The Trouble With Liberty

Illustration by David DrummondPhoto: Shutterstock (White House, Picture Frame); iStock (Nature Painting)

Just before Thanksgiving, in an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Ron Paul called for Congress to be groped. The Transportation Security Administration, having rolled out its new airport body scanners, had decreed anyone who opted out could be subjected to the now-infamous enhanced pat-down. “Let’s make sure that every member of Congress goes through this,” Representative Paul said, waving his finger in the air. “Get the X-ray, make them look at the pictures, and then go through one of those groping pat-downs.” Perhaps this would put Congress in touch (quite literally) with real Americans.

Paul, the 75-year-old Texas libertarian and quixotic 2008 Republican candidate best known for his quest to abolish the Federal Reserve, is used to fighting lonely battles. But this time, he had company. Fox News went wall-to-wall on the (nonexistent) health hazards of body scans, naked outlines of passengers, and pat-down paranoia. “If you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested,” said newfound freedom fighter John Tyner to a TSA agent in a video that went viral. The left backed Paul too. Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald argued that the screenings had “all the ingredients of the last decade’s worth of Terrorism exploitation.” Blogger Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake called the X-ray devices “porno-scanners.” For one beautiful moment, the whole political spectrum—well, at least both vocal ends of it—seemed to agree: Too much government is too much government.

Maybe it was inevitable that the National Opt-Out Day, when travelers were going to refuse body scans en masse, failed to become the next Woolworth’s sit-in (how do you organize a movement that abhors organization?). It turned out most Americans actually supported the body scanners. But the moment was a reminder of just how strong, not to mention loud, the libertarian streak is in American politics.

No one exemplifies that streak more than Ron Paul—unless you count his son Rand. When Rand Paul strolled onstage in May 2010, the newly declared Republican nominee for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat, he entered to the strains of Rush, the boomer rock band famous for its allegiance to libertarianism and Ayn Rand. It was a dog whistle—a wink to free-marketers and classic-rock fans savvy enough to get the reference, but likely to sail over the heads of most Republicans. Paul’s campaign was full of such goodies. He name-dropped Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s seminal TheRoad to Serfdom. He cut a YouTube video denying that he was named after Ayn Rand but professing to have read all of her novels. He spoke in the stark black-and-white terms of libertarian purism. “Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state?” he asked the crowd in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Election Night.

It’s clear why he played coy. For all the talk about casting off government shackles, libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged. And Rand Paul’s dad is the craziest uncle of all. Ron Paul wants to “end the Fed,” as the title of his book proclaims, and return the country to the gold standard—stances that have made him a tea-party icon. Now, as incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Fed, he’ll have an even bigger platform. Paul Sr. says there’s not much daylight between him and his son. “I can’t think of anything we grossly disagree on,” he says.

There’s never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like TARP, the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.

Libertarianism has adherents on the left, too—they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry. It’s not surprising that the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government—tax cuts and releasing the shackles of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Much of Americans’ vaunted anger now comes from a sense of betrayal over libertariansim shrugged. Right-wing libertarians charge that the Bush presidency gave the lie to small-government cant by pushing Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and a $3 trillion war. Left-wing libertarians are furious that Obama talked a big game on civil liberties but has caved on everything from FISA to DOMA to Gitmo. Meanwhile, the country faces a massive and growing deficit (too much government!) that neither party has the power or the inclination to fix. If there were ever a time to harness libertarian energy—on left and right—it’s now.

Illustration by David DrummondPhoto: Shutterstock (Mount Rushmore); Getty Images (Rand)

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.”

Illustration by David DrummondPhoto: Gilbert Stuart/Getty Images (Washington)

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.

The last best hope for Libertopia may be the ocean. There’s a long, not-so-proud history of seeking freedom at sea. In 1972, Nevada real-estate developer Michael Oliver built an island in the southwest Pacific by dredging sand near an an existing reef, which he called the Republic of Minerva. The nearby Kingdom of Tonga quickly conquered it. A proposal in the late nineties to create a “Freedom Ship” nearly a mile long that would house 50,000 people never got past the planning stage.

