23 March 2011

Young libertarians and the Republican temptation

The new American Conservative (May 2011) addresses some of the implications of this year's contentious CPAC conference, where Ron Paul won a presidential straw poll and his followers heckled Dick Cheney. John Glaser reports on a Republican backlash, including the purging of Dr. Paul from the board of advisers of Young Americans for Freedom, the senior student organization for conservatives. At the same time, Glaser observes new institution building among young libertarians and weighs the possibility that they'll break permanently out of the Republican orbit.

Libertarian opinion leaders are all for that. Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine calls the GOP "a party that is totally bankrupt, literally, figuratively, and spiritually" and warns that it's Republicans who must adapt to a changing political culture. They must "become more libertarian or die," he says. A generation that grew up with George W. Bush as the Republican poster boy is naturally alienated from the GOP even if it shares Republican views on many issues. For some young people, the issues where Republicans and libertarians don't share views could be deal breakers. The vice-president of Students For Liberty states bluntly that "young people don't care about the social-conservative issues," while Gillespie proclaims the existence of an "existentially libertarian" generation who should reject the idea that they have no choice politically but to support the Republican party.

The SFL president tells Glaser, "Older generations may try to classify us by the bipartisan dichotomy through which they understand the world, but this just reflects their misunderstanding of who we are. We're more interested in advancing liberty than being restricted by the structures that others impose upon us." Admirable sentiments, but at most they can be but partly true. As long as libertarians define themselves as anti-statist, and as long as there exists a powerful party identified as statist, there will be a temptation to make common cause (or merge) with the next strongest party in order to save themselves from statism. While some libertarians now feel that "both sides, and Republicans in particular, suppressed and tried to rout the limited-government tendency," many may still believe that the GOP remains the strongest, if not the most reliable bulwark of limited government.

For their part, Republicans interviewed by Glaser express confidence that young libertarians will "grow up and become conservatives." Their comments hint at the essence of present-day Republicanism. Ron Robinson of the pro-GOP Young America's Foundation predicts that libertarians will come around once they "learn we have real enemies in the world" and realize that "some personal choices...lead to a destructive and unsustainable lifestyle." In harsher terms, Young Americans for Freedom denounced the Paul supporters at CPAC as an "anti-defense, anarchist fringe." With great gall, one Republican radio talker claimed that libertarians were more greedy than Republicans, and "amoral" besides. From this testimony, libertarians, along with the rest of us, can infer that the Republicans are the party of American militarism and a hegemonic, paranoiac foreign policy, and the party par excellence of repressive moralism. The question for the future is whether these Republican tendencies will repel libertarians toward full political independence, or whether fear of the Democrats or statism in general will keep them under the GOP thumb.

Glaser briefly hints at an increasing political polarization in the years to come. Alongside increased libertarian assertiveness, he notes poll results showing that larger numbers of young Americans affirm "that the government can and should solve social problems" and want it to spend more on health insurance. Even more faintly, he hints that at least some of today's young libertarians may end up tomorrow's liberals if, as Gillespie allows, many of them believe in "giving free money to everything." Hard core libertarians may scoff at such sentiments, but the day may come when more self-styled libertarians question whether the sacred market is really the best vehicle for maximizing the personal freedom of choice that they supposedly value the most. The thought might seem mad from a two-party viewpoint, but the more that libertarians resist the Republican temptation, the more Republicans should expect to be maddened by unorthodox thinking, and the more libertarians will come closer to actual freedom.

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