Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”     H. L. Mencken

November 24, 2007

Libertarians: The New In-Crowd

by Doug Mataconis

The Washington Times notes that a lot of people want to call themselves libertarians these days:

It’s altogether fitting that the new host of “The Price Is Right” — a game show on which contestants try to guess the going rate of various consumer products — is a free-market enthusiast.

More intriguing is said host’s part-time job: libertarian proselytizer.

Comedian Drew Carey can be seen on a series of funny-but-not-kidding Internet-TV episodes sponsored by the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based think tank. So far, Mr. Carey has recommended the privatization of highways as a solution for metropolitan traffic congestion and criticized the federal crackdown on medical marijuana.

Mr. Carey joins the libertarian fold along with the illusionist-comedians Penn & Teller and HBO talk-show host Bill Maher, who has called himself a libertarian for several years.

As the Times’ notes, it’s unclear what that means but what is clear is that it’s merely the reflection of a trend that’s true for American politics as a whole:

It’s not likely libertarianism will become a true third-party alternative; it’s a temperament to which both major parties will need increasingly to appeal.

Mr. Gillespie compares the ideas that underlie libertarianism to a “marinade.”

“Our culture has been soaking in it for years,” he says.

Brink Lindsey, vice president for research at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of “The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture,” says that since the end of World War II, the country has unconsciously arrived at a vaguely libertarian-ish consensus: It’s culturally tolerant and yet demands personal responsibility for socioeconomic success.

“Generally speaking, the hump of the bell curve of American public opinion is more libertarian than it is distinctly liberal or conservative,” Mr. Lindsey says.

Now, it’s important to note that Lindsey isn’t arguing that the American public is on the verge of embracing the gold standard or privately owned roads. Doctrinaire libertarianism — especially in its sometimes wild anarcho-capitalist varieties — is unlikely to ever be part of the mainstream of American political thought.

What Linsdey points to, though, is nonetheless encouraging; which is that we are approaching a point where the political consensus will be biased in favor of individual choice and against authoritarianism and state action. Therefore, while we’re not likely to see any time soon a day when the New Deal or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is repealed, we’re also not likely to see the birth of a European “social democracy” and, if anything, the power of the state in American life will shrink rather than expand.

Many libertarians and classical liberals would tell you that’s not perfect; but it’s a start, and it’s better than nothing.

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31 Comments

  1. But Doug… the Civil Rights Act? How could you possibly support its repeal? How can you make common cause with racists?

    Comment by Ben Kuipers — November 24, 2007 @ 12:35 pm
  2. You can in large part thank Ron Paul for this. He’s quickly becoming the most effective—and mainstream—advocate for the libertarian thrust of political ideology since Ayn Raynd.

    Stormfront threads and all!

    Comment by Brad — November 24, 2007 @ 1:00 pm
  3. This popular stormfront of activity is probably damaging to the Liberty movement. Do you really want Barry Manilow and Drew Carey running the country? I might consider being encouraged by these developments if Barry Manilow agrees to un-publish “I Write the Songs,” and Ron Paul agrees never to sing it.

    Comment by Linus — November 24, 2007 @ 1:34 pm
  4. Brad,

    You can in large part thank Ron Paul for this. He’s quickly becoming the most effective—and mainstream—advocate for the libertarian thrust of political ideology since Ayn Raynd.

    If he was best known for running on libertarian issues, than I would agree. However, much if not most of Ron Paul’s support is coming from people with the following issues and groups:

    1) Most anti-war candidate in the race in either party (where libertarians disagree)

    2) He’s new. (same appeal Obama has)

    3) Paleo-con Buchananites who see Paul as the next Buchanan.

    4) The pissed off at everyone crowd. They don’t know what he stands for and really don’t care, but he’s as pissed as they are.

    Only time will tell if Ron Paul as much impact toward the cause of limited government as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan

    Comment by Kevin — November 24, 2007 @ 1:35 pm
  5. That’s where the support is coming from. However, he has never shied away from maintaining his libertarianism as broadly as possible (even where some of us might prefer he tone it down some for the sake of MSM acceptance). So, he’s bringing all these people in, and patiently, repeatedly, and eloquently exposing them to the libertarian message in a way that excites and arouses them, such as would never be the case if they were all just running in their own separate directions. Nobody comes to a political ideology as a purist right at the moment of conversion (not even big L Libertarians, though they come as close as anybody). Something piques them, something provides a hook, and then they start checking the rest of their beliefs against the operating ideology that got them moving our way in the first place.

