How Did Libertarians Lose Their Way?

June 18th, 2011 at 12:00 am | 64 Comments |

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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 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 the Standard 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 about outer 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.

Recent Posts by Kenneth Silber

64 Comments so far ↓

  • sparse

    fantastic, clearly the product of a lot of thought, and a lot of experience.

    i’ll return tomorrow with more praise, jabs, uppercuts and all. but this is the kind of discussion that makes this forum worthwhile.

  • Graychin

    Every social ideology, when taken to its most extreme reaches, leaves reality behind and morphs into sheer madness.

    I have some small-l libertarian tendencies, but can in no way identify with the bizarre ideas of the Pauls.

  • Bunker555

    Social issues

    Most rational beings would likely be in favor of the LP’s position on social issues. The Libertarian Party which supports legalization of drugs, pornography, prostitution, gambling, removal of restrictions on homosexuality, opposes any kind of censorship and supports freedom of speech, and supports the right to keep and bear arms. The Libertarian Party’s platform states: “Government does not have the authority to define, license or restrict personal relationships. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships.”

    The Tea Baggers think they’re libertarians. Wait till they find out.

  • Bunker555

    Tell this to the Tea Jihadists

    On September 13, 2001, just two days after the September 11 attacks and in response to what they saw as ambiguous statements about U.S. intervention in Afghanistan by the Libertarian National Committee, party members formed Libertarians for Peace to encourage the party to continue promoting a consistent non-interventionist position.

  • Russnet

    They didn’t take enough of the good drugs they advocated the freedom to take.

  • Bunker555

    The Tea Party can Wiki this:

    LGBT issues
    The Libertarian Party advocates repealing all laws that control or prohibit homosexuality. According to the Libertarian Party’s platform, “Sexual orientation, preference, gender, or gender identity should have no impact on the government’s treatment of individuals, such as in current marriage, child custody, adoption, immigration or military service laws.”

    In 2009, the Libertarian Party of Washington encouraged voters to approve Washington Referendum 71 that extended LGBT relationship rights. According to the party, withholding domestic partnership rights from same-sex couples is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.[42] In September 2010, in the light of the failure to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (which bans openly gay people from the military) during the Obama administration, the Libertarian Party urged gay voters to stop supporting the Democrats. The policy was repealed by the end of 2010.

    Outright Libertarians is an association of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered people who are active in the Libertarian Party. Gay Libertarian Richard Sincere has pointed to the long record of support for homosexuality in the party. Several LGBT political candidates have run for office on the Libertarian Party ticket.

    The Libertarian Party views attempts by government to control obscenity or pornography as “an abridgment of liberty of expression” and opposes any government intervention to regulate it. According to Libertarian National Committee Chairman Mark Hinkle, “Federal anti-obscenity laws are unconstitutional in two ways. First, because the Constitution does not grant Congress any power to regulate or criminalize obscenity. And second, because the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech.”

    The Libertarian Party supports the legalization of prostitution. Many men and women with background in prostitution and activists for sex workers’ rights, such as Norma Jean Almodovar, Starchild have run for office on the Libertarian Party ticket or are active members of the party. Ex-call girl Norma Jean Almodovar ran on Libertarian Party ticket in Los Angeles during the 1980s and was actively supported by the party. Mark Hinkle described her as being the most able “of any Libertarian” “to generate publicity”. The Massachusetts Libertarian Party was one of the few organizations to support a 1980s campaign to repeal prostitution laws.

  • midcon

    This may be a book I shall read just because I like the title: “Declaration of Independents”

    Libertarianism at it’s most pure is similar to Communism at its most pure. That similarity is that it is a utopian fantasy. While I identify with many Libertarian “principles”, including the right of any two individuals to enter into a civil union, some constraints/boundaries must exist in order to support the orderly function of society that has some common rules – we must all stop at red lights lest all transportation grind to a screeching halt. The question is where to draw the line for that which permits our nation and society to prosper and that which impedes prosperity.

    • balconesfault

      The question is where to draw the line for that which permits our nation and society to prosper and that which impedes prosperity.

