Rand Paul and Me in the Wall Street Journal

I’ve gotten some questions about these paragraphs in today’s Wall Street Journal (slightly shorter in the print version):

David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, said that in many ways Americans are freer now than they were in any pre-1937 libertarian Halcyon day. Women and black citizens can vote, work and own property. “Micro-regulations” that existed before the Supreme Court shift, which controlled trucking, civil aviation and other private pursuits, are gone.

“Sometimes he talks the way libertarians talk in political seminars,” Mr. Boaz said of Mr. Paul. “There are not really many people who want to reverse Wickard, but there are many professors who could make a good case for it.”

Whenever a reporter takes a few sentences from an interview, some context is going to be lost. These quotations are accurate, but let me add some context. For a discussion of my view that we have not in fact followed a road to serfdom from a libertarian golden age, check out these blog posts and articles, as well as my book The Politics of Freedom.

When I said that Rand Paul “talks the way libertarians talk in political seminars” – and I should have said “philosophy seminars” – I was trying to make a distinction between the kinds of ideas that are commonly debated in classrooms and think tank seminars and those that are relevant to any particular political campaign. And my statement that there aren’t “many people who want to reverse Wickard” was in the context of a discussion about the tens of millions of Americans who believe in less government and more freedom, as noted here and here and here and, classically, here. I made the point that there were two great libertarian shifts in American politics and culture in my lifetime, the cultural/civil rights/women’s revolution of the Sixties and the entrepreneurial/economic/taxcutting revolution of the Eighties, and few people want to return either to the cultural strictures of the 1950s or the tax rates of the 1970s.  And in that sense there’s a broadly libertarian center in American politics, and some of those people reacted against the excessive social conservatism (not to mention the over-spending and the endless wars) of the Bush Republicans in 2008, and are now reacting against the excessive statism of the Obama administration. But of course they’re not all as libertarian as I am, and not many normal people would recognize the term “Wickard v. Filburn,” much less call for its reversal. (On the other hand, pollsters should try asking voters, “Do you think the federal government should be able to tell a farmer what crops he can grow on his own farm for his own use?” I’ll bet more people would side with Rand Paul than with, say, the New York Times.) When Rand Paul gets back to talking about bailouts, deficits, debt, and Obamacare, he’s going to be appealing to many of those voters. And if his opponent accuses him of supporting medical marijuana, he’ll find that 81 percent of Americans agree. Sixty percent of Americans oppose federal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, as Rand Paul does. Paul has every likelihood of appealing to a broad swath of Americans who are broadly libertarian.