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Reviving Libertarianism

Those who favor limited government shouldn’t ignore the virtue factor.

American politics is awhirl. Donald Trump’s transformation of the right is the clearest sign of it. But the left is reborn, too—in outraged opposition to the new president and with the example of Bernie Sanders pointing his young admirers toward democratic socialism. Any ideology that fails to adapt to this radically altered environment will die. Can libertarianism, a philosophy at odds with Sanders’s democratic socialism as well as Trump’s populist nationalism, survive?

Its formulas are well known: gun rights and gay rights; lower taxes and less military spending; civil liberties and maximum market freedom; open immigration and free trade. To critics, all this adds up to an amoral, if not immoral, philosophy. But in the pages of Reason last summer, two of libertarianism’s leading minds set out to refute that impression and change the way the heirs to classical liberalism think about themselves. William Ruger, the Charles Koch Institute’s vice president of research and policy, and Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project, introduced the concept of “virtue libertarianism.”

The most dogged defenders of the right to do as one pleases—to buy and sell freely, even drugs and sex—must still draw and act upon moral distinctions, they argued. Not everything that is uncoerced is good. Virtue is not only right in itself but is an indispensable support to a free society. Vice, by contrast, breeds dependence and servility: “we have set up for failure those who, for whatever reason, suffer from greater impulsiveness, hedonism, laziness, hopelessness, or greed,” Ruger and Sorens warned. Moral interventions—not government interventions, but judicious praise and blame—are essential to the health of society.

“To respect others, we must act beneficently and generously toward them, not just refrain from taking their freedom,” Sorens and Ruger contend:

In some cases, this means providing approbation and disapproval of certain choices to foster a culture consistent with human flourishing and a free society. For example, we should applaud those who pursue excellence in education, the arts, and sport as well as those who give their time and money to help their local communities. We should also not be afraid to hold up life-long committed marriage as an ideal for those with children. Harder in our current age, but equally important for a good society, we should not shy away from expressing disapproval of rent-seekers (those who demand special government privileges), those who harm themselves and their families through habitual intoxication or gambling, and those who idle away their time and talents in frivolous pursuits. … if someone wants to drink his life away, that should be legal but strongly disapproved or even shunned.

This is a libertarian alternative to tackling moral and social problems through government. “Prohibitions, SWAT raids, and prison terms for non-violent criminals are all poor ways to grow a healthy moral ecology. Society has better, more-just alternatives.” The same strictures all libertarians apply to the use of formal power are upheld by virtue libertarians—but the moral pressure that others eschew, they employ. The goal of virtue libertarianism is to regulate society by manners and morals, as far as possible, rather than the blunt instrument of law.

It’s an idea that would have been familiar in an older America, and though its proponents don’t want to turn back the clock—they recognize how much moral progress has been made with respect to minority rights, for example—their vision is distinctly traditional, rooted in an understanding of virtue that extends from Aristotle to the American Founders. If Trump aims to make America great again, Ruger and Sorens would make morality bourgeois again. But is that enough to make libertarianism matter to the 21st century?

Just three years ago, libertarianism laid plausible claim to being the future of American politics. The New York Times magazine ran a cover story on what it called the “libertarian moment”; two months later, the cover of Time proclaimed Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to be “the most interesting man in politics.” The senator’s father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, had made libertarianism a powerful force in the Republican Party with his presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, which won no primaries but set records for small-donor fundraising and forged new cadres of grassroots activists. If Ron Paul had achieved so much with a radical libertarian message that often shocked GOP sensibilities, then surely his more mainstream son would do even better.

Instead the younger Paul’s presidential bid fizzled last year: he won fewer votes in Iowa than his father had received four years earlier, and the senator ended his campaign before New Hampshire. The 2016 Republican contest evolved into a struggle between, on the one hand, two factions that had dominated the party since the Reagan era—orthodox conservatives and establishment moderates—and, on the other, the insurgent nationalism of Trump. Libertarianism was left out.