      That’s one line. The other is where granting unrestricted rights in a world where we may be created equal in a theoretical sense, but where we certainly are not born into equal circumstances, creates a de facto limit to the rights of others.

      For example, the retrospective aversion that libertarians have to Federal interventions during the civil rights era may be ideologically consistent … but to most it comes off as morally repugnant.

      And on economic issues, too often libertarianism sounds like a reversal of Anatole France’s famous declaration – in their case, the rich, as well as the poor, would be free to sleep under bridges or beg in the streets, so there is no reason for government to try to make sure nobody is reduced to such a lifestyle in order to survive.

    • Primrose

      Exactly Midcon. Their stand on prostitution shows exactly the problem with their world view. Yes, theoretically, there is no reason to make it illegal but… who enters prostitution and the sex trade and general?

      The majority are people who have been abused as children, (did they choose that?)_ and indeed the majority of those started being prostitutes as children, usually coerced or manipulated by a boyfriend or relative. (And we are not even talking the immense slave trade here, runaways raped and drugged by “kindly” strangers. We aren’t even talking the immense amount of abuse that goes on between prostitutes and Johns or pimps.)

      How does making prostitution legal make them more free? It doesn’t. It makes the John’s and pimps more free but the prostitutes (mainly women) remain as trapped in their lives as ever, and since legalization won’t make it socially acceptable, there is no moving from one career to another.

      If you are part of the elite, libertarianism has many wonderful features, because you don’t have factors binding you but law. But for many, many people, law is necessary to free you from non-government oppression, and choices that were made before you had a say in it.

  • balconesfault

    I think the problem that libertarians have is that people, by and large, are going to favor a government that takes care of a lot of the problems that they want taken care of.

    Even pure libertarians want such a government – they just want that list of problems limited to enforcing the borders and protecting private property rights.

    As noted in other comments – a lot of the Tea Partiers are curmudgeons who still want to bring the power of government to bear on restricting all kinds of “vices” that they see as damaging to society. And they also want to enforce the borders and protect private property rights.

    The main point of convergence between the Tea Partiers and libertarians, however, is in their desire to defund certain social programs. Their reasoning is different, however – it’s clearly an unholy alliance.

    In the case of the libertarians, it’s because they believe that spending tax dollars on social programs leads irrevocably to a form of Big Government that they oppose – one that will also have the power to take away liberties in many other ways besides collecting taxes (although there are no shortage of those who fall into the libertarian camp simply because they’re apathetic or apolitical on almost every issue except taxes).

    In the case of Tea Partiers, they don’t have a true ideological opposition to social programs (Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare!). What they have an ideological opposition to is the idea that tax dollars will be spent on social programs for people they don’t like.

  • ottovbvs

    Libertarianism is moonshine. Globalisation of trade; the growth of oligopolies in business and finance many of them supra national; the increasing complexity of society; global interdependence; scientific and technological innovation and it attendant need for direction and supervision; the pervasiveness of the administrative state; public demand for economic and physical security; changes in the international power system and shrinking natural resources; demographics and population movements; all combine to make it totally irrelevant to any realistic view of the world in the 21st century. It is and always has been a pipe dream of the lunatic fringe. The only thing that has moved it center stage from its natural habitat of crankdom is it’s co-option by the Republican party whose message of small government (never actually realised in practice) is superficially attractive to Libertarians who are curious bag of nativists, nationalists and the just plain angry. Join us says Karl Rove and we’ll shrink govt, cut govt spending, give up attempts to nation build, widen personal liberties, create sound money, restore America to what it once was, etc etc etc. Well we all know how that turned out don’t we. In short the Libertarians are useful idiots for the Republicans. In this they bear more than a passing resemblance to the religious pro-lifers (whose central goal btw is at odds with core Libertarianism) who have also been co-opted by Republicans. Roe v Wade is never going to be overturned. It would be a huge problem for the GOP if it ever was. Pro lifers may make isolated advances at the red state level but nationally it’s a lost cause like the campaign against gay marriages by much the same people. But the religious pro lifers have been promised it will happen one day. And for them as for Libertarians it’s enough to keep them voting Republican.

  • NRA Liberal

    Cogent article.

