What's a Libertarian to Do?

by David Frum

Reason hosts a what promises to be a very interesting three-way debate over the right party-political path for libertarians. The debate opens with a tough-minded entry by Cato's Brink Lindsey:

The spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan. It is committed to secularism in political discourse, whatever religious views people might hold privately. And it coolly upholds reason against the swirl of interests and passions.

On that basis, Brink disavows the old libertarian-conservative political alliance.

Declaring independence from the right would require big changes. Cooperation with the right on free-market causes would need to be supplemented by an equivalent level of cooperation with the left on personal freedom, civil liberties, and foreign policy issues. Funding for political candidates should be reserved for politicians whose commitment to individual freedom goes beyond economic issues. In the resources they deploy, the causes they support, the language they use, and the politicians they back, libertarians should be making the point that their differences with the right are every bit as important as their differences with the left.

I am not a libertarian, and I remain committed to the right and the Republican party, but I feel Brink's pain. Here's the consolation however: the party system as we have seen it these past few years is not the party system of tomorrow. The Republican party cannot survive as a coalition of the rural and the elderly - and Republicans are very determined to survive. Democrats have in recent months made a fateful choice to depart from the centrist economics of the Clinton years in favor of bold new exercises in very unlibertarian state control.

Nor is it at all certain that libertarianism itself will remain a single movement. Brink Lindsey, as I read him, is very much a classical liberal. The fate that cast him into the same party as, say, Jesse Helms is just as adventitious as the fate that cast him into the same movement as Rand Paul - or that thrust either of them into the same movement as Thomas Szasz. Libertarianism is itself a fusion of many different component parts. And since the goal of politics is to form coalitions that can govern, the energy of responsibility-minded people like Brink Lindsey should be directed outward to building and sustaining the broadest functional coalition consistent with the most urgent and immediate of principles.