Libertarians Can Be a Significant Force for Good in U.S. Politics

A Ron Paul utopia isn't in America's future. But the war on drugs could be ended, mass surveillance stopped, and liberty expanded in dozens of smaller but important ways.
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"Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?"

The question was put to New York Times Magazine readers by journalist Robert Draper, who has elicited disdainful responses from Paul Krugman of the Times, Jonathan Chait of New York, and my colleague David Frum. All three concur that the notion of a libertarian ascendancy is an unsophisticated, laughable fantasy. That's a vexing position to hear from this particular trio. If there is no real prospect of tomorrow's voters embracing libertarian ideas, let alone libertarians exercising meaningful power over policy, why have these three spent years dedicating countless hours, numerous articles in prominent publications, and tens of thousands of words criticizing, mocking, and vilifying libertarians, even as centrist elites carried out disastrous policies from Iraq to Wall Street? They're perfectly within their rights to proceed as though libertarianism is a political force that imperils us, or an obvious nonstarter, but it cannot be both.

I'd respectfully argue that libertarianism is neither dangerous nor doomed, and that people who think otherwise are misled by a double standard they use when analyzing this political faction. When they write about a "libertarian moment," they act as if it would mean the immediate embrace of an extreme, ideologically pure version of a philosophy that most actual sympathizers embrace with pragmatic moderation. Yes, if the most radical faction of any ideology that has never before exercised power was suddenly put in charge, that might well end in disaster. But in the real world, libertarian ideas will only ever be implemented partially in a system of checks and balances where modest reforms are difficult to achieve, never mind sweeping, rapid changes. It's true, but trivially so, that neither a libertarian nor a liberal nor conservative utopia is coming. But liberals and conservatives exercise power regularly, so no one is under the silly illusion that their ascendance would entail a pure ideological program untempered by reality.  

"Is libertarian economics at all realistic?" Krugman asks, as if the question is coherent. There are deep disagreements among libertarians about economic policy. There is never a moment when an entire economic philosophy comes up for a vote. It may just be that libertarian thinkers are correct on the merits of some policies, like rent control, and incorrect on others, like the gold standard, and that the prudent thing for a pluralistic society would be to adopt their best ideas and insights, rather than preemptively declaring all libertarian economic ideas unrealistic. 

Republican and Democratic politicians are constantly criticized for compromising their ideals. Yet many Americans imagine that a libertarian politician, if elected, would never compromise. History and incentive theory emphatically say otherwise. There are a lot of people, including commenters on this site, who laugh at Fox News' absurd characterizations of liberals, yet somehow cling to similarly cartoonish notions of what libertarians are. The danger libertarians pose to America is like the danger that sharks pose to humans: wildly exaggerated by a media that reports on extreme events as if they're typical and reacts to Atlas Shrugged in the same way shark-phobics reacted to Jaws.

Such is the context for the overheated responses when libertarian ideas are treated seriously. When Robert Draper, or a Reason magazine staffer, or other bearish commentators speak of a "libertarian moment," they're not anticipating a Ron Paul-like figure ascending to the White House and ritually debasing the Federal Reserve, or the wholesale elimination of the welfare state, or a radical Libertarian Party presidential candidate suddenly breaking America's de facto system of two-party rule. The relevant question is whether younger voters will support policies and elect leaders that enhance liberty in comparison to the status quo. If that's what is meant by "a libertarian moment," and it seems like a perfectly reasonable definition of the phrase to me, then we may indeed be witnessing one. 

I'd make a more modest claim: that the abject failure of Democrats and Republicans, including politicians enthusiastically supported by Krugman, Chait, and Frum—as well as the ambivalence people like them display to grave, widespread civil liberties violations, lawbreaking by government officials, and the power of the national-security state—has created an opening for libertarian-leaning independents to make gains with the public, if they can transcend the cult of personality that surrounds Ron Paul; avoid picking misguided, counterproductive battles like the one over raising the debt ceiling; and embrace a conception of liberty that isn't so narrowly focused on tax rates and property. There are problems with the libertarian movement, just as there are problems with the conservative and progressive movements. The best critiques of smart anti-libertarians like Krugman, Chait, and Frum shouldn't ever be thoughtlessly dismissed. Their critiques would improve libertarianism if taken to heart.

At the same time, libertarianism's critics error when they focus so much attention on Ayn Rand, the libertarian movement, the Libertarian Party, or pols like Paul. In the future, libertarian gains are likely to come when Republicans and Democrats, liberals, conservatives, and independents, co-opt their most popular ideas. That's how libertarian ideas have prevailed in the past, on issues as varied as deregulation of telecoms, free-trade deals that have lifted many out of poverty, and opposition to sodomy laws, book bans, and censored art. In his Times article, Draper commits a similar analytical mistake. He writes:

This is not the first moment that libertarians have claimed as their own. In 1971, The New York Times Magazine published on its cover a 5,200-word article by two young authors (one of them was Louis Rossetto Jr., later a founding publisher of Wired) who pronounced libertarianism “undoubtedly the fastest-growing movement in the country.” That same year, the Libertarian Party was formed; a year later, its 1972 presidential ticket of the philosophy professor John Hospers and the TV talk-show host Tonie Nathan received one electoral vote. Forty years later, little had changed. The Libertarian Party’s 2012 candidate, Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, spent a million dollars and received more than a million votes—a better showing than any of his party’s predecessors, but not good enough to even remotely sway either the presidential election or the terms of the national debate.

Actually, 40 years later, a lot has changed! Men are no longer arrested for having gay sex. There hasn't been another military draft. Public-housing projects and price controls were dismantled. Ron Paul literally did change the terms of nationally televised debates. That Gary Johnson did no better than John Hospers says very little save that third-party presidential candidates cannot win in our system.

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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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