14 August 2014

Is this a Libertarian moment? How would we tell?

Conor Friedersdorf rises on the Atlantic webpage to defend libertarianism from the scoffing of other opinionators. Friedersdorf takes offense at some pundits' "disdainful" and "vexing" rejection of the proposition that we're on the verge of a "libertarian moment" in American politics. It becomes apparent that he and his antagonists are writing about different things. To be more specific, Friedersdorf's notion of "libertarianism" differs from that of most people. The problem with most people, he believes, is that they identify "libertarianism" with the most extreme ideas of avowed libertarians, when libertarians as a whole are far from monolithic or fanatical in their views and priorities. "There are a lot of people, including commenters on this site, who laugh at Fox News' absurd characterizations of liberals," he protests, "yet somehow cling to similarly cartoonish notions of what libertarians are."

If a "libertarian moment" comes, Friedersdorf predicts, it won't come in the form of wholesale adoption of libertarian views or the uncompromising enactment of libertarian policies. He tentatively defines a libertarian moment as one when "younger voters will support policies and elect leaders that enhance liberty in comparison to the status quo." If we want to know what this might mean in practice, Friedersdorf insists that we not focus on the most obvious or most extreme sources in the Libertarian Party or the Ron Paul movement or the fans of Ayn Rand. What, then, is the "liberty" younger voters may prefer? It becomes clear that Friedersdorf envisions a "moment" in which libertarianism is not defined primarily in economic terms. He prefers a libertarianism that's synonymous with "civil libertarianism," from resistance to national-security surveillance to drug-law reform to the expansion of gay rights. Hence:

If fewer people are caged for inhaling the smoke of a plant, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer people's doors are kicked in late at night by police officers dressed in combat fatigues, that's a libertarian victory. If more cancer patients can legally obtain a substance that alleviates their suffering, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer assets are seized by police without proof of guilt, that's a libertarian victory.

A fair number of writers in the comments thread have questioned this particular assumption. The adjective "civil libertarian" may be more popular nowadays, but some observers note that all of the above can just as easily be called "liberal victories." They would have been recognized as such unanimously not so long ago, and some reactionaries probably still see these phenomena as primarily "liberal." The only reason, it seems, to call them "libertarian" instead is if you identify "liberalism" with the "statism" against which formal libertarianism protests. For libertarian politicians, whether formal party members or individual ideologues, the main reason to promote "civil libertarianism," apart from believing sincerely in these victories, is to identify these most obvious goods with the more controversial libertarian economic agenda. However, I take Friedersdorf at his apparent word that he wishes to downplay the economic aspects of libertarianism. For him, I infer, libertarianism in most general terms means a less intrusive state. His libertarian presumption, I presume, is that in nearly every instance a less intrusive state is better for society. More committed libertarians no doubt hope to convince young voters that the way to prevent any reversal of the victories Friedersdorf cites is to minimize government intrusiveness at all levels. We'll have a libertarian moment if they can convince a critical mass of people, but I suspect that few people will make so sweeping a generalization. Whatever ideology or even the Constitution says, each generation has to decide for itself what is properly subject to democratic regulation and what isn't. It doesn't follow that we must give up the welfare state or the regulatory state to secure the right to smoke pot. It may or may not be a libertarian moment if Americans actually draw that conclusion, but it definitely won't be a good moment for the country.

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