Rand Paul and the Fizzling of America’s Libertarian Moment

Republican U.S. senator Rand Paul.Photo: Ron Sachs/Ron Sachs/CNP/AdMedia

Libertarians in America tend to be highly sensitized to the minute, daily intrusions of the nanny state, and in 2001 a Yale Ph.D. student named Jason Sorens proposed a solution. If a critical mass of libertarians would pledge to move to an underpopulated state and come to influence its politics, he believed, they might be able to re-create the experience of the Mormons in Utah or the Jamestown Seventy in Vermont in the early ’70s, to write their own rules and, within this place’s political igloo, build a perfect society of free minds and free markets. Twenty thousand committed libertarians, Sorens figured, would do the trick. Online, pledges began to accrue, and though there was some interest in Alaska and Wyoming, enthusiasm soon focused on New Hampshire. The Granite State had no state income tax, its beards-and-flannel vibe offered some cultural affinity, and its then-governor, a bit libertarian himself, seemed basically unalarmed by the prospect of 20,000 ideologues moving in. Though some early border-crossers tried, with limited success, to launch a Free Town movement in Grafton, New Hampshire — they attempted to secede from the regional school district and create in Grafton a “U.N.-free zone” — and though more than a dozen sympathizers have won seats in the state’s 424-seat assembly, the Free State Project is still 3,000 pledges short of the trigger: 17,000 libertarians have committed in the 14 years since Sorens’s proposal. If you believed that the weight of the country’s politics will continue to swing in a more liberty-minded — even anarchic — direction, then you could convince yourself that the Free State migration is coming soon. But the safer conclusion is that it will never happen at all.

Has the libertarian moment finally arrived?” The New York Times Magazine asked a little more than a year ago, in a largely credulous cover story, a tour of the movement’s partisans in Washington think tanks and magazines, most of them full of enthusiasm. The movement’s hopes and anxieties were focused in the ascendant Senator Rand Paul, who seemed poised to become a libertarian Brigham Young. Fifteen months in, Paul is indeed a candidate for president, but he is generally polling below 5 percent, making him significantly less popular than his father (the old crank the movement was supposed to leave behind) was during his two presidential runs in 2008 and 2012. Even in New Hampshire — the movement’s handpicked Salt Lake — Paul is running behind most of the field; one large poll last month put him tenth. At the end of last year Politico placed Paul first on its list of the “Politico 50” and called the senator the “most interesting man in politics,” and the New York Times quoted him imagining a race between himself and Hillary Clinton and how it would turn American politics “topsy-turvy.” By the time he toured the libertarian heartland of New Hampshire on Friday — slouchy and singsongy, an outsider in posture, too — it seemed hard to find many Americans who found him especially interesting, and the most pressing question surrounding his candidacy was, what had happened to that libertarian moment, after all?

Paul is a low-variance politician. He does not seem to have good days or bad days so much as the same day, again and again. His stump speech has not greatly changed since he entered politics, and its best passage is one in which he insists to his fellow Republicans that to build a politics in defense of the Constitution is to respect the whole document — not just the Second Amendment protection of the right to bear arms, but the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions on illegal search and seizure. Before an audience at New England College in the town of Henniker, New Hampshire, Paul stressed how obscene it was that African-Americans and Hispanics wound up in prison for drug crimes so frequently, considering they used drugs at roughly equivalent rates as white people. He closed by reiterating the story, familiar to criminal-justice reformers, of Kalief Browder, the young man from the Bronx held in solitary confinement for two years without a trial and who eventually killed himself. He described these abuses in the same terms that made him very prominent over the past two years, when he leaned on them during daylong filibusters of bills to authorize NSA wiretapping and to reauthorize the Patriot Act: as flagrant departures from the principles encoded in the Bill of Rights, as a forgetting of the principles we set for ourselves. There is something enticingly reductionist about this vision, as if human events were simply fabric over the skeleton of the Constitution. As if Paul, viewing the 11 o’clock news at home, could trace the imprint of the Fourth Amendment, the Ninth, the 14th.

