As 2011 comes to a close, FrumForum plans to re-run some of our best featured pieces from the year. Kenneth Silber’s piece on the libertarian movement is especially important in light of Ron Paul’s recent surge in the polls
Last fall, I wrote for FrumForum about “How I Joined the Vast RINO Conspiracy,” tracing how I, a longtime self-described “libertarian conservative,” got out of step with the right as the right moved further right and as I moved toward the center. Some readers applauded my independent thinking and others invited me to drag my backside out of the Republican Party (something I’ve declined to do).
A new book The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, respectively the editors of Reason.tv and Reason magazine, has given me much to contemplate, on how libertarianism fits into American politics, how Reason fits into libertarianism, and why I, a onetime fairly regular contributor to that magazine, eventually failed to fit in at Reason.
Noting the rising numbers of unaffiliated voters, Gillespie and Welch argue American politics is moving beyond the longtime duopoly of the Republican and Democratic parties, much as new technologies and empowered consumers have undermined duopolies in other fields — Macy’s and Gimbels, MCI and AT&T, Kodak and Fujifilm. In a somewhat strained literary metaphor, the authors liken the two major parties to Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” as both are complicit in bloating government.
The weakening of the two big parties is ushering in a “libertarian moment,” according to Gillespie and Welch, as the public shows growing affinity for a “default preference for the freedom to pursue happiness as we define it without interference from government.” The authors predict not some surprising Libertarian Party surge but rather that fluid coalitions of independents and disaffected major-party members will be increasingly influential, “provoking purple-faced rebukes from the political establishment, and pushing politicians in directions they had no intention of going.”
A sizable chunk of the book is devoted to “case studies in making life richer, weirder, and better” over the past 40-odd years, ranging from Czech rockers undermining the Soviet Empire, to Southwest Airlines toppling airline regulations, to Fred Eckhardt’s 1970 pamphlet on then-illegal home beermaking paving the way for a thriving craft brew industry. The authors celebrate the maverick career of baseball statistics whiz Bill James as an example of the demise of the mid-20th century organization-man ethos of conforming to some big institution and staying there for decades. They applaud Tiger Woods for bucking ethnic categories by calling himself a “Cablinasian.”
It’s no accident that some of the case studies have little to do with politics. This book, its authors proclaim, is not just a manifesto for independents in politics but also for independence from politics — for shrinking the political realm so more of our lives can benefit from the choice and innovation that government stifles. Gillespie and Welch describe their own Reasonoid libertarianism thus:
Like the magazine we write for, we agitate for the aspirational goal of “free minds and free markets,” celebrating a world of expanding choice — in lifestyles, identities, goods, work arrangements and more — and exploring the institutions, policies and attitudes necessary for maximizing their proliferation. We are happy warriors against busybodies, elites, and gatekeepers who insist on dictating how other people should live their lives. Like John Stuart Mill, we’re big on “experiments in living.” Within the broadest possible parameters, we believe that you should be able to think what you want, live where you want, trade for what you want, eat what you want, smoke what you want, and wed whom you want. You should also be willing to shoulder the responsibilities entailed by your actions. Those general guidelines don’t explain everything, and they certainly don’t mean that there aren’t hard choices to make, but as basic principles, they go a hell of a long way toward creating a world that is tolerant, free, prosperous, vibrant, and interesting.
As general guidelines, those sound pretty good to me. I note, also, that they seem to admit some degree of flexibility, with mentions of “broadest possible parameters” and “hard choices.” That’s a different attitude than in some libertarian arguments, where government must be limited or abolished in accordance with some abstract doctrine rigorously provable as a matter of simple logic, and where natural or constitutional rights are no less cut-and-dried than the beef jerky in your basement bunker.
I would have been interested, however, to see Gillespie and Welch actually address some “hard choices,” delving into areas where they see exceptions or ambiguities in the application of their guidelines (or where they accept unpalatable outcomes for the sake of holding to them). The book tends not to get into such matters. There’s no analysis, for instance, of whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act was warranted in its limitations on property rights (I say yes; Ron Paul says no). To choose another unaddressed issue, might some government action to limit the risks of climate change be justified, or are greenhouse gas emissions just high-carbon experiments in living?
Moreover, it seems to me that sometimes government activism helps produce the “expanding choice” this libertarian manifesto champions, even if the authors show little interest in exploring that connection. Surely, the Interstate Highway System gave people some new options, as did the Erie Canal way back when. Gillespie and Welch celebrate the Internet as driver of choice and opportunity, but describe its 1969 invention rather obliquely (“a new technology allowing university computers to communicate with one another went live”) without mentioning the Pentagon agency that did it.
