Are Libertarians Going Soft?

Strange times: Paul Ryan embraces anti-poverty programs, business groups strike back, and The Economist lauds regulation and downplays privacy concerns.
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Jonathan Rauch, one of the keenest observers of American public life (and a contributing editor at The Atlantic), reminded a group of worried progressives recently that whenever extremist forces seem poised to take over the United States, moderate counterforces move in and save the day. He had no need to mention the key examples, because they are well-known: Ted Cruz ought to take note of what happened to Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and, above all, the Moral Majority.

In recent days, Representative Paul Ryan has set out to develop an anti-poverty program—a compassionate libertarianism?—not something Ayn Rand would have approved of. While the details are still forthcoming, the Wisconsin Republican is emphasizing the need to enhance social mobility and to encourage volunteerism to help those in need. Perhaps this stems from little more than Ryan’s desire to differentiate himself from another Tea Party favorite, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has cornered the extreme libertarian position.

But it sure is winning him conservative kudos. Bill Bennett approves, according to the Washington Post: “You can’t be the governing party unless you offer people a way out of poverty.” Scott Winship, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, adds: “There’s definitely a feeling that conservatives need to get in this arena.” The very fact that some one like Ryan is willing to go beyond blunt individualism is a sign—however early and tentative—of some softening in the Republican Party's libertarian wing.

Powerful business interests help drive the shift. Both the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just pledged to become more involved in primary elections to back center-right and “business-oriented” candidates against Tea Party insurgents and incumbents. In an Alabama special primary election, for example, the Chamber spent nearly $200,000 in support of an establishment-friendly candidate against a Tea Party-type. Other major businesses have joined in the effort, with AT&T, ExxonMobil, Home Depot, and Walmart all contributing money to oppose the Tea Party candidate.

Even more revealing are two recent articles in The Economist, a publication that espouses libertarianism in a way that is much more subtle than the slick libertarian magazine called Reason. The Economist must have recently found religion—why else would it suddenly report that libertarianism can go too far and that rights may be bent to help the common good?

Libertarian ideology has been a driving force behind several states that rolled back laws requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Toeing the libertarian line, a Nebraska lawmaker justified his bill to roll back helmet requirements on the grounds that the “government shouldn’t tell people what to do.” Other libertarians rally behind the slogan, “Let those who ride—decide!”

The Economist, however, highlights that following a repeal of a helmet law in Michigan, motorcyclist fatalities rose 18 percent. When Texas got rid of its helmet laws, deaths per mile ridden spiked by 25 percent. Riders who do survive typically run up hospital bills in excess of $1 million. The magazine stresses that taxpayers foot nearly two thirds of these costs. After these upfront charges, these patients cost society plenty more, since fewer than one in three will ever work again following a serious crash. Hence The Economist effectively embraces a counter slogan: “Let those who pay have a say.” It’s a valid position, but far from the standard libertarian line that is The Economist’s usual fare.

Protection of privacy is a leading libertarian cause that finds wide support on the right and left. Beyond the NSA scandals, many fear violation of privacy by new technologies--above all Google Glass, which can film all you see and put it on the Internet. The Economist surprisingly lists a number of public goods that come from this and other widespread use of personal recording devices. Outfitting police officers with cameras that record encounters with the public results in significantly fewer public complaints filed and inspires a reduction in the use of force by officers. In Afghanistan, a British soldier who murdered a wounded Afghan was captured on film by a camera mounted on a fellow soldier’s helmet. His recent conviction based upon this evidence might deter future abuses by members of the armed forces.

At the same time, digital records from personal surveillance devices have proven useful at resolving interpersonal disputes without recourse to lawsuits, saving those involved significant expense and reducing the burden on the legal system. In Russia, it is common for cars to have dash-cams recording footage, so as to fend off an epidemic of insurance fraudsters who leap in front of vehicles—both moving and stopped—to try to bilk the driver or her insurance company out of money.

Finally, The Economist notes that there are a number of ways such technology could be used in pursuit of the common good. It speculates that facial recognition software combined with face-mounted devices like Glass could detect dangerous individuals before they walk in a door—useful for those charged with private security detail at bars and concerts. Those with memory impairments might also use them to identify people and places that would otherwise be familiar to them. There might be all variety of educational benefits from the widespread use of such devices, from medicine to engineering.

True, The Economist allows that bullies have used personal recording technology to humiliate victims, and creeps to take discreet sexualized photographs of women in public spaces, and the magazine worries that this technology can be hacked or used to blackmail or coerce people who are captured at a sensitive moment—though these come as an afterthought.

These are merely straws in the wind. But they suggest the wind is shifting. Usually during primaries, those on hard right (and the liberal left) do better than moderates. Could Republican primaries 2014 bring about some softening on the right—just as most everyone sees a domination of the most far-out voices?

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Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

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