Opinion article submitted by Paulie
Derek Hunter writes:
There was a time I called myself a Libertarian. And there was a time I was a Libertarian. I just wanted to get government to leave me alone, to leave people alone and to go all crazy and limit itself to doing only that which is spelled out clearly in the Constitution. That was what a Libertarian was. But it’s not anymore.
The word no longer has any meaning, no definition or parameters, certainly no coherent philosophy to speak of. And there’s no one to blame for that except Libertarians themselves.
So what happened?
By not even loosely defining the parameters of a set of beliefs, Libertarians allowed their brand – as it was – to be hijacked by anyone willing to wear the label. They went from the movement for individual responsibility, small government and free markets to a gaggle of misfits who want pot and prostitution legalized and a total non-interventionist foreign policy.
That pretty much sums it up.
I’m not sure where Hunter gets the idea that anything about Libertarian Party views has changed. In The Case For a Libertarian Political Party published in the July-August 1971 Individualist, David Nolan writes, in part:
we will be able to hasten the already emerging coalition between the libertarian “left” and libertarian “right”. At the moment, the former group is supporting people like Eugene McCarthy, while the latter is supporting people like Barry Goldwater. A truly libertarian party would draw support both from such “leftist” groups as the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence and the American Civil Liberties Union, and from “rightist” groups like the John Birch Society and the Liberty Amendment Committee, however. This would increase the political impact of the libertarian “movement”, as “leftist” and “rightist” libertarians now usually wind up voting so as to cancel each other (when they vote at all). Furthermore, libertarian votes now get lumped in with “liberal” and “conservative” votes, whereas the votes received by a libertarian party would not be hidden in this manner.
In addition to making the case for, and being the chief organizer of, the founding of the Libertarian Party, Nolan came up with a chart which shows that libertarianism is equidistant from the left and right, but not in the center either due to the addition of a second dimension to politics, an “up-down” liberty axis in addition to the left-right axis most people commonly think of as the main dividing line in politics. For decades, the Libertarian Party and the Advocates for Self-Government, among other libertarian groups, have been distributing the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, based on the Nolan Chart, making that same point. Just one online version of the quiz has now been taken 20 million times, in addition to all the other ways in which it has been distributed.
For as long as the Libertarian Party has existed, we have been publishing comprehensive platforms that make clear that we take a small government stance on social issues and foreign policy (non-intervention) as well as on economic issues. This has not changed. The top vote getting Libertarian presidential candidate of all time in percentage terms, Ed Clark in 1980, famously campaigned as a “low tax liberal.”
In short, this bears no relation to Hunter’s claims that we are “not even loosely defining the parameters of a set of beliefs,” or that “Libertarians allowed their brand – as it was – to be hijacked.”
For as long as the party has existed, we have favored the legalization of drugs and prostitution among other non-interventionist social policies and a non-interventionist foreign policy, as well as a non-interventionist economic policy. None of this has changed; the front page of LP.org, as I write this, has press releases and blog posts detailing our party’s and candidates’ stances “to shrink Big Government, advance liberty,” “stop Republican and Democratic reckless overspending,” “permanent government spending slowdown, defunding Obamacare,” “no state income tax,” “end state income tax, marijuana prohibition,” and “Nullify TSA, NDAA; lower taxes.” All of these views are completely in line with those expressed in Nolan’s case for a Libertarian Party, our platforms over the decades, and the issues we’ve been promoting for the entire four decades plus that the Libertarian Party has been issuing publications and press releases, holding meetings and running candidates.
While it is true that we have always supported “pot and prostitution legalized and a total non-interventionist foreign policy,” contrary to Hunter’s claims, we have and still do support “individual responsibility, small government and free markets.” Indeed, the two go inseparably hand in hand. A government which tells adults what they can put in their own bodies is essentially telling people that it owns them. If government can tell you what you may or may not smoke on your own property or on the property of others with their consent, it can tell you what you may or may not eat or drink. If government can regulate what consenting adults can do for a living with their own bodies when it comes to sex, it can also regulate how we are allowed to use our bodies to make a living in ways that don’t involve sex. It can also regulate sexual relationships among consenting adults in ways that don’t involve money. And an imperial power that plays world policeman can’t help but overpolice the lives of its own citizens at home. Both cost the taxpayers a great deal of money, taking it out of the voluntary economy and putting under the control of government central planners.
Honestly, what does being a Libertarian mean beyond legalizing drugs, banging hookers and sitting by while the rest of the world blows itself up?