Would America be more vibrant, prosperous and interesting if the small sliver of the federal budget devoted to science were excised by measures such as Rand Paul’s push to eliminate the Energy Department? It’s hard for me to see how terminating research projects that are too large-scale or long-term for the private sector would yield greater choices of technologies and careers. It would produce more freedom only in the sense that a man stranded on a tiny desert island is wonderfully free because he doesn’t have to pay any taxes.
Such qualms about stringent libertarianism have shaped my thinking as a center-right dissenter, a deviationist apostle of the Frumian Heresy. But as I was once a contributor to Reason, my checkered history with the magazine merits some elaboration, in the interests of context and disclosure.
During the 1990s, when the estimable Virginia Postrel was editor of Reason, I wrote a dozen pieces for the magazine, on topics ranging from space property rights to fluctuating sperm counts to the free market’s possibilities for offshore platforms.
I was attracted to Reason in large measure because its libertarianism tended to avoid dogmatism and utopianism. The magazine in the Postrel years had an empirical bent and a focus on policy details. I could, for instance, write about radon regulation in late 1998 at a moment when the Weekly Standard was overflowing with the Monica Lewinski scandal (fun fact: I tried selling the radon story idea to theStandard first and was told by an editor there that they weren’t currently publishing anything not about the scandal).
For a few years early in this millennium, I drifted away from Reason, so to speak; I was busy with, among other things, writing aboutouter space for Lou Dobbs but by 2005 Gillespie, then editing the magazine, coaxed me to write some more articles, which I did on subjects including artificial intelligence and intelligent design.
Unexpectedly, at some point in late 2007 or so, Gillespie and his managing editor Jesse Walker stopped replying to my emails. It wasn’t clear why. Perhaps I had failed some ideological purity test, though it was also possible that my topic interests were deemed peripheral to the magazine’s or that my rapport with the staff just lacked the good chemistry it’d had during the Postrel years. I didn’t press for an explanation. From long years of freelancing, I’d learned that if someone is wise or foolish enough to not want your writing, there’s no point arguing about it.
Then, in 2008, Matt Welch, whom I didn’t know personally, was appointed Reason’s editor, and Gillespie moved to the online side. One of Welch’s early contributions was an essay that sniped at David Frum’s book Comeback for calling on Republicans to “cave on new spending and regulations … in exchange for tax cuts.” That description suggested a surprisingly poor grasp of Frum’s book, which I had reviewed for the New York Post, and both David and I had some fun pointing this out.
Such was my parting with Reason magazine. Be it noted that I am on friendly terms with several ex-girlfriends with whom I had messier breakups than the one I had with Reason. Notwithstanding the ideological differences outlined above, this ex-Reasonoid still finds much appeal in the magazine’s live-and-let-live ethos of free-market economics, social liberalism and cultural eclecticism. But how well is that ethos reflected in the “libertarian moment” the authors see arising, for which they present as evidence the political ascents of Ron Paul and Rand Paul and the Tea Party?
Consider this statement by Gillespie and Welch in The Declaration of Independents:
Those pushing for smaller government are not members of some sort of reactionary John Birch Society recoiling from a world that might pollute our precious bodily fluids. By all indications, Americans are more comfortable with ethnic, social, gender, cultural and religious differences than ever before.
That strikes me as whistling past the graveyard, or at least past the venue where Ron Paul was keynote speaker for the John Birch Society. Similarly, the authors’ desire to let you “live where you want [and] trade for what you want” jibes poorly with antipathy to immigration and trade pacts, let alone fears expressed by Ron Paul and Rand Paul that a “North American Union” will run a “NAFTA superhighway” through our country and impose a new currency, the “amero.” Perhaps we’re living in a “conspiracist moment” rather than a libertarian one.
Gillespie and Welch acknowledge Ron Paul’s “conspiracist belief in the nonexistent North American Union” and cite it, along with “his role in disseminating racist newsletters in the early 1990s” as two of “a thousand reasons” (I wish they’d given the full list) why “Ron Paul is in no way a viable candidate for anything other than his safe congressional seat.” But they treat these as mere personal quirks that should not be allowed to distract from Paul’s valuable message of smaller government.
I don’t think message and messenger can be separated that neatly. When Ron Paul rails against the Federal Reserve and its “cronies” on Wall Street, for instance, he is not just expressing a position on central banking (one with which I disagree); he is also stirring up resentments and stereotypes that have little to do with tolerance and comfort with differences.
Insofar as we are entering a “libertarian moment,” it seems to be one in which the nature of the libertarian idea is very much up for grabs. I hope The Declaration of Independents receives a wide audience, promoting the relatively benign version of libertarianism sketched out by Gillespie and Welch.