    You’re right though that I am overstating it. Nevertheless, of anybody currently active in the libertarian movement, I’d say he’s already done more to popularize, the message than anybody I can think of. I have no interest in whether he will hurt or help it in the sense that some speak of it—that tends to be more the concern for the die-hard purists who often tend to reject anybody who doesn’t do it perfect, even if it means staying lost in the political wilderness for all time.

    This has been a poor few generations for this type of freedom movement. Ron’s a very bright star in a sky that’s been pretty dark for a lot of nights.

    Comment by Brad — November 24, 2007 @ 1:49 pm
  6. Now to the actual meat of the piece:

    Now, it’s important to note that Lindsey isn’t arguing that the American public is on the verge of embracing the gold standard or privately owned roads. Doctrinaire libertarianism — especially in its sometimes wild anarcho-capitalist varieties — is unlikely to ever be part of the mainstream of American political thought.

    1) Libertarians don’t even agree on the gold standard.

    2) I see libertarianism becoming a moderating force to the Right and possibly the Left. The libertarian-conservative tradition has been around since Goldwater and Bill Buckley. The battlegrounds in the Republican primary have been among the shrinking number of Christian right voters and the growing number of limited government minded voters.

    As for the Left, Kos has been babbling about “libertarian Democrats” since 2004 however the final version was basically state-funded anything against Judeo-Christian norms with corporate bashing on the side. Maybe one day someone will seriously pursue the concept outside of the blogosphere.

    Comment by Kevin — November 24, 2007 @ 1:50 pm
  7. Brad,

    I’ll agree with you on one thing:

    I have no interest in whether he [Paul] will hurt or help it in the sense that some speak of it—that tends to be more the concern for the die-hard purists who often tend to reject anybody who doesn’t do it perfect, even if it means staying lost in the political wilderness for all time.

    Puritanical libertarianism gets the LP less than 1% of the vote every year and makes libertarianism a joke.

    As for who is responsible for this increasing libertarianism in the American political scene, this is a conversation to be had about a decade or so now when we can look back and take a look using hindsight.

    Comment by Kevin — November 24, 2007 @ 1:58 pm
  8. Doctrinaire libertarianism — especially in its sometimes wild anarcho-capitalist varieties — is unlikely to ever be part of the mainstream of American political thought.

    That’s what you think! My five year plan for world domination is humming along quite nicely! Mwa ha ha ha!

    Comment by tarran — November 24, 2007 @ 2:18 pm
  9. Brad,

    Ron Paul is more the effect than the cause.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — November 24, 2007 @ 2:24 pm
  10. Tarran,

    And here I thought only Stewie Griffin had plans like that ;)

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — November 24, 2007 @ 2:25 pm
  11. As for who is responsible for this increasing libertarianism in the American political scene, this is a conversation to be had about a decade or so now when we can look back and take a look using hindsight.

    I think it’s been a cultural change that’s been slowly building over the past century or so. Equality for women and blacks was a serious step forward – a realization that all men meant all people. Equality for gays is the next great civil rights movement, but it’s basically already been won: no one my age (29) or younger gives a shit what sexual orientation you are.

    Economic freedom has been gaining in popularity since the late 70s. The failure of Keynesianism to stop stagflation soured much of the elite (and most of the country) on it. The fix was in early for Reagan (hello VP Bush), but the sentiment was certainly there. The 1994 GOP Revolution fizzled quickly, but the sentiment never went away. The recent spate of big government was a hiccup caused by the combined shock of 9/11 and the tech crash. That’s the past, though, and the rising libertarian tide has come back just as strong.

    The government is not shrinking, of course, but politics is mostly a lagging indicator of society. What’s important is that public opinion is subtly shifting towards libertarianism. Politicians will either adjust to it, lose their seats, or lose their heads.

    Interestingly enough, we’ve long seen how diffuse costs and concentrated benefits lead to bigger government. Exhibit A: farm subsidies. But it looks like it may be working in libertarianism’s favor for a change. Folks are saying, “I want the freedom to do [x],” but libertarianism is the only political force for [x]. Even though a group may want the freedom to do [x], but doesn’t want the freedom to do [y], they have to support a group or candidate that allows both [x] and [y]. That can change, of course, but for right now it’s a groundswell for libertarianism.

