A Few More Thoughts on Libertarians and Tents

Yesterday’s post clearly struck a nerve with several of you, both libertarian and non-libertarian. I’d like to engage in a bit of follow-up to clarify a thing or two.

First, regarding my comment that libertarians have never amounted to anything as a political movement. I intended this to be a distinction, but perhaps I should’ve given it more emphasis. Instead, I’d argue libertarians have amounted to a great deal as a policy movement. Where political movements demand tent-construction and coalition-building to achieve a critical mass of votes from the electorate, movements designed simply to win a particular policy argument within a legislative or legal arena have more to do with the intellectual and historical strength of the argument advanced. Here, libertarians have thrived.

A perfect example is about to come down from the Supreme Court, within the health care policy space where I work. It was libertarians like Randy Barnett,  and libertarians alone, who advanced the (much-mocked) argument that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, something even many conservative Republicans didn’t believe at the time.

Yet time and again, we see libertarians function as their own worst enemies when it comes to building support for ideas, forming factional lines which prevent them from working with other people of like mind on a significant portion of their policy views, often because of cultural divides over hot button social issues.

These cultural differences have lead some libertarians into ill-thought alliances with the left – the short-lived liberaltarian movement was an example of this, but so are the voting patterns of many in the libertarian movement. Much as I respect my friends at Reason, I am still aghast at the number of them and their colleagues who voted for and ardently supported Barack Obama in 2008. These libertarian commentators pronounced McCain-Palin as due for punishment for “eight years of military adventurism, unfettered executive power, and disregard for civil liberties” as representing “a southern-centered party based on social division and cultural resentment”, one “in thrall to troglodytes”.

Here’s a general rule of thumb: if your votes over the past decade were for Ralph Nader, John Kerry, and Barack Obama – as more than one of those prominent libertarians admitted – stop fooling yourself about which tent you’re in.

I once had a conversation with a fairly prominent urban libertarian who went on a lengthy discourse about how the future of the right in America depended on the Republican Party finally getting its act together and rejecting the “Bible-thumping fetus-obsessed” in order to achieve political victory. I let him go on for a bit before pointing out the error of his calculations, from my perspective – that in fact, without the support of the faith and freedom folks, the Republican Party would’ve gone the way of the Whigs, that Ron Paul himself has been a strong and consistently pro-life leader in the Congress, and that if he’d like to see how a fiscally conservative pro-choicer would do at the box office, he should use the Gary Johnson campaign as a barometer.

Libertarians are often absolutely correct about the direction of policy because they alone are willing to ask the right questions – questions such as, “should government even be doing this thing?” – whether or not they have the right answers. Those who I work with in the activist movements at the state level are also often socially conservative themselves, or at least traditionalist “leave us alone” types, and therefore are more pragmatic about cooperating with conservatives to achieve policy change. My hope is that more of these individuals will rise through the ranks to prominence within the libertarian movement. Without that happening, I suspect it will remain limited by this unfortunate factionalism, and instead, the more pragmatic types will stick to what they’ve been doing: trying to win arguments within the Republican Party, not outside of it.

  1. Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    See, isn’t the beer tent a nicer place to be?

  2. LowcountryJoe
    Ben Domenech: Libertarians are often absolutely correct about the direction of policy because they alone are willing to ask the right questions – questions such as, “should government even be doing this thing?” – whether or not they have the right answers. Those who I work with in the activist movements at the state level are also often socially conservative themselves, or at least traditionalist “leave us alone” types, and therefore are more pragmatic about cooperating with conservatives to achieve policy change. My hope is that more of these individuals will rise through the ranks to prominence within the libertarian movement.

    This is precisely why there are self-identified libertarians to begin with — there are far too many Republicans [too many for my tastes] who don’t have the default inclination that adopts ‘leave me alone’ nor ask themselves that all-important question of yours that I have made bold in order to emphasize.

  3. Jerry Broaddus
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: See, isn’t the beer tent a nicer place to be? · 18 minutes ago

    It’s much harder to put forward a coherent argument in the beer tent.

    But it is big.

  4. Duane Oyen

    My experience with self-described libertarians, and newly-minted Ron Paulites is that they have been disproportionately hostile to religion because of the moral restrictions perceived. 

    Generally, I have found some (Michael Lebeit) to be very articulate and principled, with most of the rest more like isolationist stoners, to coin a phrase.

  5. Mothership_Greg

    These libertarian commentators pronounced McCain-Palin as due for punishment for “eight years of military adventurism, unfettered executive power, and disregard for civil liberties” as representing “a southern-centered party based on social division and cultural resentment”, one “in thrall to troglodytes”.

    The sooner the snottier Reason writers go off to live on their SeaSteadings and leave the rest of the libertarians alone, the better.  Unfortunately, the “too good for politics” attitude is quite attractive to a certain college-educated mindset, and Reason’s a business like any other.  There’s not an easy solution for curing the laziness of the modern mind, but teaching critical thinking to our children is a good starting point.

