Libertarian Moment

Kevin Williamson Declares the 'Passing of the Libertarian Moment.' Again.

Are you freer now than you were 10 years ago? And what about a decade from now?


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At The Atlantic, new (and controversial) contributor Kevin Williamson makes his debut by declaring "The Passing of the Libertarian Moment":

Senator Rand Paul is a man out of time. It was only a few years ago that the editors of Reason magazine held him up as the personification of what they imagined to be a "libertarian moment," a term that enjoyed some momentary cachet in the pages of The New York Times, The Atlantic, Politico (where I offered a skeptical assessment), and elsewhere….

The view from 2018 is rather different. The GOP finds itself in the throes of a populist convulsion, an ironic product of the fact that the party that long banqueted on resentment of the media now is utterly dominated by the alternative media constructed by its own most dedicated partisans. It is Sean Hannity's party now.

As the co-coiner (with Matt Welch) of the libertarian moment term, I wear my grief on my sleeve and am typing through my tears. But as, in Williamson's own phrasing, "a true-believing libertarian, [who] insists even in the teeth of the current authoritarian ascendancy that we still are experiencing a national—yes!—'libertarian moment,'" I remain unconvinced. In the original "Libertarian Moment" essay, Matt and I wrote:

If someone looked you in the eye in 1971 and said "Man, you know what? We're about to get a whole lot freer," you might have reasonably concluded that he was nuts, driven mad by taking too much LSD and staring into the sun.

We wrote that almost a decade ago and documented all the ways in which Americans were freer by the end of the 1970s than at the beginning. Today, we can ask ourselves: Are we freer? To answer that question fully, we need to think about not just politics but also social trends and technological innovations, broad global trends, and more. As in 2008, when "The Libertarian Moment" was first published, I'd answer, "Yes, but…"

Let me explain. There is no question that the ascendancy of libertarian-ish politicians is not happening, in the Republican Party or anywhere else. Rand Paul led many of the GOP polls heading into the 2016 primary season before conking out pretty quickly. Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson flirted with double-digit polling during the 2016 campaign before pulling a bit above 3 percent in the final tally. Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) have failed to be fruitful and multiply. Simpatico pols such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have been sent packing into early retirement while Donald Trump's approval ratings are flirting with 50 percent. Even the most true-believing libertarian, stranded on a malfunctioning seastead somewhere, can't even pretend to see a rescue ship on the horizon.

The death of the Libertarian Moment has been declared many times before, but Williamson's formulation certainly has an air of authority about it, and not simply because it's at least the second time in the past four years that the august Atlantic has declared the moment deader than the gold standard. Williamson himself is largely libertarian on policy matters (on matters such as gender identity, he is more of a traditional, even reactionary, conservative). He wrote a book not so long ago (2013)—The End Is Near and It's Going To Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure—that looked forward to an era in which the government would have to stop spending money it doesn't have regardless of what its officials and voters might prefer. Unlike many of his former colleagues at National Review and places such as The Weekly Standard, he doesn't necessarily relish the decline of libertarians even if he insists that we were always "a junior partner" in the Cold War alliance with conservatives against communism.

Williamson writes that while "libertarian attitudes enjoy some political support," Americans generally backhand concrete libertarian policies: "Americans broadly and strongly support a rising minimum wage and oppose entitlement reform with at least equal commitment, and they are far from reliable supporters of free speech and free association or enforcing limits on police powers." Some of this is true, but it's also the case that voters often vote down minimum-wage increases and are increasingly in favor of treating marijuana like alcohol, comfortable with same-sex marriage, and welcoming toward DACA dreamers and immigrants more generally.

In his Atlantic piece, he asks:

The Christian right was able to make its peace with Trump with relative ease, because it is moved almost exclusively by reactionary kulturkampf considerations. "But Hillary!" is all that Falwell and company need to hear, and they won't even hold out for 30 pieces of silver. The Chamber of Commerce made peace, being as it is one of the conservative constituencies getting what it wants out of the Trump administration: tax cuts and regulatory reform. The hawks are getting what they want, too, lately: John Bolton in the White House and an extra $61 billion in military spending in the latest budget bill.

What are the libertarians getting? A man with Richard Nixon's character but not his patriotism, an advocate of Reagan's drug war and Mussolini's economics who dreams of using the FCC to shut down media critics—and possibly a global trade war to boot.

The emphasis on electoral politics is rhetorically powerful but ultimately misplaced. Williamson, a doctrinaire #NeverTrumper, ignores any possible positives coming out of the current moment, such as the deregulatory regime that is taking place at, among other agencies, the FCC. Trump is blustering about the media and surely has no scruples standing in the way of trying to use the FCC to stifle dissent, just as Nixon and LBJ did in the not-distant past. Good luck trying, though, because of both technological change and Ajit Pai, the head of that particular agency, whose commitment to free speech seems pretty damn strong. At places such as the FDA, the EPA, and the Department of Education, a similar if partial dismantling of the administrative state is under way. Despite his obscene increases in Pentagon budgets, Trump has been less bellicose in foreign policy than his two immediate predecessors; indeed, he's being attacked these days for planning to pull out of Syria, a country with whom we're not technically at war (but never mind). He has also managed to oversee the reduction and elimination of various tax expenditures (mortgage-interest and state-and-local tax deductions) and a thoroughgoing reform of the corporate tax system. During the 2016 campaign, Trump was clearly better on the drug war than Hillary Clinton, believing that pot laws should be dealt with at the state level. Despite his attorney general's recent assertions that he'd be going after legalized marijuana, there's no sign that's going to happen. I don't presume that Trump is following any set of principles other than self-aggrandizement, but as Wired's Louis Rossetto has argued, he is downsizing the stature and ultimately the power of presidency and the government more generally. Both Williamson and I respect the hell out of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who told me recently, "I will say that there are some things President Trump has done that I like and there are some things I don't like. Obviously, I like those tax cuts. I think they're good for the economy and good for business. On the other hand, now we're doing tariffs on steel and aluminum."

Williamson's relentlessly dour assessment should serve mostly as a reminder that Trump Derangement Syndrome exists on the right as well as the left. Trump's election has not proven to be an "extinction-level threat" to democracy, the stock market, or the cuteness of puppies. Rather, his presidency is like those of the other baby boomer presidents, a mixed bag that nevertheless allows for wins among losses for libertarians. The same is true when we talk about politics and culture more generally.

As in 2008, the current moment is cloudy and the forecast uncertain. Sometimes, like in the early 1970s, it was just the darkest before the dawn. Other times, it just stays dark forever. Today, we live in a world made better by ride-sharing and Airbnb, continuing declines in severe poverty and violent crime, and the rise of social media and new modes of expression. It has been made worse by any number of things. "Advances," Matt Welch and I wrote, "are inevitably followed by setbacks, and we stagger into the future punch-drunk, more like Muhammad Ali than Rocky Marciano." The real question isn't whether the libertarian moment has passed, but whether we will continue to push forward into the future.