Some readers may already have some snappy answers in mind to our title question, but let an actual libertarian try to answer it himself. Brink Lindsey is a contributing editor of Reason magazine and a research vice president of the Cato Institute. He has the cover story for Reason's summer issue, in which he poses just that question and answers: not with the Republican Party or the Tea Party movement. While the revival of "libertarian rhetoric" since Barack Obama's election may tempt libertarians to ally with conservative forces, Lindsey argues that conservatism is "a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom" and "so deeply under the sway of its most illiberal impulses that they now define what it means to be a conservative." Writers for The American Conservative might object, but that sort of thoughtful paleocon isn't in Lindsey's sights. He judges conservatism by talk radio and the Tea Parties and perceives "a raving, anti-intellectual populism," "a brutal nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia," "a dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism and extremism on beginning-and-end-of-life issues," and in general "a noxious stew of reaction and ressentiment [that] is the antithesis of libertarianism." Republicanism is too concerned with "building a rabid fan base by demonizing the other side and stoking the audience's collective sense of outrage and victimization" -- what he later calls "the conservative message machine's toxic mix of intolerance and self-pity [that] has veered off into feverish self-delusion." Republican/Tea Party "populism, nationalism, and dogmatism" makes it "a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian movement." Instead of identifying themselves with an irrational Right, Lindsey advises libertarians to claim the Center while admitting that it will take their movement "in a new direction" and "make for a very different movement than the one we've got now." The libertarian center would cooperate with the right on economic issues, with the left on civil liberties and foreign policy, and would presumably steer its own course on other matters.
Reason invited a Republican and a Tea Partier to respond to Lindsey. Republican columnist Jonah Goldberg reminds readers that Lindsey had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to ally libertarians with liberals, and argues that the failure of that venture proves the necessity of continued cooperation with conservatives. Clearly resenting what he saw as Lindsey's caricature of conservative opinion, he counters with his own caricature of an intolerant, politically-correct, secular Left. In other words, in classic Bipolarchy fashion he brandishes a straw man and tells Lindsey and his fellow libertarians: this is your enemy! Goldberg also openly sneers at Lindsey's aspiration to occupy the center, noting that the center will never endorse drug legalization, full marriage rights for gays and other libertarian demands. He closes, however, with an appeal to all readers (including liberals and progressives) to get behind an ideal of federalism that would give every ideology the chance to prevail in some part of the country without interference from the others or the federal government. The Tea Parties are represented by FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, who quotes The Fountainhead at Lindsey and basically tells him to get off his high horse and get his hands dirty alongside the reactionary rank and file. Kibbe calls Lindsey a conservative because he resents the fact that "citizens are no longer dependent on old-school institutions [including libertarian think tanks] for information and good ideas." He revels in the decentralized information network available online and claims that TPs make scrupulous use of it. He also reminds readers that the Tea Parties were first formed in opposition to the big bailouts of 2008, which he remembers were a Republican idea.
If anything, this fascinating exchange of views reminded me that libertarianism as a body of opinion is as diverse as "conservatism" or "liberalism." Lindsey's attack on the Right exposes a major divide between what we might describe as Progressive Libertarianism and Reactionary Libertarianism, the former taking a utilitarian view of individual freedom as a progressive force opposed by traditionalism as well as socialism, the latter being the "Leave Me Alone" or "Don't Tread on Me" element most tempted by the rise of the Tea Parties. Just as leftists vie with centrists to define liberalism and paleos, neos and theos contest the truth of conservatism, so the progressives and reactionaries are destined to have a long debate over the meaning of libertarianism, if not the meaning of liberty itself. It may be that libertarianism will not become the influential force, moderating or otherwise, that Lindsey and Reason hope it will be until this debate is settled and one side or the other defines itself as something else altogether.