If the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 did nothing else, they were successful in introducing libertarianism to an entirely new generation of Americans. In doing so, they helped spark a new phenomenon in American politics: a broad grassroots movement dedicated to libertarian principles.
After Ron Paul’s first campaign, in 2008, the organization Young Americans for Liberty was created from his campaign infrastructure. (Full disclosure: I was the Vice President of my school’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter while in my senior year of college.) Around the same time, Students for Liberty was also formed. Meanwhile, the Free State Project, founded in 2001, aimed to move large numbers of libertarians to a single state – New Hampshire – with the hope of turning it into a reliably libertarian electorate.
Almost a decade later, the so-called “liberty movement” has flopped.
The movement itself has grown, to be sure. However, libertarians have enacted few major policy changes (unless you count a general trend towards ending the War on Drugs as partly libertarian-inspired), and brought about no major cultural shift. In the public imagination, libertarianism remains a fringe movement, associated with pot smoking, legalized prostitution, Bitcoin, and not knowing what Aleppo is. In the larger conservative movement, libertarianism has been overshadowed by Trumpism.
What went wrong? How did such a promising social movement, with such a strong intellectual foundation, amount to so little? Was Ron Paul not good enough? Were his political successors, namely his son Rand Paul and Gary Johnson, unworthy of carrying on his legacy? Is there more to life than automatic rifles, Stefan Molyneux podcasts, The Fountainhead, and hard drugs?
I would argue that the “liberty movement” was doomed to failure from the start, by a series of contradictions inherent in its very nature.
Part of this is because libertarianism is an entirely “negative” movement, dedicated to being against something – namely, government. In this sense, libertarianism is similar to New Atheism, another movement that started strong about ten years ago and ended up buckling and splintering over time. Just like atheists are united only in opposition to religion, libertarians are united only in opposition to government – and it is difficult to build a positive community around a negative premise, regardless of the legitimacy of the negative premise.
But the contradictions in libertarianism go even deeper than this.
A political movement for liberty is a fundamental oxymoron. Consider this: politics is the realm in which we debate the role of government in society. Every year, politicians at each level of government pass countless laws, and the general public debates about whether these laws are acceptable. These debates revolve around one central theme: what is the role of government? What should government do, and what should it not do? These questions occupy the attention of millions in our country alone, including politicians, bureaucrats, and political activists.
If libertarianism is the correct philosophy of government, then all of this is completely irrelevant.
To a libertarian, the big questions are answered, and their answers are very simple. In a libertarian society, government exists (if it exists at all) to protect the basic rights of its citizens to life, liberty, and property, and to do nothing else besides this. The only laws on the books in such a society are laws that protect these rights, and the only crimes are crimes that involve the violation of these rights.
Government, in a libertarian society, must only provide its citizens with a few basic services to ensure the protection of these rights – police, courts, a small defensive military, and perhaps a few other basic common goods such as fire departments and roads.
Okay, fine. Maybe we can privatize some of the roads.
Everything beyond these most basic services – everything not strictly necessary for the basic stability of society and the protection of individual rights – is left to individuals and corporations.
I do not want to sound overly disparaging of this libertarian vision. I still consider myself politically libertarian-leaning, and I believe that such a world would, in most ways, be superior to the world we live in today.
However, the realization of this libertarian utopia would spell doom for an entire class of people. The political actors of our society, whether they be politicians, bureaucrats, or activists, would become almost entirely obsolete in such a society. Almost everything these actors do falls far outside the realm of libertarian government.
In a libertarian world, politicians will be reduced from some of the most powerful and prestigious members of society to glorified clerks – “night watchmen,” it is sometimes said – whose only task is to ensure the basic sustenance of the small number of remaining government services. Your politician will become no more noticeable than your janitor, and not much more socially esteemed.
Instead of passing hundreds of laws each year, some of them thousands of pages long, and employing millions of bureaucrats to enforce these laws, government will pass only a few basic laws necessary for the preservation of basic government functions, making minor tweaks as they go along.
The vast government bureaucracy, which employs a significant fraction of the population in the United States and even more in many European countries, will become obsolete. There will be almost no public employees left, except for a few police officers, soldiers, judges, and public prosecutors and defenders.
Most importantly for our analysis, however, political activism will become obsolete as well.
Political activists exist to push the government to take certain actions, or not to take certain actions. But in a libertarian world, where the government has a small and clearly defined role, and most citizens agree on basic principles, almost all political activism will become irrelevant.
In a libertarian world, almost everything interesting will be happening in the private sector. Politics will become downright boring.
Of course, there are plenty of controversies within modern libertarianism, which could potentially be carried over into a libertarian society: abortion, intellectual property, the environment, criminal justice, and so on. Even so, the role of full-time political activists and agitators will be greatly diminished.
Unfortunately, the libertarian movement in America has spent the last decade increasing the number of full-time political activists and agitators.
Libertarian activists agitate for less government. But if they have their way, they will render themselves obsolete. For a full-time libertarian, “success” can best be defined as a world in which they themselves are no longer relevant.
