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The Trouble With Liberty


Illustration by David Drummond  

Ayn Rand has been called the “gateway drug” to libertarianism, but many converts keep toking well into adulthood. Her novels, including 1943’s The Fountainhead and 1957’s Atlas Shrugged, sell more than 800,000 copies a year. Other libertarians credit their conversion to Hayek, fellow Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (Ron Paul’s personal fave), American free-marketer Milton Friedman, or Austrian-influenced American anarcho-capitalist and father of modern libertarianism Murray Rothbard. Ever since its publication in 1944, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom has been the anti-regulatory Ur-text. Hayek wrote the book in response to the spread of socialism—including National Socialism— which at the time was a genuine existential threat to Western society. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, though, socialism isn’t the menace it used to be. Hitler is long gone. Yet libertarians still cite Hayek and Rand with the same urgency. Ron Johnson, the newly elected senator from Wisconsin, called Atlas Shrugged, which tells the story of a group of creative capitalists who retreat from an overregulated society to form their own Utopia, a “foundational book” that serves as “a warning of what could happen to America.” Representative Paul Ryan, also of Wisconsin, requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, describes Obama’s economic policies as “something right out of an Ayn Rand novel,” and calls Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.” Glenn Beck touted The Road to Serfdom on his show, wondering out loud if it might be “the road we’re on.” The irony is that Hayek believed in a role for the state. “In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing,” he wrote. He favored government intervention in the markets, for example, and supported environmental regulation. When he warned against “socialism,” he meant actual socialism.

Wilkinson still identifies as a libertarian but distances himself from the doomsaying. “Part of my political maturation was realizing there’s really not that much at stake,” he says. “That our culture isn’t on the road to serfdom, we’re not one step away from drifting into Fascism or totalitarian socialism or anything like that.” It’s a realization many politicians have yet to make.

Republicans speak the language of libertarianism. They talk about shrinking government and cutting the deficit. But when one of them turns words into action, he gets shunned. The latest Republican to mistakenly put money to mouth: Paul Ryan. During the debate over health-care reform last winter, the GOP was getting savaged for failing to present an alternative to the Democrats’ plan to reduce long-term spending growth. Ryan, an econ wonk and the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, decided to take a crack. He introduced a budget and called it “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” The Roadmap made all the tough cuts that other Republicans discussed vaguely but never specified. It would simplify the tax code, privatize Medicare and Medicaid, and replace parts of Social Security with personal accounts. And it would work: The Congressional Budget Office estimated that Ryan’s plan would put the country in the black by 2063. Sure, it would rip a Texas-size hole in the social safety net, but it was a bona fide libertarian solution.

Ryan got points for boldness. Obama called the Roadmap a “serious proposal.” But Republicans including John Boehner and Newt Gingrich voiced doubts. Some GOP candidates initially supported the Social Security plank but then flipped when their Democratic opponents called them out. More recently, Republicans have studiously avoided specifics when it comes to deficit reduction.

That’s how conservative politics is played—talk shrinkage, do growth. Even right-wing godhead Ronald Reagan expanded the federal government, bailed out Social Security, and signed off on tax hikes. Bush 43 was only the latest in a long line of Republican spenders.

It’s this hypocrisy that makes some libertarians stray outside the two-party monolith. Some gravitate toward the Libertarian Party, which calls itself the third-largest political party in the country. But few of its candidates are ever elected. Infighting can also be a turnoff. “There’s something about libertarians where working as a team is inconsistent with the whole concept of being a libertarian,” says Warren Redlich, the 2010 Libertarian candidate for governor of New York, who was sued by one of his opponents for the nomination.

Others buck the political system altogether. In 2001, a graduate student at Yale named Jason Sorens wrote a paper arguing that if enough libertarian activists moved to a small state in the union, they could transform society—an undertaking he called the Free State Project. A decade later, more than 10,000 libertarians have signed the group’s pledge promising to move to New Hampshire once they get 20,000 signatures. About 800 activists are already there. What they do once they arrive is up to them. Some Free Staters have won seats in the State Legislature. Others engage in acts of civil disobedience: One man, inspired by the movie Gandhi, got arrested for performing a manicure without a license.


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