Part II: Libertarianism in American Politics

This is the second part of a five-part essay on the coming alliance of libertarian and progressive Millennials in American Politics. Part I can be found here.

In order to see the potential for libertarian ideas to transform our politics, we must first return to the recent past to understand its origins. Here, I discuss the role of libertarianism in the foundation of the modern conservative movement, its primary thinkers, and where things stand now.

The strain of libertarianism in American politics is as old as the nation itself. Revolutionary-era pamphleteers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon “wrote of inalienable rights and human liberty under the pseudonym Cato” (hence the name of the famous Washington think tank), and the nation’s first attempt at self-rule, the Articles of Confederation, featured a diminished role for the national government. Journalist Brian Doherty notes the “libertarian strains in the Jacksonian fight against centralizing institutions of federal control such as the national bank [and] in aspects of the Confederacy.”

Modern libertarianism dates back to the 1950s, when the postwar order congealed into the Cold War. Since inception, modern libertarianism has been strongly identified with the American conservative movement, which emerged around the same time, though there are many points of departure between libertarians and conservatives. Libertarianism is one leg of the three-legged stool of American conservatism, which also included traditionalists (today called social conservatives) and anticommunists (intellectual progenitors of today’s neoconservatives.) These three factions were at odds with each other as often as with the progressives on the other side. Nevertheless, libertarianism has most often found a home on the American right.

Doherty highlights five thinkers as pillars of modern libertarianism: Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, novelist Ayn Rand, academic Murray Rothbard, and economist Milton Friedman. Of these, Friedman achieved the greatest notoriety and influence, as an economic adviser to President Reagan and triweekly columnist with Newsweek. As a proponent of tight monetary policy and the seer who predicted the calamity of stagflation in the 1960s and 1970s, Friedman provided many of the intellectual underpinnings of the Reagan arc; his influence extends to many aspects of American public policy, from the end of military conscription to income tax withholding and floating exchange rates.

According to The Economist, Friedman is “the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century…possibly of all of it.” So, you know, NBD.

In a nutshell, libertarians “believe respect for individual liberty is the central requirement for justice,” and that “we should each be permitted to chose how our lives will go, so long as we don’t violate others’ rights (Brennan, 2012).” The corollary to this belief is the conviction that if “human relationships should be voluntary, then the role of government [as a coercive agent] must be greatly constrained.” This emphasis on limited government has led to the common notion that libertarians are “liberal” on social issues and “conservative” on economic issues, according to the American political taxonomy, though this is a simplification. A focus on individual liberty and the equivalent moral standing of each human being motivate libertarian’s beliefs more than the size and scope of government.

While the most influential voices in modern libertarianism have allied with conservatives on economic issues, their views were often heterodox and at odds with standard conservative ideology. For example, Rothbard noted that, despite conservatives’ attempts to claim Ludwig von Mises as their own, the influential thinker

“Was a proclaimed pacifist, who trenchantly attacked war and national chauvinism, a bitter critic of Western imperialism and colonialism; a believer in nonintervention with regard to Soviet Russia; a strong proponent of national self-determination…someone so hostile to immigration restrictions that he almost endorsed war against such countries as the United States and Australia to force them to open up their borders (Doherty, 2007).

Similarly, Milton Friedman advocated a negative income tax, where the poor would receive a basic living income, on the understanding that while “market forces can accomplish wonderful things…they cannot ensure a distribution of income that enables all citizens to meet basic economic needs.” Friedman’s ideas on the negative income tax were a precursor to the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of the most successful social welfare programs in American history.

Nevertheless, libertarian opposition to federal efforts to enforce desegregation during the Civil Rights era and the co-option of libertarian language by avowed segregationists under the rubric of state’s rights tarnished the movement’s legacy and damaged its standing with the political left. Rothbard himself is remembered for his antediluvian views, complaining about “meddling” women, African Americans and Jews who used the prerogatives of the state to gain special privileges and benefits. Race and accusations of racism continue to hound libertarians today, as seen in the controversy over Ron Paul’s newsletters, Rand Paul’s comments on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and fringe elements of the Tea Party.

Murray Rothbard, kind of a dick. Also, I promise Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman are actually two different people.

The intersection of race and libertarian politics is a fascinating topic deserving of its own essay (stay tuned!). As things stand today, the association of libertarians with the Republican Party (and the associated racial baggage) is the biggest turn-off for progressives who would otherwise embrace a libertarian agenda on social issues. Crafting an inclusive message that acknowledges continuing racial disparities and the reality of discrimination while remaining true to core libertarian values is the future of the libertarian project; a movement that remains in thrall to its original (all white, predominantly male) icons is a movement that cannot survive.

Today, libertarianism is enjoying something of a renaissance, fueled by the division and turmoil within the Republican coalition and the headwinds of unfavorable demographic trends. The success of Ron and Rand Paul in gaining grassroots support and committed followers, as well as a platform in Congress, have helped libertarians gain legitimacy on both the right and left. Indeed, Rand Paul is widely believed to be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, which would make him the first libertarian party standard-bearer since the disastrous defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Rand’s efforts to reach out to African Americans (with varying results) and to highlight areas where progressives and libertarians can work together show that, this time around, libertarians understand that a big-tent approach is the way to victory.

Up Next: Millenials come of age and find their political voice.