The Libertarian Center

There is no organized libertarian movement of any significance in American politics. To be sure, libertarian academics and intellectuals occupy some prominent positions and exert real influence on the public debate. But they do not speak on behalf of any politically mobilized mass constituency. Only about 2 percent of Americans describe themselves as libertarian, according to a 2000 Rasmussen poll. And the Libertarian Party is a fringe operation that, at best, occasionally plays the spoiler.

Nevertheless, the fact is that American society today is considerably more libertarian than it was a generation or two ago. Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. Of course there are obvious counterexamples, but on the whole it seems clear that cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver.

The many and complex reasons for this trend can be boiled down to one sweeping generalization: in an age of mass affluence, economic development and individualism go together. For a detailed historical argument in support of this thesis, I refer you to my new book, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture.

In the cultural realm, the leading academic analyst of this phenomenon is University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart. As he wrote in Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies, “In a major part of the world, the disciplined, self-denying, and achievement-oriented norms of industrial society are giving way to an increasingly broad latitude for individual choice of lifestyles and individual self-expression.” The central thrust of what Inglehart calls the “postmodern shift” is a “broad de-emphasis on all forms of authority,” whether political, economic, religious, or familial. “This shift in worldview and motivations,” he explained, “springs from the fact that there is a fundamental difference between growing up with an awareness that survival is precarious, and growing up with the feeling that one’s survival can be taken for granted.”

In the new, more individualistic culture, traditional attitudes about race relations, sex, the role of women in society, the role of religion in public life, the permissible limits of artistic expression, and the nature of American cultural identity have taken a beating. The country is now much more tolerant and pluralistic than before. And people are much less willing to subjugate their personal interests to standards set by families, employers, churches, and governments.

In the economic realm, it was once thought that the progress of industrialization would lead ineluctably to an extreme centralization of economic decision-making. I discuss the rise and fall of that wrongheaded idea in my previous book, Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism. It turns out, of course, that the glittering collectivist future never arrived. While the scale of economic production and that of government planning and control increased in tandem for a while, further progress beyond a relatively simple mass-production economy has required increasing reliance on entrepreneurship by outsiders and vigorous market competition that allows good new ideas to get a tryout.

Through brutal mobilization of resources, the command socialism of the Soviet Union was able to industrialize sufficiently to gain victory in World War II. But it could never produce consumer plenty, and its total incapacity to keep up with the West in the information age eventually spelled its demise. The social democracy of continental Europe preserved enough of the market order to rebuild after World War II and create mass affluence. But here again, even an attenuated collectivism eventually reached its limits: in recent decades, despite some measure of market-oriented reforms, catch-up growth has stalled, unemployment has swollen, and convergence with the United States is now being reversed. The U.S. economic system, always relatively libertarian by world standards, faced its own crisis in the 1970s, but it emerged from that challenge through a wrenching restructuring that significantly expanded the scope for entrepreneurship and competition.

American society has become more libertarian because, more than any other country on the planet, it has successfully adapted to the novel conditions of economic abundance. And because of the way this adaptation took place, a broadly defined libertarianism now occupies the center of the American political spectrum.

As I describe in The Age of Abundance, mass affluence triggered a mirror-image pair of cultural convulsions: on the countercultural left, a romantic rebellion against order and authority of every description; and on the traditionalist right, an evangelical revival of socially and theologically conservative Protestantism. Both arose around the same time, in the dizzying 1960s. Between them, these two movements have played decisive roles in shaping America’s accommodation to mass affluence. But those roles were deeply ambivalent, mixing positive elements and negative ones in roughly equal measure. The countercultural left combined genuine liberation with dangerous, nihilistic excess, while the traditionalist right mixed knee-jerk reaction with wise conservation of vital cultural endowments.

The two movements thus offered conflicting half-truths. On the left were gathered those elements of American society most open to the new possibilities of mass affluence and most eager to explore them – in other words, the people at the forefront of the push for civil rights, feminism, and environmentalism, as well as sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. At the same time, however, many on the left harbored a deep antagonism toward the institutions of capitalism and middle-class life that had created all those exciting new possibilities. On the right, meanwhile, were the faithful defenders of capitalism and middle-class mores. But included in this group were the people most repelled by and hostile to the social and cultural ferment that capitalism and middle-class mores were producing. This is the blind vs. blind struggle of the culture wars: one side attacked capitalism while rejoicing in its fruits; the other side celebrated capitalism while denouncing its fruits as poisonous.

