The Libertarian Moment Can’t Just Be A Moment
Robert Draper’s piece on The Libertarian Moment in the New York Times magazine has been receiving a great deal of attention over the past week or so. Much of this attention has just illustrated that critics of the idea of a “libertarian moment” are misunderstanding a great deal about this movement, where it came from, and what it means for the future.
A friend in political science was recently asking me about this, and he echoed critics like David Frum and Paul Krugman, who have pointed to poll data which illustrate that Millennials are more liberal than ever.
“Aren’t Millennials just a bunch of socialists?” he asked.
“Of course!” I responded. “They’re that, and more libertarian, too.”
He seemed very confused for a moment. “Uh, what?”
How can this be? Well, I think that should be pretty obvious, as both political poles are responses to the same social trend: the atomization of the American people. One represents a populist reaction that demands more equal personal liberty; the other, a call to the ruling elite to enforce equality by solving the problems they claimed they would address. And which path the majority of Millennials choose will likely dictate the direction of our political scene for several decades to come.
Let’s dispense with Frum and Krugman first: I don’t think they understand what’s being argued here at all. The argument that a libertarian moment is happening is essentially an argument that there are more Millennial libertarians than there were in prior generations. Of course there are. We’re talking about the largest generation in American history here, dwarfing the Baby Boomers. There’s more of just about everything in it. No one is arguing that a majority of Millennials are libertarian – they’re arguing that there are more libertarians among the Millennial cohort. And there are probably more socialists, too (generations – how do they work?).
It is absolutely ludicrous to argue that the momentum in our political sphere among the younger generation is not more libertarian. It’s obvious to anyone who’s paying attention to politics on the ground. Why is that? Well, it’s not because of the Libertarian Party. It’s because there’s a host of younger people, the children of George W. Bush voters or Bush voters themselves, who realized that libertarianism speaks more to their worldview than modern day conservatism. It’s because Ron Paul worked to build an army of volunteers and took the message of libertarian ideas to a generation of voters, with a focus on slowly taking over the Republican Party. It’s because the views of Ron and Rand, Mike Lee, Justin Amash, and other libertarian-leaning Republicans on the issue of abortion made them more palatable to a Christian audience (as opposed to someone like former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who takes the opposite view on the abortion issue). Why is the Token Libertarian Girl, pro-life Christian Julie Borowski, not just a typical Republican? The Pauls evangelized libertarian ideas to a young audience ready to hear them and eager to make them a reality; and then, with the rise of the Tea Party, they expanded that appeal beyond the youngsters, too. That’s why.
If the Drug War made Generation X more libertarian than the Boomers, the War War has made Millennials even more libertarian than both. That doesn’t mean that the generation is libertarian as a whole, it just means it has more libertarians in it – libertarians who, given their parentage and lifestyle and churchgoing patterns, might have been expected to have more conventional views. They rejected the idea that the Republican Party was any less hypocritical than the Democrats, that the Ruling Class knew best about which direction to take the country, and accepted the idea that the Compassionate Conservative approach to policy has failed. In place of all these, they accept a view that liberty is better than paternalism from the left or right – even paternalism applied with good intentions.
The Ruling Class And The Administrative State
The engine of this paternalism predates both the Millennials and their parents, of course. It was created by the Progressives and Woodrow Wilson, reinvigorated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and reached its fulfillment with Lyndon B. Johnson. The Administrative State, constructed as an arbiter and implementer of social equality and expediency, was created to insulate the non-political and presumably superior academic and policy leaders from the vagaries of politics. The legislative branch was largely happy to assent to this, as it turns the process of legislation into one of delegating the power to decide things as opposed to having to decide them yourself (decisions being little more than political vulnerabilities, after all).
This Administrative State was also built on a new conception of rights, and the relationship of government to the citizenry. As Frank Goodnow, founding president of the American Political Science Association, put it:
“The rights which [an individual] possesses are, it is believed, conferred upon him, not by his Creator, but rather by the society to which he belongs. What they are is to be determined by the legislative authority in view of the needs of that society. Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action.”
Government must therefore adapt in order to seek the needs of society, as opposed to protecting the rights of individuals to freely associate, speak, and govern themselves. Wilson was even more clear about his perspective on what must be done: “All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when “development,” “evolution,” is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.” The expansion of the state, in this view, was designed to protect a people who did not know what was best for themselves.
