As libertarians, we’re used to a sort of goofy sectional squabbling between self-styled "purists" and "realists," which often manifests itself as an argument about whether to pursue attainable changes now, or to deride that as "selling out" and remain focused on the long-run goal. Murray Rothbard pretty much had this one dead to rights years ago: the libertarian can, in good conscience, support anything that advances the libertarian cause without deviating even one iota from libertarian principle. So it’s fine for libertarians to go to bat for tax cuts or regulatory relief, so long as they aren’t packaged with something evil also.
So there’s lovely. That’s not really what we’re here to talk about today. I’m here to consider whether or not libertarian involvement in politics has been a fool’s game from the get-go; whether or not it’s all been a massive redirection of energy into a solidly negative direction. To put it as provocatively as possible: was Ron Paul a net negative for the liberty movement?
I’ll be honest with you: I haven’t read Reason since Radley Balko left. Does anybody still bother with that dilapidated old libertarish rag? Why? Is it for sterling insights like this one?
[T]he courage of [Judge Roy] Moore’s convictions frequently clash with both the plain language and contemporary interpretation of the Constitution. Such as that time, oh, LAST WEEK when Moore suggested that kneeling during the National Anthem is "against the law" (it’s not, and if such a law were passed, it would surely be declared unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds).
Libertarians do a terrible job fighting against socialism, but the tragedy of it is that we think we’re winning. In the end, though, it’s impossible for us to win as long as we fail to understand our opponents, which is the key problem; libertarians devote so much time to fighting against Bernie Sanders and Kshama Sawant and their idiotic promises of free this and free that that we come to identify the "free stuff" mentality itself as the heart of the socialist ideology. Don’t get me wrong, now; Bernie is wrong, as any fule kno, and it’s important that we keep pointing that out, but smashing dopey politicians is playing the short game. The long battle is fought by the philosophers, and no serious Marxist philosopher bases his philosophy on a foundation of "rich people will pay back your student loans."
We libertarians are often fooled into believing that we can smash the socialists forever by pointing out that socialist economies are notoriously unproductive, and that a hundred million people starved to death under their reign in the last century. While that does pretty effectively blow up the bumper-sticker socialism of a Sanders or a Sawant, it should be noted that, as a philosopher, Bernie Sanders makes a great long-distance runner, while "Kshama Sawant" is a Hindi phrase meaning "intellectual lightweight." Just because those two goobers have literally no comeback at all when faced with the obvious failures of real-world socialism doesn’t mean that the serious thinkers haven’t considered the problem. They have — and the answer they’ve come to is so far afield of what libertarians are used to dealing with that we basically don’t even realize it’s there.
Let’s begin today by going back to everybody’s favorite whipping boy, Gary Johnson, and everybody’s favorite subject, compulsory gay wedding cakes. Here’s a portion of the recent interview with Johnson conducted by Reason’s Nick Gillespie:
GILLESPIE: Let’s talk about your stance on religious-liberty issues, which has angered a lot people on the right and many libertarians. Your position is that you essentially want to extend anti-discrimination protections for race and gender to cover sexual orientation when it comes to businesses that are open to the public. Yet you support an opt-out for vaccinations. Why not support an opt-out for the religious owner of a business who doesn’t want to bake a gay Nazi wedding cake?
JOHNSON: Because it would create a new exemption for discrimination. At the end of the day we’re just going to agree to disagree. But you bring me specific legislation dealing with a cake baker not having to decorate a cake for a Nazi and I’ll sign it.
At the risk of being deliberately misquoted by the New York Times, I’m compelled to point out that if there exists a group in the modern Western world that is the consistent victim of unremitting, crushing discrimination, Nazis are that group. Nazis are so relentlessly discriminated against that here we have anti-discrimination law champion Gary Johnson, in the middle of his screed about the evils of discrimination and the important role government can play in fighting it, pausing to explain that he believes the anti-discrimination laws themselves should discriminate against Nazis. That, my friends, is some hardcore discrimination.
It’s been pointed out to me that I was perhaps a bit too harsh in last week’s article, What Libertarianism Is and What Libertarianism Is Not. In that article, I lambaste the Libertarian Party and its current comedy revue of a presidential ticket for being terrible exemplars of libertarianism; indeed, my pithy Facebook summary read in part "there is nothing libertarian about the Libertarian Party." I stand by every word I wrote in both article and summary; the Libertarian Party is currently miles afield of what it actually means to be a libertarian. I checked: the phrase "non-aggression principle" appears only twice on the party’s web site, once in a quote from Ron Paul describing the great Mary Ruwart’s book, Healing Our World, and once as the title of a talk to be given at the 2014 Libertarian Party of Oklahoma state convention. The fact that the core principle of the libertarian philosophy goes effectively unmentioned on the Libertarian Party’s web site speaks volumes.
All of which is not to say, however, that the Libertarian Party is completely worthless. It’s terrible at spreading libertarian ideas, to be sure, but it’s effective at attracting people who are beginning to think libertarian thoughts; in a sense, it’s sort of like a big magnet that helps to draw in what Albert Jay Nock called the "Remnant." Many people are drawn to the Libertarian Party because they’ve noticed that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans offer a single alternative to endless war, and many others because they’ve begun to realize what a cruel, inhuman farce the drug war is — at this time, those are the two major issues that push people in the libertarian direction, and the Libertarian Party is there to catch the pushees.
James E. Miller, writing for Taki’s Magazine, certainly thinks so. While he has some interesting and some worthwhile things to say, it’s interesting to note that he also clearly has no idea what he’s talking about — he doesn’t exhibit any knowledge of what libertarianism is, where it comes from, or what its aims are, nor does he appear to care very much. His article is very much an alt-right victory lap, heavy on the fist-pumping and potty mouth, and rather light on the actual research. Still and all, he’s not entirely wrong, as we see when he opens his piece with:
There is no libertarian moment.
Miller is entirely correct; the libertarian moment does not exist. It never did. What exists in America is perhaps best described as an anti-establishment moment; the great mass of the American people is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with "business as usual" in Washington, and wants a change it can believe in — hence the rise of Obama in 2008, and the popularity of perceived "outsider" candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, not one of whom has the tiniest shred of libertarian leaning. Ron Paul also received the benefit of this "moment," and that misled a lot of people into believing that America was now ripe for a libertarian revolution, in spite of the fact that a greater-than-ever (and still rising) percentage of Americans is presently dependent on government largesse in one form or another. However attractive the idea of liberty may be, most people will take the money instead.