This conflict is still with us today, in the form of the polarized politics of Red America vs. Blue America. The good news, though, is that this polarization mostly concerns minorities of true believers and their media talking heads rather the bulk of ordinary Americans. Most Americans, it turns out, have moved on since the ’60s toward a common ground whose coloration is not recognizably red or blue – call it a purplish, libertarianish centrism. On the one hand, they embrace the traditional, Middle American values of patriotism, law and order, the work ethic, and commitment to family life. At the same time, though, they hold attitudes on race and sex that are dramatically more liberal than those that held sway a generation or two ago. Likewise, they are deeply skeptical of authority, and are strongly committed to open-mindedness and tolerance. Such an amalgamation of views is flatly inconsistent with current definitions of ideological purity. Despite all the talk of raging culture wars, most Americans are nonbelligerents.

There are some obvious objections to the idea of a libertarian center. First, as I stated at the outset, there is no libertarian political movement to speak of. Accordingly, there is no organized libertarian-leaning constituency that could ally with either conservatives or liberals to alter the balance of power. Rather, at best libertarianism exists as a diffuse, inchoate set of impulses that operate, not as an independent force, but as tendencies within the left and right and a check on how far each can stray in illiberal directions. Second, as I conceded in an earlier essay for Cato Unbound, American public opinion is noticeably unlibertarian in many important respects. In particular, economic illiteracy is rife; much of government spending – especially the budget-busting middle-class entitlement programs – remains highly popular; and the weakness for moralistic crusades, long an unfortunate feature of the American character, remains glaring (though today’s temperance movements direct their obsessive zeal toward advancing health and safety rather than virtue).

Notwithstanding these objections, I maintain that the concept of a libertarian center offers useful insight into the current political situation. In particular, it highlights the fact that our ideological categories have not yet caught up with social realities. The movements of left and right continue to be organized around discontents with the new, more libertarian cultural synthesis that prevails today. Thus the reactionary claims of decline and fall we hear from both sides: the right wails about cultural and moral decline, while the left gnashes its teeth about economic decline. Think of the leading red-meat issues for conservatives today. Gay marriage is destroying the American family; an invasion of illegal immigrants from Mexico threatens to overwhelm American culture; stem cell research is leading us to a Brave New World of moral atrocities. Meanwhile, the left is fixated on mounting “economic insecurity” for the most materially blessed population in human history. Endlessly repeated statistics on stagnant median wages, rising income inequality and volatility, and a shrinking middle class fortify true believers in their denial of the obvious reality that we’ve never had it so good.

Our politics today is stuck in a reactionary rut. The right remains unreconciled to irreversible cultural changes from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The left remains unreconciled to irreversible economic changes from the ‘70s and ‘80s. The idea of the libertarian center suggests that the way to break out of this rut is with a new, post-culture-wars politics that embraces both economic change and cultural diversity. I am not saying that some particular package of libertarian reforms is now the key to assembling a winning political coalition. The idea of a libertarian center is about the core of American political culture, not the margins of political change. What I’m saying is that partisans on both sides need to recraft their messages and programs to better reflect the entrepreneurial, tolerant spirit of contemporary America.

Or, at the very least, they should take care not to stray too far from core libertarian principles – or else they will run into constraints imposed by either public opinion or the way the world works. Let’s start with the restrictions that face progressives. Having drifted leftward from Clintonian economic centrism in reaction to the Bush years, and now buoyed by electoral success in 2006 and the prospect of more in 2008, many liberals are allowing themselves to believe that the post-1968 wilderness years are over at last. But hopes for a grand new era of progressive activism and the long-delayed arrival of something like European social democracy are confronted by formidable obstacles.

