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The ‘Libertarian Moment’ Has Definitely Not Arrived


The New York Times Magazine has an entertaining look at the libertarian movement that includes, among others, my Federalist colleagues Ben Domenech and Mollie Hemingway making astute observations about its future. The main question, though, is whether America has finally stumbled upon its “libertarian moment.” And boy, do I wish the answer was yes.

Here’s how Robert Draper lays out the case:

But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side. An estimated 54 percent of Americans now favor extending marriage rights to gay couples. Decriminalizing marijuana has become a mainstream position, while the drive to reduce sentences for minor drug offenders has led to the wondrous spectacle of Rick Perry — the governor of Texas, where more inmates are executed than in any other state — telling a Washington audience: “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money.” The appetite for foreign intervention is at low ebb, with calls by Republicans to rein in federal profligacy now increasingly extending to the once-sacrosanct military budget.

Without getting into policy specifics, there are a few problems with this narrative.

Agreeing with a libertarian on occasion doesn’t make you a libertarian

A libertarian – according to the dictionary, at least – is a person who “upholds the principles of individual liberty especially of thought and action.” And there is simply no evidence that Americans are any more inclined to support policy that furthers individual freedom or shrinks government.

Take two of the most frequently cited issues that herald the libertarian renaissance: legalized pot and gay marriage. Both of them, I would argue, are only inadvertently aligned with libertarian values. These are victories in a culture war. Both issues have rapidly gained acceptance in the United States, but support for them does not equate to any newfound longing to “uphold the principles of individual liberty.”

Many supporters of pot legalization are, for example, probably just as sympathetic to nanny-state prohibitions on products they find insalubrious or environmentally unfriendly. More seriously, many of the most passionate proponents of same-sex marriage are also the most passionate proponents of the government forcing Christian bakers and florists to participate in gay marriages and impelling religious business owners to subsidize contraception for their employees.

Beating back people who stand in the way of gay marriage to make room for people who stand in the way of religious freedom and free association doesn’t exactly feel like a victory on the liberty front.

Who is championing libertarian ideas?

Politics is always tough on libertarians as partisanship usually trumps principle. You don’t have to further than polling on NSA spying programs, where parties switch positions depending on who’s president, or the endless attempts by liberal pundits to justify Obama’s executive abuse – during the Bush-era a portend to fascism; today, a necessity brought on by “obstructionism” – to understand the pitfalls libertarians face.

So where do they turn?

Emily Ekins, a pollster for the Reason Foundation, had this to say in the New York Times piece:

Unlike with previous generations, we’re seeing a newer dimension emerge where they agree with Democrats on social issues, and on economic issues lean more to the right. It’s possible that Democrats will have to shift to the right on economic issues. But the Republicans will definitely have to move to the left on social issues. They just don’t have the numbers otherwise.

Though I’m somewhat sympathetic to this conventional wisdom, I’m not sure it’s true.

The case for libertarian political success always seems to hinge on the idea of pleasing the left on social issues – namely, on abortion. So why is that the most successful libertarians – and really we’re talking about Republicans like Justin Amash and Rand Paul – rarely focus on the issues that allegedly define the “libertarian moment.” Paul has taken a moderate, incremental approach on gay marriage. He’s strongly pro-life. And he’s the most successful libertarian politician in America. Many social conservatives are giving Paul’s libertarian views on foreign policy, the NSA, and sentencing reform a fair hearing. Which would not have happened if he had moved strongly to the left on social issues.

Democrats will never be able to accept libertarian fiscal policy. It’s far more likely that conservatives will end up adopting a more laissez faire, let-the-states-decide outlook out of necessity. So maybe the more apt political question should be: how do libertarians and social conservatives coexist? That hasn’t happened yet. Until it does there is no libertarian moment in American politics.

There is no ‘libertarian moment’ without libertarian economic reform

It’s odd that stories about the impending libertarian ascension always treat economics as an addendum to the itinerary. Especially when one considers some of the greatest thinkers of classical liberalism were (and are) economists. It’s yet to be seen if grassroots conservatives will maintain their libertarian economic outlook should they ever find themselves in power. But at least some in GOP have embraced an agenda driven by actual  idealism.

Now, with all that said, most Americans want nothing to do with libertarian economic policy. As Kevin Williamson pointed out not long ago in Politco, the love Americans show for their expensive and inefficient programs makes a libertarian moment in the near future unlikely. No matter how often voters tell pollsters they crave more choice, limited governments and free market solutions, elections tell us that they’re lying.

Millennials aren’t libertarians. They’re socialists who want to buy legal pot

Thing change, of course. I’ve been hearing for a while that the next generation of voter will be skeptical of big institutions and government, and alter the political dynamic. Draper calls Millennials a “wildcard,” unwedded to any party. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that half of Millennials describe themselves as political independents and about three-in-ten say they are not affiliated with religion, they prefer fewer government programs. And I don’t buy it.

Here’s Pew:

At the same time, however, Millennials stand out for voting heavily Democratic and for liberal views on many political and social issues, ranging from a belief in an activist government to support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization.

When you take a deeper dive, on almost every issue Millennials are basically liberal in big numbers.

Via Hot Air:

74 percent of millennials say government has a responsibility to guarantee every citizen has a place to sleep and enough to eat…

69 percent say it is government’s responsibility to guarantee everyone access to health care and 51 percent have a favorable view of the Affordable Care Act

68 percent say government should ensure everyone makes a living wage

66 percent say raising taxes on the wealthy would help the economy…

58 percent say the government should spend more on assistance to the poor even it means higher taxes

None of this is to say that these beliefs are static. Today’s young people may evolve or circumstances may change their perceptions about the world. And all of this is not to say that libertarian ideas don’t hold any political potential. Libertarian populism is probably the GOP’s most promising bet, as it offers a tempered and enticing message to a large swath of Americans. There are plenty of libertarian-minded reform ideas focusing on poverty, cronyism, education and other items that matter more to Americans than pot or gay marriage. But, as much as I’d like it to be, those ideas haven’t yet enjoyed the sort of “political momentum” that could be construed in any way as a “libertarian moment.” Not yet.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.