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Politics & Policy

Misunderstanding the ‘Libertarian Moment’

In response to Re: The Connection

Ramesh: My take on this question is that most people, including you, are misunderstanding what the phrase “libertarian moment” means. Granted it could be because libertarians themselves have poorly defined what it means or have overstated what it means, though Reason’s Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, who coined the term, have consistently defined it fundamentally in pre-political terms, calling it “comfort with and demand for increasingly individualized and personalized options and experiences in every aspect of our lives.” In their book The Declaration of Independents, they write that politics is a “crippled, lagging indicator” of where America is headed and argue that libertarianism will come last to partisan politics.

This is how I see the libertarian moment as I explained over at Reason last June:

Since 1993, the news network has been asking people whether they think the government does too much or too little and whether they think the government should or shouldn’t promote traditional values in society. Libertarians generally believe that the government does too much and that it should refrain from promoting any particular set of values.

The latest data, from last December, show that between 1993 and 2014, the percentage of people who believe the government does too much increased from 45 percent to 58 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who believe it’s government’s job to promote traditional values decreased from 53 percent to 41 percent. On both questions, the shift has accelerated since 2010.

Numbers like these led the statistical-minded political commentator Nate Silver to write in The New York Times in 2011 that “there have been visible shifts in public opinion on a number of issues, ranging from increasing tolerance for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization on the one hand, to the skepticism over stimulus packages and the health-care overhaul on the other hand, that can be interpreted as a move toward more libertarian views.”

Silver doubled down on that claim recently at FiveThirtyEight in an article titled “There Are Few Libertarians. But Many Americans Have Libertarians Views.” He wrote that “the rigidly partisan views of political elites should not be mistaken for the relatively malleable and diverse ones that American voters hold.” In fact, Silver estimated that more than one-fifth of Americans hold the libertarian position on both gay marriage and income redistribution. And there’s reason to think the number of people falling into that camp is on the rise.

Here is the Silver article.

In other words, I am not surprised that this libertarian moment doesn’t get straight-up libertarian candidates elected — and it’s worth debating whether Senator Paul was truly a libertarian candidate. But I would add that I don’t care particularly about getting libertarian candidates elected. I do, however, care about Americans with libertarian instincts electing more pro-freedom and pro-market lawmakers like Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul or Representatives Thomas Massie and Justin Amash. They may not consistently call themselves libertarians but they are clearly putting pressure on their Republican colleagues and pushing them to be more pro-freedom, to adopt more free-market policies, and to be embarrassed by their overspending and big-government tendencies.

Maybe I am not ambitious enough for the larger libertarian movement but I think that this movement has had its biggest victories by influencing the battle of ideas and by challenging the status quo, not by winning elections. Milton Friedman was crucial in ending the draft and did so using explicitly libertarian arguments about freedom and coercion. Something very similar goes for the wide acceptance of free trade. In just the past few years, libertarian issues ranging from marijuana legalization to criminal-justice reform to marriage equality have all become realities, typically despite pushback from major parties and political figures (neither Barrack Obama nor Hillary Clinton, for instance, supported same-sex marriage until it became clear the public was in front of them on the issue). Conservatives also know that they can count on libertarians to join forces with them to fight for the freedom of wedding-cake bakers.

I believe that culture is downstream of politics, so libertarian candidates will only triumph at the ballot box when the libertarian moment is much farther along.

I would also note that while the libertarian moment may not be what some claim it is, the regular parties have nothing to gloat about. According to a Gallup poll, in January 2016, 26 percent of respondents identify as Republicans and 29 percent affiliated with Democrats. These are at or near historic lows for both, and there’s no reason to believe those numbers have not yet hit bottom.


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