Just as supporting economic freedom does not have to mean that one is either wealthy or greedy, support for other consenting adults’ rights to do what they wish with their own bodies or the product of their labor does not mean one has to personally desire, or even approve of, the choices they make. And a belief that the US government’s interventions overseas only worsen, not solve, the world’s problems does not mean that we don’t care about what happens in other countries. Libertarianism means exactly what Hunter claims it no longer means: a movement for individual responsibility, small government and free markets. That hasn’t changed; and all along it has meant legalizing drugs and prostitution and a non-interventionist foreign policy. That’s part and parcel of individual responsibility, small government and free markets.
The great Reason magazine is a wonderful publication filled with great articles, solid journalism you won’t find elsewhere…and a voice that does little more than complain.
Reason is great at highlighting abuses by every level of government, stories ignored by other media outlets. But you won’t find much in the way of philosophy or solutions. (There’s some, it just doesn’t seem to be a focus.) They preach to the choir, and it ends there.
Matt Welch at Reason responds:
As many of our libertarian-movement critics will be first to tell you, Reason is forever “compromising” pure philosophical principles by attempting to apply libertarian insights onto the very non-libertarian real policy world we inhabit. So we publish a “19 Percent Solution” about affixing federal spending to a percentage of GDP rather than merely complain that most federal government activity is morally and constitutionally illegitimate (the upshot is that our solutions end up sounding like those being offered by a new generation of libertarian-leaning Republicans). The same impulse is behind our calls to replace entitlements with a real safety net (rather than ripping up both), slowly unwind Fannie and Freddie (rather than ending them overnight), redirect federal transportation spending (rather than just getting rid of it), and on and on.
This approach is baked right into Reason’s DNA. Robert Poole wrote the first real journalistic case for deregulating airlines in the September 1969 issue of Reason, and is as responsible for the real-world solutions of airline deregulation and privatization as anyone alive. Poole, who is still Director of Transportation Policy for the Reason Foundation (the public-policy work of which embodies the very definition of pragmatically applying libertarian insights onto the fallen world of governance), described in our 2008 oral history of Reason how the magazine made the deliberate choice early on to not preach to the choir, but rather engage in the world outside our comfort zone:
We said, “Let’s leave movement stuff to movement zines and go back to our original vision and make reason a competitor to National Review and The Nation and engage in the battle of ideas with the whole spectrum of thinking people.” We’ve tried to stick with that ever since, with different ways to carry that idea out.
Hunter never mentions what kind of “solutions” he has in mind, but since he spends five paragraphs complaining about the anti-John McCain sentiment he witnessed at a 2008 D.C. election night happy hour co-sponsored by Reason and America’s Future Foundation (I wasn’t there, FWIW), it’s probably safe to infer that cheering for the electoral success of Republicans, no matter how big-government they might be, is a solution in and of itself
What Libertarians do exceedingly well is sit on the sidelines, arms folded, and complain. No idea was ever put into action by complaining that it wasn’t so, yet that seems to be the Libertarian modus operandi.
On the contrary, we offer plenty of Libertarian solutions. Libertarians in office have dissolved the government agencies they served on, and proposed and voted on plans to save taxpayers money. Libertarians have worked in coalitions to stop stadium boondoggles, end eminent domain abuse, stop tax increases, lower taxes, and so on. Libertarians pushed the ideas of marijuana legalization and marriage equality for decades before they became mainstream. We’ve helped organize backlash against “know your customer” banking regulations, REAL ID, and other government invasions of privacy. The larger libertarian movement has played a large role in pushing the idea of deregulation. Among other things.
On election night 2008, I was at a Reason/America’s Future Foundation (another Libertarian group) election night party in a Chinatown bar in DC. The results of the election were a forgone conclusion, so what better way to mark the night than with a few drinks and friends. Hell, the band played as the Titanic sank, so why not imbibe a bit as the nation hit the iceberg?
It’s not like anyone was thrilled to vote for John McCain that day. But as bad as McCain was (and still is), he was better than Barack Obama. At least that’s a conclusion you’d expect anyone who supported liberty to draw.
Why would you expect anyone who supports liberty to draw that conclusion? Certainly not on the basis of comparing the actual record of recent Democratic and Republican presidents, nor by comparing McCain with Obama on the issues.
Yet that night, as each state was declared for Obama, cheers rose from the crowd. When Obama won Ohio, you would’ve thought you were in a bar in Green Bay and the Packers had just won the Super Bowl. High-fives and laughter filled the room.
