The Corner

The Future of Libertarianism

Tim Lee:

Too many libertarians seem to define libertarianism as a very specific and restrictive political program: as a laundry list of government programs to be abolished, or equivalently as a very short list of government programs that won’t be abolished. By that measure, libertarianism is nowhere close to successful. But if we define libertarianism more broadly as a set of general ideas and attitudes—pro-market, pro-tolerance, skeptical of authority—the last few decades look a lot better from a libertarian perspective. Few major government programs have been abolished, but the role of market in the economy has expanded dramatically, and partly as a consequence people are freer than they’ve ever been to live their lives as they seem fit without interference from those in authority.

Isn’t this a little like saying that if you think of libertarianism as, well, libertarianism, it has been a failure, but if you redefine it to mean something rather different then it is going very well? The book Lee is talking about, Brink Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance, makes a similar move: see here for an example. So, for example, the facts that the number of people who are unchurched is growing, and that attitudes toward sex have liberalized, are taken to be evidence that the country is growing more libertarian. For decades, conservatives have accused libertarians of hostility to organized religion and traditional sexual morality. These days, they often come close to boasting about that hostility–and consider it more important than reducing coercion.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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