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

Far from suggesting that a U.S. senator like him might be killed by drone, Paul explicitly focused on the sort of American who is actually most vulnerable to the executive branch's disregard for the 5th Amendment. "Nobody questions if planes are flying towards the Twin Towers whether they can be repulsed by the military. Nobody questions whether a terrorist with a rocket launcher or a grenade launcher is attacking us, whether they can be repelled. They don't get their day in court," Paul said. "But if you are sitting in a cafeteria in Dearborn, Michigan, if you happen to be an Arab-American who has a relative in the Middle East and you communicate with them by email and somebody says, oh, your relative is someone we suspect of being associated with terrorism, is that enough to kill you?"

Law professor Ryan Goodman, co-chairman of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, found Senator Paul's questioning useful. In a different way, Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to Obama, justified Paul's line of questioning when he suggested the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, also killed in a drone strike, should've had a more responsible father if he didn't want to die. 

To defend the principle of due process against a president who asserts the power to kill in secret without charges or trial is not to present government as "alien and malign." It is to critique the fallibility of men who inhabit government, not government itself. It is an impulse shared by the framers of the Constitution, not the impulse of an anarchist. Paul understands what Frum is loath to acknowledge: that U.S. officials are capable of perpetrating horrific transgressions against civil and human rights when freed from the constraints of the law and Constitution. This ought to be clear to everyone who served in the same administration as numerous proponents of torturing prisoners, and John Yoo, who believes it may be legal for the president to order a child's testicles crushed.

If you're aware that Richard Nixon wanted to firebomb the Brookings Institution, that J. Edgar Hoover tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into committing suicide, that Bill Clinton presided over the execution of a mental incompetent for political gain, that the CIA delivered a 12-year-old girl into the custody of Moammar Ghaddafy, that the FBI stopped investigating flawed forensic analysis when it saw how many convictions were implicated in the results, and that Vice President Dick Cheney (not unreasonably!) gave the order to shoot down U.S. passenger planes on September 11, 2001, is it really inconceivable that a future president would, perhaps in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, try to carry out a targeted killing of an American on U.S. soil who turned out to be innocent? For goodness' sake, Obama has already killed U.S. citizens with drone strikes, just not on U.S. soil. So it's obvious to Frum that a president can do this abroad—but discrediting even to imagine him doing it closer to home? 

In Frum's view, asserting the power to order secret assassinations of American citizens isn't discrediting—an overseer objecting that that power could eventually be abused is discrediting. That's the sort of extraordinary deference to, and trust in, fallible yet extremely powerful elites that gives libertarians an opening with the public. With greater physical and social distance from elites, they're better able to see their flaws.

The opening may be too narrow to exploit. Libertarians may hurt their own chances by picking the wrong battles. The dumbest, most self-defeating things that libertarians do drive me nuts, too. But I wish them success. Going back to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the present era in American politics began, George W. Bush-style conservatives and Barack Obama-style progressives have both been given opportunities to exercise power. The former launched a catastrophic war of choice that many libertarians opposed. The latter continued egregious abuses of civil liberties, from mass surveillance on Americans to indefinite detention without trial. They've both waged a ruinous war on drugs with no hope of success, made themselves beholden to crony capitalists, persecuted whistleblowers, and presided over civil-rights violations against one of America's most vulnerable minorities, Muslim Americans. (As a writer on the economics beat, Krugman can and does ignore the fact that politicians he supports have done all this, but that doesn't make it less true.) I have no illusions that the libertarian movement is a cure-all. It has ideological blind spots and dysfunction. I do think it can temper the worst excesses of an unaccountable elite, that its best ideas are worth trying, and that it will oppose the initiation of force.

I do think that, if libertarians had wielded more power in bygone years, America would not have passed the Patriot Act, started the phone dragnet, or allowed the Department of Defense to send military equipment to police in places like Ferguson, Missouri. 

On issues where libertarians have a somewhat realistic chance of winning over their fellow citizens—reining in the NSA, eliminating the most inane professional licensing laws, insisting on due process in the War on Terrorism, avoiding foolish wars of choice, ending the war on drugs, reducing the prison population and the militarization of the police—a "libertarian moment" would have a salutary effect on American life. Commentators like Frum, Chait, and Krugman don't see this in large part because, if their output is indicative of their beliefs and priorities, they aren't particularly troubled by NSA spying, or inane professional licensing laws, or civil asset forfeiture, or foolish wars of choice, or the war on drugs. For them, the path to a better America is further empowering an enlightened faction of technocrats within the political party to which they're loyal. On particular issues, their respective prescriptions are sometimes worth trying. But I notice egregious incompetence and abuses—and lots of innocents dying needlessly—on the watches of the leaders they've overzealously supported. Libertarians have concrete policy proposals to protect against such ills. One needn't embrace their entire philosophy to see the wisdom in them.

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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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