The New Landscape of Libertarianism

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New York magazine published an article called “The Trouble With Liberty” in its January 3–10, 2011 issue. I was intrigued by a line on the magazine’s cover. It asked, “Are we all libertarians now?” And what I found in the essay was very interesting.

The author, Christopher Beam, presents a brief yet wide history of libertarianism, ranging from Ron and Rand Paul and Paul Ryan to David Boaz to Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. Beam explains that libertarianism has elements from both the Right and the Left and does not fit easily into either mode, and he outlines the various attempts to promote a libertarian country — from those that would enlist the Republican Party or the Libertarian Party, to Brink Lindsey’s Liberaltarianism, to the Free State Project and the Seasteading Institute.

Beam pegs libertarians as crazy old uncles or Dungeons & Dragons players, but his history of libertarianism is quite complimentary. He says that the Founding Fathers and the Constitution were actually more libertarian than anything else. The gist of the essay is that with the Tea Party movement and the rise of Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, libertarianism is on the rise and our moment has come.

But halfway through, Mr. Beam changes his tone and gets to the heart of his essay, which is a critique of libertarianism and an explanation of why he thinks it is a bad policy for the United States. His arguments aren’t theoretically sophisticated and are designed to appeal to a mass audience: if there are poor people, and charity can’t provide for them, then we need welfare or else they will steal from us; we need public education in case the free market can’t educate everyone; we need a central bank in order to print a uniform currency. He mentions “asymmetrical information” and “public goods,” and argues that if the bailout had not happened then innocent investors and homeowners who innocently misunderstood the riskiness of their loans would have been punished. “There’s always a tension between freedom and fairness,” he says, and we libertarians “pretend the tension doesn’t exist.”

We must shift the alignment of America’s political discourse so that socialism no longer sounds like common sense, and our proposals seem like the new common sense.

Libertarianism can never succeed, he claims, because politicians must compromise and libertarians refuse to compromise or cooperate. One of the overarching criticisms in the essay, and perhaps its most obnoxious, is the subtle implication that libertarians have such a hard time accomplishing real change because we know that our theories are mere impractical abstractions unsuitable for pragmatic flesh-and-blood reality, so we would be revealed as idiots if we ever achieved political power.

The refutations of Beam’s arguments are so obvious that I need not detail them. What is more significant is the mere existence of his essay. It is, in my opinion, one of the early post-Tea Party attempts by the Left to come up with an ideological response to people with open minds from taking libertarianism seriously. I strongly doubt that libertarianism has reached the peak of its popularity, but what this essay signals to me is that people who ten or twenty years ago might never have known what libertarianism is are now hearing the word “libertarianism” and asking what it means. Beam provides a leftist answer to that question. But he also cites surveys showing that more people now define themselves as libertarians than ever before, and that this poses a threat to the liberal-conservative establishment.

If the Tea Party phenomenon grows and Rand Paul’s career continues, we should expect to see many more such essays. I think that they will all follow Beam’s pattern. “The Trouble With Liberty” shows what two challenges we must overcome in order to be taken seriously.

First, there is something, call it “common sense” or the “social imagination” or whatever, but there is a set of simple political ideas that, whether true or false, permeates a culture. We need to introduce arguments into the American intellectual culture to refute the “common sense” arguments for statism, such as the argument that we need a welfare state to rescue the poor. We must shift the alignment of America’s political discourse so that socialism no longer sounds like common sense, and our proposals, which Beam skewers as extremist, seem like the new common sense. This is similar to what Glenn Beck claims the socialists did to us with the Overton Window – shifting cultural common sense by gradually introducing extreme ideas until they become mainstream  — but it works in reverse.

Second, we must prove that libertarianism can work in practice as well as in theory, and we must call upon our libertarian politicians to show the American people that it is possible to have noble ideals while still being pragmatic and getting things done. In my opinion the danger is not that Rand Paul and Paul Ryan will make too many compromises; it is the opposite: they will be too idealistic and take an all-or-nothing approach to change, and thus will be unable to work with their Republican colleagues. In that way, they will confirm the fears that Beam would like to promote.

“Libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics,” Beam writes. It is only natural for the liberal-conservative establishment to oppose us by laughing at us so loudly that nobody will take us seriously. That is, after all, right out of Ellsworth Toohey’s playbook. The question is how we will respond to the laughter — by behaving like weird extremists and impractical idealists, or by showing that we deserve to be taken seriously and that our abstract theories really will work in practical reality.

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