    The way they pass over the government origins of the Internet–and the government role in making safe that freedom to enjoy ethnic, social, cultural and religious differences– in silence says it all.

    Sometimes I think I know how conservatives must have felt in the 1960s as they watched the spoiled baby-boomers self-righteously indicting the system that gave them their freedom, never knowing what sacrifices had gone into it all.

    • Primrose

      How precisely were the African-American’s students who fought for civil rights spoiled? How were the poor and working class people fighting and dying in Vietnam because they didn’t have college waivers spoiled?

      Nor do I think you can say that people didn’t sacrifice in that generation. People died in the civil rights march, people were jailedFor the movement. And people died fighting to stop the war. That’s sacrifice.

      This myth that the children (adults by then) were “spoiled” is so fundamentally disrespectful and dishonest. It suggests once again that only your side gets to be considered grown-u[s.

      During the 60’s, people objected to segregation, excessive consumerism, a prevalence of interference with other countries by the CIA, and a war that was killing their friends for a cause they did not believe in.

      You may approve of Vietnam. You may think it OK for the CIA to overthrow governments, but that doesn’t make your approval serious and theirs frivolous. They thought these issues were wrong and took action, (generally non-violently) as any good citizen should.

      And for that they monitored like enemies. Martin Luther King was treated as a danger to the country. How precisely was he spoiled?

      People keep saying that those activists hated their country, (which I don’t think for the vast number is true) yet never mention how much their country hated them, how much the US infrastructure decided to disown them.

      If you think that democracy can work if people don’t speak up when they disagree, then it is you who are spoiled.

  • ottovbvs

    must have felt in the 1960s as they watched the spoiled baby-boomers self-righteously indicting the system that gave them their freedom, never knowing what sacrifices had gone into it all.

    What bs. The sixties, the era of desegregation, the Beatles, sexual freedom, was as great a time as the 20′s probably were. What indictment there was was primarily directed at the Vietnam war and they were right, it was one of the greatest disasters in US history.

    • NRA Liberal

      The New Left was against the entire US system. Segregation, Vietnam, the Cold War, labor unions (seen as corrupt and counter-revolutionary), traditional values, the lot.

      Anyhow, regardless of how you feel about the Sixties and the backlash against it, my point was that I could sympathize with a mindset.

  • He Loved Big Brother

    The so-called libertarians have been utterly fooled into believing all gov’t activities are bad, and hence the elimination of all but the most basic activities will enhance freedoms. They have been fully propagandised by 30 years of pseudo-reaganite nonsense, and do not have anything but the most superficial sense of freedom and liberty. In addition, they are far too willing to ascribe their own current place and status in this world as entirely due to their own efforts, and are utterly unable to see how much of their position today, as individsuals and as members of our swociety, are as a result of luck and events/institutions that they are too blind to see. Theirs is “liberty to pollute as I see fit”.
    This is relentless dead-end “fiat money, gold-bug, world gov’t” conspiracy nonsense, and is a distraction from real issues of civil and individual liberties that are being eroded through the intolerance resulting from 9/11, the thinly disguised racism of the Tea-Nuts, and the relentless militarisation of our police forces, ably supportede by a reactionary and activitst GOP-oriented court system.

    The libertarian dogs bark, but the caravan of civil conformity moves on……

  • corwin613

    Free market libertarianism requires 3 conditions in order to allow a functioning society:

    1. Adequate, and preferably abundant, resources, including pollution control.

    2. Healthy competition among businesses, among industries, and even for capitalism itself, so that capitalists don’t become fat, lazy, and corrupt as they are currently.

    3. Enough available work so that everyone can earn a decent living.

    Right now, none of those conditions apply in this country. We are running short of many important resources, including oil and water (at least in some parts of the country), and will begin seeing shortages of many other important resources over the next few decades, such as copper, rare earths, and phosphorus. In addition, we are polluting our planet making the water less drinkable, air less breathable, and throwing toxic chemicals into landfills, which may eventually enter the food chain.

