interested in smashing idols and the temples that house them. On some specific issues—such as education, where he has fully supported the idea of school choice for K-12 students—his thinking meshes easily with libertarian sensibilities about devolving more power and choice-making to individuals. He is bullish on lowering regulatory burdens pretty much across the board, which is a long overdue gesture that the last Republican president showed no interest in (George W. Bush authored a then-record number of major regulations). Despite his politically timed conversion to an anti-abortion position, he seems to indeed have the "New York values" that Ted Cruz pathetically tried to smear him with. As befits someone born and raised in the unparalleled mixing chamber of New York, he doesn't seem troubled in the least by gays, lesbians, and all forms of alternative lifestyles. On an individual level at least, he seems to connect with people from all walks of life and all parts of the globe.

In many—perhaps most—other instances, of course, Trump is as far from libertarian as possible. On trade and industrial policy, he is awful and his castigation of immigrants and Muslims as sub-human and unworthy of entry into America is morally repulsive. Such views are also at odds with the vast majority of Americans, two-thirds of whom believe illegals should be given a path not just to legal status but to citizenship (even 50 percent of Republicans agree with this).

But the hallmark of Trump's politics is not its populism but its general incoherence. His mind is a landfill of ideas, attitudes, and policies from the postwar era, some of which (such as economic protectionism) that were wildly popular and even somewhat effective (or at least not ruinous) for periods of time. But there is nothing in Trump's grab-bag of discrepant impulses that can or will speak to the future. That's because he doesn't live there, or even in the present. This is a 70-year-old man, after all, who not only dreams of "closing that Internet up in some way" but thinks that Bill Gates is the guy for the job. Throughout the campaign, he would trot out 80-year-old Carl Icahn, whose stock in trade was (often smartly) selling off company assets after hostile takeovers, as his model economic advisor. If nothing, Icahn's time has passed. Trump famously doesn't use email and even his robust, god-awful, and fully enjoyable Twitter account is stuck in a flame-war mode that was tired before Usenet groups stopped being a big deal.

Washington is broke, unpopular, and dysfunctional. The only important question is what will come next. Clearly, we need a government that spends less and does less but also appeals to most Americans of whatever ideological persuasion. We know what sort of operating system has improved our commercial, cultural, and personal lives: It's one that flows directly from libertarian ideas about maximizing options for individuals and the groups they form to discover and follow their bliss. This commercial-cultural-personal system provides basic frameworks and expectations that facilitate the creation of reputation and expectations of being treated with respect and reciprocity. It's built on persuasion not threats or coercion and allows people to turn away and leave if they want to. It neither requires pre-approval nor does it demand forced affirmation (simple tolerance will do). It calls for consensus as rarely as needed and only when absolutely necessary. When there were only three or four channels on TV, conflict over what was "acceptable" was likely inevitable. In a world of infinite choices that cannot be forced on anyone, discussions over what is good or bad take the form of conversation and not censorship. We have managed to create an operating system that is better than the one it replaced because it lets more and more of us launch whatever applications we want without crashing the whole computer or network. We can learn from each other and mash-up things we want to, however we want to. When we shop at Whole Foods or on Amazon, when we stream at Netflix, when we eat what we want and marry whomever we want, we're all libertarians, regardless of whether we voted for Jeff Sessions or Elizabeth Warren.

The trick, of course, is to translate that live-and-let live ethos, the cornucopia model into politics and government, which by definition precludes exit. Here, Trump's brashness and divisiveness is forcing all of us to realize government isn't and can't be all things to all people without endless conflict. We don't agree on enough to give the power the ability to dictate terms to all of us (and needless to say, such a system can't possibly be fiscally sustainable). In a genuinely powerful, if unintended way, Trump has put everything on the table, and it's that evaluation process we need to start now and move in an unapologetically libertarian direction. Our America has changed vastly since Social Security retirement was created and Medicare passed. The planet is not in a twilight struggle between the two principal political philosophies to emerge from the Enlightenment (liberalism and communism); global terrorism pales in comparison. We are as a planet vastly richer and more educated and more connected and empowered than ever before. More people live in more freedom and they want to get on with living their lives according to their own lights, not the dictates of this or that leader.

Because he is so unpopular, abrasive, and backward-looking, Trump is the end of the line, the last Plantagenet, not the first in a new line of kings. He will rule over not just the end of the Republican Party as we know it, but the end of the federal government as we know it.

Libertarians, our opportunity is now, with conservatives and Republicans fearing what they have wrought and liberals and Democrats terrified that the swollen state they supported may be directed against them. We have a way forward that will scale down the size, scope, and spending of government while transforming the social safety net into an instrument of support and opportunity. We have an increasing number of examples (the sharing economy, Bitcoin) that permissionless innovation provides the great leaps forward that governments promise but rarely deliver. We can replace fiscally unsustainable entitlements to rich old people with unrestricted cash grants to the poor, we can offer children a choice of schools rather than remanding them to minimum-security prisons based on their parents' ZIP codes. We can insist on taxes being recognized as the revenue necessary to run agreed-upon services provided by the government, not an endless scam designed to ratchet up deficit spending. We can demand to be treated as adults, capable of deciding our preferred intoxicants and medical treatments and speech codes. We need to lay all this out both in broad, inspiring strokes and detailed, serious policy plans.

By a two-to-one margin (60 percent to 30 percent), Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a dread that was energized by the two main choices for president offered us in 2016—and then double-underlined in a signature-gold Sharpie by the election of the man who becomes president today. A future in which government is disrupted and diminished—and individuals are empowered and enlivened—is possible, but only if we make it happen.