Why the 'Libertarian Moment' Isn't Really Happening

The political philosophy hasn't captured America's youth. But it has made inroads within the Republican Party—inroads the GOP would be wise to resist.
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John Sommers II/Reuters

Has the libertarian moment finally arrived? Robert Draper asks that question in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. His answer: Yes! Young voters are leaning libertarian, he says, and a Rand Paul presidential candidacy could energize those voters for the GOP.

Spoiler alert: Draper’s wrong, emphatically wrong. Young voters are not libertarian, nor even trending libertarian. Neither, for that matter, are older voters. The "libertarian moment" is not an event in American culture. It's a phase in internal Republican Party factionalism. Libertarianism is not pushing Republicans forward to a more electable future. It's pushing them sideways to the extremist margins.

Every serious study of the political attitudes of voters under 30 has discovered them to be the most pro-government age group since the cohort that directly experienced the Great Depression. 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.

It’s demography that explains the shift in ideology.

Nonwhite voters favor government intervention in the economy much more than white voters do. That’s true at every age, both over-60 and under-30. But there are many more nonwhites among under-30s than among over-60s,  so their preferences exert more sway over the group as a whole.

The claim that young voters are trending libertarian rests on three principal data points:

  1. Young voters are more permissive on issues like same-sex marriage and drug legalization than their elders.
  2. Young voters are marginally less supportive of Medicare and Social Security in their present form than are older voters.
  3. Young voters are more alienated from institutions than their elders, including the two existing political parties.

But these points don’t add up to libertarianism. They don’t even present an opening to libertarianism. They reveal (modest) generational self-interest, social liberalism, and political demobilization.

So what’s the basis for Draper’s story? Draper may not be a data guy, but he’s a good reporter, with lively instincts for a story. What he wrote was not true. But it felt true to him. Why?

Libertarianism is not rising in the country, but since 2009 it has exercised increasing influence inside the Republican party.

One measure of the libertarian rise is the waxing fortunes of the Paul dynasty—Ron, the longtime Texas congressman who retired last year, and Rand, his son, a first-term senator from Kentucky. In 1988, Ron Paul ran for president as the nominee of the Libertarian Party, gaining 0.5 percent of the vote. The elder Paul sought the Republican nomination in 2008 and collected only a couple of dozen delegates. In 2012, however, Ron Paul burst into prime time. More than 2 million Republicans cast ballots for him, earning him a fourth-place finish and nearly 200 delegates. Now Rand is preparing to run in 2016. He’s generally regarded as a highly plausible candidate, if an unlikely winner. 

Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign raised nearly $15 million. The Wall Street Journal estimates that Rand Paul has raised nearly $8 million in the 2014-2016 cycle, in direct contributions, PAC and SuperPac funds. (Of that, $5.1 million has already been spent or donated to other candidates.)

In addition to this unprecedented financial support, libertarians have redirected the Republican Party in policy terms. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan ran in 2012 on the most radical fiscal plan since 1964: Ryan's bold proposal to end the Medicare guarantee for everyone under age 55 and to institute tough budget cuts in unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other income support programs. The party’s stance on gun control has become ever more unyielding. Ron Paul’s anti-Federal Reserve message was echoed in the last political cycle by almost every presidential candidate, with Texas Governor Rick Perry even lightly proposing to lynch chairman Ben Bernanke.

Maybe most tellingly, the GOP has backed far, far away from the national-security policy of the Bush years. Denunciations of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs have become standard-issue Republican rhetoric. The tally of likely votes just before President Obama withdrew his request for authority to strike Syria last September showed 170 definite or likely Republican “no” votes in the House of Representatives. 

Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans' post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction.

Nor is it the strength and truth of libertarian ideas that explains their current vogue within the Republican Party. Libertarians have been most influential inside the GOP precisely where they have been—and continue to be—most blatantly wrong, such as when they predicted that the cheap money policies of the Federal Reserve would incite hyperinflation or that the United States teetered on the precipice of a debt crisis.

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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