Was the “Libertarian Moment” Wishful Thinking?

May/​June 2016 • Policy Report

T his debate, featuring Cato executive vice president David Boaz, National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru, Reason magazine editor‐​in‐​chief Matt Welch, and The Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf, was held at the Cato Institute on March 16. David Kirby, vice president and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, moderated the forum. DAVID KIRBY: I’m starting to feel a little old, because I’ve already lived through two libertarian moments. The first was in 2008, when our friends over at Reason magazine, as part of their 40th anniversary issue, ran a lead article called “The Libertarian Moment.” Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch compared 2008 to the era of the 1970s, and they wrote, “If 1971 contained a few flickers of light in the authoritarian darkness, 2008 is chock full of halogen‐​bright beacons shouting ‘This way!’” This was in December 2008, and these halogen‐​bright beacons — I have to wonder if voters got a little disoriented, because right after they went to press we had the bailouts, Obamacare, more undeclared wars, NSA spying, EPA mandates, executive overreach, and so on. So of course we needed a second “libertarian moment,” and thankfully the New York Times delivered, six years later. A front page New York Times Magazine cover story breathlessly asked: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The author argued that libertarianism, after years in the intellectual wilderness, kept alive by the folks at Cato and Reason, finally was going mainstream. And the evidence: Rand Paul.

The libertarian moment was based on an idea that trends in public opinion around gay marriage, drug legalization, and a weariness with war revealed a fundamental libertarian undercurrent in America. Yet when the breakout candidates of an election cycle are an authoritarian and a socialist, as Ayn Rand would say: check your premises. Is all this talk of a libertarian moment simply wishful thinking? Tonight we have assembled perhaps the best people in Washington to address that question.

DAVID BOAZ: Libertarians hate to be given good news, like the evidence of libertarian progress. I think that those people are too negative. They don’t look at the sweep of history. And in the sweep of history, America is a libertarian moment. Not one particular year, not one particular day, but in the scope of history, America is a libertarian moment. Historians and political scientists have always identified the fundamental American ethos as values such as individualism, laissez faire, anti‐​statism — and that’s different from most places in the world, and most of history.

Many of our social movements over two centuries have been reiterating these fundamental values: Abolitionism, the anti‐​war movement, the civil rights movements, the women’s movement that spanned much of the 20th century — all of these things were part of the basic American idea. David Kirby and I have written a lot about the libertarian vote and how many libertarians there are in the American electorate.

We used a fairly tough criterion in our study “The Libertarian Vote,” and we got about 15 percent. However, we tried something else. Everybody talks about the blue Democratic base, the red Republican base. We said: What about people who don’t fit into either one of those bases? That’s what libertarians feel like. What would identify people who don’t fit into either one of those bases? One way is to simply say: “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” A pretty loose definition of libertarian, but it does mean you’re saying: “I don’t quite fit into that Republican box or that Democratic box.” And so we did a poll in 2006 and found that 59 percent of the respondents said: “I would describe myself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

Now half the survey got a different question: “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as ‘libertarian’?” We knew that when we put this unusual word onto it, that would reduce the number. It took it down to 44 percent — so 44 percent of Americans were willing to accept the term “libertarian” if it meant fiscally conservative and socially liberal. That was a lot more than I expected.

Every year the Gallup poll asks two questions: One about whether the government should promote traditional values, and the other about whether the government should be doing more things to solve social problems. And on the basis of just those two questions, they divide respondents into four categories: libertarian, conservative, liberal, and populist. And for the first time this past year, in the fall of 2015, they found libertarians at 27 percent of the electorate — slightly bigger than conservatives, followed by liberals and populists. I think that’s a sign that there might be a libertarian moment.

And what have we seen in this era that the number of libertarians that Gallup finds has gone up? Well, we know that Obamacare never had majority support — not before it was passed, not the day it was passed, not today.

We know that Obamacare and the stimulus and Obama’s other big government programs have driven Democratic numbers down all over the political system. We know that, despite some great provocations by terrible events, Congress has not passed new gun control. All of that looks like a turn to the right, yet at the same time we saw an opening up on marijuana laws, and we saw a political and judicial revolution on gay marriage. That suggests more than a turn to the right: it suggests libertarian instincts on all of those issues.

