America's Libertarian Moment

A longtime libertarian policy wonk talks about whether the philosophy can save the GOP -- and why he still doesn't think Rand Paul can win the presidency.
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Associated Press

Libertarianism is on the march. From the rapid rise to prominence of first-term Senator Rand Paul to the state-level movements to legalize gay marriage and marijuana, the philosophy of fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, and restrained foreign policy seems to be gaining currency in American politics. But it's nothing new, of course. (New York Times Magazine, 1971: "The New Right Credo: Libertarianism.") A lonely band of libertarian thinkers have been propounding this philosophy since the 1960s, when the late thinker Murray Rothbard published his first book, Reason magazine was founded, and, in 1974, Rothbard teamed up with Charles Koch and Ed Crane to found the Cato Institute, one of Washington's most influential think tanks.

David Boaz, Cato's executive vice president, has been with the organization since 1981, giving him a good perch to put the current libertarian vogue in perspective. In an interview this week, we talked about the political currents propelling libertarianism into the political mainstream, the Supreme Court's libertarian turn, whether Paul will be our next president, and much more. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.


Is there a libertarian moment happening in America?

Libertarian ideas -- and I'm never using a capital L [i.e., referring to the Libertarian Party] when I say that; in this case I don't even mean consciously libertarian, so not just the people who read Reason magazine and Murray Rothbard and call themselves libertarians -- libertarian ideas are very deeply rooted in America. Skepticism about power and about government, individualism, the idea that we're all equal under the law, free enterprise, getting ahead in the world through your own hard work -- all of those ideas are very fundamentally American. Obviously, from a libertarian point of view, America nonetheless has done a whole lot of things, from slavery to Obamacare, that offend some number of those libertarian values, but the core libertarian attitude is still there. And a lot of times when the government suddenly surges in size, scope, or power, those libertarian attitudes come back to the fore.

I think that's what you're seeing. I think you're seeing a growth of self-conscious libertarianism. The end of the Bush years and the beginning of the Obama years really lit a fire under the always-simmering small-government attitudes in America. The TARP, the bailouts, the stimulus, Obamacare, all of that sort of inspired the Tea Party. Meanwhile, you've simultaneously got libertarian movements going on in regard to gay marriage and marijuana. And I'll tell you something else that I think is always there. The national media were convinced that we would be getting a gun-control bill this year, that surely the Newtown shooting would overcome the general American belief in the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And then they pushed on the string and it didn't go anywhere. Support for gun control is lower today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. I think that's another sign of America's innate libertarianism.

This year you have a whole series of scandals that at least call into question the efficacy, competence, and trustworthiness of government. The IRS, maybe the Benghazi cover-up, and the revelations about surveillance. All of those things together, I think, have lit a fire to the smoldering libertarianism of the American electorate.

None of which necessarily means that there's a libertarian majority that will sweep Rand Paul to the White House or anything like that. But there are a lot of people who care a lot, and a lot more people who care some, about these things, and a majority of Americans think our taxes are too high, a majority of Americans think the federal government spends too much, a majority of Americans think it was a mistake to get into Iraq. A bare majority of Americans now favor gay marriage, a bare majority favor marijuana legalization, a huge majority think there should be a requirement to balance the federal budget. So if you're a presidential candidate you don't call yourself a libertarian and run on Murray Rothbard's book, you run on those issues. And on those issues, you find a lot that a majority agrees with.

What is the significance of Rand Paul to this discussion?

Rand Paul is clearly the most significant libertarian-leaning American political figure in a long time. There are a couple of issues I disagree with him on, but when you look at issues that cut across left-right boundaries, like his interest in reduced spending, less regulation, reining in our adventurous foreign policy, protecting America's rights against surveillance -- that's a combination of issues that libertarians have waited a long time to find together in one candidate. I think he can have a lot of appeal. A lot of libertarians, including those who came out of the Ron Paul movement but also others, are very interested in seeing how far his political ambitions might take him.

How does libertarianism figure into the war of ideas that's going on in the Republican Party? Is the GOP poised to embrace libertarianism?

I think they're poised to debate it. Rand Paul is going to be in the middle of the people debating the future of the Republican Party. Rand Paul has said he doesn't call himself a libertarian; he calls himself a libertarian Republican, small L-capital R, and he does sometimes say that the party needs to move in a more libertarian direction to broaden its appeal to young people and independent voters.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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