    Market consolidation has left us with little competition among businesses in certain industries, and ever since communism was more or less vanquished, capitalism has had no competition to keep it honest. We’ve seen this in the S&L scandal (just before the fall of the Soviet Union, but by then they were already a shell of their former selves), the housing bubble, and concurrent with the rise of funny financial products that accomplish nothing more than making bankers obscenely rich.

    And finally, we’ve seen that there really is not as much work that needs human intervention as there used to be. I cannot add a column of number faster than Excel, and I am nowhere near as strong as a a backhoe, nor can I assemble a car with the precision of an assembly robot. In the end there will be a need for far fewer people to do the work that is required, and that leaves us with a problem of what to do with the millions (tens of millions fairly soon) who will be displaced.

    Keeping blinders on about these issues will not solve them, and will only cause enormous human misery and even cruelty. I have a hard time believing that libertarians are anxious to impose that on others, but a rigid ideology seems to be keeping us from solving them.

  • sinz54

    It’s rare that a political theory can be refuted by scientific research.

    But libertarianism can.

    The basic assumption that things improve globally when each player pursues his own self-interest is a fine ideal to strive for, and a good first approximation to how free societies should work. But just like other first approximations, it can start to break down in extreme conditions.

    Modern game theory has shown that when all players pursue their own self-interest in an environment of limited resources, the global result can actually be sub-optimal. A simple example is the famous Traveller’s Dilemma problem:

    “ottovbs” mentioned oligopolies. That’s just a special case of players controlling most or all of the resources for a given purpose.

    Free markets worked well in the past, because our country had an abundance of resources, as did the rest of the world. Adam Smith lived at a time when the world population was a tiny fraction of today’s, when parts of the world were still unexplored, when we had only scratched the surface of the world’s resources. And no one could imagine that the atmosphere would be a limited resource that had to be globally managed. (Thus the metaphor “as free as air”).

    Thus a free society will always need to strike a balance between individual freedom and central control. Both have side effects on the rest of society. Total freedom is anarchy; total control is totalitarianism. And the purists in favor of either can now be shown mathematicallly to be dead wrong.

  • busboy33

    “As general guidelines, those sound pretty good to me”

    That sums up the problem with practical Libertarianism and the Tea Party in one short sentence. As general philosophical beliefs, I’m all for it. Who’s against freedom? Who wants to be taxed and limited? Nobody, that’s who.

    But when the rubber meets the road philosophical ideals must yield to practical considerations. When the True Believers refuse to recognize that undeniable and inescapable fact, then the movement and the ideology become useless. If you’re not going to be practical . . . then there isn’t really much value to the ideas except as fuel for late-night bull sessions over some beers.

    The problem isn’t that the ideologies have gotten more extreme, but rather that the believers have become unable to say “while I believe in X, sometimes it is necessary to accept X-1″. Nothing wrong with Libertarianism . . . its just become heavily populated with idiotic fanatics blinded by tunnel vision.

  • jg bennet

    if you really want to know what the libertarians are up to and how they think check out their institute.

    they are classical liberals, which is basically the neoconfederates so they won’t be getting my vote.

    here is a little something about the libertarian philosophy from their institute website.

    “Libertarians, I argue, should morally identify with the Confederacy’s struggle for independence, and therefore redirect historical research and the writing around the moral propositions that the 1860 dismemberment of the Union by peaceful secession was morally sound, and that the North’s invasion to prevent secession and to create a consolidated Ameri- can state was morally unsound.”
    the rest @ i got the clip from the first one on the list.

    you have to type in confederate on their websites search to get the list.

  • ottovbvs

    “ottovbs” mentioned oligopolies. That’s just a special case of players controlling most or all of the resources for a given purpose.

    Hardly a “special case” since it’s the dominant business model in the entire global economic system.

    Free markets worked well in the past, because our country had an abundance of resources,

    There were no free markets in this country in the past (at least not since the civil war). In the so called golden age of capitalism from the end of the civil war to the early 20th century major corporations like Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel worked vigorously to limit competition by the creation of cartels, secret marketing agreements, political bribery, cross shareholdings and various other mechanisms. Despite trust busting many of these practices survived until the thirties. US global economic supremacy may have been built to a large extent on abundant natural resources but that’s a totally different issue. You need a refresher course on US economic history Sinz.

