Tag: libertarianism

Reagan’s Libertarian Spirit

At the Britannica Blog I take a look back at Ronald Reagan on the occasion of his impending 100th birthday (February 6):

Libertarians have mixed feelings toward Ronald Reagan. When we’re feeling positive, we remember that he used to say, “Libertarianism is the heart and soul of conservatism.”

Other times, we call to mind his military interventionism, his encouragement of the then-new religious right (“I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”), and his failure to really reduce the size of government. But the more experience we have with later presidents, the better Reagan looks in retrospect….

And in those moments we’re tempted to paraphrase the theme song of All in the Family and say, “Mister, we could use a man like Ronald Reagan again.”

Bonus: The entry contains links to Encyclopedia Britannica entries on such topics as libertarianism and individualism, normally available only to subscribers. More Britannica reflections on Reagan here. Some other Cato thoughts on Reagan here.

Libertarians in the News

Libertarians are getting strange new respect. Or at least the major media are mentioning libertarians and libertarian ideas more often. Just a few items I noticed this weekend:

New York Times political reporter Matt Bai profiles David Kirkham, founder of the Utah Tea Party, one of the first Tea Party groups to draw political blood when it knocked off Sen. Robert Bennett in the Utah Republican caucuses. Kirkham, he says, is a classic car enthusiast and a father of four. He was largely apolitical until he saw how socialism worked in Poland and then was shocked by the bailouts and overspending here at home. And, Bai says, now he’s a “self-described libertarian.”

The Los Angeles Times reports from Flushing Township, Michigan, on how four “budget hawks,” including libertarian economist Mike Gardner, got themselves elected to the township Board of Trustees and started cutting the budget. So far they have “shrunk the Police Department from 13 officers to six, eliminated the building inspector and park staff positions, and cut board members’ dental, vision and guaranteed pension benefits.”

And my favorite: The Washington Post speculates on how a newspaper in 2020 might look back on the legalization of drugs if it happened in 2010. One of their fantasies:

As Ohio and other states ask their voters to make a choice on marijuana, the decades-old debate over coast-to-coast legalization shows signs of becoming a central focus in the 2024 presidential campaign. Hillary Rodham Clinton, again seeking her party’s nomination, may back legalization as a way to win over libertarian-minded voters who still think of her as a big-government Democrat, even after her stint as chairman of the board at the American Enterprise Institute.

Yeah, it’s hard to imagine those libertarian-minded voters not liking Ms. Big Government, even after she allied herself with the think tank that housed many of the intellectual architects of the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, here’s a story on a non-libertarian politico. In a wrap-up of Democratic problems in the Midwest, the Washington Post tells of one activist at Ohio State University:

Joey Longley, a 19-year-old sophomore, showed up on campus as an evangelical Republican. But five of the seven young men in his Bible group were Democrats, and he found that his Democratic friends shared his socially conservative, fiscally progressive views.

David Kirby and I have written a lot about fiscally conservative, socially liberal voters and how they give a libertarian tilt to voters often called “moderate” or “centrist.” But this is a reminder that some swing voters hold the opposite set of views.

Libertarianism at the Britannica

I have an interview up at the Britannica blog on libertarianism. Or, as they put it, an interview on libertarianism and abortion, same-sex marriage, and the Tea Party. Multiple questions, to be sure.

I responded this way to a question on the inevitable inequalities of capitalism:

Inequalities in wealth are inevitable in all economic systems. In fact, the Economic Freedom of the World report finds that the share of national income going to the poorest 10 percent of the population is remarkably stable no matter what the degree of economic freedom in the country (see exhibit 1.9). What does vary is the absolute income of the poorest 10 percent, which is much higher in countries with more freedom (exhibit 1.10). Socialist states had and have huge hidden inequalities of wealth. Differences in access to privileges were staggering—special stores, hospitals, dachas and so on for party members that ordinary people could not enter, access to international travel and literature, etc. And all that in regimes that were officially dedicated to equality, in which inequality was “forbidden.” If inequality is inevitable, it’s better to have a system that gives people incentives to invent, innovate, and produce more goods and services for the whole society.

And my most controversial line:

There’s no libertarian pope, so I hesitate to excommunicate people for not being “true libertarians.”