First of all, the attitudes that sustain the expansive states of Europe do not exist here. Progressives imagine that their cherished statistics on rising inequality are creating the constituency for a big leftward push, but they are fooling themselves. According to a 2003 Pew survey [pdf], only 32 percent of Americans agree that success is determined by forces outside their control – as compared to 68 percent in Germany, 66 percent in Italy, and 54 percent in France. According to the same survey, 58 percent of Americans think it is more important to be free from government to pursue their own goals, while only 34 percent believe is is more important for government to guarantee that no one is in need. In continental Europe the numbers are reversed: 71 to 24 in Italy, 62 to 36 in France, and 57 to 39 in Germany.

Meanwhile, the trust in government that made possible the New Deal political order is gone and highly unlikely to return. Back in 1958, 73 percent of Americans surveyed trusted the government to do what is right “most of the time” or “just about always.” By 1976, the ranks of the trusting had fallen to 33 percent. The numbers recovered for a time during the Reagan recovery and then in the aftermath of 9/11, but as of 2006 they had fallen back to 28 percent. Though the exact percentages fluctuate in response to events, the secular trend is both clear and, as Ronald Inglehart has documented, global: as people get richer, their faith in government and established authority generally declines. Reflect on the astounding success with which the secrets of Roosevelt’s paralysis and Kennedy’s womanizing were maintained, and you will get some sense of the cultural distance we have traveled from the deference to authority that once obtained.

The recent push for card-check legislation shows that some progressives still hold out hope for a revival of organized labor. They are sadly deluded. First, of course, there are the merits of the case: Wagner Act unionism was a plague on the industries that succumbed to it, at least those that eventually faced international competition. Yes, the cartelization of labor markets boosted wage for some workers, but only by depressing them for others: the rise and fall of unionization had no discernible effect on labor’s overall share of income. Whatever the merits, the cause is lost in any event. The late, lamented “Treaty of Detroit,” Daniel Bell’s old term for the entente between Big Business and Big Labor, came only after ferocious struggle: in the single wild year of 1946, there were work stoppages involving 4.9 million workers and causing 116 million lost man-days. What privation, what exposure to risk, could possibly motivate such pugnacity on the part of today’s workers? And what would be the point, anyway? The most attractive organizing targets, service industries that don’t face international competition, are generally too unskilled-labor-intensive for big wage hikes to be in the cards.

Progressives’ brightest hopes for expanding government now focus on health care. Here they may indeed win some legislative victories, but how satisfying will they ultimately be? Ponder these two irreconcilable trends. On the one hand, since 1960 federal tax receipts have bobbed around between 17 and 21 percent of GDP (the current ratio is 18.5 percent). On the other hand, projections based on historical trends show that Medicare and Medicaid spending will skyrocket from 4.2 percent of GDP in 2005 to 11.5 percent in 2030 – a jump of over 7 percentage points. Unless, against all odds, Americans prove amenable to massive tax hikes of historically unprecedented and economy-crippling proportions, our commitments under existing health-care entitlement programs are going to have to be thoroughly restructured (i.e., reduced). How then are we to afford an expansion of the health-care state? Progressives like to think that greater government control will allow runaway health costs to be reined in – but on the basis of what evidence? Medicare and Medicaid outlays have been exploding at roughly the same rate as private expenditures, so why would anyone think that things will change when the government’s obligations are expanded?

Let’s turn now to the constraints that hobble conservatives. Here’s the basic problem: social conservatism in the culture-war era has been defined to a large extent by traditional attitudes on religion and sex, but those attitudes are on the wane. The Pew Research Center has divided evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, and Catholics into “committed” and “other” on the basis of religious practices (church attendance, prayer, declared importance of religion in one’s life) and beliefs (certainty about the existence of God and belief in life after death, heaven, and hell). Between 1965 and 1996, the ranks of committed Christians dropped sharply, from 43.1 percent of the population to 31.4 percent. More recently, the nonreligious have been growing smartly. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, unchurched secularists increased from 8.2 percent of the population to 14.1 percent between 1990 and 2001.

A recent Pew study [pdf] on changing attitudes over the past 20 years documents the collapse of sexual traditionalism. Back in 1987, 51 percent of Americans supported the firing of teachers who are known homosexuals; in 2007, only 28 percent still hold that view. Over the same time period, the share of people who “completely disagreed” with the statement that “women should return to their traditional roles in society” jumped from 29 percent to 51 percent. And the proportion of Americans who say they have “old-fashioned ideas about family and marriage” has declined from 87 percent to 76 percent.