But the Bill of Rights isn’t a theory — it’s a text, and the campaign has forced Paul further from its certainties. What to do about immigration, for instance? The libertarian position would be to open borders, but Paul has instead chosen the mainstream Republican line — that the border must be secured first, before anything else. At a town hall Friday, upstairs at a restaurant called the Tuscan Kitchen, just across the state line from Massachusetts, Paul was asked what he planned to do about immigration, and he replied with a five-minute cloud of sentiments and caveats, all of them earnestly expressed, pointing in contradictory directions. He told a story about the struggles of his immigrant grandfather. He explained that many children brought to the country illegally simply wanted and deserved a path to citizenship. Then he returned to his line about securing the borders before doing anything else. There was some understandable confusion in the audience, and so Paul, a patient didact, went through the whole logical loop again.

Purists tend to trail after Paul, who has chosen a reputation for purity himself, so that his audiences can seem like a physical manifestation of the letters-to-the-editor page. What was striking on Friday was the sheer variety of the purists. Trying to get out of the Tuscan Kitchen event, Paul called on a woman who wanted him to take a position on genetically modified foods and then, ill-advisedly, trying to rescue the moment, a pair of young climate-change activists who said they were lobbyists from Chevron and Shell and tried to present him with a pretend trophy for something or other. Paul looked annoyed. At the New England College event he encountered a pair of weathered old men who started off sounding like libertarians but turned out to be Bernie Sanders supporters in disguise. One of them, who asked Paul whether he thought the government should provide guns or butter, got a nicely turned reply about how the problem was that the gun lobby and the butter lobby would always cut deals, and the government should aim to provide neither at all.

The experience of Rand Paul on the trail has a way of recapitulating the central conundrum of the libertarian movement, which is that its aspirational image is of the Silicon Valley tech millionaires, the Peter Thiel faction, the human beings on this planet most untroubled by the fast-arriving future, while much of its electoral base resides with those who want the modern world to leave them alone. This kind of dichotomy has often ensnared Paul: As soon as he entered national politics, pitched as the Republican Party’s best bet for racial outreach and reconciliation, it turned out that one of his aides had hosted a radio show as the “Southern Avenger.”

The question that the Times Magazine posed, in considering Paul, was whether libertarianism was ready to make the compromises needed for power. The simpler question it might have asked was, how many libertarians are there, after all? The quest for limited government has always been ideologically various — Second Amendment absolutists, suburban small businessmen, the religiously orthodox who are wary of secular intrusions. Many of these people can unite under the banner of extremely limited government, at least as a slogan of protest. But that doesn’t make them Paulists. The simplest fact about the libertarian moment may be that it was not specifically libertarian — that a more general outsider movement got called libertarian because libertarians were the outsiders of record. In this campaign so far, the outsider energy has been less theorized and specific — an anti-immigrant and anti-elite nationalism, the Trump cadres. In what had been billed as the libertarian heartland there seem to be very few pure libertarians around.

What the Paul campaign has inherited, then, is an unusually heavy task: to dispel the whole atmosphere of unreality that surrounds libertarianism. No one really knows what libertarianism might look like in government, what coalitions and commitments it will most obey. The movement has built no Utah. How would the promise of hands-off policing be reconciled with the fact of violence? How would libertarians address economic imbalances when they were forced to take a more complex position than to say that inequality is due to “some people working harder than others,” as Paul did in August? The great case for libertarianism a year ago was that an awful lot of young people seemed to share its preferences: for individual liberty in all realms. But that can seem less like a promise that the movement will win the future than a mark of its immaturity. Libertarianism still functions mainly as a critique. The specific immensity of Rand Paul’s task isn’t just trying to reconcile the ideologues with the mainstream, as the Times had it. It is convincing the rest of us that the libertarian project is real, when it has never really been tried.