Justin Morse, Staff Writer
In recent weeks there has been an emerging debate over the nature and future of Libertarianism in America. Should Libertarians continue their present path of allying with Conservatives to advocate for economic liberalism? Should they instead ally with Liberals to push for social liberalism and civil liberties? Or should they not ally with anyone, and try to forge their own path? These are questions which are difficult to answer, and even more difficult to implement. Both major contemporary political movements have unfairly dismissed Libertarians, for the better part of thirty years. Conservatives have embraced their economic ideas, at least in theory, but have dismissed their ideas of drugs, immigration, and foreign policy. Liberals have embraced their ideas on civil liberties, gay rights, and various other social issues, but have rejected their call for free markets and the dismantling of the welfare state. With the “Reagan Revolution” Libertarians largely latched on to the Conservative train in hopes of using them as a vehicle for reducing the size and scope of government. Since that time they have largely been seen as a movement of the right.
Now in 2010, looking back at the last 30 years, many Libertarians are realizing that the Conservative movement has been a terrible vehicle for advancing the cause of liberty. Whether it was Ronald Reagan in office or George W. Bush the size and scope of government not only hasn’t receded, it has expanded. The George W. Bush Administration left Libertarians pulling their hair out. Bush expanded the welfare state, curbed civil liberties, pursued an aggressive interventionist foreign policy, and bought into the same tired culture war battles of yesteryear. The things that Libertarians might be able to support Bush on, social security privatization and immigration reform, he failed to deliver. To end out his term Bush reacted to the housing crisis with the exact type of government intervention that Libertarians had been arguing against for years. Going into the 2008 election Libertarians rallied around the candidacy of Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) in the hope that a Libertarian Republican could grab the GOP’s nomination. Paul’s bid for President raised a lot of money, but never garnered large support among the Republican electorate.
The rise of Barack Obama presented Libertarians with an interesting candidate. Obama was obviously for the redistributive economic polices and government expansion that Libertarians abhor. However, Obama largely agreed with Libertarians on civil liberties, ending the Iraq War, gay rights, immigration, and he seemed authentically different than Democrats of the past. With a large body of evidence, time has however proved that Obama is no friend to Libertarians. His record on civil liberties is as bad, if not worse than Bush. Although the Iraq War is winding down, the timetable for this withdrawal was put in place while Bush was still in office. He has expanded the War in Afghanistan, and produced nothing on reforming immigration, or expanding gay rights. In summary, it’s got to be hard to be a Libertarian these days. Both parties give lip service to the idea of liberty, but when elected both toss it aside in the interest of political expediency. Conservatives often attack the inefficiency of bureaucracy, at the same time calling for the expansion of the Department of Defense, the Border Patrol, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Liberals often attack foreign intervention and attacks on civil liberties, at the same time having as bad of a record on those areas as anyone.
Both sides play into the game of demonization and victimization. Conservatives demonize gays, immigrants, and anyone not in “real America”. Liberals demonize the rich, and anyone who questions Liberal dogma. Both sides seize on crisis to advance the power of the state. Conservatives used the threat of terrorism and Liberals used the financial crisis as opportunities to expanded government power and reach. Libertarians don’t see crisis as the time to abdicate power to the state, as Lew Rockwell put it, “The Libertarian critique of government is foundational. It says that in all times and places, the coercive power of the state violates rights, and this compulsive rights-violator cannot and should not be trusted to guard our security.” Many Conservatives will say, “We read Friedman and Hayek just like Libertarians”, but when most Conservatives advocate or govern they disregard the ideas of all the Libertarian intellectual giants they claim as their own. The modern political landscape has sadly manifested into a game, with both sides all to willing sacrifice liberty for some false sense of security and comfort. This is the political environment Libertarians find themselves in.
So where do you Libertarians go from here? Unfortunately, allying closing with either of the dominant political ideologies is a bridge too far. There is simply too much disagreement, not only in ideas but practices as well, to form a functioning coalition with Conservatives or Liberals. Libertarians can’t simply ignore the elephant in the room when working with both sides. This is not to say Libertarians should cut all ties to Conservative or Liberal institutions, but they must simply realize that neither movement will be the vehicle for change that they are looking for. They will have to be their own movement for change. This is not to say that Libertarians haven’t been effective in establishing institutions free from the Conservative or Liberal establishment. Organizations like the Cato Institute and Reason Magazine are well run and produce great ideas from great voices. However, these larger institutions can only do so much to advance the cause of liberty. If they are to make headways Libertarians must operate most effectively at the grassroots level. Libertarians, although small in number, can be effective in directing the debate. Young people present Libertarians with best opportunity to mold the debate in future years. Many young people are tired of the culture wars of their parents, the War on Drugs, and the expansion of police powers. Young people are the ones most likely to stand up and cry for equality and freedom for all people at all times. Most young people because of their social liberalism turn to Liberals, but this doesn’t have to be. There is nothing progressive or liberal about the modern Liberal movement. They are just as willing to fight for the status quo of statism as Conservatives are. Libertarians must be able to argue that the state is not the most effective vehicle for progress. If real progress is to come free people making free choices, independent of government coercion and corruption, will be the ones who bring it about.
Libertarians, instead of downplaying their differences with Conservatives and Liberals, should be highlighting them. I think too often people equate Libertarianism with some more extreme form of Conservatism, but this couldn’t be more wrong. Libertarian ideas will probably never resonate with a majority of the American electorate, but they don’t have to. Libertarianism is not only a movement, but also a philosophy and a way of looking at the world. The ideas of Libertarians don’t have to dominate to be effective, just influence. If Libertarians are able to influence enough people, maybe the next crisis will have less people crying for state intervention. Although I don’t consider myself a Libertarian, I have great sympathy for the cause of liberty. I don’t see eye to eye with Libertarians on some issues but in every political environment there needs to people calling for uncompromising liberty for all. This call needs to be louder and more omnipresent in our political dialogue.