New York Magazine
December 26, 2010
Just before Thanksgiving, in an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Ron Paul called for Congress to be groped. The Transportation Security Administration, having rolled out its new airport body scanners, had decreed anyone who opted out could be subjected to the now-infamous enhanced pat-down. “Let’s make sure that every member of Congress goes through this,” Representative Paul said, waving his finger in the air. “Get the X-ray, make them look at the pictures, and then go through one of those groping pat-downs.” Perhaps this would put Congress in touch (quite literally) with real Americans.
Paul, the 75-year-old Texas libertarian and quixotic 2008 Republican candidate best known for his quest to abolish the Federal Reserve, is used to fighting lonely battles. But this time, he had company. Fox News went wall-to-wall on the (nonexistent) health hazards of body scans, naked outlines of passengers, and pat-down paranoia. “If you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested,” said newfound freedom fighter John Tyner to a TSA agent in a video that went viral.
The left backed Paul too. Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald argued that the screenings had “all the ingredients of the last decade’s worth of Terrorism exploitation.” Blogger Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake called the X-ray devices “porno-scanners.” For one beautiful moment, the whole political spectrum—well, at least both vocal ends of it—seemed to agree: Too much government is too much government.
Maybe it was inevitable that the National Opt-Out Day, when travelers were going to refuse body scans en masse, failed to become the next Woolworth’s sit-in (how do you organize a movement that abhors organization?). It turned out most Americans actually supported the body scanners. But the moment was a reminder of just how strong, not to mention loud, the libertarian streak is in American politics.
No one exemplifies that streak more than Ron Paul—unless you count his son Rand. When Rand Paul strolled onstage in May 2010, the newly declared Republican nominee for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat, he entered to the strains of Rush, the boomer rock band famous for its allegiance to libertarianism and Ayn Rand. It was a dog whistle—a wink to free-marketers and classic-rock fans savvy enough to get the reference, but likely to sail over the heads of most Republicans. Paul’s campaign was full of such goodies. He name-dropped Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s seminal The Road to Serfdom. He cut a YouTube video denying that he was named after Ayn Rand but professing to have read all of her novels. He spoke in the stark black-and-white terms of libertarian purism. “Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state?” he asked the crowd in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Election Night.
It’s clear why he played coy. For all the talk about casting off government shackles, libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged. And Rand Paul’s dad is the craziest uncle of all. Ron Paul wants to “end the Fed,” as the title of his book proclaims, and return the country to the gold standard—stances that have made him a tea-party icon. Now, as incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Fed, he’ll have an even bigger platform. Paul Sr. says there’s not much daylight between him and his son. “I can’t think of anything we grossly disagree on,” he says.
There’s never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like TARP, the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.
Libertarianism has adherents on the left, too—they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry. It’s not surprising that the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government—tax cuts and releasing the shackles of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Much of Americans’ vaunted anger now comes from a sense of betrayal over libertariansim shrugged. Right-wing libertarians charge that the Bush presidency gave the lie to small-government cant by pushing Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and a $3 trillion war. Left-wing libertarians are furious that Obama talked a big game on civil liberties but has caved on everything from FISA to DOMA to Gitmo. Meanwhile, the country faces a massive and growing deficit (too much government!) that neither party has the power or the inclination to fix. If there were ever a time to harness libertarian energy—on left and right—it’s now.
Illustration by David Drummond
(Photo: Shutterstock (Mount Rushmore); Getty Images (Rand))
Libertarianism is a long, clunky word for a simple, elegant idea: that government should do as little as possible. In Libertarianism: A Primer, Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz defines it as “the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others.” Like any political philosophy, libertarianism contains a thousand substrains, ranging from anarchists who want to destroy the state to picket-fence conservatives who just want to put power in local hands. The traditional libertarian line is that government should be responsible for a standing army, local security, and a courts system, and that’s it—a system called minarchy. But everyone has his own idea of how to get there. Washington-think-tank libertarians take an incrementalist approach within the two-party system. The Libertarian Party offers a third way. Ayn Rand–inspired Objectivists promote their ideas through education. Reason magazine preaches the gospel of cultural libertarianism. Silicon Valley techno-entrepreneurs would invent their way to Libertopia.
Wall Street free-marketers want deregulation. The Free State Project plans to concentrate 20,000 libertarians in New Hampshire. “Seasteaders” dream of building societies on the ocean. And then there are the regular old Glenn Beck disciples who just want to be left alone. “They all want to shoot each other in the face over who gets to be the real libertarian,” says Matt Welch, editor of Reason. At the very least, they all agree they should be allowed to acquire the weapon with which to do so.
Libertarianism gets caricatured as the weird, Magic-card-collecting, twelve-sided-die-wielding outcast of American political philosophy. Yet there’s no idea more fundamental to our country’s history. Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them. (Though some Founders, like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, wanted to centralize power.) All the government-run trappings that came after—the Fed, highways, public schools, a $1.5 trillion-a-year entitlement system— were arguably departures from our country’s hard libertarian core.
About one in ten Americans self-identifies as libertarian, and even fewer consider themselves “movement” libertarians. Most of them don’t subscribe to Reason or attend conferences at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank funded in part by the infamous brothers Charles and David Koch. But many are libertarians without knowing it. That is, they identify as economically conservative and socially liberal. That number may be growing. In a 2009 Gallup poll, 23 percent of Americans responded to questions about the role of government in a way that categorizes them as libertarian—up from 18 percent in 2000. A survey conducted by Zogby for the Cato Institute has put the libertarian vote at around 15 percent. Loosen the wording, and the pool expands. When the Zogby survey asked voters if they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian,” the number rose to 44 percent. When it simply asked if they were “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” a full 59 percent responded yes. Not bad for a bunch of trench-coat-wearing dungeon masters.
