It has long been customary to divide the Republican Party into three camps: big business or Wall Street Republicans, the religious right and neoconservatives or national security Republicans. The third group, it must be admitted, somewhat unsteadily combines neoconservatives proper (such as William Kristol) with old-fashioned defense hawks (such as Donald Rumsfeld), but perhaps this is the Republican big tent we keep hearing about.
In any case, this neat three-part logic was roiled by two events in 2008: the Great Recession and the election of Barack Obama as president. The latters decision to respond to the crisis with a fairly traditional mix of demand-side remedies some tax cuts, some increased spending ignited a fire storm on the right. CNBCs Rick Santelli is often fingered as the principal arsonist. On Feb. 19, 2009, outraged by Obamas plan to assist homeowners caught up in the collapse of the housing market,Santelliwent on air to unburden himself of the following ideas:
The spark had been struck; the Tea Party roared to life. Five years later it has remade American politics, largely through its impact on the GOP. Profoundly alienated from the modern American state, which it regards as a bureaucratic embodiment of foreign social-democratic ideals, intensely ideological, intransigent and scornful of compromise, the Tea Party has used its electoral success in the South and Midwest and its power in primaries and caucuses to impose sharp limits on the policy options available to GOP politicians. Rick Santellis wildfire consumed immigration reform and an extension of unemployment benefits; it flared into a government shutdown and crept perilously close to two debt defaults.
One consequence of the Tea Party ascendancy has been a new prominence for the term libertarian. In many ways this is unfortunate. There is reason to believe that any connections between libertarianism and the Tea Party are tenuous at best. A recentstudyfound that 60 percent of libertarians do not identify with the Tea Party, while only 26 percent of Tea Party supporters think of themselves as libertarians. (Fully twice as many affiliate with the religious right.) Still, animpressionpersists that the Republican Party is increasingly animated by the spirit of John Galt. I think there are mainly four reasons for this.
The first is that some conservative activists, quick to sense the electoral (and financial) potential of the Tea Party, moved quickly to associate its concerns with their own, often quite different, agendas. (The absurdist theater that swirled around DickArmeysdeparture from FreedomWorks is apposite here.)
A second more important source of confusion is that libertarian, as a rubric, offers Republicans certain rhetorical advantages. It suggests theyreforsomething and not just against the Democrats, and that this something is related to liberty. (And it performs this latter function while avoiding the hated epithet liberal.) It also serves an irenic purpose insofar as it gestures at common ground for Tea Partyers, the religious right generally, and Wall Streeters. If these factions can agree on anything, its that they want less government meaning lessliberalgovernment and this is easily elided into the claim that they want more liberty. As long as no one inspects the logic too closely, this Were all libertarians now line can seem helpfully plausible. Which brings us to the fourth reason, a national media always ready to exploit the helpfully plausible in its constant search for the appealingly (or is it appallingly?) simple.
So one increasingly hears certain prominent Republicans referred to as libertarians or as members of the partys libertarian wing.Ted CruzandPaul Ryanhave been identified as such at one time or another, as have (with slightly more reason) bothPauls, Ron and Rand. This, again, is a mistake. As Ive arguedelsewhere,no important Republican politician is a libertarian. Still, perceptions are important in politics, and there is certainly no doubt that real libertarians belong noisily, busily belong to the Republican coalition.
Given this, all of us have an interest in understanding the nature of libertarian thought, and in knowing whether it forms the basis of a workable politics. Michael Lind has written brilliantly about these issues (here,for example) in the context of practical politics. I want to take them up in a more theoretical light. I will focus on the central concept of libertarian thought the idea of personal freedom and argue that it cannot be coherently explained on libertarian grounds. I will also argue that a libertarian society, if fully realized, would be actively hostile to the development of free selves. Libertarianism, in other words, cannot give a persuasive account of its own core concept. Its as close to self-refuting as a political theory can be.
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Some criticisms of libertarian thought are unwarranted. For example, it issometimesalleged that libertarians lack concern for others, or are motivated only by greed, or embrace a crass, materialistic ethic. Libertarians think such charges are based on a simple confusion. Their intent is to advocate for liberty, they say; what free people choose to do with their liberty is an entirely separate matter. I think this reply is conclusive if it is meant to rebut the claim that libertarians, because they value freedom, must also value the content of every free choice. (In other contexts, as I will argue below, it is much less conclusive.) That claim really is a confusion. I do not have to approve of pornography simply because I endorse the First Amendment. Similarly, I do not have to approve of choices to be selfish or shallow because I favor economic and political liberty. Liberals, who are often on the receiving end of this kind of attack from conservative critics, should think twice before directing it at libertarians.