Whatever happened to the libertarian movement?
Since the age of 14 I have been a self-conscious libertarian. That’s when I started reading libertarian tracts (Rand, Mises, Hayek). I say reading, but at least in the case of Mises, reading was not the same as understanding at such an early age. I was no child prodigy. Quite the opposite: I was what we used to call a juvenile delinquent, with a perverse penchant for reading. Nevertheless, I owned a copy of Human Action, sent to me by the Conservative Book Club, which I ploughed through with the persistence of a budding fanatic.
Ayn Rand was more my style—pure fiction, albeit with a message, one I was more than ready to receive. I regularly read the conservative-libertarian media: National Review, American Opinion, Human Events—yes, our local library carried all three! Back then, Reason was a mimeographed 16-page production. I used to talk to the magazine’s founder, the eccentric Lanny Friedlander, on the phone, excitedly discussing the advent of issue number one. When it finally came out, it was a Very Big Deal, at least for us. After all, the inside of it may have been mimeographed, but the cover was offset-printed!
Out of these humble origins—basically a movement of teenagers, college students, and a few university professors—came the plethora of think tanks, political-action groups, and widely divergent individuals who, today, claim title to the libertarian brand. Back in the Good Old Days, 1968 to the mid-1980’s, there was never any question as to what the brand represented. The Three Pillars of the libertarian platform—economic freedom, civil liberties, and a noninterventionist foreign policy—were practically uncontested. While no one could accuse us of avoiding internal debates over abstruse issues that were of interest only to committed ideologues (it often seemed to me as if libertarians did little else!), we basically knew what we believed. Not only that, but we stuck to it. There was talk of “transitional programs,” and debate over which issues to emphasize, but there was a basic unity of vision in that none of us ever sought to justify any extension of state power. We didn’t side with the state. We saw ourselves as radicals, with the Establishment on the other side of the barricades being typically corporate liberal.
Forty years later, the movement I joined as a teenager has morphed into something almost unrecognizable—to me, at least. Or perhaps I am the one who is doing at least some of the morphing. It’s often hard to tell. In any case, my growing estrangement from my former comrades was vividly brought home to me by the appearance of Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward, formerly of The Weekly Standard, and some other Reasonoid type on Tucker Carlson’s show. Asked if it mattered that the person being put out of work by increased levels of immigration is an American, both answered with an emphatic no. Who cares if they’re Americans? Who cares if it’s the family next door? Who cares about the country? America isn’t a place; it’s an Idea!
If someone tried to invent an ideology with no appeal to any decent human being, then that’s it.
Libertarianism as a political tendency split into two major segments in the early 1980’s, when the Cato Institute bigwigs, today’s Beltway “libertarians,” broke with the founder of Cato, Murray N. Rothbard, who had originally persuaded billionaire Charles Koch to fund the first big-time libertarian think tank. Rothbard and his followers were the intellectual catalyst for the enormously successful Ron Paul movement. The Cato group, on the other hand, never achieved any sort of mass influence: Their whole strategy was to stick close to Washington and whisper in the ear of the king.
Ah, but not HRH Donald Trump. In a remarkable essay for the Washington Post, Julian Sanchez, Cato’s cyber-civil-liberties “expert,” openly sided with the FBI and the “intelligence community” in their brazenly illegal surveillance of the Trump campaign. Move along, says this “civil-liberties expert.” Nothing to see here.
Primarily concerned with pushing a globalist, open-borders agenda, the Catoites have jumped on board the anti-Russian bandwagon. They regularly give a platform to Andrei Illarionov, a former Putinite who turned on his master and is now running all over the place declaring that we are “at war” with Moscow. I have seen no attempt by anyone at Cato or Reason to resist or even mildly question the Russophobic hysteria that’s gripped the left. Indeed, they occasionally reflect and reinforce it. Reason ran a major cover story by Russian immigrant Cathy Young on Putin’s dastardly “antilibertarian” global conspiracy. KochWorld resembles a Beltway cocktail party, perhaps a Marco Rubio fundraiser.
An even more brazen sellout is being perpetrated by the Niskanen Center, the “liberal”-tarian outfit that is basically a leftist split-off from Cato, where the Niskanen principals once worked. With tens of thousands in donations from the Omidyar Network and the Rockefellers, they’re pushing “libertarian” versions of the welfare state, including universal guaranteed income. “Climate change” legislation is also a big moneymaker for them. And of course they dissent from the noninterventionist foreign policy that is really at the heart of the Old Libertarianism.
This left-nuttiness was reflected in the rather goofy presidential campaign of Gary Johnson, who toyed with the universal income concept and became best known for endorsing drug-taking—i.e., smoking marijuana—as well as drug legalization. While he praised Hillary Clinton as “a wonderful public servant,” his running mate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, practically endorsed her.
In short, the libertarian movement we once knew and loved—“our beloved movement,” as my friend and mentor Murray Rothbard often put it in correspondence and conversation—is no more. In its place is a creature I’ve never set eyes on before, one that often seems to be sucking up to Power, and in its more exotic manifestations (e.g., Mangu-Ward’s “who cares about Americans?”), deliberately offending and turning away ordinary Americans.
The last remnants of the Old Libertarianism—the wonderful folks at the Mises Institute, the Ron Paul groups—are doing a great job. But I’m afraid that their role, at this point, is to keep the Remnant intact, and hope for better days to come. The ideological degeneration of “official” libertarianism is not only far advanced but a threat to the future of liberty itself. The sheer insanity of a “libertarian” siding with the most unaccountable and coercive sectors of the state apparatus, the “intelligence community,” in their quest to overthrow a sitting President is something I would have thought inconceivable. But that was back when the world made sense. Now, the “libertarians” are either clowns or apologists for power.
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