The “Libertarian Moment” is Here to Stay

Last year the New York Times Magazine noted the ascendance of libertarian-ish Republican senator Rand Paul and asked whether America’s “libertarian moment” had finally arrived.  Now, again using Rand Paul as a focal point,  New York Magazine muses that perhaps that moment is already over:

The question that the Times Magazine posed, in considering Paul, was whether libertarianism was ready to make the compromises needed for power. The simpler question it might have asked was, how many libertarians are there, after all? … The simplest fact about the libertarian moment may be that it was not specifically libertarian — that a more general outsider movement got called libertarian because libertarians were the outsiders of record.

There are a lot of interesting thoughts here.  The first is that Rand Paul’s campaign is failing because there just aren’t that many “libertarians.”  But Rand Paul hasn’t run as a “libertarian.”  He hasn’t even run as the most libertarian version of himself.  The Rand Paul campaign, sensing an early advantage, tried to play it safe.  Paul swung right on everything but the NSA, and his campaign has fizzled into obscurity for it.

But more important is the assumption here that the “libertarian moment” was somehow about Paul – or even about people who call themselves “libertarian.”

America’s “libertarian moment” is manifest.  Even the “safe” candidate on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, is willing to call for criminal justice reform.  Even her Republican counterpart Jeb Bush vied desperately during the second debate to appear soft on marijuana.  It is safe to assume that both of these establishment-candidate’s positions are crafted for no other reason than to appeal to majorities – and that’s the rub.  A majority of Americans are at last ready to wake up from the decades-long nightmare of the drug war.  A majority of Americans are fed up with the racist legacy of marijuana prohibition.  And demographics point to more of this trend — according to some polls, up to 32% of millennial Americans now identify as libertarian.  Politicians are sounding more and more libertarian because Americans are becoming so.

How can libertarians be so obviously on the rise, and yet Rand Paul be so definitively sinking into obscurity?  Very easily.  The fact is that the span of libertarian thought is a lot wider than the 2016 campaign platform of Rand Paul — whose policies, again, are not that libertarian in the first place.  There are right-libertarians, left-libertarians, market anarchists, libertarian socialists — the list goes on.  Libertarian thought is much more diverse than New York Magazine assumes.  And in fact, a recent Reuter’s poll indicated that more Democrats identify as libertarian than do Republicans.

Implicit in New York Magazine’s position is that the “libertarian moment” can only mean libertarians holding power as libertarians.  I’m not sure how they think that will ever happen given the mechanisms in place that ensure the continued dominance of the Republican and Democratic political machines.   But the libertarian moment is not – and has never been – about third party politics.  The libertarian moment is about a wave of change in the hearts and minds of Americans of all political walks.  It’s about us demanding a more libertarian society. It’s about the pendulum of public opinion swinging towards more freedom and dignity rather than less.

So yeah, New York Magazine, Rand Paul sounds pretty libertarian sometimes.  So do Clintons and Bushes these days.   Welcome to the libertarian moment.    Get comfortable.