“…and what is Aleppo?”
Most of us likely watched this cringe-inducing interaction play out on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” in the midst of the nightmarish 2016 election cycle. Gary Johnson’s very public flub didn’t exactly bolster the libertarian cause. He seemed to be a joke, just as the Libertarian Party itself is a joke to many political commentators and media elites on both sides of the aisle. Despite derision from many and condemnation from a few, Johnson still carried 3.27% of the national vote in 2016, setting a record for the Libertarian Party.
Libertarian principles — free mind and free markets— are not just quirky talking points; they’re powerful. “Liberty” is a rallying cry for most libertarians and one that has motivated and mobilized Americans since the country’s founding. Libertarian principles are founded on Enlightenment ideals and have been propagated by some of the greatest intellectuals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But are these principles of individual liberty and economic freedom still compelling to Americans today?
Do Americans still love liberty?
Liberty and the Common Good
The Enlightenment reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries set the foundation for the beliefs that libertarians espouse today: the belief that free societies should maximize individual freedom by minimizing governmental enforcement of economic, personal and social concerns. This meant freedom from authoritarian rule of any kind; religious institution, monarchy, or government.
Freedom from government is appealing only up to a point for most progressives. In Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, he presents a question that most progressives will answer in the affirmative and libertarians in the negative: “Do you agree that the government should do more to advance the common good, even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals?” In response to this question, most on the left will say, “yes” and most on the center-right will say, “no.” Only recently has the answer turned to, “yes, sometimes,” for Republicans.
This idea of “the common good” is a complex one and has long been regarded as an important concept in political philosophy. When are we supposed to make decisions based on the common good and why? What’s so wrong about citizens voting on laws based on serving their private interests?
Most view libertarians as people who don’t particularly care about the common good. They see libertarianism as denying the importance of community and, in turn, the common good. Stephanie Slade, in her compelling piece for America Media last year, attempted to debunk that misconception:
“Libertarians believe that a program of freedom redounds to the benefit of us all. It fosters peace and prosperity while creating vast space for intellectual and moral pursuits.”
Adam Smith and Milton Friedman argued that capitalism is ultimately a moral system because competition will harness selfishness for the benefit of the common good. As Smith wrote,“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” This argument is rooted in the idea that every individual, by looking out for himself, actually aids in creating the best outcome for all.
An increase in support for socialism in America, however, seems to indicate that capitalism is no longer seen as a progenitor of the common good. Young Americans especially are distrustful of the benefits of capitalism. As John Cassidy argues in his New Yorker article from June of this year:
“Where is the morality in a system where the economic gains are so narrowly shared, and giant companies with substantial market power — the heirs to the trusts — exercise dominion over great swaths of the economy? Until a twenty-first-century Friedman provides a convincing answer to this question, the revival of the S-word [Socialism] will continue.”
Liberty is… Selfish?
As mentioned, capitalism is now viewed by most on the far left, and mainstream left, as predatory; ultimately it will consume its consumers. Intense love of capitalism and fierce defense of free markets are defining characteristics of libertarian ideology, but this messaging is simply not compelling. This is especially true among a generation that already thinks Americans are privileged, selfish and heartless.
“I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”
This snarky quote from Christopher Hitchins perfectly encapsulates the assumptions most people make about libertarians. Why the obsession with and hatred toward government spending, taxation and socialism?
Taxation is theft! Socialism sucks! These hollow slogans appear everywhere, especially around college campuses where certain organizations promote “liberty” without fully defining the benefits or characteristics of liberty, other than just that it isn’t socialism. Libertarians spend entirely too much time and effort focused almost exclusively on attacking socialism instead of providing justification for why economic freedom matters.
If only for the purposes of changing public opinion, libertarians need to start outwardly embracing a conception of liberty that isn’t so narrowly focused on tax rates and property.
Liberty vs. Equality
All trends seem to indicate that certain defining traits of individual liberty, such as free speech, are no longer popular rallying cries in the United States. The election of Donald Trump proved that the authoritarian sentiments of the populist right, in hibernation for a time, had significantly influenced a large portion of American citizens. In turn, we see Democratic presidential candidates prepping for the 2020 election cycle by consistently threatening various reductions in individual liberties, with little resistance, and much support, from their respective bases.