That hasn’t stopped Patri Friedman, grandson of libertarian hero Milton Friedman, from trying once more. Friedman founded the Seasteading Institute in 2008 with the goal of creating a floating society free from government’s grasp. While seasteading communities would start small—just a bunch of family-size platforms floating off the coast—Friedman imagines them harvesting energy and growing food.

What distinguishes seasteading from pure fantasy is money. Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and bought a stake in Facebook back in 2004, has become the Johnny Appleseed of futurist libertarians. Since 2008, he’s given upwards of $750,000 to the Seasteading Institute. He recently announced that he will offer twenty grants of up to $100,000 each to teenagers who want to start their own tech companies—a proposal that drew liberal scorn. Thiel is unapologetic about his disdain for government. “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” he wrote in a 2009 essay. He’s not alone. Silicon Valley has produced a whole cadre of libertarian entrepreneurs, including longtime Sun Microsystems president Scott McNealy, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and Cypress Semiconductor CEO T. J. Rodgers.

It speaks to the breadth and versatility of libertarianism that it unites Teva-wearing California entrepreneurs and flag-waving tea-partyers under the same banner. The aesthetic is different, but the ideas are the same.

Over the TSA airport pat-downs, the whole political spectrum seemed to be in agreement.

And yet, for all of libertarianism’s diversity, the libertarian movement—those who feel so strongly about live-and-let-live that they want to make you live and let live, too—still prizes doctrinal purity. In 2006, a Cato scholar named Brink Lindsey wrote an essay for The New Republic called “Liberaltarians,” in which he argued that liberals and libertarians have more in common than they think. Both support civil liberties and gay rights. Both want to end the two wars. There’s also a growing willingness among some liberals to embrace libertarian ideas like school vouchers. The cold-war alliance with conservatives has situated libertarians too far to the right, Lindsey argues. It’s time to start reaching out to the left.

While the project drew attention in the D.C. wonkosphere, traditional libertarians took a dim view, especially when Lindsey and his colleague Will Wilkinson proposed writing a book. “There were a lot of people at Cato who didn’t very much like the book,” says David Boaz, executive vice president of Cato. The final straw was Lindsey’s scathing review of a new book by Arthur Brooks, head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In August, Cato and Lindsey parted ways. Wilkinson left soon after. The Cato exodus was a reminder that for all of libertarianism’s supposed ecumenism, there’s still an Establishment that does not brook dissent any more than its conservative counterparts. AEI pushed out former Bush speechwriter David Frum in March after he repeatedly criticized Republicans. Frum described his and Lindsey’s departures as “very similar situations, unfortunately.”

W hen I was in high school, I owned a book by Penn & Teller called How to Play in Traffic. It’s mainly a series of jokes, gags, and madcap yarns by the magic-comedy duo. But it also channels the libertarian id of Penn Jillette. “I sincerely don’t want to offend any of our readers, but I’ve got something to say,” he writes. “It’s very simple, but a bit controversial: The United States of America does not have a problem with terrorism. We just don’t.” Airport security is not worth the hassle, he continues: “Hey, we’re alive, there’s risk. Some planes are going to go down like falling twisted burning human cattle cars and there’s no stopping it. No one can make any form of travel 100 percent safe. We’ll take our chances.” As for the victims of a security-free transportation system? “Let’s consider those terrorism victims heroes,” he writes. “Let’s say they died for freedom. They didn’t die for us to have our phones tapped and have our time wasted at airports.” He then describes a prank where you create a screensaver for your laptop that looks like a countdown to detonation.

Jillette might choose his words differently today. Everyone knows going through airport security sucks, even without “porno- scanners.” But few dispute the need for some line of defense. More-efficient, less-intrusive security would be great. But none at all? Jillette’s tract is a good example of how libertarianism ventures down some fascinating paths but usually ends up deep in the wilderness.