That presented an opportunity for the Libertarian Party. Since 2008, it had tried to capitalize on Ron Paul’s success with Republican voters by nominating former GOP officeholders as its presidential candidates: first former congressman Bob Barr; then former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson in 2012. Last year the LP nominated Johnson a second time, with another ex-GOP governor, William Weld of Massachusetts, as his running mate. They had hopes, stoked by polls throughout the summer, of winning 10 percent or more of the popular vote. Even 5 percent would qualify the party for federal matching funds.

The major-party nominees were the most unpopular in history, and Republicans, it was thought, were especially reluctant to support their man. How could a third-party ticket of two Republican governors go wrong? Yet in the end Johnson and Weld received only 3.3 percent of the popular vote. This was not entirely their fault: however unpopular Trump and Clinton may have been, the Republican and Democratic candidates represented such starkly contrasting policies and values that even voters who considered the election a choice among evils were apt to have a preference. The only way to stop the candidate they feared more—whether that was Clinton or Trump—was to vote, reluctantly or not, for the other major-party contender.

Still, the result was disappointing: was this all that libertarians could hope for in the very best-case scenario? Critics ascribed Johnson and Weld’s failure to their campaign’s ideological tilt. Despite being ex-Republicans—though Weld, to be sure, was a notably liberal GOP governor—the Libertarian candidates made a “play entirely to the left,” as Austin Petersen, one of Johnson’s former rivals for the LP nomination, told Reason. The Johnson-Weld ticket was far from advancing anything like virtue libertarianism or addressing conservatives’ fears that, as Ruger and Sorens put it, “the movement will precipitate the unmooring of society from its moral anchors.”

Presidential politics does not tell the whole story of libertarianism’s fortunes, however. Since 2008, a small but staunch bloc of libertarian-leaning Republicans has emerged in Congress, including Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, as well as Senator Paul. Their allies include Reps. Dave Brat of Virginia and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and also the congressman Trump picked to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget, South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney.

In the policy realm, libertarianism is well-served by think tanks such as the Cato Institute, and the movement has a presence on campuses in the form of Americans for Liberty and Students for Liberty, two organizations launched in 2008. (Ron Paul’s influence is obvious here, too.) The Koch brothers and their funding network support libertarian causes, and key libertarian positions, such as marijuana decriminalization and a more restrained foreign policy, enjoy widening popular support. 

Libertarianism has a toehold in American public life. But can it ever have more than a toehold? Why, when it has such impressive resources—billionaire financial backing, cadres of intellectuals and activists—isn’t it more successful in politics or, more importantly, in policy? How can libertarianism grow?

The question might seem irrelevant to conservatives and progressives, the dominant ideological forces within the major parties and—at least until Trump’s nationalism takes institutional root—in the country as a whole. But there are reasons why libertarianism should matter even to non-libertarians. The ideology’s adherents help to keep both conservatives and progressives honest—and from becoming intellectually complacent. They are exquisitely sensitive to government abuses: libertarians are an early-warning system for tyranny. They serve as a kind of conscience, too, in reminding the left and the right, as they embark on value-laden programs of government-directed social change, that there are costs even to pursuing well-meaning policies, and that some powers are too great to be entrusted even to good men in the name of a noble cause. Government can be an instrument of self-righteous arrogance; libertarians of all kinds, by the nature of their ideology, supply a balancing virtue of humility.

Conservatives, especially those of the older sort, have a particular interest in the well-being of libertarianism: libertarianism in some form is a vital component of “fusionism”—the philosophy, promoted by National Review senior editor Frank Meyer, that fuses elements of both libertarianism and traditionalism. Indeed, the conservative movement that developed in the early years of the Cold War saw itself as a return to classical liberalism: Ronald Reagan told Reason in a 1975 interview, “If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

What led to the emergence of a libertarian movement separate from conservatism was a split over the Cold War—libertarians were doves, orthodox conservatives tended to be hawks—and the counterculture of the 1960s. The virtue libertarianism that Ruger and Sorens promote is not marketed only to the right, but it holds promise for repairing the breach that occurred with conservatives over the hedonism of the ’60s. Conservative and libertarian realists have already been close allies since the first Gulf War, jointly opposing neoconservative wars and humanitarian interventionism.