It wasn’t as though these self-described Libertarians wanted Obama to win. Well, actually, many of them did. But the majority of them wanted McCain to lose. They wanted Republicans to lose. Their victory was to let the country lose, to get that smug sense of self-satisfaction they were feeling.
Throughout his article, Hunter capitalizes Libertarian, and he starts out by saying he used to be one (while demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the most fundamental issue stances we take). Yet he somehow fails to notice that most small l libertarians such as those at Reason events are not Libertarian Party members. Big L Libertarians run our own candidates precisely because we don’t believe that the Republicans are better than the Democrats or vice versa.
In the years since, that attitude has only grown. And what it means to be a Libertarian has blurred even more than before. So much so that a “Libertarian” candidate for governor in Virginia – many of whose views would disgust “real” Libertarians – pulled 7 percent in a race decided by much less pretty much solely on the strength of his party ID.
I’m afraid I don’t understand what that is even supposed to mean. Sarvis polled a lot more votes than any previous Libertarian candidate in Virginia. Clearly, most of that support was not due to his party label alone.
Libertarians have devolved from the pro-liberty wing of the right side of the ledger to the annoying kid who, when he doesn’t get 100 percent of what he wants, takes his ball and goes home. The team he agrees with more than half the time loses to the team he barely agrees with at all, and he cheers while marinating in his smugness.
As the historical data I presented earlier shows, we’ve never been on the right side of the ledger at all. We don’t agree with the Republicans more than half the time. In fact, we barely agree with the Republicans at all, just as we barely agree with the Democrats at all. But, rhetoric aside, the Republicans and Democrats sure agree with each other a lot: in fact, in Congress the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans vote together well over 90% of the time. Ron Paul is famous for being the only “no” vote on many bills, and he is no longer in Congress. This is not very surprising when you consider that many of the major donors to both the Republican and Democratic parties are the same exact people, and that many of them benefit from various forms of direct and indirect corporate welfare.
Perhaps the best-known of the bastardized self-definition of Libertarian is Bill Maher. Maher is a Libertarian like David Ortiz is a world-class sprinter. But with a definition as firm as a bowl of Jell-O, there’s no one to say he isn’t.
In his largely ignored HBO show, Maher labels himself a Libertarian. On the Internet, a lazy, compliant media perpetuates that label, and soon it becomes accepted fact. In reality, Maher doesn’t have the first clue about the virtues of individual liberty, nor does he possess any love of a Libertarian philosophy beyond wanting to smoke weed and bang hookers.
But who’s saying he’s not a Libertarian? Who challenges his claim in any public and sustained way? No one.
So the progressive pap that slips past his bleached teeth and onto the Internet is associated with, and is becoming, Libertarian orthodoxy with a new generation of confused people.
Plenty of people have noted that Maher is not a libertarian, starting with Maher himself. As far as I know, Maher has never claimed to be a big L Libertarian as Hunter claims, and it’s been many years since he’s called himself any kind of libertarian. Here is a recent rant from Maher denouncing libertarianism, and making the mirror image of Hunter’s historically ignorant claim that libertarianism has changed – in Maher’s version, we used to be all about the pot and hookers and have now all of a sudden come to be for small government on the economic front. Maher and Hunter display equal but opposite forms of ignorance about what libertarianism has been and/or has become.
BILL MAHER: Libertarians have to stop ruining libertarianism, or at least do a better job explaining the difference between today’s libertarian and just being a selfish prick. Now, many years ago on a television network far, far away, I expressed support for libertarianism because back then it meant I didn’t want big government in my bedroom, or my medicine chest, or especially not in the second drawer of the nightstand on the left side of my bed. And I still believe that, but somewhere along the way, libertarianism morphed into this creepy obsession with free market capitalism based on an Ayn Rand novel called Atlas Shrugged, a book that’s never been read all the way through by anyone with a girlfriend.
Paul Ryan once said Ayn Rand taught him what my value systems are. And I believe him, because her book has a strange appeal to people who are kind of smart, but not really. (HBO’s Real Time, April 5, 2013)
Hunter makes a similarly ignorant claim:
Thanks to Maher and his ilk, the term Libertarian does now come closer to what he thinks it is than it used to.
Well, no. It’s been many years since Maher has foregone the libertarian self-label and become a proud progressive, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who gave Bill Maher credit for making them a libertarian or defining what a libertarian is for them.
The rest of Hunter’s article deals with internal Republican Party politics between Tea Party social conservatives and establishment Republicans and is thus unrelated to his headline. Since I’m not a Republican, never have been, and don’t think they are any better than the Democrats, I will leave that part of his column without comment.