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.

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. 

The filibuster was a response to President Obama's radical, unprecedented claim that he is empowered to order, in secret, the extrajudicial assassination of an American citizen, without due process, even far from any battlefield or combat situation. Alarm at this extreme assertion of executive power was hardly a fringe position. Centrist newspapers editorialized against it. Numerous members of Congress expressed their displeasure, along with civil-liberties organizations on the left and the right.  But you wouldn't know that from Frum's distillation of the controversy:

Whereas ordinary conservatism emphasizes the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of government action, libertarianism presents government as alien and malign. When Rand Paul rose early in 2013 to deliver the longest talking filibuster since Strom Thurmond battled civil rights in 1957, he did so not to oppose some new bureaucracy or tax. No, Paul rose to denounce the supposedly looming danger of lethal drone attacks on ordinary law-abiding Americans. “I will speak today until the President responds and says no, we won't kill Americans in cafes; no, we won't kill you at home in your bed at night; no, we won't drop bombs on restaurants,” he said. Repeatedly, Paul insisted that he was not accusing President Obama of plotting the murder of American citizens. Equally repeatedly, however, he made clear that he considered the danger of presidential murder of people like himself real and imminent.

In fact, Paul never once claimed that the murder of people like himself was "imminent." What struck Paul—what ought to have struck us all—is that the Obama administration was so determined to maximize its discretion that it would not, up to that point, disavow the idea that it would strike an American citizen on U.S. soil. Paul was amazed that the White House wouldn't commit to so basic a limiting principle as that. Senator Ron Wyden, a progressive Democrat from Oregon, had the same question. "I’ve asked you how much evidence the president needs to decide that a particular American can be lawfully killed and whether the administration believes that the president can use this authority inside the United States,” he said to CIA Director John Brennan. ”What do you think needs to be done to ensure that members of the public understand more about when the government thinks it’s allowed to kill them, particularly with respect to those two issues: the question of evidence and the authority to use this power within the United States?”

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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