Libertarianism is far from synonymous with the tea party, but the tea party is the closest thing to a mass libertarian movement in recent memory. Tea-partyers surveyed by Cato split down the middle between social conservatives and social liberals, making half of them traditional Republicans and half libertarians. But the fact that the tea party organizes around fiscal issues alone—smaller government, lower taxes—gives the movement libertarian cred. Its members speak the language, too, waving Gadsden flags, quoting Hayek, and carrying signs that say WHO IS JOHN GALT?—a reference to the hero of the Ayn Rand book Atlas Shrugged.
Libertarianism gets marginalized in American politics because it doesn’t fit into the two-party paradigm. Libertarians want less state intrusion into the market, which aligns them with Republicans, but also less interference in social choices, which aligns them with Democrats. As Massachusetts governor William Weld put it in 1992, “I want the government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom.” To the partisan brain, this doesn’t compute. “In 1976, people didn’t have the vaguest idea of what I was talking about,” says Ron Paul. “Why was I voting with the left sometimes and with the right other times?”
Yet libertarianism is more internally consistent than the Democratic or Republican platforms. There’s no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella, except that it makes for a powerful coalition. Libertarianism lies crosswise to the partisan split, giving its adherents a kind of freethinker, outcast status. This can be especially attractive for young people. “When I was 19, libertarianism was an argument for being awesome,” says Will Wilkinson, a former Cato scholar who now blogs at The Economist. It’s about flouting convention and rejecting authority—the political equivalent of getting an eyebrow ring. It’s also an excuse to indulge your most selfish instincts. But you don’t have to call it “selfishness.”
Illustration by David Drummond
(Photo: Gilbert Stuart/Getty Images (Washington))
Ayn Rand has been called the “gateway drug” to libertarianism, but many converts keep toking well into adulthood. Her novels, including 1943’s The Fountainhead and 1957’s Atlas Shrugged, sell more than 800,000 copies a year. Other libertarians credit their conversion to Hayek, fellow Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (Ron Paul’s personal fave), American free-marketer Milton Friedman, or Austrian-influenced American anarcho-capitalist and father of modern libertarianism Murray Rothbard. Ever since its publication in 1944, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom has been the anti-regulatory Ur-text. Hayek wrote the book in response to the spread of socialism—including National Socialism— which at the time was a genuine existential threat to Western society. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, though, socialism isn’t the menace it used to be. Hitler is long gone. Yet libertarians still cite Hayek and Rand with the same urgency. Ron Johnson, the newly elected senator from Wisconsin, called Atlas Shrugged, which tells the story of a group of creative capitalists who retreat from an overregulated society to form their own Utopia, a “foundational book” that serves as “a warning of what could happen to America.” Representative Paul Ryan, also of Wisconsin, requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, describes Obama’s economic policies as “something right out of an Ayn Rand novel,” and calls Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.” Glenn Beck touted The Road to Serfdom on his show, wondering out loud if it might be “the road we’re on.” The irony is that Hayek believed in a role for the state. “In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing,” he wrote. He favored government intervention in the markets, for example, and supported environmental regulation. When he warned against “socialism,” he meant actual socialism.
Wilkinson still identifies as a libertarian but distances himself from the doomsaying. “Part of my political maturation was realizing there’s really not that much at stake,” he says. “That our culture isn’t on the road to serfdom, we’re not one step away from drifting into Fascism or totalitarian socialism or anything like that.” It’s a realization many politicians have yet to make.
Republicans speak the language of libertarianism. They talk about shrinking government and cutting the deficit. But when one of them turns words into action, he gets shunned. The latest Republican to mistakenly put money to mouth: Paul Ryan. During the debate over health-care reform last winter, the GOP was getting savaged for failing to present an alternative to the Democrats’ plan to reduce long-term spending growth. Ryan, an econ wonk and the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, decided to take a crack. He introduced a budget and called it “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” The Roadmap made all the tough cuts that other Republicans discussed vaguely but never specified. It would simplify the tax code, privatize Medicare and Medicaid, and replace parts of Social Security with personal accounts. And it would work: The Congressional Budget Office estimated that Ryan’s plan would put the country in the black by 2063. Sure, it would rip a Texas-size hole in the social safety net, but it was a bona fide libertarian solution.
Ryan got points for boldness. Obama called the Roadmap a “serious proposal.” But Republicans including John Boehner and Newt Gingrich voiced doubts. Some GOP candidates initially supported the Social Security plank but then flipped when their Democratic opponents called them out. More recently, Republicans have studiously avoided specifics when it comes to deficit reduction.
That’s how conservative politics is played—talk shrinkage, do growth. Even right-wing godhead Ronald Reagan expanded the federal government, bailed out Social Security, and signed off on tax hikes. Bush 43 was only the latest in a long line of Republican spenders.
It’s this hypocrisy that makes some libertarians stray outside the two-party monolith. Some gravitate toward the Libertarian Party, which calls itself the third-largest political party in the country. But few of its candidates are ever elected. Infighting can also be a turnoff. “There’s something about libertarians where working as a team is inconsistent with the whole concept of being a libertarian,” says Warren Redlich, the 2010 Libertarian candidate for governor of New
York, who was sued by one of his opponents for the nomination.