But let me move away from America and say that the largest trends in the world — not without counter‐​trends — are toward human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, democratic governance, and freer markets. If you look at history, if you think about the aspects of classical liberalism that were once radical and are now mainstream — free trade; the general idea that trading with people gets you more wealth, more success, than taking things from people; equal rights for men and women; equal rights for people of different colors; gay rights; an end to conscription — those are, in historical context, radically liberal or libertarian ideas, and they are now mainstream ideas. So if we’re not quite in a libertarian moment, we are at least in a libertarianish era, and we shouldn’t be as depressed as libertarians usually are.

RAMESH PONNURU: I think that libertarians get a lot of things right and that they have a very salutary effect on a lot of policy debates. So when I offer a skeptical note about the libertarian moment, I don’t mean to be disputing the merits of libertarianism in so doing. Nor am I saying that libertarianism is dead, or denying that there are in fact libertarian impulses in the public, some of which have strengthened over time. And I’m also willing to concede that Senator Paul is not a perfect test case for libertarianism and the libertarian moment. My overall point is that libertarians shouldn’t kid themselves about the appeal of their political philosophy and its prevalence. I think that’s also true of conservatives.

I’ll divide this into two basic points. The first is that the libertarian vote seems to me to be pretty small. For example, I would imagine that probably a decent percentage of the people in this room think that we should expand immigration and downsize Social Security. Well, the Pew Research Center ran some numbers on that two years ago and they found that about 0.6 percent of the U.S. population holds both of those views. Again, it doesn’t mean those views are wrong, but 0.6 percent — that’s a number that should, I think, make you stop in your tracks. Jocelyn Kiley of Pew found that about 11 percent of the public was willing to give itself the libertarian label in 2014, but even that is less impressive than it may sound. If you dig into that 11 percent, only 65 percent of those people supported marijuana legalization. That’s pathetic! I’ve supported marijuana legalization since well before 2014, and I’m not even a libertarian.

When Pew dug into issues and tried to do a cluster analysis of where different people’s views placed them, they came up with an estimate of the libertarian percentage of our population at about 5. I think that makes more sense of political trends than some of the more optimistic estimates of the libertarian vote: It’s not that politicians have just for some reason ignored this 59 percent of their market, but that it is actually a small market. Now the good news for libertarians is that you punch way above your weight. You have much more influence in the political debate than your numbers alone would suggest.

The second point I would make goes to the notion that the “libertarian moment” is actually kind of a pre‐​political concept — it’s not about who’s winning primaries. I would say that the popularity of the libertarian moment really was tied to a set of ideas about politics, about politicians, about votes. The great Reason essay that introduced the concept of the libertarian moment defined it as “a time of increasingly hyper‐​individualized, hyper‐​expanded choice over every aspect of our lives, from 401(k)s to hot and cold running coffee drinks, from life‐​saving pharmaceuticals to online dating services.” And the essay went on to say that that moment, this libertarian moment was based on a consensus around two hard‐​won insights: Markets are generally preferable, and at least vaguely representative democracy is the least worst form of government. If that’s what the libertarian moment is, then I’m happy to concede that we are in fact in a libertarian moment.

But I would just make two observations about this definition. First, if that’s the way we define it, then we’ve been in a libertarian moment for a really, really, really long time — maybe even since 1787. And maybe the word “moment” is not one that we should be applying here. And the second is that maybe we shouldn’t be applying the word “libertarian” either, because you can have rising choice and you can support representative democracy while also having growing government and public support for growing government.

MATT WELCH: As someone who co‐​wrote the essay with this title in question, I obviously feel some sense of responsibility for all of this, and I thought it might be helpful to describe a little bit about what we were thinking at the time.

As David points out, this was in our anniversary issue in 2008, the 40th anniversary issue, that came out in December; and of course, due to the miracle of magazine lead times, that meant it was actually written in October of 2008. And let’s think: What was happening around October of 2008? Well, we had just had a Republican president stand up on live TV and give a speech in which he said: “Normally I’m in favor of free market capitalism, but …” We had a Republican nominee for president — whose signature legislative achievement was to curtail the First Amendment so that people couldn’t criticize politicians, and whose other major contribution to policy was introducing the notion of “rogue state rollback” (look it up; it’s fun) — he suspended his campaign so that he could go back to Washington and support the bailout of the banks. There was a gay marriage ballot initiative in California, and it was against gay marriage.