Same story on issue after issue. Taxation isn’t just a poor allocation of resources; it’s an act of violence. “At least the highwayman would take your money and leave you alone,” says Douglas French, president of the Mises Institute. “The government takes your money, then stands around and tells you what to do with it.” The Federal Reserve doesn’t just restrict the markets; it’s an arrogant monstrosity that should be abolished and replaced by the gold standard—a policy that most economists agree would lead to economic meltdown. War isn’t just bad; it’s a bankrupt excuse to suppress personal freedoms and wield state control that’s never justified by the inciting incident. The North should have let the South exercise its “right to secede,” argues libertarian commentator Lew Rockwell. Conservative Pat Buchanan penned a book in 2008 calling World War II “unnecessary.”

No political movement deserves to be defined by its extreme elements. (For Democrats, that way lies socialism.) But middle-of-the-road libertarianism is already pretty far out. “The dominant strain of libertarianism these days is—and I’m not using these words in any kind of pejorative sense—radical and utopian,” says Lindsey. But if Libertopia is the goal, no one knows how to get there. Lindsey compares libertarians who preach purity to the “Underpants Gnomes” in South Park, a popular analogy in wonk circles: “Step one, articulate Utopia. Step three is Utopia. Step two is a big question mark.”

Libertarian minarchy is an elegant idea in the abstract. But the moment you get specific, the foundation starts to crumble. Say we started from scratch and created a society in which government covered only the bare essentials of an army, police, and a courts system. I’m a farmer, and I want to sell my crops. In Libertopia, I can sell them in exchange for money. Where does the money come from? Easy, a private bank. Who prints the money? Well, for that we’d need a central bank—otherwise you’d have a thousand banks with a thousand different types of currency. (Some libertarians advocate this.) Okay, fine, we’ll create a central bank. But there’s another problem: Some people don’t have jobs. So we create charities to feed and clothe them. What if there isn’t enough charity money to help them? Well, we don’t want them to start stealing, so we’d better create a welfare system to cover their basic necessities. We’d need education, of course, so a few entrepreneurs would start private schools. Some would be excellent. Others would be mediocre. The poorest students would receive vouchers that allowed them to attend school. Where would those vouchers come from? Charity. Again, what if that doesn’t suffice? Perhaps the government would have to set up a school or two after all.

And so on. There are reasons our current society evolved out of a libertarian document like the Constitution. The Federal Reserve was created after the panic of 1907 to help the government reduce economic uncertainty. The Civil Rights Act was necessary because “states’ rights” had become a cover for unconstitutional practices. The welfare system evolved because private charity didn’t suffice. Challenges to the libertopian vision yield two responses: One is that an economy free from regulation will grow so quickly that it will lift everyone out of poverty. The second is that if somehow a poor person is still poor, charity will take care of them. If there is not enough charity, their families will take care of them. If they have no families to take care of them—well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Of course, we’ll never get there. And that’s the point. Libertarians can espouse minarchy all they want, since they’ll never have to prove it works.

There are all sorts of situations the private market isn’t good at managing, such as asymmetrical information (I know my doctor is qualified to treat me because he has a government license) and public goods (it makes sense for the government to cover vaccines, which benefit everyone, not just the consumer). There’s also a consistency problem: Why should the government be responsible for a public good like national defense but not air-quality protection?

Or, say, a stable world financial system? Most of the libertarians I spoke with said they would have let the big banks fail in 2008. “I wouldn’t have done anything,” says French. “The key to capitalism is you have to have failure.”

The financial crisis was not an indictment of their worldview, libertarians argue, but a vindication of it. Letting the banks fail would have been painful. But the pain would have been less than it will be now that the government is propping up the housing, banking, and automobile industries. Plus, the economy would have recovered by now. “You’ve probably never heard of the depression of 1920,” says French. “You haven’t heard of it because it came and went in one year, because the government didn’t do anything to prop up failed businesses.” (Other economists argue that the government’s response was actually consistent with the philosophy of John Maynard Keynes.) Letting banks fail would also avoid moral hazard, say libertarians, since investors wouldn’t take such risky bets the next time around.

