The Corner

Rand Paul, Nick Gillespie, and Hope and Change

My friend Nick Gillespie takes issue with my recent assessment of Senator Rand Paul’s political chances. Nick and I do not disagree about much beyond the question of what time of year is appropriate for consigning one’s black leather jacket to the back of the closet until autumn, but he thinks that I am too dismissive of the gentleman from Kentucky’s presidential ambitions:

You can’t expect someone who works at National Review — whose mission is, famously and more than a little sadly, to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop” — to get misty-eyed about change, but Williamson simply presumes that things will never change. . . . As it happens, change is everywhere around us. Party affiliation continues to droop for Republicans and Democrats, while the share of self-declared independents stays at or near historic highs. Millennials are “unmoored from institutions,” gasped Pew Research recently. There’s every reason to believe that large swaths of the country are ready to shake off the politics of exhaustion and move toward a future that is different from the past. Only the nosferatu pundits at The New York Times and other journalistic glory holes for the Establishment can even stomach the prospect of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush showdown in 2016.

I am very fond of Nick’s phrasing in the above, and I hope that he is right and I am wrong. But I do not think that that is the case. If Americans were as libertarian as Nick wants them to be, I suspect that they would have made that fact more apparent by, e.g., voting for the sorts of candidates that Nick and I tend to favor, or by supporting positions of the sort that Nick and I would like for them to. But if Nick thinks that the sudden about-face on gay marriage is a sign of a sudden renewed dedication to individual rights, he might ask himself why it is that the people most enthusiastic about that reversal are seeking to use the federal police apparatus for the all-important national priority of locking nonconforming bakers in cages for offending their newfound moral sensibilities. Likewise, American voters like fiscal rectitude in theory — they tell the pollsters so! — but they intensely oppose the measures necessary to achieve that fiscal rectitude, such as reforming entitlements and cutting spending from popular programs. And the so-called independents who always excite libertarians such as Nick have a well-established habit of disappointing them.

I think that Nick’s enthusiasm for these unaffiliated voters shows a failure to understand the relevant political opportunities before us. Even if Rand Paul turns out to be the Howard Dean of the 2016 election, his emergence as an important figure within the Republican party, and the prominence of allies with similar views, suggests to me very strongly that those libertarians who want to advance their cause through the ballot box should join forces with the Republican party, which is their only available avenue of political progress. Nick can’t abide the Right’s alleged Bible thumpers, unless said biblioplangists bear the surname “Paul,” but they are and long have been among the best friends the cause of limited government has. Put another way: If by some miracle we could achieve all the things that Nick and I agree on and then start fighting over what’s left, the cause of liberty will have had a very good showing indeed, and Nick and I will be slugging it out over abortion until he comes around to the view that individual rights inhere in all human beings. On the other hand, if we could achieve all of the things that Nick and the typical soy-latte lefty agree on, we’ll have — what? — legal marijuana, and then a fight about federal subsidies for marijuana farmers, establishing a new federal marijuana regulatory agency, organic marijuana  labeling rules, Elizabeth Warren’s National Marijuana Fairness Directorate, a progressive marijuana tax, etc. Many libertarians cringe at the idea that their natural political home is the Republican party and the conservative movement, but it is. 

Some people have high hopes for electoral politics. My own view, set forth in the book that Nick graciously helped me to promote, is that we are much more likely to see government reform as a result of economic crisis than as a result of voters and their representatives suddenly getting religion about things like total fiscal overhang. During my more cynical moments, which tend to coincide with the times when I am not asleep, I am inclined to believe that while I would like to see more men like Rand Paul in political office, I am not entirely sure that it will make any significant difference in the long term. The unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare alone, and the economic distortions caused by Americans’ erroneous assumptions about future entitlement benefits, are going to do more than enough damage to offset by a factor of 1,000 whatever good a President Rand Paul might plausibly achieve. If the electorate  really did share Rand Paul’s views, we wouldn’t be in that particular mess in the first place.

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