    Comment by Joshua Holmes — November 24, 2007 @ 2:30 pm
  12. Doug:

    Ron Paul is more the effect than the cause.

    Think so?

    Doctrinal libertarian candidates garnered what percent of the 2006/2004 votes?

    If Ron were to run as a Libertarian this year, he’d get between 10-15%.

    I think it’s more like a bit of a perfect storm situation, but it was by no means assured that this year there would be a strong and vehement libertarian voice in national politics. Hell, look at the Democrats currently running, despite their rumblings in the last few years about a more accountable and transparent federal government, balanced budgets, anti-interventionism, yadda yadda. There would be a strong OPPOSITIONAL voice, but of what sort was (and to a big extent still is) up in the air.

    Certainly, if you want to argue that libertarianism has been on the ascent in the last six years, I might have a word or two to say in refutation.

    Ron’s sort of the right guy at the right time, to be sure, but certainly, he’s the lone voice right now in mainstream political discourse, and all roads presently lead through him. Gotta give the guy some credit.

    Forgive me, I’m being a Ron Paul absolutist today. :)

    Comment by Brad — November 24, 2007 @ 2:50 pm
  13. Brad,

    Ron Paul didn’t invent the libertarian ideas that are percolating through the electorate.

    He may be tapping into them, but he didn’t invent them.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — November 24, 2007 @ 3:03 pm
  14. Of course not.

    He just happens to be the most successful mainstream American political candidate to run explicitly on those ideas in my lifetime.

    Comment by Brad — November 24, 2007 @ 3:14 pm
  15. “Ron Paul is more the effect than the cause.”

    Absolutely! He claims the remnant cured his skepticism.

    Liberty is not a secret, maintained by a small group of elite thinkers. It’s the dream of all good people.

    Don’t forget to thank neocons, for an odour so vile, that even the average American can hardly go about his regular routine. It’s creeping authority behind this resurgence. This time, we have a Constitution to point to, and say, “Look, we don’t need force of arms. All we have to do, is demand the force of the Law!” No wonder the rest of the world has long tolerance for America, even when she is an occupying army in a deep, deep slumber.

    In the early days of the Republic, West Virginians would tar and feather federal officials, just for coming around!

    But the battle isn’t over. We also have databases, and electronic voting machines, live fire aerial drones, and microwave crowd dispersers. Oh, and if your cell phone is on, we can tell where you are using GPS. Perhaps these are still no match for classical Liberalism?

    Comment by Linus — November 24, 2007 @ 3:14 pm
  16. Correction: it’s not GPS, but triangulation on the cell towers.

    Comment by Linus — November 24, 2007 @ 3:25 pm
  17. Linus,

    The true test begins January 8th. And 4th place isn’t winning.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — November 24, 2007 @ 4:10 pm
  18. Fourth place ain’t winning? Would second place be winning? What is your standard of progress? It sure is winning if your standard is any previous presidential election where libertarians typically get a fraction of 1 percent. If Paul received 8 percent in either New Hampshire or iowa, it would represent a dramatic example of progress for libertarian candidates at the presidential level.

    Comment by Dodsworth — November 24, 2007 @ 4:43 pm
  19. Dodsworth,

    Ummm

    First place is winning.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — November 24, 2007 @ 5:04 pm
  20. One could argue that waking the remnant is a victory. Homemade signs coast to coast? I would have lost that bet. People making videos with Ron Paul resuscitating the Constitution with defibrillator paddles set to Pat Benatar? I would not have expected that from reading von Hayek, or “Paper Money and Tyranny.”

    2nd or 3rd in Nevada and South Carolina would be very interesting.

    He will easily clear $12 million in the 4th quarter. That’s beyond my wildest dreams. He’s been shaming reporters from the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, ABC, MSNBC. He’s drawing street crowds that cheer, CHEER, for dissolving the Federal Reserve.

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. Success??!!! You have got to get yourself out of this safe Libertarian armchair analyst position.

    When the Federal Government took 5 days to deliver water to the Superdome, and all the politicians lined up in front of the cameras and lied to the public, something fundamental changed. Who’s to say lifting the veil of the MSM’s propagandistic attacks is not a political Katrina? This is Ron Paul Tzu. I think you would be liberated by redefining your ideas of victory.

    Comment by Linus — November 24, 2007 @ 5:30 pm
  21. Ummm. Doug: Keep in mind context. If you expected Ron Paul to come in first when he first announced, you were deluded. If you expected him to do this well, then you were wildly over optimistic (though in the end accurate). Please note that Paul announced libertarianism, IMHO, was at its lowest ebb in decades.

