Is Libertarianism the Next Big Thing?

by Veronique de Rugy

Yesterday, the Washington Post had a story titled, “Libertarians Flex Their Muscle in the GOP“:

Libertarianism once again appears to be on the rise, particularly among the young. But its alliance with the Republican establishment is fraying, as demonstrated by the increasingly personal war of words between two leading potential 2016 presidential contenders. 

The whole piece is interesting even though it may overstate the influence that libertarians have had on Republicans. As Nick Gillespie notes, “The “once again” is appreciated, though any honest appraisal of partisan politics would acknowledge that libertarianism has been the next big thing for going on 45 years, when the future editor of Wired magazine, Louis Rossetto and his college pal Stan Lehr published “The New Right Credo: Libertarianism” in the January 10, 1971 issue of The New York Times Magazine.”

That being said, there is no doubt that the libertarian influence over political discourse and over Republican politics has existed, with ups and downs, for a long time. The story quotes David Boaz of the Cato Institute:

Libertarianism tends to rise as a backlash to government expansiveness and incompetence, said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, who has written extensively about the movement’s history.

He said the modern movement began to flower in the late 1960s and early 1970s in reaction to the Vietnam War, disenchantment with the growth of social programs during the Great Society era, stagflation and the Watergate scandal.

Libertarianism also took on an intellectual sheen after proponents Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman won Nobel Memorial Prizes in economics in 1974 and 1976, respectively, and Harvard University professor Robert Nozick’s defense of it, titled “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” won the National Book Award in 1975.

Politically, “libertarianism with a small L was very skeptical of Republicanism with a capital R,” but they were bound by their mutual abhorrence of communism and the welfare state, Boaz said.

After the Soviet Union fell apart, their relationship became more tenuous.

For this libertarian, it is encouraging to see some debates about the role of government and about civil-liberty concerns taking place within the Republican party led by people like congressmen Justin Amash and Thomas Massie and Senator Rand Paul.

On the same day, the Washington Post’ s Aaron Blake noted that there is also a rising strain of libertarianism in the Democratic party.

Several Democrats from this movement will meet at the White House this afternoon to discuss their concerns with President Obama and Republicans.

For evidence of the widespread uneasiness on the left, one need look no further than the vote in the House last week to defund the NSA’s phone record collection program. While much was made of the fact that nearly half of Republicans voted for the measure, it’s just as notable that 111 of 194 Democrats did the same.

In other words, well more than half the House Democratic conference voted to defund a surveillance program overseen by a president of their own party. That’s a pretty stunning fact that has gotten lost in the current debate.

Blake argues that the movement is, however, in search of a leader:

For now, the de facto leaders of the left’s effort to rein in the Obama Administration’s surveillance programs are Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and, arguably, the journalist who has been working with Edward Snowden to reveal the programs, Glenn Greenwald. While these two have been pushing the issue hard, they aren’t exactly political figures with huge built-in constituencies.

 Libertarianism may be the next big thing after all.

Update: It should be noted that libertarianism doesn’t dictate a single position on abortion. In fact, Congressmen Amash and Massie, as well as Senator Paul, are all pro-life libertarians. Also, in this piece called “Five Myths About Libertarianism,” Reason’s Nick Gillespie writes:

About 30 percent of libertarians — including many libertarian-minded politicians such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) — are staunchly pro-life. But most believe that the best way to change behavior is through moral suasion, not versions of prohibition that don’t work.

For an interesting debate between libertarians about abortion you can watch this video, which features pro-life libertarian Mollie Hemingway.