Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

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It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




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Comments

Jon Harrison

I seem to recall that in recent years Bruce Ramsey and I have occasionally traded barbs. I think he called something I wrote "straight out of Mother Jones," and I know I've been critical of some of his stuff. But I have to say that this is a thoughtful and interesting piece. I don't agree with everything he has to say here, but the history he recounts is pretty accurate and the analysis is crisp.

Both capital and small "L" libertarians need to realize that their philosophy is and probably will always remain a distinctly minority take on life and how to live it. But clearly libertarianism (note the small "L") still has much to offer to that majority of Americans who don't wish to be absolutely smothered by the state.

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