The Case For Libertarian Optimism

In a long essay at Cato Unbound that is well worth reading in full, Brink Lindsey argues in favor of the idea that things are far better for libertarians than it might seem:

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.

Based upon this, Lindsey suggests that both political parties need to play to what he calls “the libertarian center:”

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.

An interesting idea. I’m not sure if things are as rosy as Lindsey believes, but he is correct in pointing out that they aren’t as bad as the doomsayers would have us believe either.

  • Joshua Holmes

    Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal.

    I am upset about the first, and I could see Catholic libertarians being upset at the first two.

    Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed.

    I don’t see why libertarians should care about this either way.

  • Symgharyl

    Regarding the unionization of the private sector collapsing. I have to say I find it discouraging when a single employee has a problem with which their HR dept won’t assist in dealing. Had the employee a union representative to which they could turn, the employer could do less to inhibit the employee’s satisfaction. Otherwise, one must deal with a chain of command that tends to lean on favouritism.

    To me, a Union is a check and balance to the Corporation. I worked eight years for an employer and had significant seniority over many other peers and was laid off. Had we been a part of a union, I might still have a job instead of being eliminated while other’s with less than a year’s work time were kept on payroll. I wasn’t less of a worker and never had a bad review. Pretty difficult to compare eight years of success to four months of yes-manship.

    In the matter of work and business, liberty must be pursued by the group if they all wish for fairness. Otherwise, one person will fight for themselves and leave any others fearful that the same result may happen to them should they risk their neck to oppose their management. An outside agency, such as a union, could keep the company’s managerial staff in check to avoid complications with layoffs and hirings. Isn’t this the same with personal liberties?