Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World

Brian Doherty’s delightful book has come along at a perfect time, as this is or ought to be a time of introspection and soul-searching for libertarians. What have we really accomplished? And what do we do now?

At present libertarians are in a sober mood. We’ve had to absorb the fact that one of the centerpieces of the libertarian reform agenda – Social Security privatization – was put before the American people and decisively rejected. This disappointing failure to make progress has been accompanied by regress away from liberty on any number of fronts – runaway federal spending, a huge increase in the entitlement state with the Medicare prescription drug benefit, an aggressive federal power grab in education with the No Child Left Behind act, extremist assertions of executive power in the name of combating terrorism, and so on. Check out the recent books by Bruce Bartlett, Ryan Sager, Stephen Slivinski, and Michael Tanner (the latter two work at the Cato Institute, and the former two used to) for all the depressing details.

The situation is even worse than a review of bad policies suggests. Forget about walking the walk; almost nobody even talks our talk in the political arena anymore. The limited-government rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, the bold plans by the congressional class of 1994 to eliminate whole Cabinet departments – all that is just a distant memory. You know things are bad for libertarians when we begin to experience Clinton nostalgia – but can you imagine a current leader in Congress, or a serious presidential candidate for 2008, actually saying today that “the era of big government is over”?

Our soul-searching deepened this past November 16, when Milton Friedman passed away. Now all the intellectual titans of the modern libertarian movement whose stories Brian tells in his book – Mises, Hayek, Rand, Rothbard, Nozick, and Friedman – are gone. How then stands the movement they helped to create?

On the one hand, we can point with pride to an impressive blossoming of libertarian scholarship and intellectual activism. Libertarians are now represented in the academy in numbers that would have amazed the original members of the Mont Pelerin Society. The Cato Institute and other libertarian and free-market think tanks have achieved great success in winning a place for libertarian ideas in the political and policy debate. We have made great strides in getting libertarian ideas taken seriously in intellectual and opinion-shaping circles.

But getting taken seriously by tiny intellectual elites is one thing; winning acceptance in mass public opinion is another thing altogether. As an intellectual movement, libertarianism has come a long way. As a political movement, however, we’re still pretty near square one. The Libertarian Party crested in 1980 with a million votes or so in the presidential election; since then it has contented itself with being a fringe group that is generally scoffed at when it isn’t being completely ignored. And whatever success we’ve had in spreading libertarian ideas, we’ve accomplished very little in the core political task of expanding the number of active libertarians. According to a 2000 Rasmussen poll, only 2% of Americans self-identify as libertarian. To put that number in perspective, according to a 1999 Gallup poll, 6% of Americans believe that the moon landings were faked.

Public opinion surveys make clear that most ordinary Americans hold a whole host of anti-libertarian views. First of all, economic illiteracy is widespread. An April 2006 Gallup poll found that 65% of Americans think increased trade with other countries mostly hurts American workers, while only 30% think it mostly helps them. And a September 2006 Gallup poll found that an astonishing 42% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that “the Bush administration deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before this fall’s elections.”

And when it comes to government spending, Americans love their free ice cream: they may tell pollsters they favor less spending as an abstract proposition, but when you get down to specifics they don’t want to cut much of anything. A recent paper [doc] coauthored by Cato adjunct scholar Bryan Caplan and Edward Stringham cites data from the General Social Survey showing strong majorities in favor of increased spending on the environment, health care, education, anti-drug programs, and Social Security. The only genuinely unpopular government spending is for welfare, space exploration, and foreign aid – a drop in the budgetary bucket.

So we have some hard facts to face. We committed libertarians are a very small group of people with very unpopular views. And now that Goldwater-Reagan small-government conservatism has more or less disappeared, we have no effective representation in the political arena.

Believe it or not, though, I’m actually optimistic! Although we live in an unlibertarian world, we have sound reasons for thinking that the world, and our country in particular, are moving in our direction. At any rate, I have now written two books to that effect. In Against the Dead Hand, I argued that the current episode of globalization is the result of the collapse of the old ideologies of central planning and state-dominated economic development. That collapse has triggered three decades of remarkable change in global political economy in a pro-market direction. Yes, the dead hand of the collectivist past still exerts a weighty influence, and yes we see backsliding in Russia, South America, and elsewhere, but the major indicators of global economic and political freedom continue to move in a positive direction.

Now I’ve completed a new book, The Age of Abundance, which will be published in May. It examines cultural, economic, and political change in American society since the advent of mass prosperity after World War II. In the book I argue that, over the past forty years, America has gone through convulsive cultural and economic changes that have left our society significantly more libertarian than it was before. On the cultural front, after the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, we have seen dramatic changes in attitudes about race, sex and marriage, the role of women in society, the permissible scope of self-expression, and deference to authority, all of which have strengthened individualism at the expense of traditional inhibitions. And on the economic front, after the wrenching restructuring of the ’70s and ’80s, economic life has grown dramatically more competitive, entrepreneurial, and globalized than it was during the heyday of the post-New Deal order.

The United States today stands out as probably the single most libertarian country on the planet. Yes, there may be a few countries that rate slightly higher in economic freedom, but can any country match our combination of economic, personal, civil, and political liberty? From the moment of its founding right down to the present day, American political culture has been blazed by a big, fat libertarian streak. That streak is visible in opinion surveys, according to which we stand out in contrast to Europe in our anti-statism, our commitment to an ethic of personal rather than collective responsibility, and our belief in the possibility of social mobility through talent and hard work.

In particular, it is visible in the roughly 15% of the electorate identified by David Boaz and David Kirby [pdf] as libertarian-leaning. The people in this group are not self-conscious, principled, and committed libertarians; they are the much larger group of “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” people in whom untutored and unfocused libertarian impulses run especially strong. They are at present an ill-defined, amorphous, and unorganized lot, but in my opinion they hold significant untapped potential to be a political force for good.