  6. Barkha Herman

    The only prominent libertarian in politics who is getting the youth to come out and vote in droves is Ron Paul – I pro-life, Republican.  Yet, the republicans on this site and elsewhere  ridicule him, put a “disclaimer” every time they bring up his name,, even when agreeing with him. 

    Where is the rejection here?  Is it in the libertarians or in the republicans?

    I understand the Republican desire for loyalty but I’d rather see loyalty with principles than people.

    You want to win the next battle.  Perhaps you should focus on the war.

  7. ultra vires

    As someone who identifies more with Reason and Cato over more traditional organizations like Heritage, I agree with your assessment.  Most libertarians are more concerned with principle over principal.  This does not portend well for those libertarians who want their moniker before a politicians name, but I think it does lend a dimension of “independence” to their ideas, so they can better reach politicians either democrat or republican.

  8. Barkha Herman
    Mothership_Greg

    The sooner the snottier Reason writers go off to live on their SeaSteadings and leave the rest of the libertarians alone, the better.  

    Republican tolerance at it’s best

    Not that any reason writers need my defense of them, but their work has done more to promote fiscal conservatism than all of your votes.

    Let’s talk about McCain for a bit.  Wasn’t he the one that came up with McCain-Fiengold?  What liberty did that promote?

    Keep compromising your claimed principles for winning elections.  Leave liberty for those who are more interested in policies than tents.

  9. Foxfier
    Mothership_Greg

    The sooner the snottier Reason writers go off to live on their SeaSteadings and leave the rest of the libertarians alone, the better.  Unfortunately, the “too good for politics” attitude is quite attractive to a certain college-educated mindset, and Reason’s a business like any other. 

    Yeah, the self-appointed priests do get rather wearying; it’s the Ron Paul problem writ large.  Several members of my family supported Ron Paul at one point or another– but the insane supporters made dang sure that they would NEVER say “I support Ron Paul.”

    It does get kinda funny to listen to folks who constantly attack others whine about how excluded they are when a drop of their own medicine comes back, though.  Hey, human nature ain’t pretty.

  10. Mothership_Greg
    Barkha Herman

    Mothership_Greg

    The sooner the snottier Reason writers go off to live on their SeaSteadings and leave the rest of the libertarians alone, the better.  

    Republican tolerance at it’s best

    Not that any reason writers need my defense of them, but their work has done more to promote fiscal conservatism than all of your votes.

    Let’s talk about McCain for a bit.  Wasn’t he the one that came up with McCain-Fiengold?  What liberty did that promote?

    Keep compromising your claimed principles for winning elections.  Leave liberty for those who are more interested in policies than tents. · 12 minutes ago

    Do I look like a Republican to you?  You will speak of tolerance, when Ben has just referenced Cathy Young’s comment about troglodytes?  Tolerance is a two-way street.  I enjoy reading Matt Welch as much as the next guy who likes to read swear words, and I agree with a lot of what the man says, but I really don’t care for the attitude exemplified by the stereotypes iterated above.

    Note that you speak of “Republicans”, while I restrict my criticism to specific Reason writers (I’d be happy to name names).

  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Duane Oyen:

    Generally, I have found some (Michael Lebeit) to be very articulate and principled, with most of the rest more like isolationist stoners, to coin a phrase.

    I’m having a blast picturing Mollie Hemingway and me, out in the woods somewhere, isolated and completely stoned.

    And the odds of that, or anything remotely like that, ever happening are… closer to zero than can be measured.

    Sorry to disappoint.

    The flamboyant stoners get a lot of attention, but I think another reason many libertarians find social issues uninteresting is because they themselves lead unusually humdrum personal lives. It’s harder to take a vice seriously when it doesn’t interest you much to begin with.

  12. Mothership_Greg

    Incidentally, I voted for several Libertarian party candidates in the last election (2010), because I thought they were the best candidates.  If a candidate is running for State Treasurer, I really don’t want him to tell me his opinions about abortion and federal drug policy, however, so I didn’t vote for the Libertarians who put snotty, irrelevant policy positions on their campaign websites.

    I will never, ever, ever take seriously a man who goes on Alex Jones conspiracy show.

  13. jetstream
    Duane Oyen: My experience with self-described libertarians, and newly-minted Ron Paulites is that they have been disproportionately hostile to religion because of the moral restrictions perceived. 

    Generally, I have found some (Michael Lebeit) to be very articulate and principled, with most of the rest more like isolationist stoners, to coin a phrase. · 22 minutes ago

    My impression of the Tea Party is that most would philosophically fall somewhere in the Libertarian-Conservative category.  None of the Libertarian-Conservatives that I know, including myself, are isolationist but they are very selective in the why and where of projecting America’s military power.