It’s a compelling story. But like many libertarian narratives, it’s oversimplified. If the biggest banks had failed, bankers wouldn’t have been the only ones punished. Everyone would have lost his money. Investors who had no idea how their dollars were being used—the ratings agencies gave their investments AAA grades, after all—would have gone broke. Homeowners who misunderstood their risky loans would have gone into permanent debt. Sure, the bailouts let some irresponsible people off easy. But not intervening would have unfairly punished a much greater number.

There’s always tension between freedom and fairness. We want less government regulation, but not when it means firms can hire cheap child labor. We want a free market, but not so bankers can deceive investors. Libertarianism, in promoting freedom above all else, pretends the tension doesn’t exist.

Case in point: A house in Obion County, Tennessee, burned to the ground in September because the owner had not paid the annual $75 fee for opt-in fire protection. As the fire raged, the house owner told the dispatcher that he would pay the cost of putting out the fire. The fire department still refused to come. The house burned down, with four pets inside. Libertarians point out that this is how opt-in services—as opposed to taxpayer-funded public services—works. If you don’t pay, you don’t get coverage. The firefighters can’t make exceptions without creating moral hazard. This makes sense in theory. In practice, not so much. The firefighters showed up to protect a neighboring property. The homeowner offered to pay not just the cost of the fire protection but the full cost of the spray. A court would have enforced that contract. But because the firefighters stuck to a rigid principle of opt-in services, a house was destroyed. Will this serve as a cautionary tale next time a rural resident of Obion County is deciding whether to buy fire insurance? No doubt. But will someone else inevitably not learn his lesson and make the same mistake? No doubt.

And that’s just the government side. Consider the social side of Libertopia. It’s no coincidence that most libertarians discover the philosophy as teenagers. At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. “Man’s first duty is to himself,” says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. “His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.” Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise. If you don’t get your way, blow things up. And there’s the problem. If everyone refused to compromise his vision, there would be no cooperation. There would be no collective responsibility. The result wouldn’t be a city on a hill. It would be a port town in Somalia. In a world of scarce resources, everyone pursuing their own self-interest would yield not Atlas Shrugged but Lord of the Flies. And even if you did somehow achieve Libertopia, you’d be surrounded by assholes.

To a Libertarian, nothing is worth sacrificing principle for—least of all political power. Yet Rand Paul has already made some concessions. The first sign of Paul’s domestication came when he appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show after winning the Kentucky primary. Maddow asked him whether he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal for businesses to turn away customers on the basis of race. Paul said it all came down to a question of private versus public businesses. “Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant?” he said. “Or does the government own his restaurant?”

Paul got slammed, even within his own party. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, usually a staunch defender of libertarian positions, wrote that Paul was wrong “even on his own libertarian terms.”

Paul went into lockdown. He gave few media interviews. His public statements were tightly scripted. And his stance changed: He would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act after all.

And he won. The lesson: If a libertarian wants to get elected, he’s going to have to bend a few principles, deal with reality as it exists. The same is true if he wants to legislate. Since the election, Paul has challenged Republican orthodoxy by suggesting he’s willing to cut military spending. He’s talked about expanding the House Tea Party Caucus to the Senate. But he also drifted from his “no pork” pledge by hinting he would accept federal earmarks for Kentucky in the end. (Paul said he was misquoted and subsequently pushed for an earmark ban.) During an appearance on CNN on November 9, he ended the interview rather than name a spending cut. The test will be whether Paul is willing to slash government in ways that irk his party—by cutting back Social Security, say, or trimming Medicare. Luckily for him, that kind of showdown will happen only if Republicans regain the Senate.

Ron Paul might even get the Fed to cough up a few extra receipts. But no one is under the illusion that he will “end” it. (If he tried, Republicans would smother him just as quickly as Democrats would.) It took 35 years for Ron Paul to reach the center of American politics. And it could take another 35 before he or someone like him is back. It’s certainly a libertarian moment—but it’s not liable to last too long. Libertarianism and power are like matter and anti-matter. They cancel each other out.

The Trouble With Liberty