The Arrival of the Libertarian Movement

Illustration by Matt Dorfman. Rand Paul: Win McNamee/Getty Images.

I’ve been procrastinating on this post for a while now. Well, for ten days to be precise. Because ten days ago, much to the surprise of everyone in the libertarian movement, the New York Times published this piece, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?

“Let’s say Ron Paul is Nirvana,” said Kennedy, the television personality and former MTV host, by way of explaining the sort of politician who excites libertarians like herself. “Like, the coolest, most amazing thing to come along in years, and the songs are nebulous but somehow meaningful, and the lead singer kills himself to preserve the band’s legacy.

“Then Rand Paul — he’s Pearl Jam. Comes from the same place, the songs are really catchy, can really pack the stadiums, though it’s not quite Nirvana.

“Ted Cruz? He’s Stone Temple Pilots. Tries really hard to sound like Pearl Jam, never gonna sound like Nirvana. Really good voice, great staying power — but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.”

That’s how the piece starts with an analogy and a somewhat befitting one, as those that followed Ron will always undoubtedly suggest that his son is not him. Personally, I would agree because I think Ron is more consistent and doesn’t really give a fuck what the Republican establishment or anyone else thinks. Rand, on the other hand, tries to “play ball” with the Republican establishment, probably because he wants to be on their ticket in ’16 and because it’s a bit more pragmatic from a policy standpoint and from a “winning elections” standpoint. There are pros and cons to both sides, but again, personally, I prefer the “fuck the establishment” style because trying to play ball with the Republican establishment fosters some unfortunate stances from Rand. Such as his support of Israel or sanctions against Iran.

But at the same time, I like the idea of correcting people’s assumption that libertarians are Utopian and only care about ideology. I care very much about policy implementation, working with those I disagree with to foster compromise and finding necessary solutions to vexing problems. Therefore, I am sympathetic to the notion of “playing ball” within the political arena. That is, libertarians have to understand that we need to operate as the world is rather than the way we want it to be.

Just going to answer their question already: Yes. We have arrived. In a sense. Because not long ago, Ron Paul and his like were talking to nobody. They were pissing in the wind. Libertarians were doing the same. Reason magazine, the top libertarian magazine, was doing the same. The Libertarian Party barely registered on the radar. Yet now, here we are being discussed in the New York Times. We’re frequently in the critical spotlight in Salon and other magazines. That’s a sign that people are paying attention to our “movement,” even if it’s only to disagree with it.

But the Times means more so that many of the policies that we’ve championed — gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, a less adventurous military, prison reform and concern over government surveillance — have become mainstream and receive wide support among the American people and many politicians in particular. Rand Paul being one of them.

And in even better news, half of young people 18-29 are not affiliated with any party and many of them that put President Obama in the Oval Office are disappointed. They are sure to be, as the Times says, even more disappointed once they “refamiliarize themselves with her.”

Going back to play ball or not to play ball, the Times points out a comment from a 1971 piece they wrote also wondering if libertarianism had arrived; a comment which they say is the quintessential barrier to a “libertarian takeover”:

The only areas of disagreement within the libertarian movement are whether the movement should strive for anarchy or for limited government, and whether it should work through revolution or within the system.

This play ball has traditionally meant so-called practical libertarians side with the Republicans, but as the Times points out, that’s a difficult situation given the hawks in the party and the social conservatives. Both of which don’t jive with libertarian sensibilities. On the other hand, there’s been a lot of talk lately about libertarians and progressives teaming up, mostly from Ralph Nader, talking about how we can come together on war and national security issues and corporatism.


Thaddeus Russell writing in Reason talks about this “unholy alliance” between libertarians and progressives on the aforementioned issues of war and drugs, but also the recent issue of Ferguson and police militarization, saying:

Most recently, libertarians, progressives, and even many establishment liberals flooded social media and the airwaves in response to the police killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and to the subsequent use of tanks, snipers, and tear gas by the St. Louis County Police to counter protesters. The phrase “militarization of the police,” first popularized by the work of former Reason senior editor Radley Balko, is now coursing through American political discourse. Noting that Rand Paul and the Congressional Black Caucus were leading the push on Capitol Hill for police reform in response to Ferguson, the liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent welcomed this “left-right alliance” for focusing “national attention on the over-militarization of our police forces.”