In Alexis de Toqueville’s seminal book Democracy in America, he describes with startling accuracy the very phenomenon we are witnessing in America today:
I think that democratic nations have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they seek it out, become attached to it, and view any departure from it with distress. But they have a burning, insatiable, constant, and invincible passion for equality; they wants equality in freedom and, if they cannot have it, they want it in slavery. They will endure poverty, subjection, barbarism but they will not endure aristocracy.
Toqueville describes the challenging dichotomy of democratic nations that love both liberty and equality; both states of being are, at times, in direct opposition to each other. He states that men can’t be “absolutely equal without being wholly free and as a result equality, in its most extreme form, may be confounded with freedom.”
The attacks we see being waged today on tech billionaires, on the “aristocrats” of our modern American era, fully reflect Tocqueville’s analysis; equality is that which allows freedom to flourish and eventually that which causes its downfall.
The powerful populist message today is that the system is rigged; because of this, we no longer have equality of opportunity.
Equality of Outcome vs. Liberty
Libertarians are huge proponents of equality of opportunity over equality of outcome. They believe the ideal of personal liberty trumps the ideal of fair and equal outcomes for all. The concept of equality of outcome “requires that individuals have some share of goods, not merely a chance to obtain them, without the hindrance of some obstacles.”
Milton Friedman eviscerates the equality of outcome concept in Free To Choose, extolling the fact that intellectuals continually push this as a noble collective goal; he derides those who seriously believe that this is something any society can ever achieve. Libertarians believe Friedman’s theory that any government strategies that promote equality of opportunity ultimately enhance liberty; conversely, governments that push agendas seeking to achieve “fair shares for all” reduce liberty.
“A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality. Though a by-product of freedom, greater equality is not an accident.”
The libertarian argument for freedom of opportunity centers around a concept that most progressives can’t quite stomach: freedom means inequality. A free society allows and indeed encourages people to pursue their own objectives. That freedom allows some to find extreme measures of success in life. It does not prevent people from achieving positions of privilege, but, so long as freedom is maintained, it prevents those positions of privilege from becoming institutionalized. In a free society, the successful are, ideally, subject to continued attack. Their position is constantly challenged by other able, ambitious people.
In Friedman’s words, freedom means diversity and mobility. It preserves the “opportunity for today’s disadvantaged to become tomorrow’s privileged and, in the process, enables almost everyone, from top to bottom, to enjoy a fuller and richer life.”
Most Americans simply no longer feel inspired by this message today. This “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality doesn’t sell well to extreme progressives or to populist Trump supporters. In a rigged system, you simply have no chance to succeed. That concept of “equality of opportunity” is thrown out of the window — along with the chance at achieving individual greatness.
Liberty Offers No Protections
The key character traits that differentiate libertarians from liberals (progressives) are described in fascinating detail in Haidt’s book. In chapter twelve, he describes the various moral matrices that guide liberal vs. libertarian morality. Not surprisingly, within the liberal moral matrix, the most sacred value is care for victims of oppression. Within the libertarian moral matrix, the most sacred value is individual liberty. Libertarians split apart from liberals in their love of liberty over care for the oppressed.
As Haidt writes, “Liberals sometimes go beyond equality of rights to pursue equality of outcomes, which cannot be obtained in a capitalist system.” Libertarians acknowledge that, in a system where everyone ideally has the freedom to choose what path to take in life, all outcomes might not be the same. This is a result that most libertarians are happy to accept; most liberals cannot abide it.
Republicans offer their supporters a certain “we care for our own” attitude — Donald Trump will protect his supporters and punish everyone else. Most liberals believe the state should care for everyone, especially the oppressed. In both partisan models, there is a sense of being “taken care of” — a paternalistic nature which is, invariably, quite appealing to a people who are struggling, whether economically or otherwise.
Libertarians offer no “protections.” They offer liberty. They offer the idea that the individual is responsible for his or her own fate, unencumbered by authoritarian rule, and can forge his or her own path. The unfortunate reality we face now as a nation is this: that Americans have forged their own paths and they aren’t happy with the end results. They want someone to take care of them.
