George Will Flirts With Denim Clad Libertarians


America's most widely syndicated columnist says "government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous." Can liberals be persuaded that he's right?

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As the most widely syndicated newspaper columnist in America, George Will is tremendously influential, especially among conservatives, who rightly regard him as an elder statesman. He's been turning out paleocon-friendly copy for the Washington Post Writer's Group since 1974, famously helped Ronald Reagan prep for his 1980 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter, and burnished his culturally conservative credentials with a 2009 column lamenting the scourge of blue jeans, calling them a "blight" that are "symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche."

But lately there's been a subtle change in Will's columns -- more than ever before, he is edging toward pragmatic libertarianism, going so far as to dedicate a whole column to praising the new book co-written by Reason magazine editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie (who is invariably clad in pants of decadent denim). The book's thesis: libertarian-leaning independents can fix what's wrong with American politics. Longtime readers of Will know that he's never been a partisan hack: he criticized Nixon during Watergate and George W. Bush for much of his tenure. It is nevertheless noteworthy that he has endorsed a book that asserts neither the Republican nor Democratic party deserves our loyalty.

Beyond that concession, has his libertarian streak gone too far? That's the argument Scott Galupo has made at U.S. News and World Report. It's been seconded by Andrew Sullivan. Here is the line of argument to which they both object: "America is moving in the libertarians' direction not because they have won an argument but because government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous," Will wrote. "This has, however, opened minds to the libertarians' argument."

In response, Galupo declares that this "heavy petting" with libertarianism has rendered Will himself "ludicrous." Claiming to miss the "old, sane" George Will, Galupo digs into the columnist's archives. What follows are a series of quotes. In 1975, Will spoke out in favor of the welfare state. In 1983, he defended sobriety checkpoints against civil libertarians. The same year, he argued that "'strong government conservatism' is not a contradiction in terms," and insisted that both FDR and Reagan "are versions of the basic program of the liberal-democratic political impulse." In 1988, he pointed out that Reagan didn't seem particularly concerned about his deficit raising policies. And in 1990, he made the case for government spending on infrastructure and transportation.

Galupo thinks these columns, all at least two decades old, are in conflict with the assertion that, circa 2011, "government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous." I disagree. Will's statement is a perfectly defensible assessment of reality, or so I'll argue. And it's liberals and independents that I hope to convince. There is a strain of libertarianism that is perfectly willing to concede the necessity of smart financial regulation, environmental law, and a safety net that ensures poor people have access to food, shelter, and medical attention, none of which is incompatible with the notion that the status quo in government is "so foolish or unreasonable as to be amusing." In failing to understand that perspective, liberals lose potential allies who are defecting from the Republican Party, but scoff at the idea of becoming Democrats.

Let's begin by defining "government and the sectors it dominates." As I see it, those sectors include a Defense Department that is more accurately described as the Department of War, other agencies in the federal bureaucracy, Social Security, Medicare, domestic law enforcement including federal, state, and local police, public education, the U.S. Postal Service, and transportation bureaucrats. Note that I am not calling for these agencies and programs to be abolished, or asserting that they're unnecessary, or that they do no good work, or that their employees are malign. My claim is that there are absurdities in each of these areas, and obvious reforms compatible with libertarian thought would help. If nothing else, let this be an explanation, for those who can't conceive of this viewpoint, of why some people regard government with such skepticism.


What do George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have in common? All backed the Iraq War. President Obama opposed it, but he is breaking his promise to remove U.S. troops from that country, has invested billions on the dubious notion that we can build civil society in Afghanistan, has launched an illegal war against Libya, and is waging an undeclared drone war in numerous countries that may well create as much extremism as it destroys. Both major parties agree that spending on the military should exceed Cold War levels, despite the fact that none of our enemies pose anything approaching the threat represented by the Soviet Union. And what politicians are the most consistent critics of the status quo?

Ron Paul, Rand Paul and Gary Johnson, a long with anti-war Democrats like Dennis Kucinich, who is likely being drawn out of his Ohio Congressional district for his trouble. Unless President Obama faces a challenger for the Democratic nomination, or Paul or Johnson wins the GOP nomination, none of which is likely, voters who dissent from the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington DC won't have any candidate to back. In a country where a lot of rank-and-file Democrats, Republicans and independents are averse to an America that is the world's policeman, and who last elected a Democrat who ran on an anti-war platform, that's absurd.


In airports, we're subject to naked scanners and intrusive pat-downs that reduce some air passengers to tears. Minorities are imprisoned for drug infractions at significantly higher rates than white people, though they are no more likely to use drugs. In order to bust people for possession of marijuana, paramilitary squads are kicking down doors in the dead of night, tossing flash grenades into family homes, shooting pet dogs, and tasing suspects. Though legal in some states, the federal government continues to raid medical marijuana dispensaries, despite the fact that the current president promised as a candidate that he'd put a stop to such raids.

In many cases, a warrant is no longer required to spy on American citizens, who've given up unprecedented amounts of privacy in the name of being safer from terrorism. Naturally police use these new-found powers even when investigating matters other than terrorism. Hysteria about sex offenders has led to registries that include people whose only crime was having sex with their high school girlfriend, or forwarding a sexually explicit text message sent to them by a middle school classmate, or streaking at a football game. Texas executed an innocent man, and its governor didn't even take the time to thoroughly review the case. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms deliberately sold assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels. Federal prosecutors have spent countless man hours trying to prove that professional athletes lied about using steroids. Police routinely arrest citizens for videotaping them even in states where doing so is legal. 


Unlike many libertarians, I don't have a desire to privatize social security, nor do I object to the idea of providing health care to elderly people who cannot afford it. What strikes me as absurd about the status quo is the perpetuation of an ever more expensive social welfare program that spends much of its funds on the wealthy, and redistributes from young to old more than from rich to poor.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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