The Two Libertarians
Over the past few weeks, there has been much talk of libertarians in that part of the political press that frankly can seldom by bothered by to talk about libertarians.
The New York Times wondered aloud if libertarianism might be the Fall line’s new black, even as TPM decided that libertarians might rather be soldiers of the Lamb, and no less than the Washington Post asked why on Earth no one in the growing libertarian movement could be bothered to talk about the police-state-of-affairs in Ferguson, Missouri. Everybody who is anybody (and is also a Washington, DC starf**ker) suddenly seems to have an opinion about whither the non-liberal L-word.
The libertarians I know are amused.
When I asked what he thought of Ed Kilgore’s essay on the libertarian-Christian Right alliance, Cato, Clowntown, and (until last week) OT editor Jason Kuznicki was frankly dismissive. “Kilgore conveniently forgets immigration, police & prison reform, surveillance, civil liberties,” he told me over Twitter. “Also intellectual property, regulation, and all of foreign policy.” And as JR sighed on these very threads, “I’m not sure that [WaPo’s] Waldman knows what a libertarian is.” For readers of OT, these kinds of eye-rolls from libertarians about how the outside world views them are commonplace. And full confession: It was largely conversations with Jason when I first came here that showed me that I was wrong about the Beltway’s most successful minor-league farm team.
Still, I think it’s worth asking why is it that so many people in America are of the opinion that libertarians are so closely aligned with the religious right, or that libertarians would be so staunchly defending the police in the deadly shooting of an unarmed black teenager. And when I say, “worth asking,” I mean for libertarians themselves.
Because it’s becoming clear to me that there are actually two separate libertarianisms competing for mini-supremacy in the United States, which for the purposes of this post I will label True Libertarianism (TL) and Mass-Market Libertarianism (MT). And those libertarians who fall into the TL category (and whom I admit a personal fondness) I say this: You would be wise to buck your lofty tradition and begin paying attention to and engaging with the MTs of this country.
Because they’re kicking your ass, and they’re about to set your cause back a generation or more.
Ask a TL who the most widely regarded libertarian thinker today is, and they might answer in any number of ways — Hayek or Rothbard might be mentioned by those with their eyes on the past, as well might either of the Pauls or Reason’s Nick Gillespie by those wanting to give a more modern turn. But in fact, the actual answer is probably either Glenn Beck or some amalgam of Fox News hosts and contributors.
Though Jason, JR and other TLs will argue that neither Beck nor Fox News is libertarian, it is nonetheless the way that each media icon promotes themselves. This is why, I would argue, non-libertarians readers here often say libertarians believe in things that make TLs like Jason, JR, and James scoff. Because to the vast preponderance of the country, this is the way libertarianism is being marketed, packaged, ad distributed.
This is why I believe that TL stalwart Cato’s own 2010 study misinterpreted the data of various polls when they stated that “it’s encouraging that 59 percent of Americans think they lean in a libertarian direction on both economic and social issues and that 44 percent are willing to be described as libertarian.” The study’s authors, Davids Kirby and Boaz, mistakenly assumed that people generally thought libertarianism was something akin to their own definitions. In fact, for most Americans — and indeed, I believe most self-identifying libertarians — the libertarian movement is the MLs. And other than not wanting to personally pay taxes, they share surprisingly little with the Cato set.
The mass market libertarianism of Beck and Fox is in fact largely theocratic, which is why I believe Kilgore’s TPM piece was a direct hit on the U.S. macro-level even as it was patently absurdist on Jason’s personal micro-level. After all, since at least 2009 the MTs have used the media to conflate the moniker of libertarianism with a Christian-first nation, a need to conquer the forces of Islam both home and abroad, a stronger police force, rampant government surveillance, torture, cronyism (for one party, anyway), and moral bans by the state on drugs, mosque-building, and gay marriage.
This is why the findings such as these by the Pew Research Center don’t seem especially head scratching to me. Off course polls show libertarians all over the map with what TLs would consider bedrock libertarian principles. Their movement is growing largely on the backs of populist and decidedly anti-libertarian views.
The response to all of this from TLs I have known over the years has been, so what? We’re the real libertarians, they tell me. We’re not here for power, we’re just here to nudge the trains onto different tracks when and where we can.
The problem with this is the same problem the Foxes and Becks of the world made for conservatism. It basically no longer exists in this country, not in the classical definition of the word. It’s far less possible today to get trains on the tracks of classically defined conservatism in this country, because today’s “conservatives” have no interest in doing so and for independents the word conservatism has become synonymous with nutty conspiracy theories, rape apologists, and a demonizing of disenfranchised others.
The same is happening to libertarianism, and it’s happening faster and more deeply. If the TL libertarian set really wants to have influence in the public policy of the future, they need to eventually recognize this and deal with it, rather than simply declare it beneath them. If they don’t, I suspect, the TLs of today will join the ranks of the Trotskyists and every other political force that now spends its time in the dusty academia aisles of Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda.
 Though in fairness, both Beck and many at Fox since the Prop 8 ruling have shifted their stance on SSM from being a progressive war on our way of life that must never be allowed, to a question of, as Beck stated after the ruling, “why is the government involved in our marriage?”