Liberty Isn’t An Existential Threat
Most Americans were mobilized to vote for their respective candidate in 2016 because they were presented with a binary choice. They saw each side as representative of an existential threat to their daily lives and that fear drove them to cast a ballot against the enemy.
Libertarians’ common enemy, tyranny, was an easier sell during the Cold War Era, when the Soviet Union was still a threat. Quietly, that threat faded out of national consciousness and libertarian ideals took a back seat to increasing American sentiments that the government should, once again, take a paternal interest in governing its people. As Kevin Williamson writes in his piece at the Atlantic, after his brief stint as a staff writer there, “Libertarianism, with its emphasis on free trade, its deference to the market, and its hostility toward social-welfare programs, went quickly out of fashion.”
Libertarians are not rallying their base with hyped up threats of a caravan invasion from the southern border. Libertarians aren’t screaming about America turning into a version of The Handmaid’s Tale. They sit on the sidelines, waiting for those disillusioned few to run into their open arms.
But are those disillusioned few enough to keep the libertarian mission alive?
It’s unclear. Key libertarian policies are not popular at all among most Americans. Americans generally support a rising minimum wage, oppose entitlement reform and support the possibility of enforcing hate speech laws. While many Americans might find libertarian ideals appealing — mostly because of they too want to feel as if they are “above” party politics — they simply don’t support most libertarian positions.
Most Americans don’t see liberty as existentially threatened. Likely this is due to the fact that we are so far removed from the last time we had to actually fight for our liberty. I’m reminded of another relevant Tocqueville quote:
The great advantage enjoyed by Americans is to have reached democracy without the sufferings of a democratic revolution and to have been born equal instead of becoming so.
Can Liberty Be Compromised?
A commonly held belief about libertarians is that they are a bit puritanical on policy and incapable of compromise. There is a reason that the Libertarian Party’s slogan reads “The Party of Principle.” Being successful in politics requires a certain amount of compromise and libertarians are seen as a group that isn’t interested in compromising their values just to win. This puritanical attitude is classified as simultaneously their strongest asset and their greatest weakness.
This is partially true in the sense that many “radical” libertarians are puritans with their policies; and purity is not a strong player in the partisan political game. Truthfully though, there are radicals in each party. And just as we shouldn’t take the most radical Republican and radical Democrat and use them as examples of what each party stands for, we should avoid that too for Libertarians. Most libertarian-minded individuals compromise constantly. Many Libertarians decide to vote for a Democrat or a Republican, based on certain core issues they hold dear. And those core issues take hold in public opinion.
The harsh reality remains that despite being the third-largest party in America, no member of the LP holds any governorships or seats in the US Congress.
Can Liberty Win?
While Libertarian politicians may not be making waves on the national political stage, their values infiltrate our daily lives and consistently influence national policy making.
The libertarian argument for drug legalization became such a major player in our national conversations that several states have now legalized previously prohibited substances such as marijuana and even psychedelics. Libertarians fought for gay marriage (and won) and continue to advocate for criminal justice reform, an increasingly popular sentiment throughout the United States. Most libertarians have been in the fight to end mass incarceration and advance criminal justice reform for years. We are reaping the fruits of their labor still today.
Andrew Yang’s quirky political campaign consists of some very libertarian ideas. His proposal to implement the Freedom Dividend, if elected, is a form of UBI, something that libertarians have long supported.
Like it or not, we need to hear from libertarian voices. We need people like Nick Gillespie, a voice of reason (pun intended), to rage against Elizabeth Warren’s plans to break up big tech while simultaneously condemning Josh Hawley’s plan to fight social media addiction via government regulation.
Libertarians’ tireless fight for liberty, in all its forms, have set the groundwork for the positive changes we take for granted in our culture today. Conor Friedersdorf, in his 2014 article on the power of libertarians as a force for good in the United States, defines what libertarian victories really look like:
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.
Libertarians challenge Americans to venture outside of their partisan bubbles and explore what liberty has to offer; freedom from government and freedom from the extremism to which we have all become so accustomed. Libertarians are a quirky bunch, but they are our quirky bunch — and I hope some of their ideas are here to stay.