  • jg bennet

    what the heck here is the whole libertarian mises institute pdf on why the south was the moral just ones in the civil war and the union was unamerican…..

    rick perry mentioned secession and look at him now, he is the darling of the gop…

    yep libertarians are rising

  • tom78212

    @balconesheights: Your last sentence totally sums up the tea parties. They are mean and hate-filled.

  • Kane

    Show me a Libertarian, and nine times out ten they are a former self-described republican who will continue to vote republican but who wants to shirk all responsibility for their support of Bush policies. The terms Libertarian or Tea partier are simply convenient shields. At least the so called “RINOs” have the character to stand by their convictions and have the capacity to adapt to a changing world. The Libertarians and Tea partiers, not so much. Their proposals are as outdated as a three-cornered hat.

  • JimBob

    Silber, you’re no libertarian. You’re a third rate hack. Nothing more nothing less.

    As for the Birch Society, while I don’t believe Eisenhower was a commie stooge, the Birchers biggest sin was very vocally coming out against the Vietnam war.

    The Birchers were right and William F Buckley horribly wrong. 60 thousand dead wrong.

  • ottovbvs

    The Birchers were right and William F Buckley horribly wrong. 60 thousand dead wrong.


  • josebrwn

    Libertarianism has become modern politics’ crazy uncle living in the basement. Opposition to the BP oil spill cleanup, arresting people who attend a radical speech, opposition to gay marriage, pro-torture, anti-immigration, anti-entitlement … it is becoming synonymous with irresponsibility.

  • JimBob

    Gillespie and Welch are libertines, not libertarians.

  • possumdearie

    Excellent article that has officially won me over to your side. I could never reconcile the demagoguery of science, yet promises of innovation and a robust economy, or the talk of abolishing whole agencies without specifics on how that would benefit society and the overall cost savings.

    In other words, all the angry talk seems completely fatuous and destructive for the sake of being obnoxious. The tea party sounds exactly like the John Birch Society when you look back on the original group’s targets and compare with modern tea party rhetoric: “end the Environmental Protection Agency… all subsidies to farmers, all federal aid to education, all federal social welfare, foreign aid, social security, elimination of public school prayer and Bible reading, and (that familiar right-wing nemesis) the United Nations.”

    Didn’t we hear Michele Bachmann, the “winner” of the CNN debate in NH, promise to get rid of the EPA? Herman Cain promised to discriminate against Muslims, who were conspiring to introduce sharia law in the US. Recently, he assured supporters he opposes funding for Planned Parenthood, because its stated goal is to “kill black babies.” These people are trending high in Republican polls, much like Trump was when he questioned President Obama’s citizenship, and they are not by any stretch of the imagination serious and only make Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty marginally more appealing by comparison. Both of those candidates are still pandering to the same bigots, but they are a little more discreet. But the tea party movement has nothing to do with freedom or liberty.

    • JimBob

      You’re against ending subsidies to farmers??

      • valkayec

        Ending tax payer support of corporate farms. Absolutely. Why should my tax dollars go to support ADM or Kellogs or Con Agra or all the hedge funds that are investing in farm land?

  • sparse

    so, it seems that the central argument here is that there are many ways to be libertarian, silber prefers the less doctrinaire versions, like the one described in the book by welch and gillespie, but that part of the book argues that the current “libertarian moment” is dependent on the personality of ron paul and the tea party, which is problematic. that’s a lot of stuff.

    if i had to choose just one thing to chew on, it would be the assertion by welch and gillespie that the swelling ranks of independent voters means a rise in libertarian thinking. an alternative explanation would be that people across the spectrum are distristful of the two-party system, feeling that the individual has been sold out to the interests of the system. if you are on the left, you are more concerned about corporatism. if you are on the right, you are more concerned about statism.

    those on the left want better protection, through government regulation, from losing their freedom to corporations. those on the right want less government, but mostly they really don’t want to hang with pot-smoking gays and pornographers. they want more government to protect them from these types. so i just do not see a libertarian moment. i see people who are distrustful of the two-party system that has worked itself into a comfortable, cash-lined groove that satisfies nobody really well.

    but marxists see the revolution everywhere, and so should the libertarians. just don’t ask me to buy it.

    and another thing– why so much absolute faith in the free markets? that markets should be “free” is the heart of capitalism, but libertarianism posits something different, something beyond that. it’s like saying that true christians should not just believe in jesus, but santa claus as well.

