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

Important libertarian victories are happening right now. Consider drug prohibition, which is being challenged in multiple states, as are draconian sentencing rules. Like gay marriage, criminal-justice reform seems poised to sweep the nation within a generation.

Frum reductively dismisses youth opposition to the war on drugs as "social liberalism." I disagree, but the self-perceived ideological affiliation of young people is beside the point. Drug reform has been a core goal of libertarians for decades. The war on drugs has done as much as any policy in modern U.S. history to erode the Bill of Rights, particularly the 4th Amendment, to squander taxpayer dollars, to militarize the police, and to empower murderous cartels abroad. The reforms we're witnessing constitute significant expansions of liberty.

Frum is a committed partisan, which I don't intend as an insult. Since leaving the Bush administration, he has offered intelligent critiques of the GOP, many of which would improve that party if more Republicans earnestly grappled with them. But Washington, D.C., insiders who've dedicated themselves to improving America through the mediating institution of one political party are often blind to different approaches. A substantive policy victory that does nothing to boost movement libertarianism, or the Libertarian Party, or a particular libertarian politician, or libertarianism's place within the Republican Party, may not seem like a "libertarian moment" or "libertarian victory" to an institutionalist like Frum. He may find libertarianism important only insofar as it affects the Republican Party.

Yet many who think of themselves as libertarians (or who are friendly to many but not all libertarian goals, like me) don't particularly care who is ascendant in Washington, or what party affiliation appears beside the name of a legislator. If fewer people are caged for inhaling the smoke of a plant, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer people's doors are kicked in late at night by police officers dressed in combat fatigues, that's a libertarian victory. If more cancer patients can legally obtain a substance that alleviates their suffering, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer assets are seized by police without proof of guilt, that's a libertarian victory. (Were I to embrace the rhetorical tactics of Paul Krugman, I might point to the war on drugs and ask, "Is non-libertarain domestic policy at all realistic?")

There are, I hasten to add, intense disagreements among libertarians about which future victories are most important. In Frum's article, he writes that "young voters are more likely than their elders to believe that government should intervene in the economy to create jobs. They support government aid to education and healthcare more than any other age group. Their voting behavior tracks their values: Under-30s massively voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012."

He is right, of course, that young people are at odds with libertarians on various issues of importance to both groups. But America could be a much more libertarian country than it is even with more federal education and healthcare aid. The United States could be as libertarian as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and still embrace a social safety net that involved coercive transfers to poor people. Efforts to provide equality of opportunity and a safety net do require the redistribution of wealth—but we're a society with wealth beyond the wildest dreams of even elderly Americans still alive today, and apart from the coercion inherent in any taxes, there are ways to deliver both of those goods without reducing liberty, which is why more libertarians ought to make peace with them.

Frum sees the fact that under-30s voted for Obama in 2008 as evidence that they weren't at all libertarian. But based on the promises made in that election, I'd argue that libertarians who supported Obama over McCain (as I did) acted perfectly reasonably, because I believe that a penchant for launching wars of choice, support for indefinite detention without trial, and an expansive view of executive power are far more ruinous to liberty than, say, favoring Clinton-era rather than Bush-era tax rates. There are libertarians who'd kick me out of the Free State for such beliefs. (And fair enough. I'm a classical liberal who is happy to stay in California.) Other libertarians would eagerly endorse a guaranteed basic income for every American if it could be severed once and for all from the coercive, metastasizing welfare state. They understand that the Iraq War cost far more in blood and treasure than any policy antiwar Democrats could've passed. A commitment to liberty and freedom precludes loyalty to either political party. Both perpetrate awful abuses. The GOP provides no real home for libertarians, who should engage with the two-party system opportunistically.

The United States is a big, sprawling, complicated nation that faces an array of complex policy challenges. Doctrinaire libertarians don't have all the answers any more than any other ideological faction. Insofar as they have an advantage over their more mainstream competitors, it springs from the law of diminishing returns: We've long since tried the most popular conservative and progressive ideas. 

Opponents of libertarianism, like Frum, try to ensure that libertarians will never come to power in part through legitimate critiques, but also by portraying centrist, libertarian-leaning Republicans as if they're radical extremists, even on policies where they're actually taking brave stances in opposition to the extremism of Republicans and Democrats. This is illustrated most clearly in the passage Frum writes about Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican with mild libertarian sympathies, and the filibuster he launched on the subject of drone strikes. 

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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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