There is another layer to this problem: libertarian activist organizations, such as the one I was part of, aim to make more libertarians, just as activist organizations of all stripes aim to make more of themselves. But what good will more libertarians do?
Libertarianism, as a philosophy, is more or less fully fleshed out. Libertarian thinkers and scholars ranging from Henry Hazlitt to Murray Rothbard to Thomas Sowell to Ayn Rand to Ludwig von Mises, and their predecessors, the “classical liberals” such as John Locke and Adam Smith, have already said almost all that can be said on the topic.
Can anyone make the case for libertarianism better than these great minds have? Do we really need a new generation of Austin Petersens and David Kokeshes to reinvent the wheel by restating all their arguments in slightly different words? We have little to add to what has already been put on paper. Of course, there is always room for criticism and improvement, but only in the minutiae.
Full-time libertarian activism, therefore, is both ultimately suicidal and incredibly boring. It is boring because it provides little to no intellectual stimulation. It is suicidal because it works towards its own obsolescence.
Is it any wonder that the libertarian movement, laboring under these inherent contradictions, has made so little progress?
The specter of these contradictions, if they are not acknowledged, will drive the libertarian movement to full ideological schizophrenia… if, indeed, they have not done so already.
We might criticize government bureaucrats for acting against the best interest of the public by creating unnecessary outgrowths of bureaucracy with which to occupy themselves at public expense… but at least these types of bureaucrats are acting in their personal best interest. They are not fundamentally irrational. In a perverse way, they are acting more rationally than libertarian activists are, because they are working to create a world in which they, and people like them, will have continued relevance (at least to themselves, if not to society).
When hand weaving became obsolete, in late 18th century England, the hand weavers rebelled and smashed the new industrial looms. When American industry began to be outsourced to Mexico and China, American blue collar workers began to vote for protectionists like Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump. Every industry, on the verge of obsolescence, turns to Luddism and protectionism. This is a sad but necessary part of the cycle of “creative destruction” in the economy.
We can expect no less from libertarian activists themselves. Once political libertarianism starts to become obsolete, rendered thusly by its own success, its adherents will turn to their own brand of Luddism, and will work, perhaps not even consciously, to prolong the existence of big government, so that they may stay relevant longer.
Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, libertarian activists are like dogs chasing cars: “I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.” If your only marketable skill is activism, then you will not thrive in a world that no longer has need of your activism.
In one sense, this is a dilemma common to activists and fighters of all sorts, not just libertarians. It is why socialist movements often devolve into “permanent revolution” and endless purges and counter-purges until the cost to human life becomes unconscionable. Even Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land – which shows that even the ancient Hebrews were aware that the types of people who help bring about a better world are not necessarily compatible with the types of people who will inhabit it.
However, because of its inherently anti-government nature, this distinction is stronger in the libertarian movement than in perhaps any other social movement.
In fact, one could argue that the libertarian movement, unconsciously aware of its own impending obsolescence, has already begun its decline into intellectual Luddism. This may be the reason why the libertarian movement of late has been acting like a ship without a rudder: candidates like Gary Johnson abandon basic libertarian principles in an unsuccessful attempt to appease voters on the left, while the libertarian base seems less interested in reading Rothbard than in engaging in polyamorous Bitcoin orgies while tripping on acid (the same tendencies that led Ayn Rand towards the end of her life to deride certain types of libertarians as the “hippies of the right”).
Perhaps libertarian activists have started to resemble leftist hippies of decades past because they realize that hippie-dom matches their skill set better than small business ownership does. In Ayn Rand’s great novel Atlas Shrugged, society collapses when the great value-producers of the world start to disappear. But if most modern libertarian activists disappeared, society would not lose a great deal of value.
So long as this is the case, libertarianism is doomed to fail by one means or another.
(My words do not, of course, apply to every American who leans politically libertarian. Many of these individuals are some of the most valuable members of society. Nor do they apply to everyone who has ever engaged in libertarian activism – myself included. They apply solely to a small core group of full-time libertarian activists who have devoted their lives to the cause, to the exclusion of all else.)
I believe that the libertarian movement has made a serious, and perhaps even suicidal, mistake by encouraging young people to become full-time libertarian activists, instead of encouraging them to become self-actualized and self-sufficient individuals. Once people have a sufficient knowledge of basic libertarian ideals, they need learn no more. They will live the ideals of liberty in their day-to-day lives, and fight for their rights when threatened.
Libertarianism should be a strictly reactive movement, not a proactive one. Anything beyond this, and libertarians will become, at best, “junk DNA,” and, at worst, an active cancer.
This will be the true “liberty movement” that transforms society: a group of individuals, strong and capable of living for themselves, willing to show the virtue of liberty by example of their own lives. Less than a century ago, most ordinary Americans lived this way, and we were once (and can be again) the freest people on earth. A nation of such individuals will naturally resist tyranny, and will fight against any threat to their liberty. But a nation of poorly self-actualized ivory tower intellectuals and full time political agitators will easily be subsumed under the wing of a tyrant, as so many well-meaning revolutionaries have been throughout history.
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