In Search of the Libertarian Moment

On August 7, Robert Draper (New York Times) asked: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” One excerpt:

Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it. For decades their ideas have had serious backing financially (most prominently by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David H., ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket), intellectually (by way of policy shops like the Cato Institute and C.E.I.) and in the media (through platforms like Reason and, as of last year, “The Independents”). But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side.

Draper quotes Senator Rand Paul as saying: “there was a time, maybe 30 years ago, when ‘libertarian’ was a term that scared people. Now I think it seems more like a moderate point of view. So I think the term is something that is definitely attracting, not repelling people.”

Unfortunately, if the term no longer scares people, it may be because they don’t understand the term or its implications.

Yesterday, Pew Research released a report “In Search of Libertarians.” Pew found that 14 percent of the respondents described themselves as “libertarian.” When asked (in a separate multiple choice question) to specify what was meant by “libertarian,” Pew concluded that only 11 percent of the population claimed to be libertarian and knew the definition of the word. In case you are wondering, Pew defined libertarian as “someone whose political views emphasize individual freedom by limiting the role of government.” While 57 percent identified this statement as libertarian, 20 percent identified it as “Progressive,” 7 percent as “Unitarian,” 6 percent as “Authoritarian” and 6 percent as “Communist.” It is hard to imagine that 12 percent of the population actually believes that communists or authoritarians want to reduce the role of government and emphasize individual freedom.

Alright, maybe only 11 percent claim to be libertarian and know what the term means. Maybe the “libertarian moment” is a small one. However, there is more bad news. On most policy issues, those who claim to be libertarian (and understand the term) were only modestly different than the public as a whole. Sometimes, these differences were not what one might expect. For example:

Libertarianism is generally associated with a less activist foreign policy, yet a greater share of self-described libertarians (43%) than the public (35%) think “it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.”

I am not certain what to make of these results. Perhaps self-proclaimed libertarians have failed to reflect sufficiently on libertarianism’s policy implications (libertarianism, after all, is not simply reducible to being “cool” with gay marriage and legal weed). Perhaps some subset of “libertarians” are identifying as such to signal their distaste of the major parties. Whatever the answer, if the Pew results are correct, it seems unlikely that we are experiencing much of a libertarian moment.

4 thoughts on “In Search of the Libertarian Moment

  1. FWIW, I don’t care for Pew’s foreign policy question. “Active in world affairs” could mean diplomacy and trade agreements.

    In addition, I’m not surprised many people don’t know what “libertarian” means. Way back in 1960, Converse found many voters didn’t have consistent political attitudes at all, and since then surveys have always found large minorities of respondents who think Democrats are the conservative party and Republicans the liberal party, etc.

  2. It doesn’t help that a lot of “libertarian”-leaning politicians favor government restricting/outlawing abortions. Oh, government shouldn’t be interfering, but, but, BUT. If you’re truly a libertarian, WHICHEVER WAY YOU PERSONALLY LEAN, you fund all the “PSA” ads you want, but you don’t cry out to the government to have it your way.

  3. That “libertarian moment” article was weird. If this era, with its monstrously expensive and intrusive, metastasizing government is libertarian then, well, hope is lost.

    However, I think there is some reason to think that we will be moving in the right direction. Which facts do I think justify these beliefs? Behold:

    1. Economic “fundamentals” are the dominant variable that structures our electoral outcomes.

    2. Many of our economic results are stuck in a depressed equilibria. I’m thinking of GDP growth, participation in the labor market, number of new businesses, etc.

    3. This lowers the levels of optimism and trust in government of the electorate.

    4. As successive Republican and Democratic governments fail to substantially improve the economy, the window of conceivable policy options opens. Stuff stinks so the appetite for change grows. (If nothing else, the electorate stays restless for a longer time and that allows social movements to gain enough adherents to overcome veto points.)

    In other words, I believe in a sort of “libertarian Leninism” (e.g., “the worse, the better). As the electorate grows restless and impatient with the government, there will be a reservoir of dissatisfaction for policy entrepreneurs to tap into.

    One of the keys to increased libertarianism will be allowing some latitude to state and local solutions. Tax competition and Tiebout choice should exert a modest influence in our favor.

    Finally, we’re running out of money! Who’s going to pay those gigantic overpromised pensions? Once we set the rent-seekers against each other, the ensuing bloodbath will be fantastic. (The recent sequester made my heart cry with happiness.)

    Anyway, if the US doesn’t work out, I’m thinking about emigrating to Newt’s Lunar Colony or medieval Iceland.

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