  • TerryF98

    “How Did Libertarians Lose Their Way?”

    They thought maps and the GPS system were Government inspired tyranny!

    • balconesfault

      Well, the positioning signals do come from government satellites that were originally for DOD use.

  • nhthinker

    Jesus was a political libertarian!

    Sinz gives a false definition of libertarians.
    Libertarians are not at all against voluntary communes. Many political libertarians believe quite strongly in being members of social communities such as churches.

    Libertarians are not lost- It’s actually Silber that falsely claims to be a libertarian when he never really was one.

    • ottovbvs

      Jesus was a political libertarian!

      Wrong again nh “thinker”

      “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”

      (given in answer to a question whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar)

      • nhthinker

        “Render on to…” is the original statement of the separation of church and state.
        A true libertarian free thinking free choice POV.

  • baw1064

    I’ve always considered myself to have small “l” libertarian leanings, but the meaning of the word as used by the Tea Party types is not something I can support.

    Rigid, unthinking obediance to any ideology, even a libertarian one, does not equate with “free minds.” As others have noted, any ideology taken to the extreme becomes nonsensical and impractical.

    I tend to believe the following:

    -The role of government should generally be limited to those areas that it’s impractical or undesirable to put in the private sector. What exactly falls into that category is a matter for debate.

    -Free markets are good, but with some caveats:

    1) Left completely unregulated, markets tend to devolve into monopolies or oligopolies. That obviously negates their benefits to consumers, so the government has to act as a referee to prevent this from happening.

    2) Not accounting for externalities (pollution, resource depletion, etc.) is itself a market distortion. One example is that we are spending a few $100 billion per year in the Middle East that we almost certainly wouldn’t be if we didn’t import any petroleum. That should be accounted for in the price.

    3) Free trade is in general a good thing, but only works if both partners are playing by the same rules. Often, that’s not the case.

    -Morality, traditional values, etc. are all good things, but I don’t believe it’s an appropriate area for the government. I prefer expecting people to take personal responsibility for their behavior to the nanny state. “Live and let live” is generally a good approach to life.

    -Sometimes it’s necessary to restrict personal freedom for the sake of a functioning society. But I would expect the proponents of new restrictions to make an affirmative case for 1) why they are really necessary, and 2) that the “cost” in loss of freedom is kept to a minimum, and is outweighed by the benefits.

    I’m still not sure where this puts me in the political spectrum.

    • balconesfault

      -Sometimes it’s necessary to restrict personal freedom for the sake of a functioning society. But I would expect the proponents of new restrictions to make an affirmative case for 1) why they are really necessary, and 2) that the “cost” in loss of freedom is kept to a minimum, and is outweighed by the benefits.

      I’m still not sure where this puts me in the political spectrum.

      Pretty damn close to where Obama has been governing, actually.

      Now, if you said the proponents of existingrestrictions should have to make an affirmative case, you’d actually be to the LEFT of Obama on such things as reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

      • baw1064

        I do in fact like, and voted for, Obama.

        I was thinking of editing that last part of my post. I have a problem with the way the Patriot Act is open ended. Usually, when there’s some restriction on civil liberties in times of war, things revert back when the war ends. It’s not clear that there’s any way for that to happen in this case.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    Great article and overall great thread. Great posts by a lot of people, like Sparse, balcone, midcon, etc. who said pretty much everything I could have.
    One great line in the article stood out:
    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.

    My thoughts exactly, and in fact when there is more than one man on a desert island people automatically set up government. A libertarian who insists on only doing for himself, perhaps trading with other islanders, would never survive. I lived on Pohnpei in the South Pacific for a time when I was younger, it is a communtarian lifestyle, not libertarian.