So much for James Madison’s description that “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined… exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce”. The message here was that you need a powerful and infinitely adaptable state to protect the people in a time when they cannot trust business or the marketplace to serve their interests. A full 62 years before his reincarnation as Elizabeth Warren, Wilson wrote in 1887:
“The socialist does not disregard the obvious lessons of history concerning overwrought government: at least he thinks he does not. He denies that he is urging the resumption of tasks which have been repeatedly shown to be impossible. He points to the incontrovertible fact that the economic and social conditions of life in our century are not only superficially but radically different from those of any other time whatever. Many affairs of life which were once easily to be handled by individuals have now become so entangled amongst the complexities of international trade relations, so confused by the multiplicity of news-voices, or so hoisted into the winds of speculation that only powerful combinations of wealth and influence can compass them. Corporations grow on every hand, and on every hand not only swallow and overawe individuals but also compete with governments. The contest is no longer between government and individuals; it is now between government and dangerous combinations and individuals. Here is a monstrously changed aspect of the social world. In face of such circumstances, must not government lay aside all timid scruple and boldly make itself an agency for social reform as well as for political control?”
The problem, of course, is that the Administrative State has failed – not just in the War on Poverty, but in so many of its other promises in seeking to benefit American lives. Instead, it has turned into a Nanny State – one which is the real arbiter of rules and regulations on how we live, not our elected representatives (who spend an inordinate amount of their time complaining about the administrated outcomes of the authority they delegated).
No wonder Americans just don’t trust the government that has mismanaged wars and intelligence, emergency response and transportation security, spied on American citizens and invaded our privacy, violated our trust, lied to our faces, and dictated what we can and cannot eat and drink and smoke. And all the while, it has seized more control and power for itself in the name of the public good. It’s little wonder that four decades after Watergate, trust in the U.S. government is at an all-time low – in fact, trust in government is even lower than the business barons Wilson once railed against.
“Just 13% of Americans say the government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time, with just over three-quarters saying only some of the time and one in 10 saying they never trust the government, according to the poll. “The number who trust the government all or most of the time has sunk so low that it is hard to remember that there was ever a time when Americans routinely trusted the government,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. “But polls conducted by the University of Michigan consistently found a majority of Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s saying that the government could be trusted all or most of the time – until Watergate. In 1972, 53% said they trusted the government always or most of the time. By 1974, that figure had plummeted to 36%, and except for a brief period of patriotic sentiment immediately after the 9/11 attacks, it has remained under 50% ever since,” Holland added. The survey indicates that skepticism doesn’t stop at the White House and Capitol Hill: Only 17% of Americans believe that big business can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time.”
This is what happens when you have a Ruling Class and an Administrative State insulated from the people they are supposed to represent. As Dave Corbin and Matt Parks note:
“Progressive ideology requires the centralization of power in federal and then executive hands–not to protect rights, but to right (perceived) wrongs. The ruling class, divided only between intentional (generally Democratic) and accidental (generally Republican) Progressives, naturally assimilates with the culture and power structure of the City of Government.”
The typically insightful Alexander Hamilton predicted that this would not matter: “It ought also to be remembered that the citizens who inhabit the country at and near the seat of government will, in all questions that affect the general liberty and prosperity, have the same interest with those who are at a distance, and that they will stand ready to sound the alarm when necessary, and to point out the actors in any pernicious project.” Well, not so much. It took him a long time to be wrong, but now, he is wrong.
There is more than one understanding of insulated. The general sense among many Americans is that too many in Washington and on Wall Street live in a different country from the people they supposedly serve. And that’s right: there are two Americas, one where tenure and bailout and cartel and capture and contract make you unfirable and eliminate your ability to fail, and one where none of that is true. But in a far more important and dangerous sense, the word insulated really means “immune to judgment.”
The way our republic is supposed to work is that our would-be Ruling Class can neither seize power nor wealth, nor keep it, except by the active, ongoing consent of the people. So the congressman who goes native loses, the CEO who approves New Coke gets fired, and so on. The secret sauce of American exceptionalism is that in every sector of life, success depended on service, mostly service to each other. But today the elites have figured out how to mercantilize the economy, and deployed the Administrative State as a paternalistic substitute for civil society. Look at any law, and you’ll find that the Ruling Class consistently benefits, directly or indirectly, by severing the links between the elites’ success and public approval.