    Like my other Libertarian-Conservative friends, I have a low threshold for taking robust military action to protect our National Security, but, I completely reject the the demands that we have a duty to get directly involved in places like Libya or Syria.  I don’t see this as contradictory or isolationist, it’s just common sense to pursue with a laser focus our own National Interests.

  14. Barkha Herman
    Mothership_Greg

    Do I look like a Republican to you?  You will speak of tolerance, when Ben has just referenced Cathy Young’s comment about troglodytes?  Tolerance is a two-way street.  I enjoy reading Matt Welch as much as the next guy who likes to read swear words, and I agree with a lot of what the man says, but I really don’t care for the attitude exemplified by the stereotypes iterated above.

    You don’t look it – but you do sound like many I have met.  I did look up your profile before posting.  Nothing there.  

    I re-state:  Reason has done more to promote fiscal conservatism, even make it acceptable in the mainstream, than their votes would do (and yours).

    I am not really interested in names as much as actions.  Readership has it’s value – keep doing that.  And if tents are your thing, keep doing that too.  I am sure that if Sea Steading is Matt Welch’s thing, he will do that too.  In the meantime, I appreciate Reason’s contributions to liberty – fiscal and otherwise.  

    And feel free to hide or put your affiliations on your profile – what ever you like.

  15. Mothership_Greg
    You don’t look it – but you do sound like many I have met.  I did look up your profile before posting.  Nothing there.  

    I re-state:  Reason has done more to promote fiscal conservatism, even make it acceptable in the mainstream, than their votes would do (and yours).

    I am not really interested in names as much as actions.  Readership has it’s value – keep doing that.  And if tents are your thing, keep doing that too.  I am sure that if Sea Steading is Matt Welch’s thing, he will do that too.  In the meantime, I appreciate Reason’s contributions to liberty – fiscal and otherwise.  

    And feel free to hide or put your affiliations on your profile – what ever you like. · 1 minute ago

    I don’t have any affiliations.  I’m just a citizen who pays a little too much attention to politics.  I don’t donate money.  I don’t run around telling people who they should vote for.  I get completely lost when I see phrases like “contributions to liberty”.  I actually like Matt Welch, although I don’t always agree with him.  Other Reason writers?  Not so much.

  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Barkha Herman

    I re-state:  Reason has done more to promote fiscal conservatism, even make it acceptable in the mainstream, than their votes would do (and yours).

    One of the beefs that non-libertarian conservatives have with libertarians is that libertarians won’t think strategically, right? But Barkha makes a point:

    People usually grow out of their fascination with juvenile behavior — else it wouldn’t be juvenile, would it? But it’s much less inevitable to grow into a fascination, much less a solid understanding, of economic matters. (Any adult has to worry about money, of course, but it’s amazing how often worrying about money  doesn’t  lead to understanding economic arguments.)

    As far as I’m concerned, the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the snotty attitude, of a place like Reason is just a gimmick. Glenn Beck’s weird conspiracy theories are also — I hope! — just a gimmick. But both gimmicks have actually led to more people reading dusty old farts like Hayek. Why complain?

    And Reason has Veronique de Rugy. She’s so hot. She’s so… French-sounding! Just the sort of thing to get hormonally-frustrated males hooked on econ.

  17. Skyler

    “Yet time and again, we see libertarians function as their own worst enemies when it comes to building support for ideas, forming factional lines which prevent them from working with other people of like mind on a significant portion of their policy views, often because of cultural divides over hot button social issues.”Yeah. The religious conservatives are so open and welcoming. Just you try and discuss separation of church and state with them. There are intolerant people of every mindset. Why do you single out the one movement that is saving this nation?

  18. The King Prawn
    Skyler: Why do you single out the one movement that is saving this nation? · 10 minutes ago

    I’m relatively certain the argument is that libertarianism has the ideas to save the nation (at least I think it does), but that libertarians often sabotage their own efforts. It’s why I identify more with classical liberalism rather than with libertarianism. That, and I think libertarians tend toward utopianism at times because of a flawed understanding of human nature.

  19. Foxfier
    Guruforhire: Libertarian/Conservative Utilitarianism is a suckers game.  Libertarians trying to influence the republican party is a fools errand.  Sorry. · 1 hour ago

    Can you tell this to the Libertarians who keep shrieking at me that I’m killing the Republican party by caring about social issues?

    Getting really sick of always being lectured about how “nobody cares” about social issues, so SoCons need to shut up for the good of the party.  Really sticks in my craw when the same folks then whine about how they’re attacked for their views. 

  20. Guruforhire

    Social cons have even less reason to be part of the republican party than libertarians do.

    If you want a real answer, social issues liberal or conservative issues are generally on the outs right now.  Upsetting the social apple cart is unpopular liberal or conservative presently.