The Times piece also covers Justin Amash, a Republican, but libertarian-leaning Arab-American. I also find him to be a breath of fresh air as far as politicians are concerned. He goes against the Republican establishment, much to their chagrin, on a number of issues including military budgets and the NSA. He’s certainly not “quintessential” libertarian, but there’s enough there to appreciate at least.

When Rand was asked if he thinks libertarianism has arrived or not, he said:

“I think a plurality of Americans don’t consider themselves to be either Republicans or Democrats,” Paul said, citing young people and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in particular. “I also think there was a time, maybe 30 years ago, when ‘libertarian’ was a term that scared people. Now I think it seems more like a moderate point of view. So I think the term is something that is definitely attracting, not repelling people.”

Paul talked about not wanting to alienate the social conservatives within the Republican Party, but that the GOP could become a “bigger tent.” Of course, as Nick Gillespie, Reason’s editor pointed out, we don’t need the GOP, but they sure would like us for more votes minus actually resembling us. He said, “Libertarians don’t need them. We’re already alienated and out of the mainstream. We don’t need the Republican Party in the way that they need the energy and the vision of libertarians.” He’s right.

Finally, there’s Conor Friedersdorf writing in The Atlantic, a classic liberal, by his admission, speaking about how essentially, the United States would be in a better position today post-9/11 had libertarians been in charge rather than Republicans or Democrats. Both had a chance to rule and both eroded civil liberties, kept at it with wars and spending. He says:

The relevant question is whether younger voters will support policies and elect leaders that enhance liberty in comparison to the status quo. If that’s what is meant by “a libertarian moment,” and it seems like a perfectly reasonable definition of the phrase to me, then we may indeed be witnessing one. 

His distinction about favoring Utopian, as our critics like to deride us for being versus simply adjusting the scale away from the status quo toward more liberty is apt and presents a clear picture to me.

And to me, he makes yet another salient point here about gradualism — in that, government arrived gradually and therefore, if it is to ever slide toward the side of liberty, it’ll do so gradually. Therefore, any victory, small or otherwise, can be counted and lauded:

Yet many who think of themselves as libertarians (or who are friendly to many but not all libertarian goals, like me) don’t particularly care who is ascendant in Washington, or what party affiliation appears beside the name of a legislator. If fewer people are caged for inhaling the smoke of a plant, that’s a libertarian victory. If fewer people’s doors are kicked in late at night by police officers dressed in combat fatigues, that’s a libertarian victory. If more cancer patients can legally obtain a substance that alleviates their suffering, that’s a libertarian victory. If fewer assets are seized by police without proof of guilt, that’s a libertarian victory. (Were I to embrace the rhetorical tactics of Paul Krugman, I might point to the war on drugs and ask, “Is non-libertarain domestic policy at all realistic?”)

Moreover, as he points out, again in defiance of the trite criticisms, we’ve long tried both conservative and progressive ideas. What’s the harm in trying  few libertarian-leaning ones? That doesn’t mean an overthrow of the government or anything, just a few tweaks here and there that could greatly improve the imbalance between big government and liberty.


He finishes up by saying:

I do think that, if libertarians had wielded more power in bygone years, America would not have passed the Patriot Act, started the phone dragnet, or allowed the Department of Defense to send military equipment to police in places like Ferguson, Missouri. 

On issues where libertarians have a somewhat realistic chance of winning over their fellow citizens—reining in the NSA, eliminating the most inane professional licensing laws, insisting on due process in the War on Terrorism, avoiding foolish wars of choice, ending the war on drugs, reducing the prison population and the militarization of the police—a “libertarian moment” would have a salutary effect on American life. 

Libertarians have concrete policy proposals to protect against such ills. One needn’t embrace their entire philosophy to see the wisdom in them.

I think that’s all many of us want — for our policy proposals to be taken seriously. Instead, by many so-called intellectuals and “serious thinkers,” we’re treated like the side show freaks, even though we’ve been right again and again on issues of war and police militarization. Hell, Radley Balko was essentially the only journalist talking specifically about police militarization and then when Ferguson happens, libertarians get berated for not caring? What the fuck is that about?

Anyway, I love disagreements and interesting, nuanced discussions about what the best solutions are, but far too many start off on the wrong foot when critiquing and engaging with libertarians. It’s to me as if they’ve never actually tried to understand what our positions are. We’re all just Ayn Rand-loving pot smokers with tin foil hats.


Don't Tread

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