What Republicans have forgotten, or never really knew, is that the free market and constitutional republicanism and federalism (localism) were all specifically designed to empower the little people over the big. They can’t get it through their heads that, yes, the point of the Constitution and of America was to reject the remnants of mercantile feudalism and all its side effects. The point of America is not that a single mom in Nevada and a mechanic in Ohio are just as important as Harry Reid and John Boehner, but in the ways that matter most, they are more important. It is by their consent that they are governed, not the other way around.
Toward a Coherent Millennial Politics
This is what the “libertarian moment” speaks to in ways its critics do not fully appreciate. The Millennial generation has not yet achieved a coherent political narrative, in part because the experiences of the older and younger Millennials are so different. For those born in the 1980s, social media has largely been a professional phenomenon – others were making YouTube videos when they were twelve. For some, 9/11 was a defining moment; for others, a vague memory, and the deaths of their friends all the more nonsensical. Some feel betrayed by Obama’s broken promises about the economy; others have never known an economy that was better than this.
You see that in the recent Reason-Rupe YouGov survey on Millennial attitudes toward politics, which indicates the degree to which they are struggling with this reality. While Millennials may endorse the general vague idea that cutting taxes and regulations and increasing government efficiency would help the economy, a majority are also completely opposed to basic policy aims of fiscal conservatives. According to the poll, 57 percent of Millennials say they favor a smaller government with less services… but 74 percent think it’s government’s job to feed and house every single person in the country. (So the 57 percent is basically lying: they want less services only in the sense that those services don’t go to a sympathetic group.) As for other policy positions: 71 percent of Millennials favor raising the federal minimum wage to 10.10 an hour and 68 percent favor a government-mandated “living wage”; 69 percent say it is government’s responsibility to provide everyone with health care insurance (though only half approve of Obamacare); 66 percent say raising taxes on the wealthy would help the economy; 63 percent say spending more on job training would help the economy; 58 percent say the government should spend more on assistance to the poor even it means higher taxes; 57 percent favor spending more money on infrastructure; and 53 percent want government to guarantee everyone in America gets a college education.
Needless to say, this is not Rand Paul’s fiscal agenda, or even Chris Christie’s. The majority of Millennials may claim they would support a fiscally conservative and socially liberal candidate: the problem is that they’re describing Hillary Clinton. That’s why the “libertarian moment” is also about more than just ditching social conservatism. If a mere nine percent more Millennials are self-identified fiscal conservatives compared to the number of social conservatives, becoming socially liberal doesn’t help you much at all. And these two questions alone put the lie to that social liberal/fiscally conservative message: “Government should promote traditional values in our society: 38% Government should not favor any particular set of values: 47%” vs. “Government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest: 46% Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good: 37%”.
Now, this could change as Millennials get older – or, rather, as they grow up, which is a different proposition entirely – and get married, and buy houses, and have kids (something they have delayed to a greater degree than prior generations, for both economic and social reasons). And as I said, I’m absolutely convinced there’s a higher percentage of libertarians in this generation and a rising skepticism about government which animates a not-insignificant portion of Millennial voters, and a higher portion than in prior generations. But what this poll indicates is the potential danger for Millennials who have not heard an alternate message about government and its promises and its relationship with us. This lack of an alternative message is entirely in the interest of the progressives and the Administrative State, of course: it was not enough that birth control was cheap and accessible everywhere – it must beguaranteed as a human right. Think of James Poulos’s Pink Police State as the logical end of SandraFlukism: what is government but the thing that keeps us safe, warm, and happy? What is the price of tampons but a patriarchal tax on femininity?
The Millennial motivation to provide equality for all can have a solution in more freedom or in more government. This “moment” could turn into something that accepts the permanent atomization of individuals via the Pink Police State model or something similar (see Mexico’s societal breakdown and acceptance of a Hobbesian leviathan as noted by Jorge Castañeda) – which trades individual freedom for the government guarantee of health and safety by new agencies and powers – or one which empowers individuals by returning to them power seized by the Ruling Class and the Administrative State.
