Libertarian Surge

David Paul Kuhn at RealClearPolitics sees a surge of libertarianism in the current political scene:

The philosophical casualty of the Great Recession was supposed to be libertarianism. But signs to the contrary are thriving.

Americans are increasingly opposed to activist government programs. The most significant social movement of 2009, the Tea Party protests, grew out of that opposition. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand is as popular today as ever. Rand’s brilliant and radical laissez faire novel “Atlas Shrugged,” sold roughly 300,000 copies last year, according to BookScan, twice its sales in 2008 and roughly triple annual sales in recent decades.

We are witnessing a conservative libertarian comeback. It’s an oppositional advance, a response to all manners of active-state liberalism since the financial crisis. It’s a pervasive feeling of invasiveness. The factional bastions of traditional libertarianism, like Washington think tank Cato, now have an intangible and awkward alliance with a broad swath of the American electorate….

This limited libertarian resurgence has haunted Obama’s domestic agenda. The fundamental mistake of the Obama administration in 2009 was underestimating the American public’s ongoing tension with active-state liberalism, a fact visible from the outset and one only belatedly confronted by Obama….

Today’s limited libertarian revival is a response to a sense of overreaching elite technocrats as well as fear of an intrusive bureaucracy. Responsiveness is the core impulse. Rand’s radical libertarianism, where man is an ends in himself and the welfare state is fundamentally immoral, was a response to the radically invasive Soviet state that weaned her as a girl. On a drastically less extreme scale, one side of this American debate could not exist without the other. The Obama administration brought with it ambitions of a resurgence of FDR and LBJ’s active-state liberalism. And with it, Obama has revived the enduring American challenge to the state.

I’ve been struck by the fact that two recent profiles in the New York Times magazine — one on Dick Armey and one on the rise of Marco Rubio in Florida — have identified Tea Party protesters as libertarians, which I think is largely right but not generally noticed by pundits who can only hold two concepts (red and blue, conservative and liberal) in their minds at once. It’s not that the Tea Partiers are carrying pro-choice or anti–drug war signs, it’s just that their focus and their energy are, as the Armey profile put it, “libertarian, anti-Washington, old-fashioned get-out-of-my-way-and-I’ll-make-it-on-my-own American self-sufficiency.” They’re up in arms about spending, deficits, bailouts, government handouts, and a government takeover of health care. That’s a populist libertarian spirit.

Kuhn describes the current mood as “conservative libertarianism,” which he contrasts to “traditional libertarianism” that embraces a laissez-faire approach to both economics and personal freedom. He may be right that a lot of the Tea Partiers are not as comprehensively pro-freedom or “anti-government” (really, pro-limited government) as I’d like. But I see some evidence of a social libertarian surge as well, as I wrote back in May. Polls are finding growing support for marijuana legalization and for marriage equality, especially among young people. As young people and independents also become increasingly disillusioned with President Obama’s big-government agenda, this may be a real shift in a libertarian direction. And don’t forget, at 90 days into the Obama administration, Americans preferred smaller government to “more active government” by 66 to 25 percent.