Libertarianism on NPR’s Planet Money

It must be the week for libertarian podcasts. Right after my UnitedLiberty interview on the 2010 elections, NPR’s Planet Money offers this podcast with Mark Calabria and me on libertarianism.   (By the way, “under libertarianism, you would be better-looking, you would be taller” is a joke….)

When I did talk shows after the publication of Libertarianism: A Primer, I was always asked, “What is libertarianism?” I said then, “Libertarianism is the idea that adult individuals have the right and the responsibility to make the important decisions about their lives. And of course today government claims the power to make many of those decisions for us, from where to send our kids to school to what we can smoke to how we must save for retirement.”

Here’s another way to put it, which I believe I first saw in a high-school libertarian newsletter from Minnesota: Smokey the Bear’s rules for fire safety also apply to government: Keep it small, keep it in a confined area, and keep an eye on it.

For more on libertarianism, check out my entry at the Encyclopedia Britannica. For longer treatments, see Libertarianism: A Primer and The Libertarian Reader. For deeper thoughts, take a look at Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice. Find an 80-minute interview on libertarianism here and a short talk here.

Libertarian Review Now Online

Many issues of the late, great libertarian magazine Libertarian Review are now available online. The magazine was published from 1972 to 1981, first as a newsletter of book reviews and then as a glossy monthly magazine edited by Roy A. Childs, Jr. It made quite a splash during those years, and Childs became one of the most visible and controversial libertarian intellectuals. After the magazine folded, as so many intellectual magazines do, he spent almost a decade as editorial director and chief book reviewer for Laissez Faire Books. He had read everything, and he knew everyone in the libertarian movement. He got lots of prominent people – including Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Thomas Szasz, Roger Lea MacBride, and Charles Koch – to write for the magazine. And he discovered and nurtured plenty of younger writers.

Libertarian Review featured

  • news coverage and analysis of inflation, the energy crisis, economic reform in China, the 1979 Libertarian Party convention and the subsequent Clark for President campaign, the Proposition 13 tax-slashing victory, the rise of the religious right, the emergence of Solidarity, Jerry Brown, Three Mile Island, and the return of draft registration.
  • classic essays like Jeff Riggenbach on “The Politics of Aquarius” and “In Praise of Decadence,” Joan Kennedy Taylor on Betty Friedan, Rothbard on “Carter’s Energy Fascism.”
  • interviews with F. A. Hayek, Howard Jarvis, Paul Gann, Henry Hazlitt, John Holt, and Robert Nozick.
  • and especially Roy Childs: on William Simon’s A Time for Truth, on Irving Kristol, on the rise of Reagan, on drugs and crime, on the hot spots of Iran, Afghanistan, and El Salvador.

As Tom G. Palmer put it in a letter published in The New Republic of August 3, 1992, just after Roy died, “Roy Childs was one of the finer members of a generation of radical thinkers who worked successfully to revive the tradition of classical liberalism – or libertarianism – after its long dormancy, and who dared to launch a frontal challenge to the twentieth-century welfare state. An autodidact who knew more about the subjects on which he wrote than most so-called ‘experts’, his writings exercised a powerful influence on a generation of young classical liberal thinkers.”

Check it out.

Libertarian Politics in the Media

Peter Wallsten of the Wall Street Journal writes, “Libertarianism is enjoying a recent renaissance in the Republican Party.” He cites Ron Paul’s winning the presidential straw poll earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rand Paul’s upset victory in the Kentucky senatorial primary, and former governor Gary Johnson’s evident interest in a libertarian-leaning presidential campaign. Johnson tells Wallsten in an interview that he’ll campaign on spending cuts – including military spending, on entitlements reform, and on a rational approach to drug policy.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Rand Paul had a major op-ed in USA Today discussing whether he’s a libertarian. Not quite, he says. But sort of:

In my mind, the word “libertarian” has become an emotionally charged, and often misunderstood, word in our current political climate. But, I would argue very strongly that the vast coalition of Americans — including independents, moderates, Republicans, conservatives and “Tea Party” activists — share many libertarian points of view, as do I.