But the greatest promise virtue libertarianism holds is in returning the philosophy to its roots in the classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, when liberalism became one of the dominant political forces in the English-speaking world (and to a lesser extent in France and elsewhere on the European continent). What led to the rise of classical liberalism is worth recounting. It began with religious liberty. Dissenting Protestants demanded the freedom to worship according to their consciences and to participate in civil affairs, though they often refused to extend such tolerance to Catholics. Political liberals were inconsistent too, but as a philosophy liberalism came to enshrine the principle of tolerance and civil liberty for all believers—and, by extension, nonbelievers as well. Far from being hostile to religion, classical liberalism was fathered by faith and cherished its virtues.

In large part, that was true also of classical liberalism’s economic program, as rising Protestant minorities who excelled in commerce and industry sought to reform the quasi-agrarian policies of the old order. Thrift and industriousness were the virtues that underwrote the rise of capitalism, and as a political and philosophical adjunct to the economic system, liberalism provided a means to understand and defend the new commercial society.

A third critical component of classical liberalism was its commitment to constitutional order—to expanding the franchise and other political reforms but only so long as property and other rights were secure. In this, liberalism was a reforming corrective to the forces that opposed any widening of the electorate and at the same time a check upon tendencies toward direct democracy and mob rule. Political prudence was a cardinal virtue of liberalism at its best.

In all this, liberalism enjoyed the support of the middle class—it was veritably the political expression of the bourgeoisie. Yet it could command surprising support even among working men, though it was not much loved by the farmer or clergy of the established religion (which is why the Church of England was “the Conservative Party at prayer”). In America, where Protestantism and commerce held greater sway than in Britain, liberalism seemed almost to be the heart of the country’s political tradition, to the point that Americans who began to think of themselves as “conservatives” during the Cold War nonetheless insisted that American conservatism was true liberalism—and New Dealers had no right to the name. The word “libertarian” was a conscious attempt to reclaim liberalism’s heritage.

The conditions that gave rise to liberalism in the first place bear comparison to the politics of today. The culture war between the religious right and the secular left is more than a little reminiscent of the battles between Dissenters and Establishment, and between Protestants and Catholics, in the European politics of the past. The principles of commercial society stand again in need of clarification and defense, not against feudalism, mercantilism, or 19th-century socialism, but against crony capitalism, administrative statism, and the mixed economies of the Keynesian left and economically nationalist right. The old class basis of liberalism, however, is imperiled: the truly bourgeois businessman and shopkeeper has been replaced by the salaryman and bureaucrat. There are still honest entrepreneurial capitalists, small and large, but they are politically disorganized and outflanked. Finally, instead of a fight for formal democratic representation, as in the 19th century, we now have a situation in which a universally enfranchised adult electorate nevertheless experiences frustration at a dwindling sense of control over government.

The old liberalism was not an ideology for scholastics and oddballs; it was bourgeois and mainstream. Libertarianism today, on the other hand, is often a ménage of three rather strange bedfellows. First is an unshakable but dispassionate attachment to markets—an attitude of free-market technocracy more enamored of formulas for liberty than with liberty itself (to say nothing of virtue). Second, a pop-minded contrarianism that mocks the pieties of traditionalism and political correctness alike. And finally, on the Ron Paul side, there is an anti-elitist as well as anti-government populism. These strains in themselves all have merits. But they don’t add up to much political strength: the anti-government populists have numbers but are also more right-leaning—and specifically Trump-leaning—than the free-market technocrats and pop-culture contrarians, who lean to the center or left. The technocrats have academic respectability but little popular following, while the pop libertarians include some moderately well-known celebrities—magician Penn Jillette, for example, and Lisa Kennedy, a former MTV veejay now seen on Fox Business Channel—but no one of the media stature of, say, the former longtime host of The Apprentice.

There is today nothing quite like the old bourgeois Protestant base to which the original liberalism appealed. But there are at least four politically significant groups that seem ripe for the virtue-libertarian message.

