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.

Presented by

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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