The Passing of the Libertarian Moment

The end of the Cold War and the rise of Donald Trump have left classical liberals without a political home.

Senator Rand Paul on Capitol Hill
Senator Rand Paul speaks on Capitol Hill in September 2017.  (Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters)

Senator Rand Paul is a man out of time. It was only a few years ago that the editors of Reason magazine held him up as the personification of what they imagined to be a “libertarian moment,” a term that enjoyed some momentary cachet in the pages of The New York Times, The Atlantic, Politico (where I offered a skeptical assessment), and elsewhere. But rather than embodying the future of the Republican Party, Paul embodies its past, the postwar conservative era when Ronald Reagan could proclaim that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” when National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. could publish a conspectus of his later work under the subtitle “Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist,” and young blue-blazered Republicans of the Alex P. Keaton variety wore out their copies of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose.

The view from 2018 is rather different. The GOP finds itself in the throes of a populist convulsion, an ironic product of the fact that the party that long banqueted on resentment of the media now is utterly dominated by the alternative media constructed by its own most dedicated partisans. It is Sean Hannity’s party now.

The GOP’s political situation is absurd: Having rallied to the banner of an erratic and authoritarian game-show host, evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr. are reduced to comparing Donald Trump to King David as they try to explain away his entanglement with pornographic performer Stormy Daniels. Those who celebrated Trump the businessman clutch their heads as his preposterous economic policies produce terror in the stock markets and chaos for the blue-collar workers in construction firms and manufacturers scrambling to stay ahead of the coming tariffs on steel and aluminum. The Chinese retaliation is sure to fall hardest on the heartland farmers who were among Trump’s most dedicated supporters.

On the libertarian side of the Republican coalition, the situation is even more depressing: Republicans such as former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who once offered important support for criminal-justice reform, are lined up behind the atavistic drug-war policies of the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose big idea on opiate abuse is more death sentences for drug traffickers. Deficits are moving in the wrong direction. And, in spite of the best hopes of the “America First” gang, Trump’s foreign policy has not moved in the direction of Rand Paul’s mild non-interventionism or the more uncompromising non-interventionism of his father, Ron Paul. Instead, the current GOP foreign-policy position combines the self-assured assertiveness of the George W. Bush administration (and many familiar faces and mustaches from that administration) with the indiscipline and amateurism characteristic of Trump.

Some libertarian moment.

Postwar conservatism, under the intellectual leadership of Buckley, Frank Meyer, and their allies, was, famously, a “fusion”—an alliance between social and religious traditionalists, anti-Communists and national-security hawks, and libertarians ranging from ideologues and idealists such as Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises to Chamber of Commerce types with their more prosaic concerns about taxes and regulation. The libertarians have always been a junior partner in that alliance, but for many years they punched above their weight. Partly that is because libertarianism is an intellectual tendency rather than a cultural instinct, one that benefited from the rigor and prestige of the economists who have long been its most effective advocates. And libertarianism has benefited from the fact that American elites are notably more libertarian in their views than is the median American voter. That dynamic was explored by the economist Bryan Caplan under a typically bold title (“Why Is Democracy Tolerable?”) with a typically needling conclusion: “Democracies listen to the relatively libertarian rich far more than they listen to the absolutely statist non-rich … Democracy as we know it is bad enough. Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.”

But if libertarianism benefited from its rich friends, it surely benefited even more from its impoverished rivals: the Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, North Korea, Mao’s China, and other practitioners of robust étatism. Despite the best hopes of the postwar conservative fusionists, libertarianism has always been more effective in opposition than in government. President Reagan may have called himself a libertarian from time to time, but he also enacted protectionist tariffs, radically expanded the military and the federal police powers, and failed to exhibit a great deal of energy in resisting the deficit-swelling spending bills sent to his desk by Tip O’Neill. The libertarian tendency mainly provided a useful ideological foil, not only to the totalitarian socialist projects of the time but also to more liberal efforts to expand the welfare states in the Western democracies. If you are not moving in the direction of Milton Friedman, the argument went, then you are moving in the direction of Leonid Brezhnev—it’s Chairman Greenspan or Chairman Mao.