    Winning for a libertarian in this context, especially when starting from such a low base, is making a good showing (say 8 percent). The Paul campaign is the best thing to happen to libertarians in decades. In this respect, he has already “won.” The most realistic goal right now is to libertarianism some strong momentum. Paul has done that.

    Comment by Dodsworth — November 24, 2007 @ 6:40 pm
  22. that is “when Paul announced, IMHO, libertarianism was at its lowest ebb in decades.”

    Comment by Dodsworth — November 24, 2007 @ 6:41 pm
  23. Brad is absolutely right and Kevin is wrong. Paul is overhwelming supported by Libertarians, at least capital LP members such as myself that I know, and from Libertarian surveys I participate in. And Ron Paul is hardly new, he’s been out there for 30 years saying the same things.

    There is no doubt that Paul is being propelled by anti-war sentiment, but last I checked most Libertarians are anti-war. My state LP party, in order to join(unless you want to buy your way in), you have to sign an oath affirming that you don’t believe in the use of force to achieve social or political goals.

    Most of these anti-Paul slurs within the Libertarian community are originating from so-called “pro-war libertarians,” a term I find oxymoronic myself. But everyone is free to their own views, however, when you make blanket statements that Paul’s supporters aren’t Libertarian I wonder how keyed in you are either into the Ron Paul movement or the Libertarian movement–as opposed to mere rants from an arm chair blogger.

    Comment by Kaligula — November 24, 2007 @ 11:52 pm
  24. In regards to the Civil Rights Act, we need to just Amend the Constitution for that anyway. I think it’s worth it, don’t you? That solves the problem. It’s all about the Tenth Amendment and empowering the States. State power = less tyranny than we’re getting now.

    Comment by Nick B. — November 25, 2007 @ 6:21 am
  25. Nick,

    State power = less tyranny than we’re getting now.

    There is plenty of evidence from American history to argue against that proposition.

    Federalism is a Constitutional concept; it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with individual liberty.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — November 25, 2007 @ 6:27 am
  26. Kevin: Do you mean libertarians disagree with each other on Paul’s anti-war stance, or with Paul? If the latter, it’s news to me…I read lewrockwell.com every day and it’s strongly anti-war.

    Comment by Dennis — November 25, 2007 @ 7:06 am
  27. Dennis,

    Lew Rockwell.com represents one faction of libertarians and I think a strong case can be made that it doesn’t represent the mainstream of the movement.

    Does everyone forget that Rockwell and Murray Rothbard were endorsing Pat Buchanan not too long ago ?

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — November 25, 2007 @ 7:31 am
  28. I disagree with many of Ron Paul’s ideas, but so what? President Ron Paul will not be writing any laws, as that’s congress’s job. What he proposes is certainly far superior to what we have and to where we’re going. And what are the alternatives? Generally (with two exceptions), a bunch of Fascistic, bought-and payed for, lying bastards (and one Fascistic, bought-and payed for, lying bastardess). No thanks, guy!

    Comment by G Anton — November 25, 2007 @ 8:57 am
  29. Brad,

    Doctrinal libertarian candidates garnered what percent of the 2006/2004 votes?

    If Ron were to run as a Libertarian this year, he’d get between 10-15%.

    Would Paul get 10-15% if he had STARTED his run as a (big-L) Libertarian? I think he’s getting media attention as a Republican, and if he doesn’t get the nomination, he could get 10-15% if he went third-party. But I doubt he would have been noticed if he ran as part of the LP without any exposure to all these debates and media that only come along with the two main parties.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — November 25, 2007 @ 10:29 am
  30. LOL, I also find it funny how the WaPo (originally cited article) calls Bill Maher a libertarian just because Bill Maher calls himself a libertarian.

    There’s plenty of in-fighting amongst libertarians over what constitutes a “true” libertarian. But I think there’s a large consensus that says Bill Maher isn’t one.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — November 25, 2007 @ 10:42 am
  31. I believe you are quoting a Washington POST article, not a wash times one. Wash Post = formerly liberal, now afraid of the right, so stays middle-of-the-road and doesn’t report on the number of innocent Iraqis killed by the corporate/mercenaries and friends of Bush.

    Wash Times = wacko Moonie paper, never taken seriously.

    Comment by tom termini — November 25, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

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