I choose to use a different phrase to describe my beliefs — I consider myself a constitutional conservative, which I take to mean a conservative who actually believes in smaller government and more individual freedom. The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism, and in the views of countless Americans from across the political spectrum.

Our Founding Fathers were clearly libertarians, and constructed a Republic with strict limits on government power designed to protect the rights and freedom of the citizens above all else.

And he appeals to the authority of Ronald Reagan:

Liberty is our heritage; it’s the thing constitutional conservatives like myself wish to preserve, which is why Ronald Reagan declared in 1975, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

Reagan said that several times, including in a Reason magazine interview and in a 1975 speech at Vanderbilt University that I attended. A lot of libertarians complained that he should stop confusing libertarianism and conservatism. And once he began his presidential campaign that fall, he doesn’t seem to have used the term any more.

You can see in both the Paul op-ed and the Johnson interview that major-party politicians are nervous about being tagged with a label that seems to imply a rigorous and radical platform covering a wide range of issues. But if you can call yourself a conservative without necessarily endorsing everything that William F. Buckley Jr. and the Heritage Foundation – or Jerry Falwell and Mike Huckabee – believe, then a politician should be able to be a moderate libertarian or a libertarian-leaning candidate. I wrote a book outlining the full libertarian perspective. But I’ve also coauthored studies on libertarian voters, in which I assume that you’re a libertarian voter if you favor free enterprise and social tolerance, even if you don’t embrace the full libertarian philosophy. At any rate, it’s good to see major officials, candidates, and newspapers talking about libertarian ideas and their relevance to our current problems.

Michael Gerson Calls on Republicans to Stick with Big Government

Last week Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson took one of his periodic potshots at libertarianism. Tom Palmer and I responded in the Post’s letters column. Since the published letter was shortened for space, here’s a more complete version:

Michael Gerson, who wrote the words that created the George W. Bush administration and thus led to the sweeping Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, once again warns Republicans to stick to big-government conservatism and avoid the siren song of small-government libertarianism.

This time he describes libertarianism as “a scandal” because it “involves not only a retreat from Obamaism but a retreat from the most basic social commitments to the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged, along with a withdrawal from American global commitments.” That is, he charges libertarians with a “retreat” from a welfare-state philosophy that is at odds with the American tradition and with basic principles of limited government. Moreover, he charges us with wanting to change a set of policies that have not served the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged well, because they have encouraged and promoted weakness and long-term dependence. Libertarians warn that to continue down the current road leads to the Greek crisis, in which the utter cruelty of making promises that can’t be kept is revealed.  The state will soon have to retreat from the unsustainable commitments and promises that politicians and pundits are blithely making now. 

Gerson also charges libertarianism with “rigorous ideological coldness.” He considers reason, arithmetic, and a realistic assessment of what those “commitments” really mean to be “cold.”  That tells more about him than about libertarianism. 

As for the “global commitments” that Gerson writes such beautiful words about, the real scandal here is that our soldiers have been put in harm’s way all over the world, fighting other people’s battles and deploying deadly force that inevitably kills the innocent, the “collateral damage” that advocates of “global commitments” so conveniently forget. And more broadly, we are all at risk when U.S. foreign policy involves America in foreign quarrels and encourages hatred and terrorism in response to our foreign interventionism.

Gerson’s warfare-welfare state philosophy has given America two wars, serious threats from terrorism, and a $106 trillion unfunded liability. It might be kinder and gentler to try the Founders’ vision, the libertarian vision, of a limited state that provides a framework in which we can all enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As we noted in the original draft, Gerson was the intellectual architect of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which came to be better known as “big-government conservatism” – from Bush’s 1999 Indianapolis speech that Ed Crane criticized in the New York Times as “Clintonesque” (worse, he meant Hillary) to his unReaganesque inaugural address to his speeches advancing such triumphs as No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug program, subsidies to religious groups, the Iraq War, the Bush doctrine, and massive increases in foreign aid. Thus he can also be seen as an architect of the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, in which the ideas and policies that he helped to shape were rejected. Now he warns Republicans that they shouldn’t fall for small-government ideas just because their big-government agenda led to a Democratic White House and Congress.

Here’s a response to a previous Gerson attack on libertarianism.