That was an effective rhetorical strategy while the Soviet Union was a going concern and while the Cold War remained fresh in the national memory. And it was enough to keep the right-wing coalition together. But as the memory of the USSR came to be replaced by the reality of NAFTA, WTO, ASEAN, etc., the fruits of globalism—everyday low prices at Walmart—turned out to be uninspiring to great masses of voters to whom those benefits are invisible for the same reason that water is invisible to fish. Ancient prejudices, including the prejudices against social relations with foreigners, began to reassert themselves, as did the expectation that government should take a paternal interest in the people rather than a merely administrative one. Libertarianism, with its emphasis on free trade, its deference to the market, and its hostility toward social-welfare programs, went quickly out of fashion. How quickly? Last week, my former National Review colleague Victor Davis Hanson published an essay calling for a stronger regulatory hand over high-tech companies, fondly recalling the “cultural revolution of muckraking and trust-busting” of the 19th century, and ending with a plea for “some sort of bipartisan national commission that might dispassionately and in disinterested fashion offer guidelines to legislators” about more tightly regulating these companies, perhaps on the public-utility model.

That from a magazine whose founders once dreamed of overturning the New Deal.

Libertarian attitudes enjoy some political support: Nick Gillespie, a true-believing libertarian, insists even in the teeth of the current authoritarian ascendancy that we still are experiencing a national—yes!—“libertarian moment,” based on Gallup polling data finding more support for broadly libertarian political sensibilities (27 percent) than for any other single group: conservative, liberal, or populist. But “libertarian” often means little more than “a person with right-leaning sensibilities who is embarrassed to be associated with the Republican Party.” (Hardly, these days, an indefensible position.) Libertarian sensibilities are popular because they enable the posture of above-it-all nonpartisanship, but libertarian policies, as Caplan and others have noted at length, are not very popular at all. Americans broadly and strongly support a rising minimum wage and oppose entitlement reform with at least equal commitment, and they are far from reliable supporters of free speech and free association or enforcing limits on police powers. Hence the peculiar fact that 2016 polling of Republican primary voters found self-identified libertarians backing the authoritarian Trump in remarkable numbers—59 percent in South Carolina—over more libertarian-leaning candidates such as Ted Cruz (17 percent in the same poll) or Marco Rubio (0 percent—ouch). By way of comparison, only 39 percent of self-identified independents backed Trump in that same South Carolina poll, 37 percent of self-identified Tea Party adherents, and 40 percent of voters in the oldest bracket (56-61). Self-described libertarians were not less likely to line up behind the authoritarian demagogue, but half-again as likely to do so. Self-professed libertarian voices such as Larry Elder have become abject Trumpists.

The Christian right was able to make its peace with Trump with relative ease, because it is moved almost exclusively by reactionary kulturkampf considerations. “But Hillary!” is all that Falwell and company need to hear, and they won’t even hold out for 30 pieces of silver. The Chamber of Commerce made peace, being as it is one of the conservative constituencies getting what it wants out of the Trump administration: tax cuts and regulatory reform. The hawks are getting what they want, too, lately: John Bolton in the White House and an extra $61 billion in military spending in the latest budget bill.

What are the libertarians getting? A man with Richard Nixon’s character but not his patriotism, an advocate of Reagan’s drug war and Mussolini’s economics who dreams of using the FCC to shut down media critics—and possibly a global trade war to boot. The Democrats are, incredibly enough, for a moment the relatively free-trade party and the party more closely aligned with the interests of the country’s most dynamic business concerns and cultural institutions. If the Democrats were more clever, they might offer the libertarians a better deal on trade, criminal justice, and civil liberties. Instead, they are dreaming up excuses to sue or jail people for their views on climate change, and the United States is for the moment left with two authoritarian populist parties and no political home for classical liberalism at all.