The Hopefulness of Liberty
Our future politics is going to depend on this decision: whether we reject the solution of the state and instead turn with confidence toward the natural communitarianism of freedom. This is the case for liberty and federalism based on an understanding of the value of self-government, that the best policy is locally grown in your community, made for you and by you, not by the Ruling Class or the Administrative State, not by the elites of Wall Street or the Ivory Tower or the Beltway Bureaucrats who actually run things.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote frequently about the challenge of the atomized populace in a democracy, bereft of the ordered understanding of aristocracy, and he was clear on what offsets it: “Local freedom, then, which leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them.” The question we don’t have any kind of answer for yet is how a generation totally immersed on online life as the definition of community will come to understand and define all of these terms. But there are positive signs. One of my favorite Millennial writers, Gracy Olmstead, cites this Tocqueville quote and compares the civil society of the past to the farmer’s market of today:
So where do we congregate? How can we gather across party lines, in a way that helps us flourish as a community? How can we rebuild the “severed chain”? There probably isn’t one perfect answer—there are a variety of associations that, hopefully with time, will begin to cultivate a wider array of community attention and support. One hopes that churches will discover new ways to build rapport amongst their communities. Maybe tools like Facebook can actually draw citizens back to town meetings and civic involvement, by connecting them in a way they understand and identify with.
But when I attend the Saturday market—eat my breakfast alongside newfound friends, buy heirloom tomatoes and homemade granola at Becky’s recommendation from other vendors, pet friendly dogs and admire newborn babies—I get a taste of a community that I once thought was fading, something that seemed antiquated and rare in modern society. I wonder whether the private associations of the future may look different from the ones of our past. But that doesn’t mean they’re going extinct—we just have to look for them, nurture them, and even sacrifice our own comforts to keep the rituals alive.
Now, libertarian political scientist Charles Murray may have a reply to Gracy Olmstead on this front. Who goes to farmers markets, after all? Who has thus far navigated the reality of Ruling Class and Administrative State governance and found new ways of expressing and maintaining communitarian bonds? To put it bluntly: upper class white Americans. Why is this? Because, as Murray has noted for years, the problem of the nanny state is that rich and talented people can still find ways to pursue happiness and live lives of meaning without church, neighborhood, family and kids, and the other traditional outlets. They are happy to leave the lower classes to their better Soma, engulfed and managed by the Administrative State, so long as they can pursue their own ends.
The warning of responsible conservatives against the libertarian moment is that this movement will perpetuate and reinforce the current stratification and bifurcation of “coming apart.” Imagine a decade from now, when rich cognitive elites are still marrying like Ozzie and Harriet and communitying it up like Little House on the Prairie with a Tesla while the unwashed masses sit in Walmart parking lots at midnight on the first day of the month waiting for their food stamp debt cards to replenish (with Citi taking their cut, of course!), with doors locked, afraid of being jumped on the way back to the car. There will be many words to describe such a moment, but “libertarian” will not be one of them.
That’s why the connection between federalism, localism, civil society and personal happiness is so important, something that the Founders understood. Even though Americans’ lives were locally based, they were grateful for a national government that enabled them to enjoy lives like that. As Murray notes in In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, just as food is a resource necessary to meet the human need for nourishment, challenge is a resource to meet the human need for happiness. The Administrative State seeks to remove this challenge, as they do all challenges, from life, and in doing so inculcate an understanding of the relationship between the citizen and the state which leads to an unending series of damaging outcomes. For the high school graduate trying to find a job who discovers government will pay him not to work, gives his girlfriend and his child money and housing, and treat his public education as a disability, it’s not surprising how his life will turn out. And the Ruling Class and Administrative State are perfectly content with that.
This is the last thing the critics of the “libertarian moment” are missing: that this is a fundamentally hopeful message, based on a higher view of what free communities can achieve in the absence of the Administrative State. This massive generation has more individuals friendly to liberty and also more who are open to socialism. If the progressive view prevails, the “libertarian moment” will only be a moment – it will be crushed by the call by a permanently atomized people for government mandated equality via the Administrative State, at the behest of the Ruling Class. But if the view that favors human liberty prevails, it will be more than a moment – and we could be on the cusp of an amazing resurgence of the very values that made America exceptional in the first place. David Frum believes that the rise of libertarianism amounts to an expression of hopelessness and despair on the part of conservatives, that it amounts to surrender in the battle over “competing to govern the state”. No, it’s not – it is merely an acknowledgement that the policies he favors have failed, and that the next generation would rather try something different. It is driven by an understanding that as dangerous as it sounds, there is nothing better than when free people govern themselves.
[First published at The Federalist.]