  • Sinan

    A new party should not be some offshoot of a past party but a statement about how to make good decisions. How does a rational objective person make good decisions? Gather the facts, understand the problem, weigh the options, agree on a goal, set a cost target, put in controls, monitor results, change strategy as needed, adapt and revisit.

    I call it pragmatism. Can we start a new party called The Pragmatists?

  • Nanotek

    “How Did Libertarians Lose Their Way?”

    right wing libertarians abandoned libertarianism when they married up with rightwing social engineers

  • PatrickQuint

    “Now, if you said the proponents of existingrestrictions should have to make an affirmative case, you’d actually be to the LEFT of Obama on such things as reauthorization of the Patriot Act.”

    The Patriot Act got panned by libertarians, as I recall. I don’t think the left has the monopoly on disliking the idea of a police state. It’s one of many issues where I find the idea of a left-right axis to be inadequate.

    I agree that libertarians lost their way by associating with the others in the Republican tent.

    That tent includes the Imperialists (perhaps a more descriptive term than neocons) and the Traditional Values demographics. The former believe in projecting the power of America to maintain America’s place on the top of the heap. The latter want and old-fashioned way of looking at morality enshrined in law. The idea that these motivations can be married to each other and libertarianism would seem absurd if it hadn’t already happened.

    • baw1064

      That tent includes the Imperialists (perhaps a more descriptive term than neocons) and the Traditional Values demographics. The former believe in projecting the power of America to maintain America’s place on the top of the heap. The latter want and old-fashioned way of looking at morality enshrined in law. The idea that these motivations can be married to each other and libertarianism would seem absurd if it hadn’t already happened.

      In thinking about it, this odd alliance kind of made sense during the Cold War: Neo-cons were on board to counter the Soviet Union’s military power. Traditionalists and religous types saw communism as a threat to their values, and libertarians/capitalists felt threatened by its hostility to capitalism and individual liberty. Once the Evil Empire was gone, the internal contradictions between the different factions became exposed.

  • Arms Merchant

    The Frum Forum commenter echo chamber’s view of “libertarianism” is a cartoon caricature. It’s about as accurate as calling the Democrats “for the working man” or Republicans “for conservatism.” Okay, fine, dredge up speeches to Birchers and pointless arguments about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I call and raise with KKK Democrats and “Southern Strategy” Republicans.

    The rise of libertarianism is a reaction to the total mess that the traditional parties have made of things. Instead of a providing a system of rules and justice for leveling the playing field where freedom can flourish, government has become sugar-daddy to every possible interest group; a monster whose primary goal is to distribute the fruits of others’ labor in exchange for more power.

    As Reagan might say, Libertarians didn’t leave the two main parties – - the two main parties left libertarianism.

    So how’s that duopoly of Democrats and Republicans working out for ya so far?

  • indy

    So how’s that duopoly of Democrats and Republicans working out for ya so far?

    Barack Obama 69,456,897
    John McCain 59,934,814
    Bob Barr 523,686

    Seems to be working out slightly better than the alternatives.

    • baw1064

      Libertarianism isn’t a cartoon caricature, but the Libertarian Party pretty much is (and I say that as someone who voted for their candidate in 2004 as a protest because I couldn’t stand Bush or Kerry). The problem as I see it is that while a number of their ideas are appealing, they take them to the extreme–idealogical purity to the point of irrelevance.

    • Arms Merchant

      “Seems to be working out slightly better than the alternatives.”

      No, you just made an argument that it’s working well for the parties of Obama and McCain. For the citizens, not so much.

  • valkayec

    I have a slightly different take on Libertarian “individual freedom” philosophy. It stems from reading ancient history.

    Several thousand years ago in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, wandering desert peoples chose to come together in settlements. About twelve of them to be exact. In the desert they had perfect freedom to do as they wished, think as they wished, believe as they wished, and pay no taxes. However, they chose to give up some of those freedoms for the obvious opportunities that communal living offered, namely safety, community, and trade. They made a choice to give up some of their freedoms for other benefits that could only be gained from living in a community. They chose to live within the rules set up by community leaders, including the paying of taxes.