The first are center-right Republicans: those disillusioned by neocon foreign policy; religious, or at least respectful of religion, but not hard-line culture warriors; and committed to the old Cold War conservative economic agenda of free markets rather than economic nationalism. Fusionism was once the leading philosophy among American conservatives—at least according to surveys taken by Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960s—but today it’s without an institutional home or voice, as movement conservatism has come to be dominated by a new mix of right-wing tendencies that now includes neoconservatism, Christian conservatism, and Trumpian nationalism.

The second group pulls together truly “liberal” Democrats who are horrified by the excesses of identity politics and by the prospect of the Democratic Party taking a hard-left turn in reaction to Trump. These Democrats would have been primed for the transition to neoconservatism once upon a time—and they may yet become an element of a neocon revival if libertarians don’t get to them first. These liberal Democrats are few in number but occupy some important places in academia. They are staunchly committed to free speech and the legacy of the Enlightenment. But they aren’t primarily motivated by free-market economics. Virtue, however, is a language that may appeal to them.

Third is a group that might be called the religious center-right, which seeks a non-nationalistic political ideology—one grounded in values rather than identity—and a resolution to the culture war that affirms respect, tolerance, and some clearly drawn lines for conscience in the public sphere.

Fourth, there are the “pragmatic populists,” eager to pare back the power of Washington and the role of credentialed elites in running red-state Americans’ lives, but who nonetheless have the patience to pursue reformist policies. Theirs is a slow-and-steady rather than impulsive populism, and the farsighted prudence of virtue libertarianism may be a good fit for their temperament.

The common ground of all these groups is that they want a sober, serious, but not half-hearted or technocratic political philosophy, one with enough strength to resist the excesses of the left and right alike. Even if these elements can be brought together by virtue libertarianism, they probably do not amount to a majoritarian force. But a movement need not command a majority to shape the way politics operates. The idea is to occupy the strategic center, not with a narrow elite but with a wide segment of normal Americans—above average in income and education, perhaps, but not culturally rarefied in the way that celebrities, think-tank wonks, and academics are. The ideology for this coalition is one that can appeal to what once would have been called the newspaper-reading bourgeois middle.

But isn’t this style of politics what Rand Paul attempted? And doesn’t his weak performance in 2016 suggest that it has no hope?

The opposite is true: if virtue libertarianism had been widely known before Paul launched his candidacy, he might have drawn considerable strength from it. Paul’s campaign was hobbled from the start by the misidentification of the Kentucky senator’s philosophy with the other “brands” known as libertarianism. To conservative talk-radio hosts and even veteran Goldwater Republicans—as I can attest from personal conversations—Rand Paul’s libertarianism meant either his father’s no-compromise approach or Reason’s countercultural proclivities. The idea that libertarianism could mean something different—something mainstream, practical, and conservatively virtuous—seemed hard for them to believe.

Republicans who reflexively dismissed Paul and turned instead to more easily understood orthodox conservatives like Ted Cruz would have had an easier time supporting someone like the Kentucky senator if they had been familiar with virtue libertarianism.

But virtue libertarianism can serve an even more important role in politics. Clear ideas and publications or other institutions that express such ideas are the launchpad of insurgent candidacies. Rand Paul had the disadvantage of not having a distinct base of ideas to draw upon: he had movement conservatism, which was more aligned with more orthodox candidates, and he had versions of libertarianism that were unrepresentative of his views and temperament.

The role of ideological institutions in laying the intellectual groundwork for political change cannot be exaggerated. Breitbart was critical to the Trump phenomenon—just as its former editor, Steve Bannon, is a key player in the new administration. Ron Paul’s rise as Republican insurgent was foreshadowed by the online popularity of “paleo-libertarian” institutions such as the Ludwig von Mises Institute and LewRockwell.com, the latter published by one of Ron Paul’s former chiefs of staff. National Review, of course, and its brand of conservatism were instrumental in transforming the Republican Party of the 1950s into the party of the Reagan era. The New Republic had been similarly important to progressives a century ago.

Classical liberalism was the hallmark philosophy for a full century. Virtue libertarianism may not be able to match that influence, barring the unlikely revival of the old bourgeoisie. But it has the potential to revive commitments to liberty and virtue alike in American politics. For that alone it deserves attention and applause.

Daniel McCarthy is editor-at-large of The American Conservative.