Jerry Taylor of the Niskanen Center dropped a truth bomb on the beltway in his recent piece for Fox News about the decline of Rand Paul. Taylor notes that the alleged growth of the libertarian movement in the wake of the Ron Paul campaign was largely illusory. The alienated populists and conspiracy theorists that filled out Paul’s numbers in 2012 easily made the transition to the very un-libertarian Donald Trump in 2015, leaving Rand out in the cold.
The lack of a broad-based movement, despite a number of high profile campaigns and events, is a bitter pill for libertarians who believe in electoral politics. Having libertarians in office may help raise the profile of issues like overcriminalization, tech freedom, and the insanity of the drug war. But those who await a libertarian takeover of the GOP misunderstand the fundamentally radical nature of libertarian ideas and how deeply that radicalism conflicts with the perceptions most Americans have about the role of government.
Trump supporters are a grim reminder that millions of voters view the government as a hammer that can be wielded to smash opposing values or groups and force their beliefs on others. Educating the electorate about libertarian ideas misses the fact that they have no real incentive to learn; most don’t care about the relationship between man and state and likely never will, as long as the state continues to provide the stability they have come to expect. Ron Paul’s success in 2008 and 2012 can largely be credited to the mortgage crisis; once the sting faded, so did support for his radical ideas.
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There’s a good reason libertarians remain at the ideological fringe: “Libertarian politics” is a contradiction in terms. Libertarianism is not a third party, like the Know-Nothings or the Whigs or a prescription of policy tweaks to make the government more efficient. It is a distinct value system that abhors political power itself, even if some of its adherents consider power a necessary evil.
Libertarians may disagree whether the state should be abolished or minimized, but the difference matters little to the average American: Both seem frighteningly outside his own experience. Even the most moderate libertarians will wax poetic about ending intellectual property or privatizing the welfare system. Moreover, virtually all voters are deeply invested in government services they have come to depend on, and libertarians have been unable to present hypothesized private-sector alternatives while the state forces dependence upon itself. Conceptually, libertarians are on a page that most people find bizarre.
Libertarianism is best understood as the latest in a long line of radical liberation ideologies, rooted in the principles of natural law and individualism, that have provided the intellectual basis for rebellion since the American Revolution. It is a reaction to the perpetual expansion of government power in the U.S. and its frequent abuses. But radicalism, by definition, is immoderate and cannot compromise its way to reforms. Rather than moving toward the “Overton window” of public opinion by moderating controversial views (as Rand Paul attempted), radicals must pull public opinion towards their own viewpoints. Rand’s straying from libertarian principles means that he likely has little unique appeal even for the tiny libertarian electorate his father created. David Boaz’s research shows that 70% of libertarian-leaning voters went with Mitt Romney over Gary Johnson in 2012, so we know even libertarians who believe in politics are willing to blunt their own sword.
If libertarianism is denied its radical characteristics, it degrades into a flimsy millennial conservatism: Fiscally conservative, socially liberal and completely powerless, a mashup of existing ideas better espoused by other parties and ideologies. Without unyielding commitment to truly radical ideas, libertarians are drowned out by louder voices catering to the will of angry, pitchfork-bearing constituents. They add little of value, and are likely to end up little more than a footnote in the history of conservatism.
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To fail to understand this is to remain resigned to swim against the tide of American politics. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out: “Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this has rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide.”
Instead, libertarians might be more useful as single-issue activists and innovators. While U.S. politicians fail to shrink government, individualists like Erik Voorhees, Cody Wilson, Peter Thiel and the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto are using technology to forge a new path. Time will tell exactly where that leads. But Rand’s decline underlines the fact that libertarian ethics predicate disruption and revolution, not moderation and compromise. As such, it is unlikely to ever get big votes in American politics.
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