From its beginnings as a distinct ideological movement in the postwar years, libertarianism has been a set of outsider ideas vastly disrespected by most American politicians and intellectuals. It was kept alive by small institutions, publications, and scattered academics (mostly in economics at first) who for decades were largely concerned with just keeping any expression of these ideas a going concern, barely expecting it could soon seriously influence mainstream political culture. (That story is told up to the turn of the 21st century in my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.)
Libertarians understand they are still to a large degree strangers in a strange land when it comes to the American political scene, struggling for impact in a world they never made, and any number of other cliches indicating that obvious truth: libertarianism is still a minority idea and libertarians are still embroiled in a difficult and long-term fight to influence political ideology and practice in America. Libertarians are generally not delusional on that point.
When it comes to awareness and acceptance of the overarching principles of libertarianism, even if not to their actuation across the board in governing, the situation for libertarianism is America has gotten much better in the 21st century along many dimensions. As Reason's Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie have argued, an often pre-political embrace of the options, variety, and choice inherent in the libertarian vision of free minds and free markets has spread massively in American culture, even if government qua government isn't shrinking.
One of the ironic demonstrations of libertarianism's inroads in American culture is that mainstream outlets find it necessary frequently to declare it dead, irrelevant, or fatally wounded. Lately we've had Tim Alberta in Politico assuring us that the libertarian dream is dead; and Adam Ozimek in Forbes saying libertarianism could be more successful if only it would narrow its vision a little.
Politico makes a good point as far as it goes: Until Donald Trump's bold political entrepreneurship proved surprisingly successful, there was reason to believe the GOP might be more inclined to go for a libertarian-leaning candidate such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) rather than someone like Trump, policy-wise a Buchananite populist in the Rick Santorum style (to point to the nearest even slightly successful precursor in the GOP), but with less sanctimony, less even half-convincing Christianity, and more aggressive crudity and lack of intellectual polish.
Examining the respective political fates of Paul and Trump in the 2016 presidential race, now we know better. But by the very fact that it is an outsider political movement not fully at home in either major party, nothing about libertarianism's correctness or its hopes for the future depend on some short term victory; certainly nothing about the American people's choice of aggressive protectionist nationalism (to the extent we can be sure what people thought they were getting when they choose Trump) proves that libertarianism is either mistaken or dead.
It just proves libertarianism remains what it has been since it arose as a distinct movement in America after World War II: a small fighting rump, but one whose spread and reach is as high as it's ever been, even if it has failed in 2016, as it has always failed, to win the White House.
Otherwise, Politico's long article is merely a portrait of a moment in time, not the final fate of an ideology. Its observational power is mostly rooted in noting that, while he occasionally talks a libertarian-sounding game when it comes to, say, regulation, Trump is overall very opposed to the larger libertarian vision of truly free markets, respect for property rights, and restrained government power. True, and understood; especially as Trump's pre-election rhetoric that hinted at the possibility he might be less bellicose than his predecessors overseas is drowned out in the sound of exploding missiles.
Alberta's Politico article is a portrait of libertarianism as a philosophy still where it's always been: not a comfortable fit with either major party. But it has a greater grip on a greater number of prominent politicians, and Americans (see, for just one easily quantifiable example, the Libertarian Party nearly quadrupling its highest previous vote total) than ever in modern history.
If libertarians are right—or even on the right path—with their understanding that our government is overtaxing, overspending, overregulating, and overextending its reach both into the lives of its citizens and across the globe in ways that make many people's lives worse and our future more perilous, then American history will show it an idea that's neither dead nor needing extensive pruning, as Ozimek in Forbes seems to believe.
Libertarianism: Is Less More?
Ozimek should rest assured that a narrowly-funded, scrappy, outsider ideological movement that has never quite been able to find a national politician they can all get behind (not even Ron Paul) knows full well that a majority of Americans don't yet agree with them.
That's the purpose of an organized minority ideological movement such as libertarianism: to do the research, education, advocacy, electioneering, and storytelling that might help Americans see that, to survey some libertarian ideas, the drug war is both wrong and unproductive; that stealing property from citizens without charging them with a crime is unjust; that market and price mechanisms need to play a role in a sensible and affordable health care market; that our foreign interventions often merely sow the seeds for the next perceived necessary foreign intervention.
With that understood—this basic idea that a radical and small movement for ideological change is trying to move the political needle somewhere it isn't already—Ozimek's basic argument that most Americans don't seem to shape their own decision-making or voting around small government proves libertarianism is terribly flawed and needs rethinking doesn't bear much weight. (Nick Gillespie explained here 12 years ago why obviously decisions other than tax rates or regulation are going to shape people's decisions about where to live as life is, blessedly, about more than just taxes and regulations.)
Ozimek has a narrow set of libertarian ideas he thinks are important and workable, and they are indeed part of the libertarian movement message. Precisely what they are isn't quite clear—he writes that "people want quality of life, economic growth, and good government. All three of these can be helped on some margins by utilizing market forces, deregulating, and increasing freedom. Libertarianism should focus on these margins, and accept that the all-too-popular vision of radical freedom and minimal government at all costs is not wanted by enough people to actually matter."
It sounds like what Ozimek really should be concluding, if he indeed believes that stuff about bettering the world through "utilizing market forces" etc. is that people and politicians that are not libertarian should be more libertarian. And that's what libertarians are trying to accomplish.
What advantage—for the libertarian as opposed for the Ozimekan—from pursuing a narrower vision of freedom and limited government is not clear from this essay. Nor is it clear exactly what ideas of the libertarian movement he is recommending jettisoning, or keeping. (While Ozimek isn't rigorous on this point, he seems to be implying that somehow the existence of very libertarian people or arguments is harming the cause of slight libertarian improvement. I addressed whether libertarian extremism, that is, a full or radical version of the small-government vision, was harming the movement writ large last year. I didn't find the case proven.)
Libertarianism certainly hasn't cleared the field in American political culture yet. But to be held to such a standard, when 20 years ago it was considered so unknown and insignificant that publications of the stature and focus of a Forbes or Politico would never have bothered running articles about how and why it's allegedly failing and fading, is its own kind of victory in political culture, and a necessary prelude to more important ones.