So libertarians have solid grounds for hope, and ample resources in America’s political culture to draw from and build upon. So how do we make the most of our current situation? How, under present circumstances, do we maximize the chances for liberty to be maintained and expanded?

To be as effective as we can be, I think it is vital that we not fool ourselves about where we are and how far we have to go. To be effectively idealistic, we must first be realistic. This means recognizing that libertarian ideals as we understand them are not widely shared by our fellow citizens. Sometimes we like to imagine that under the skin of every American is a libertarian yearning to breathe free. In fact, though, the most we will find are some libertarian instincts, competing with egalitarian instincts, nationalist instincts, moralistic instincts, and various narrow conceptions of self-interest.

I believe we must work simultaneously with two different time horizons – the long term and the short term. Effectiveness in each time horizon is its own distinct problem with its own distinctive solutions. For the long term, libertarians must focus on ensuring that the next generation, and the one after that, has more people like us than there are at present – more committed libertarians, and more people who have a general appreciation of the nature, workings, and blessings of a free society. This is the educational project that Brian Doherty endorses – and, with him, I say let a thousand flowers bloom.

But what about the short term, the here and now? I believe the time has come for libertarians to think anew about political allegiances. For the past quarter-century, since the Reagan Revolution effectively put an end to the libertarian political movement, libertarians have been in a state of dependency on the political right. Under the circumstances, I think it was probably the best we could do, but circumstances have changed and the right has largely abandoned us.

I applaud the efforts of Michael Tanner, Ryan Sager, and others, urging conservatives to return to their small-government roots. I wish them every success. But we should explore other options as well. In a piece for The New Republic I wrote a couple months ago, I suggested that a liberal-libertarian fusionism on the left might replace the old traditionalist-libertarian fusionism on the right. I agree with many commenters on my article that the immediate prospects for such an alliance are hardly promising. But I continue to think the idea is worth exploring further.

And if neither the left nor the right seems hospitable, what about trying to create a political home of our own? Specifically, what about organizing and mobilizing that 15% of the electorate that David Boaz and David Kirby have identified as libertarian-leaning? If these people could come to see themselves as part of a coherent group, with a coherent vision and coherent interests, I think they could exert a powerful influence for good on both left and right.

How might such a thing be accomplished? It’s a predictable enough thing for a think tank inhabitant to say, but I believe that political movements start with ideas. What needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” voters from across the current left-right spectrum. One that recognizes a more expansive role for government than committed libertarians would like, but which nonetheless supports both economic and personal liberty. Here, then, is the way forward as I see it: to articulate an appropriately inclusive political vision that puts freedom at the center of its commitments.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Libertarianism: Past and Prospects by Brian Doherty

    Beginning with a riff on Brink Lindsey’s appeal to the “liberaltarian” left, and David Boaz and David Kirby’s analysis of the libertarian vote, Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, notes that “realistic talk of a “libertarian voting bloc” for major parties to fight over – the idea that a double-digit percentage of Americans can be assumed to be in line with libertarian ideas – is a major miracle in libertarian movement terms.” Back in the 1970s, Doherty reports, “the notion that an explicitly libertarian institution should even seriously think about effecting real-world political change was considered – well, it was not really considered at all…” What, then, does history tell us about the best strategy for creating a more libertarian future? “The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to,” Doherty argues. “The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy.”

Response Essays

  • The Paradox of Libertarianism by Tyler Cowen

    According to Marginal Revolution blogger and New York Times “Economic Scene” columnist Tyler Cowen, there have been a few truly great libertarian developments since the 1970s. However, he argues, they “also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.” Cowen argues libertarians accept this paradox, reconcile themselves to the welfare state, recognize positive liberty as more important than negative liberty, and restructure libertarianism around new threats to liberty such as global warming, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. Such a libertarianism, Cowen admits, would “run the risk of losing its intellectual and moral center. … Many people fear such a development, and I can understand why.”

  • Libertarianism or Liberty? by Tom G. Palmer

    In his reply, Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer maintains that Brian Doherty is guilty of “a confusion of two related projects: the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism, i.e., the theory that liberty should be the primary (or overriding) goal of a political order.” It is possible to promote liberty without promoting libertarian philosophy. This distinction motivates Palmer to dissent from Doherty’s emphasis on education. No amount of libertarian education will make a difference, Palmer argues, unless someone acts to make change for liberty. “If I were to put it as a slogan, it might be: ‘Education doesn’t eliminate trade barriers, legislators do.’” Palmer also quibbles with Doherty’s focus in his book on zany libertarian characters and with his laissez faire approach to promoting liberty.

  • An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head by Virginia Postrel

    Atlantic columnist and former Reason editor-in-chief Virgina Postrel argues: “Rather than defining ‘libertarian’ by appealing to deductive logic and so-called first principles, we can better understand the American libertarian movement as a sometimes uneasy amalgam of four distinctive yet complementary traditions, two cultural and two intellectual.” Intellectually, she points to “two seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions”: the modernist Rand-Rothbard quest for certainty “as rational and precise as a skyscraper, as ahistorical as Le Corbusier’s plans to remake Paris” and the empiricist Hayek-Friedman/Hume-Smith tradition, which “looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems.” Drawing on her book The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel warns against fighting the old fights between capitalism and socialism when the real battles is between “stasism” and “dynamism.” She plumps for the possibility of an alliance of libertarian and left dynamists against stasists of all stripes, but concludes with a challenge to the left: “We know we’re liberals. The question is, Are they?”

The Conversation