There wasn’t anything about the headline political moment in the fall of 2008 when we wrote that thing that looked libertarian at all, with the possible exception of the unlikely semi‐​success of the Ron Paul movement. But we were actually making a point, which is that if you allow yourself to be distracted constantly by headline‐​making politics, you’re going to miss a lot of interesting stuff. We argued that a lot of the interesting stuff happening in America has a specific, strong libertarian cast to it, in a way that already has been rippling through culture and society.

We’re in an era of hyper‐​personalization where individuals are finding incredible amounts of autonomy, and wherever there is a gatekeeper telling them what to do, whether it’s a stupid taxi monopoly, or a booking agency — remember travel agents? When was the last time anyone went to a travel agent? — we are re‐​routing around all of those things. We were arguing in this initial essay that this is happening, and it’s going to happen to politics and governance last. Literally they will be the last ones to see it happen, because they have a guaranteed revenue stream and we can’t really get around it. But yes, let’s talk a little bit about those headline politics that we’re not supposed to get distracted by. In 2008, compared to this absolutely lousy political moment for libertarians, we didn’thave Rand Pauls in the Senate, we didn’thave Republicans who said “Let’s actually cut military spending year over year.”

That was a fantasy, and yet it happened kind of recently. California tried to legalize recreational pot in 2010 and got smacked down two years after the libertarian moment story; now we have legal weed as a thing that happens. The culture embraced gay culture and gay marriage, and the courts eventually kind of caught on to that.

CONOR FRIEDERSDORF: As we gather today, Donald Trump is as well‐​positioned as anyone to lead the world’s oldest democracy. If he wins, I hold out hope he may sour on America and leave us for a younger Eastern European country.

But if he puts his name in gold letters atop the White House and sticks around for four years, our next‐​best hope is that right and left, Congress and the courts, the whole anti‐​Trump alliance, see new urgency in safeguarding civil liberties, in reining in executive power, in limiting surveillance, and what I call tyrant‐​proofing the White House, like paranoid parents child‐​proofing for a reckless toddler.

As usual there are mostly worrying scenarios, maybe only worrying scenarios, this election cycle. Still I stand by a belief that libertarianism is just fine. It’s won some big victories in the very recent past, and I expect it to win more. Matt touched on some of what I was going to talk about — legalized marijuana, gay marriage — so I’ll skip over them, but these are huge things that increased the freedom of many millions of people in significant ways. Libertarians do face a long, hard fight on surveillance, and there is no guarantee of victory.

At the same time, if you would have asked someone 20 years ago if he would have described the ubiquitous video cameras that we see now, they would have thought that we were describing a kind of Orwellian dystopia, and yet what’s actually happened is that citizens have turned these cameras around and captured unprecedented footage of police misbehavior, proving a degree of abuse that libertarians have long known about, but that most Americans had to see to believe.

Of course, a lot of these bright moments aren’t going to coincide with political success for libertarian politicians because the nature of our two‐​party system is that as libertarian ideas become popular and electorally viable they get co‐​opted by non‐​libertarians. That’s fine, we don’t need credit, just victories. It isn’t necessarily going to be libertarian principles embraced by the public that make for a libertarian moment either — the Iraq catastrophe turned Americans away from interventionism, more than any principled embrace of libertarian ideas. At the same time, war is the health of the state. Nothing increases the power of government and impinges on civil liberties more reliably that major military conflicts. And now both major parties are willing to elevate presidential candidates who argue for non‐​interventionism. President Obama is in the pages of The Atlantic sounding like Dwight Eisenhower warning against the military industrial complex. Bernie Sanders is openly anti‐​war. The only heartening thing to me about Donald Trump’s rise is seeing someone stand on a Republican debate stage, declare the Iraq war and intervention in the Middle East utterly idiotic, and then win a string of GOP primaries, even across the South.