When the New York Times’ Robert Draper asked in 2014, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” a significant part of his story was spent exploring whether a number of developments—Millennial attitudes in favor of gay marriage and marijuana legalization, renewed attention to issues like privacy rights and criminal justice reform, public fatigue with partisanship and war—had perhaps culminated in a political climate that could improve Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential chances.
Of course, that didn’t happen, and Paul dropped out of the Republican primaries a year and a half later. Ever since, pundits left and right (especially conservative hawks) haven’t hesitated to lampoon, rewrite, and diminish any libertarian moment that might have been, if it ever was.
There are two things most of these libertarian-moment-phobic liberals and conservatives seem to agree on, however unintentionally:
- Most feared a libertarian moment from the get-go because it threatened their own respective progressive, neoconservative, and socially conservative brands, so each camp jumped at the first opportunity to declare it dead.
- Donald Trump killed the libertarian moment.
“RIP, Libertarian Moment 2014-2014,” one liberal taunted on the same day Paul left the presidential race.
But this week, that same writer, New York‘s Jonathan Chait, decided that the libertarian phenomenon in fact isn’t dead anymore, but instead that “Donald Trump’s Presidency is the Libertarian Moment.”
Chait begins his fantasy by arguing that since free-marketeer billionaires Charles and David Koch once opposed Trump and are now pragmatically working with the president where they can (on obviously libertarian issues), that somehow most libertarians across the board have fallen in line with the entire White House agenda. Chait writes:
The Koch rapprochement mirrors a broader trend: Among the conservative intelligentsia — where resistance to Trump has always run far deeper than it has among the Republican rank and file — libertarians have displayed some of the greatest levels of friendliness to the Trump administration. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is a bastion of pro-Trump conspiracy-theorizing about nefarious deep-state plots, in addition to celebrations of the administration’s economic record. Grover Norquist, Stephen Moore, and Ron and Rand Paul, among others, have all staunchly defended the president.
For starters, since when is the Wall Street Journal libertarian? Their characteristic hawkishness and anti-civil liberties stances are closer to Dick Cheney and even Hillary Clinton than Rand Paul, and bear little resemblance to self-identified libertarian outlets like Rare (where I serve as political editor) or Reason (which has been far more anti-Trump than pro-).
Also, in what universe have Ron and Rand Paul “staunchly defended the president”? Senator Paul has opposed Trump in some pretty high-profile ways, while also being vocal about their areas of agreement. That’s not capitulation; it’s statesmanship.
Chait basically believes, using the Koch brothers as a primary focus, that libertarians are now embracing Trump, particularly post-tax cuts, because they “have historically been open to authoritarian leaders who will protect their policy agendas,” meaning those that help the rich.
This is not only baseless, but a liberal’s cartoon version of what libertarianism is. It mirrors some on the right’s simplistic reduction of libertarianism to dope-smoking hedonism.
And if Chait’s basic analysis is irreparably flawed, his prescriptions are fallacy squared (emphasis added):
You would think a libertarian might have some deep-seated qualms about leaving untrammeled executive power in the hands of an obviously ruthless and autocratic leader like Trump. The only practical way to restrain Trump’s efforts…would be to help Democrats regain one or more chambers of Congress, so they could conduct oversight and act as a check on the executive branch.
In the same month that Chait wrote the above paragraph, liberal columnist Glenn Greenwald observed that “The Same Democrats Who Denounce Donald Trump as a Lawless, Treasonous Authoritarian Just Voted to Give Him Vast Warrantless Surveillance Powers” when congressional Democrats joined with the White House and GOP leadership to protect Section 702 of the FISA bill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi helped give Trump wide authority to spy on Americans. Indeed, these massive spying powers could have never been granted without the Democrats. Even The Onion couldn’t ignore the irony.
Who—wait for it, Jonathan Chait—were the only members of Congress to oppose giving Trump this power? A handful of principled progressives, who unfortunately remain a minority in their party, and libertarian Republicans who allied with them against the Trump administration.
But if libertarians are supposed to warm to Democrats, it makes sense which “libertarians” Chait thinks are getting it right: the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Niskanen Center. Chait writes (emphasis added):
The Niskanen Center has nurtured a cell of moderate libertarians that has lobbed attacks on the administration and its allies. But Niskanen’s rejection of Trump has come alongside a broader rejection of the priorities of the politically dominant wing of libertarian politics; they have criticized Trump for the same reasons most libertarians have supported him.
This is the most, and perhaps only, accurate part of Chait’s piece.
If you journey through the policy prescriptions of Niskanen, you will find less libertarianism than explanations of why universal health care is inevitable, “the freedom lover’s case for the welfare state,” and pondering about why George W. Bush/Hillary Clinton-style international military engagement might be preferable to non-interventionism.
So, yes, Niskanen does work overtime to, as Chait describes, reject “the priorities of the politically dominant wing of libertarian politics.” You know, crazy priorities like free markets rather than socialism, voluntary solutions as opposed to government mandates, a more restrained foreign policy—or, more succinctly, being generally distrustful of the state as opposed to constantly signing on to its expansion.
Niskanen’s vice president of policy, Will Wilkinson, has loathed the most successful libertarian figures of recent times—the Paul family—for a number of years now, though he did think socialist Bernie Sanders was a good choice in 2016. Wilkinson, to his credit, was frank in 2012 when he wrote, “What ‘libertarian’ tends to mean to most people, including most people who self-identify as libertarian, is flatly at odds with some of what I believe. So I guess I’m just a liberal…” Similarly and not surprisingly, Niskanen president Jerry Taylor couldn’t wait in early 2016 to declare “The Collapse of the Rand Paul Movement and the Libertarian Moment That Never Was.”
My criticism of Niskanen shouldn’t be interpreted as saying that libertarian premises are always correct and shouldn’t be challenged. Purist libertarians are often their own worst enemies. I’m all for practical politics. It’s why I consider it integral to nourish an enduring liberty faction within the Republican Party. Politicians like my former boss Rand Paul and Thomas Massie have been invaluable, and I hope more eventually join them.
But part of that pragmatism means challenging a status quo that doesn’t work, not merely rationalizing it for the sake of political surrender—or worse, elite recognition and respectability. When the primary function of a think tank that brands itself libertarian seems to be to discount the core beliefs of most libertarians in most eras, it should probably stop pretending to speak in that philosophy’s name.
Whether or not a “libertarian moment” has happened, can happen, or perhaps is even still happening, will no doubt continue to be debated. Whether or not Donald Trump’s presidency is that moment’s culmination will always be a debate too stupid to bear.
Jack Hunter is the political editor of Rare.us and co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Senator Rand Paul.