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The Trouble With Liberty

Illustration by David Drummond  

Libertarianism is a long, clunky word for a simple, elegant idea: that government should do as little as possible. In Libertarianism: A Primer, Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz defines it as “the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others.” Like any political philosophy, libertarianism contains a thousand substrains, ranging from anarchists who want to destroy the state to picket-fence conservatives who just want to put power in local hands. The traditional libertarian line is that government should be responsible for a standing army, local security, and a courts system, and that’s it—a system called minarchy. But everyone has his own idea of how to get there. Washington-think-tank libertarians take an incrementalist approach within the two-party system. The Libertarian Party offers a third way. Ayn Rand–inspired Objectivists promote their ideas through education. Reason magazine preaches the gospel of cultural libertarianism. Silicon Valley techno-entrepreneurs would invent their way to Libertopia. Wall Street free-marketers want deregulation. The Free State Project plans to concentrate 20,000 libertarians in New Hampshire. “Seasteaders” dream of building societies on the ocean. And then there are the regular old Glenn Beck disciples who just want to be left alone. “They all want to shoot each other in the face over who gets to be the real libertarian,” says Matt Welch, editor of Reason. At the very least, they all agree they should be allowed to acquire the weapon with which to do so.

Libertarianism gets caricatured as the weird, Magic-card-collecting, twelve-sided-die-wielding outcast of American political philosophy. Yet there’s no idea more fundamental to our country’s history. Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them. (Though some Founders, like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, wanted to centralize power.) All the government-run trappings that came after—the Fed, highways, public schools, a $1.5 trillion-a-year entitlement system— were arguably departures from our country’s hard libertarian core.

Ayn Rand is the gateway drug to Libertarianism, though many toke into adulthood.

About one in ten Americans self-identifies as libertarian, and even fewer consider themselves “movement” libertarians. Most of them don’t subscribe to Reason or attend conferences at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank funded in part by the infamous brothers Charles and David Koch. But many are libertarians without knowing it. That is, they identify as economically conservative and socially liberal. That number may be growing. In a 2009 Gallup poll, 23 percent of Americans responded to questions about the role of government in a way that categorizes them as libertarian—up from 18 percent in 2000. A survey conducted by Zogby for the Cato Institute has put the libertarian vote at around 15 percent. Loosen the wording, and the pool expands. When the Zogby survey asked voters if they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian,” the number rose to 44 percent. When it simply asked if they were “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” a full 59 percent responded yes. Not bad for a bunch of trench-coat-wearing dungeon masters.

Libertarianism is far from synonymous with the tea party, but the tea party is the closest thing to a mass libertarian movement in recent memory. Tea-partyers surveyed by Cato split down the middle between social conservatives and social liberals, making half of them traditional Republicans and half libertarians. But the fact that the tea party organizes around fiscal issues alone—smaller government, lower taxes—gives the movement libertarian cred. Its members speak the language, too, waving Gadsden flags, quoting Hayek, and carrying signs that say WHO IS JOHN GALT?—a reference to the hero of the Ayn Rand book Atlas Shrugged.

Libertarianism gets marginalized in American politics because it doesn’t fit into the two-party paradigm. Libertarians want less state intrusion into the market, which aligns them with Republicans, but also less interference in social choices, which aligns them with Democrats. As Massachusetts governor William Weld put it in 1992, “I want the government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom.” To the partisan brain, this doesn’t compute. “In 1976, people didn’t have the vaguest idea of what I was talking about,” says Ron Paul. “Why was I voting with the left sometimes and with the right other times?”

Yet libertarianism is more internally consistent than the Democratic or Republican platforms. There’s no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella, except that it makes for a powerful coalition. Libertarianism lies crosswise to the partisan split, giving its adherents a kind of freethinker, outcast status. This can be especially attractive for young people. “When I was 19, libertarianism was an argument for being awesome,” says Will Wilkinson, a former Cato scholar who now blogs at The Economist. It’s about flouting convention and rejecting authority—the political equivalent of getting an eyebrow ring. It’s also an excuse to indulge your most selfish instincts. But you don’t have to call it “selfishness.”