David Kirby and Emily Ekins on the Tea Party

One of the more contentious debates among libertarians, or rather among libertarian policy intellectuals, is over whether or not the Tea Party movement should be understand as an essentially libertarian influence on the GOP or as a populist identity politics movement that is hostile towards libertarians on a number of dimensions, e.g., immigration and trade policy, and that threatens to alienate socially liberal potential allies. David Kirby and FreedomWorks and Emily Ekins of the Reason Foundation have a new Cato Institute paper that draws on survey evidence to argue that the Tea Party is indeed a libertarian influence. I was struck by the following passage:

Indeed, pop culture caricatures libertarians as comically radical, like the Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson, who thinks public parks should be sold to Chuck E. Cheese and who gives a fourth grader a land mine to protect her private property. The libertarians we identify are a broader group.

The constellation of libertarian thinkers has its Austro-Rothbardians, its Friedmanites, its Konkinites, its Rawlsekians, and of course its Swansonites. 

As Kirby and Ekins acknowledge, identifying the ideas that unite this large and diffuse group is a challenge. The same is true of the libertarian movement as a whole. But the paper is very interesting, in part because clashing interpretations of the Tea Party have been a source of internal tension in libertarian institutions like Cato. In particular, the small but influential band of liberaltarians, who seek to build alliances with the political center-left by embracing welfare state reformism and by emphasizing issues like immigration, civil liberties, and the reform of intellectual property, has been sharply critical of the Tea Party movement, which it sees as xenophobic and “bad for the libertarians.” 

It is worth noting that constitutional idealism plays a powerful role in the self-conception and the discourse of the Tea Party movement, yet it is somewhat less central to elite libertarianism, which has been heavily influenced by postwar classical liberals like Hayek. Interpretations of the Tea Party depend in part on how one feels about this constitutional idealism: is it an effective vehicle for persuasion, or is it an essentially nostalgic sensibility that detracts from the larger project of persuading democratic electorates to embrace libertarian policies? 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...