Another core element of modern conservatism has been the populist appeal to patriotism and nationalism – most notably, during the Cold War era, in the form of anticommunism. Love of country, vital to the maintenance of a liberal order, can also inflame the illiberal impulses of xenophobia at home and aggressive bellicosity abroad. At the present time, alas, conservative nationalism is expressing itself in decidedly illiberal ways – on the one hand, nativist-tinged hysteria over Mexican immigration; on the other, an apocalyptic “World War IV” mindset regarding the serious but manageable threat of Islamist terrorism.

However, stoking the darker passions of nationalism is dangerous, not only for the country, but for the future health of the conservative movement. It is too early to tell what the long-term political consequences of the Iraq fiasco will be, but one thing is clear enough. In the absence of major new terrorist attacks, there is no public stomach for anything like the levels of diplomatic conflict and military action that right-wing saber-rattlers seem to be spoiling for. Accordingly, if Republicans do manage to hold the White House in 2008, they will need to backtrack, in both word and deed, from the recklessness of the Bush years.

As to immigration, conservatives may have stopped the recent reform bill, but they haven’t stopped the inflow of immigrants. The Census Bureau projects that between now and 2050, the Hispanic share of the national population will nearly double to 24 percent. Meanwhile, American public opinion generally seems to be trending in a cosmopolitan direction. According to a recent Pew survey of “Generation Next,” 52 percent of people 18 to 25 years old believe immigration strengthens the country, as compared to 39 percent among those 26 and older. Consequently, any political movement that has trouble distinguishing between immigration and invasion is spitting in the demographic wind.

Of course, many traditional attitudes have held up over time, including those on crime, pornography (even as consumption of it has exploded), drugs, and support for additional restrictions on abortion. But on subjects that have been of central concern to the conservative movement, Americans are becoming bluer, not redder, and conservatives will have to change with them or else be marginalized.

I hope that nothing in this essay has conveyed even a hint of libertarian triumphalism. That would be just plain silly, as even the rosiest of tinted glasses cannot hide Leviathan’s many and egregious blunders and injustices. And in all too many cases, the foreseeable prospects for remedying those blunders and injustices are dim to nonexistent.

Yet, grading on a global and historical curve, America is a distinctively libertarian country. And despite the best efforts of ideologues on both the left and right, it has grown more libertarian, on the whole, over the past few decades. A grasp of these basic facts is essential to any sound understanding of the country’s recent history and current political muddle.

Brink Lindsey is vice president for research at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • National Review Online editor-at-large and LA Times columnist Jonah Golberg offers a critical assessment of what he calls “the Brink Lindsey Project” — “a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans.” According to Goldberg, Lindsey’s “libertarian centrism” involves a suspiciously convenient confluence of forces. “His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism,” Goldberg argues. “And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide.”

  • Atlantic Monthly associate editor Matthew Yglesias joins Brink Lindsey in thinking that the relaxation of traditional social strictures over the past few deacades is a good thing, but he doesn’t see anything libertarian about it, citing the role of Civil Rights Act and other intrusive anti-discrimination laws in bringing about the shift. Yglesias concedes that the economy has in some ways become less regulated, but argues that this didn’t signal an “ideological triumph.” Furthermore, he argues, “libertarians interested in practical politics might want to consider that a federal commitment to health security and retirement security isn’t going away,” and suggests that Lindsey himself may have explained why.

  • Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez spots several ambiguities in Brink Lindsey’s argument leading him to doubt the conclusion that America has become more libertarian in a meaningful sense. “To speak confidently about America’s growing libertarianism,” Sanchez writes, “we need to establish that at least some of the changes Lindsey lauds are driven by a shared conception of justice” that leans increasingly libertarian. Yet Sanchez is unimpressed by the polling data Lindsey recruits to his cause. There is no doubt we now have more choice due to increasing abundance, but “the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options.” But, Sanchez argues, “much of the plausibility of Lindsey’s thesis relies on [the] conflation” of these two conceptions of freedom.