Is This the Libertarian Moment?
Earlier this month the New York Times wondered aloud if the “libertarian moment” had arrived. A good question, to be sure.
To answer it, though, Times reporter Robert Draper sought out not quite the top libertarian thinkers in the world, but instead those people most easily reached within a ten-minute walk from the Capitol or the Empire State Building.
Draper begins with an ex-MTV personality and proceeds from there. None of the people whose work and writing have shaped the libertarian movement, and who have converted so many people to our point of view, make an appearance. Ask the hordes of young kids who are devouring libertarian classics how many of them were introduced to libertarianism, or even slightly influenced, by the figures on whom the Times chooses to rely. You already know the answer.
The movement’s major thinkers have rather more intellectual heft behind them, which I suspect is why the Times would prefer to keep them from you. Far better for libertarianism to seem like an ill-focused, adolescent rebellion against authority per se, instead of a serious, intellectually exciting school of thought that challenges every last platitude about the State we were taught in its ubiquitous schools.
Economist and historian Bob Higgs shared my impression of the Times article:
Of course, it’s easy to ridicule libertarians if you focus exclusively on the lifestyle camp. Easy, too, to accuse them of inconsistency, because in truth these particular libertarians are inconsistent. Easy, too, to minimize their impact by concentrating heavily on conventional electoral politics, as if no other form of societal change were conceivable. Easy, too, to ignore completely the only ones — the anarchists — who cannot be accused of inconsistency or ridiculed for their impotence as players in the conventional political game, a game for which they have only contempt. Finally, it’s easy, too — and a great deal more interesting for general, clueless readers — to focus on the hip libertarians.
As Bob points out, the
We have zero interest in “public policy,” a term that begs every important moral question. To ask what kind of “public policy” ought to exist in such-and-such area implicitly assumes (1) that private property is subject to majority vote; (2) that people can be expropriated by the State to whatever degree the State considers necessary in order to carry out the “public policy” in question; (3) that there exists an institution with moral legitimacy that may direct our physical resources and even our lives in particular ways against our wills, even when we are causing no particular harm to anyone.
Still, I note in passing, political consultants are doing their best to make a quick buck on the rising tide of libertarianism. A fundraising email I receive from time to time urges people to get involved in the political process, since simply “educating people” (contemptuous, condescending quotation marks in original) isn’t enough. Instead, they’re told, it’s more important to spend their time supporting political candidates who occasionally give a decent speech but who otherwise deny libertarian principles on a routine basis, in the spurious hope that once in office, these candidates will throw off their conventional exteriors and announce themselves as libertarians.
The Times, too, thinks primarily about politics, of all things, when assessing whether the libertarian moment has arrived. The article is fixated on the political class. But why conceive of the question so narrowly? Why should we assess the growth and significance of libertarianism on the basis of political metrics alone?
The left understands this point. Recall Antonio Gramsci’s strategy for bringing about lasting leftist victory. He did not advocate immediate and exclusive emphasis on political activity. If the people’s minds had not been changed in the direction that a leftist government would want to take them, all their political conniving would be in vain anyway.
Vastly more important, Gramsci taught, was for their ideas to work their way through the universities, the arts, and all the other institutions of civil society. At that point, it wouldn’t matter who won the elections. The people would already be in their hands — and in all likelihood, the two competing candidates would themselves have adopted leftist language and ideas, whether they realized it or not, to boot.
Now judged by Gramsci’s standard, the libertarian moment has not arrived any more than it has in politics. These institutions are firmly in the hands of those who hold libertarian ideas in contempt, even if an exception might be found here and there.
But if we define the term “libertarian moment” more modestly, a different conclusion emerges. No, we have not reached a point at which anything like a majority of Americans have embraced our ideas. But we have reached a point at which even mainstream sources, which in the pre-Internet age could get away with ignoring us altogether, are forced to acknowledge us, if only for purposes of dismissal and ridicule.
Economic commentary can no longer pretend that our choices are either fiscal expansion or monetary expansion. A new school of thought has spoiled the party, letting Americans know that these phony choices by no means exhaust the real alternatives.
Thanks to Ron Paul, a new generation understands it’s all right to favor the free market and to oppose war. Libertarians have done more than anyone else to expose the Democrats as just another wing of the war party, and to show there’s no real debate in America over foreign policy. This is considered extremely uncouth by those who wish to maintain the pretense that open discussion of important issues takes place in the land of the free.
After decades of virtually no progress at all against the war on drugs, the prohibitionist regime is beginning to crack all around us. The standard bromides in its favor elicit only cynical chuckles from a rising generation that knows better.
Ordinarily, federal bailouts would be bipartisan and all but unanimous, with self-described supporters of the market economy solemnly informing us that just this once, it had to be done. Progressives have not distinguished themselves here as they might have; Rachel Maddow once said we wouldn’t have had an economy without the bailouts. It’s the libertarians who have stood against the establishment tide, as usual.
In other words, we are having discussions that we did not have in the past. Libertarians have staked out positions that a lot of ordinary people share, but which they never saw articulated in public, thereby giving people the confidence and courage to express dissent. Ten years ago, these dissident views would have been drowned out by the establishment consensus, which closes ranks whenever an issue of real importance arises.
Is it too much to call this the libertarian moment? Whatever we want to call it, it’s the beginning of something never seen before in American history, and that alone is reason to celebrate.