When Everyone’s Libertarian, No One Is

In last weekend’s New York Times magazine, Robert Draper profiles Sen. Rand Paul and describes the nation’s current “libertarian moment.” “Today,” writes Draper, “for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side.” It’s an enjoyable enough read, and there are some interesting interviews and discussions about Paul and some of the personalities who make up the Libertarian Party. There’s also some entertaining pushback from mainstream Republicans.

But I found myself questioning the main premise of the piece. What evidence do we have that we’re in the middle of a libertarian moment, that there’s “genuine momentum” for the ideology? As evidence, Draper offers the following:

  • Most Americans support marriage rights for same-sex couples.
  • Marijuana legalization has become a mainstream position.
  • Americans are reluctant to back US military actions abroad.
  • Well, okay, that strikes me as a reasonable reading of current public opinion. But that’s pretty far from proving that the average American is now libertarian. Take same-sex marriage. To some, that is a statement of libertarian values: the government should not be arbitrarily deciding who can and can’t have access to marriage. To others, this is a civil rights issue: People are being denied a basic right simply because of their sexual preferences, and they are seeking government action to ensure equal access to a key societal institution. That actually sounds like the opposite of libertarianism. Similarly, nearly every American now favors the rights of African Americans to vote or to marry outside their race; that doesn’t make every American a libertarian.

    And then Draper hits us with this:

    Deep concern over government surveillance looms as one of the few bipartisan sentiments in Washington, which is somewhat unanticipated given that the surveiller in chief, the former constitutional-law professor Barack Obama, had been described in a 2008 Times Op-Ed by the legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen as potentially “our first president who is a civil libertarian.”

    Okay, if the definition of libertarian now includes Barack Obama, the man who ran for office promising that the federal government would take responsibility for people’s access to health care and actually delivered on it, then that term has no meaning at all.

    Libertarianism is, in fact, a tricky combination of policy stances, combining liberal positions on personal freedom (drug use, sexuality, and maybe abortion, even if that allows a decline of national morality) with conservative positions on the economy (low taxes and minimal regulation, even if that allows inequality, entrenched bigotry, and environmental degradation). By its own nature, libertarianism runs against the main ideological current in American politics right now, since politically aware people tend to want either the liberal package of personal freedom with economic regulation or the conservative package of social conformity with economic liberty. Basically everyone agrees with libertarians on something, but they tend to get freaked out just as quickly by the ideology’s other stances. Which is why libertarianism tends to have a low ceiling for popularity.

    Pretty much the only way you can make it look like libertarianism is a popular movement is if you expand its definition so far as to be almost meaningless. This is more or less what Draper has done in this article.

    [Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

    Seth Masket

    Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.