Over the past decade, there has been significant growth in the libertarian movement, yet libertarianism has become more isolated than ever. Both the Left and the Right have undergone dramatic changes to essentially purge libertarian ideals from their platforms. Now libertarians must stand independently and offer a real alternative to both.
As little as four years ago the Right upheld conservatism, espousing libertarian ideals on economics and a principle of fusionism. The Left upheld liberalism, espousing libertarian ideals on personal issues and paying lip-service to civil liberties. Today, however, the new right-wing president rarely mentions conservatism and has never said a libertarian thing in his life. The Left has abandoned liberalism for progressivism, denouncing personal freedom in favor of a mandatory forward-march.
This has left libertarians in the cold. The previous, if unspoken, strategy for the movement was to support conservatives and liberals when they acted well, and oppose them when they acted badly, and hope that by shifting support between them, conservatives would get their way on economic issues, and liberals on social issues. But today it seems either side winning is a defeat for liberty.
Libertarians must therefore detach themselves from populism and progressivism and present a viable alternative. This means making proposals that are meaningful to the public, and that would move the country in a direction of liberty, even if those proposals aren’t immediately accepted in Congress. The first step is to get people to believe in them.
Cancel the Libertarian Suicide Pact
Unfortunately, libertarians have always had something of a collective suicide pact: whenever success is within reach, it must be blown. This was especially evident in 2016, when libertarians had a real opportunity to stand strong. Instead the Libertarian Party nominated Gary Johnson, who would only go viral as an embarrassment, then finished their national convention with a strip-tease live on C-SPAN.
More stifling is a tendency among libertarians to discuss ideals, but hesitate to comment on current issues or suggest marginal changes to get a freer society. When asked about marriage, libertarians will respond “private contracts.” When asked about the North American Free Trade Agreement or Trans-Pacific Partnership, they will respond “unilateral free trade.” When asked about banking regulation, the response is “end the Fed,” and the list goes on.
I support all these positions, but they have become a way to avoid an opinion libertarians could actually be held accountable for. For instance, NAFTA or TPP make populists mad, but unilateral free trade isn’t going to happen anytime soon, so only supporting that (and backing off from defending trade deals) give libertarians an escape from the ire of the anti-establishment.
The problem is that influence and accountability are a package deal, and in a world of populism versus progressivism, libertarians can’t rely on others to make the serious proposals for them. Instead, libertarians are going to have to offer a viable alternative for the country by proposing steps the country should take that are within reach.
This doesn’t mean abandoning principles, or disavowing more radical views. It means fighting for goals that are in sight, and moving the country so more radical goals come into sight. Libertarians must establish a trajectory towards a free society, and any trajectory needs multiple points.
Start From Reality, Not Your Libertarian Fantasy World
This advice is intended for the whole movement. Libertarians (small-l) have little influence anywhere in government, so libertarian legislation is not going to be taken seriously no matter what. To get more elected libertarians (regardless of party), those running for office are going to have to talk about current issues, but more importantly, the movement itself is going to have to be invested to create the perpetual motion.
Today, libertarians’ perspective considers what the politics of society should be if we are starting from nothing. But to get anywhere close to those ideals, the whole libertarian discourse, from candidates to pundits to activists, needs to also adopt a current perspective and consider what should be done now, given our present circumstances.
Libertarians often have a mindset that considering our current position and working from there is somehow a contaminating compromise. On the contrary, ignoring this perspective makes libertarians reliant on other movements that don’t ignore it and have a plan for the now. Libertarians should maintain an idealistic perspective to determine where to go, but also adopt a current perspective to find out how to get there.
Libertarians should be at the forefront of fights for school choice programs, simplifying immigration, welfare reform, etc., especially when these are not popular. Libertarians are going to have to learn about these issues, not just the economics of hypotheticals, but what the current policy is and its history. This means reading newspapers, summaries of legislation, and policy reports.
Marginal Libertarianism Matters
The attitude of the libertarian movement is a more important factor than questions like whether libertarians should work through a third party, a major party, or both major parties. Both progressivism and conservatism experimented with all three of those options in their budding moments before settling with a major party. But this was only possible because of a comprehensive movement that initially existed independent of party politics. If libertarians can establish such an independent movement, they too will have the freedom to experiment with different political strategies.
By investing more time in current issues and developing a slate of objectives, libertarians will have the opportunity to introduce libertarianism to people who don’t spend time developing an idealistic concept of government, but are interested in policies that affect them and their communities. These people won’t be as well-read as libertarians today, but having a casual libertarianism that people can identify with is sufficient to move the country in a free direction. After all, libertarians can’t really blame people for not being obsessed with government.
For guidance, libertarians can look to the conservative movement (R.I.P) of the past century, which many libertarians helped build. Coming out of World War II, conservatism was a fledgling group of thinkers who opposed the New Deal and feared Soviet power. In many ways it was in the same position libertarianism is today. Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” was published in 1953, and was an intellectual piece discussing thinkers like Edmund Burke in much the same way libertarians will discuss Frederic Bastiat. The book was a seminal moment in American history, and conservative thought (and thus policy) would be profoundly different without it.
However, Kirk’s book is relevant because it developed how conservative intellectuals (commentators, politicians, and activists) thought about the world, not because every conservative read the book. What made conservatism a movement that could win a major party nomination in 1964 and the presidency in 1980 were the intellectuals who applied these principles to the issues of the day, and turned a philosophy into policy.
William F Buckley Jr. founded National Review in 1955 and started the show “Firing Line” in 1966. Likewise, other magazines and columns were written from a conservative viewpoint that swayed public opinion on important issues and created new issues for people to care about. Organizations like the American Enterprise Institute also influenced the polity and, finally, major politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Libertarians must further develop such intermediaries if they want to change the political trajectory. The next generation of the classical liberals should read its Mises, Hayek, and Friedman. But it should also comment insightfully on voucher programs, trade agreements, and defending the Baltic States. If it does both in a nation rampant with cheap emotionalism, libertarians can become the adults of American politics.
Change won’t happen overnight—National Review started publication 25 years before Ronald Reagan became president—but it would be a wholesome and positive development the country needs.