Why the 'Libertarian Moment' Isn't Really Happening

Much of the libertarian appeal is probably as simple as the isolationist reaction that tends to overtake the United States after military conflicts. Libertarians always want to cut the defense budget, and after Iraq and Afghanistan, many orthodox Republicans felt in the mood to agree with them. Yet it’s also true that post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan, the Republicans remain the party of assertive nationalism—and the party more comfortable with the use of force. It’s telling that prior to running for president, Rand Paul has reinvented his own past views both on Israel and on drone attacks inside Afghanistan. Isolationism alone doesn't explain the rise of libertarianism inside the GOP.

Libertarianism diverges from ordinary conservatism in many ways, but perhaps most fundamentally in this: 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.

“There's something called fusion centers, something that are supposed to coordinate between the federal government, the local government to find terrorists," Paul said at one point. "The one in Missouri a couple years ago came up with a list, and they sent this to every policeman in Missouri. The people on the list might be me. The people on the list from the fusion center in Missouri that you need to be worried about, that policemen should stop, are people that have bumper stickers that might be pro-life, who have bumper stickers that might be for more border security, people who support third-party candidates, people who might be in the Constitution Party.”

The claim that the president might at any moment order death from the skies upon people whose only offense was to paste a pro-life bumper sticker on their car might once have seemed laughable to Republicans. Since 2009, it has become credible. That is the emotional basis of the “libertarian moment.”

Like all political movements, libertarianism binds together many divergent strands. It synthesizes the classical liberalism of the 1860s with the human-potential movement of the 1960s. It joins elegant economic theory to the primitive insistence that only metal can be money. It mingles nostalgia for the vanished American frontier with fantasies drawn from science fiction. It offers three cheers both for thrift, sobriety, and bourgeois self-control and three more for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.  It invokes the highest ideals of American constitutionalism—and is itself invoked by the most radical critics of the American state and nation, from neo-Confederates to 9/11 Truthers.

For mainstream conservatives, concerned about the growth of government since 2008, libertarianism can sometimes sound like only a slightly more exuberant version of what they already believe. Until recently, however, the differences have mattered more than the similarities, just as American liberals have usually found that their differences with socialists mattered more than the similarities.

Until recently, a mainstream conservative might yearn for lower taxes, lighter regulation, and privatization of government services. But mainstream conservatives also championed effective policing and strong national defense. Mainstream conservatives had made their peace with some forms of social insurance. They had absorbed the Keynesian idea that governments could and should act to counteract recessions and depressions.

Yet since 2008, those differences have blurred. The libertarians interviewed by Robert Draper talk about their movement’s exciting, bold ideological vision. Yet the true secret to its post-2008 appeal is just the opposite. Those conservatives who succumb to libertarianism do so in despair, not hope. Instead of competing to govern the state, many now feel that their only hope is defend themselves—with arms if necessary—against an inherently and inevitably hostile and predatory state.

Conservatives who still want to compete, win, and govern must trust that this despair will pass. The “libertarian moment” will last as long as, and no longer than, it takes conservatives to win a presidential election again. Unfortunately, the libertarian moment is itself the most immediate and the most difficult impediment to the political success that will be libertarianism’s cure.

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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