    The point is that people chose to give up some individual freedom to gain the benefits of living in communities. They made a trade off which they saw as benefiting them in the long run. Every society the world over has required or demanded certain individual freedoms to be foregone in order to create a cohesive, manageable community and each person was required to contribute the community according to his means.

    Complete individual freedom can only exist in isolation. To be part of a community, such as the U.S., requires one to forego certain individual freedoms to benefit the community as a whole as the price to pay for the opportunity to live in that community. Because in a community (or society), no one person’s rights trump the rights of others.

    In a community, each person gives up some individual freedoms towards the benefit of all community members. That was the compromise made by those wandering tribes who joined together in Sumeria to create their city-states.

    What I see today in the Republican version of Libertarianism is a view of “my rights trump yours.” That attitude was never part of social compact people made when they came in from the desert. Nor should it be now. The primary reason we have governments – and always have had – is to have government act as the referee between those who wish to trump the rights of others for their own benefit and those who wish individual control over their lives. Governments, whether tribal leaders or large institutions, were – and are – the arbiters between these two warring actions for the common good. However, Republican libertarians deny the right of government or communities to act as arbiters for the common good. They say “only I count” and any restriction upon my rights or actions is tyranny, negating entirely the need for common good. They accept the benefits of community without accepting or assuming the responsibility that comes from living within a community.

    They want a perfect freedom that has never existed within a community and fail to understand that perfect freedom has never existed, and will never exist, within a community. Majority rules is not just a tyrannical axiom; historically, it was the rule by which the majority of community members chose what was good for the community.

  • rbottoms

    Try as you might you guys will continue to be the toll roads and weed party for some time to come.
    Since you’re basically just Republicans who want to smoke pot, I couldn’t be happier that Ron “Newsletter? What Racist Newsletter? Repeal the Civil Rights Act!!!” Paul and his idiot son are the face of Libertarians everywhere.

    You, like David Frum are examples of enlightened oddities in a doomed party.

    Voting for any Libertarian for national office is a complete waste of time, trying to wrest the GOP back from the Teahadists is equally fruitless. But you’re welcome to try of course.

    Both the GOP and the Libertarian Party have long since gone over the event horizon.

  • advocatusdiaboli

    Lost their way? They never had a way: their extremism denied government had any legitimate role in shaping a nation. Thomas Jefferson, a man I admire greatly for many other things, refused to tax in order to build a Navy. He was the first “government is evil, private sector is good” politician. The result: in 1812 the British sailed though US defenses, ransacked and burned the US capitol, and ransacked Monticello as Jefferson fed (even looting and drinking up his wine cellar). Let’s not re-learn that lesson the hard way. Government has a big place in a free nation; the private “for profit” sector cannot do everything well: anything where profits mean a poorer product and monopolies are natural and most efficient. For example: healthcare, the military, utilities, police, fire, law & justice, roads, communications, and (I am starting to believe) banking.

  • forgetn

    As a Canadian I’m all for the Amero and the Superhighway… as long as Canada has nothing to do with this idea. Last thing we want is to have our currency tied to the USD.

    I think the most amusing of the libertarian views is that their denial of government role in society would have stopped innovation. If IBM and Ma Bell had their way in the seventies, then Microsoft, Apple and a mobile phone do not exist.

    The reality is Standard Oil still dominates the world. The reality is that companies tried as hard as they can to extinguish competition. Look at the airline industry as a perfect example; Any airport that has more than one major airline in operation has much lower ticket prices. Ideal situation for a company is to kill the competition to generate monopolistic rent.

  • think4yourself

    Good article to read and good comments. This is the reason I read FF. So far, no party represents my views.

    I thought some of the comments about prostitution summed it up pretty well. I’m for the idea that people ought to be able to do what they wish and if they wish to sell their bodies, well it is their body. However, I am also cognizant that most who fall into that trade did so due to victimization that generally started when they were children (and thus had no choice), and most in that profession are victims from very young and continue to be victims of their johns, pimps, etc. and not self-possessed people making rational choices. So a pure libertarian view does not make a better society for victims. That doesn’t mean that society has the obligation to fix every victim’s problems, but society as a whole is not better if we ignore injustice.

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