Opinion

The bizarre fiction of libertarians' control of Washington

I wish somebody had told me sooner that we had so much power!

It is with great pleasure that I announce to my fellow libertarians: We have won.

We thought ourselves the acolytes of a largely ignored vision for American governance. We saw a $22 trillion national debt and figured no one in Washington was interested in our message of fiscal restraint. We critiqued crony capitalism and corporate subsidies while both major parties bailed out big business, using tax dollars to paper over the consequences of bad policy calls. We watched the rise of the post-9/11 security state — mass digital surveillance, the terror watchlist, the TSA — and got the impression that few Americans shared our alarm. We wondered if these numerous and apparently permanent wars, with their deplorable carelessness about civilian casualties, war crimes, and due process, would ever end. We objected to the brutality and militarization of American law enforcement before the issue came to national attention and after it mostly slipped from view. We talked about abolishing the Federal Reserve, ending the drug war, eliminating entire federal departments, and more, all with relatively little reason to believe our goals would ever be realized on any mass scale. We thought there was a brief "libertarian moment," launched by Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, peaked in 2014, and functionally ended by President Trump's 2016 win, plunging us back to fringe status in American electoral politics.

But we were wrong! We didn't realize it, but we controlled Washington this whole time. This is big news for us, and I think we owe Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) a huge thanks for letting us know.

Carlson was the first to give us an inkling of our true power. "The leadership class is resolutely libertarian," he revealed in early June, bemoaning Washington's plentiful "libertarian zealot[s] controlled by the banks, yammering on about entrepreneurship and how we need to cut entitlements." Later that month, he indicated this dynamic exists because the Koch brothers are "libertarian ideologues, passionate and inflexible" who "run the Republican Party," dictating the GOP platform on key issues including immigration, drug and prison policy, and free speech.

You may find this surprising — I know I did! — as it seems to bear little resemblance to the actual state of Republican policymaking in 2019. On immigration, for example, the bulk of the GOP has followed Trump into calls for strict border security and limited refugee and immigrant admissions. Libertarians have historically differed on this issue, but the Koch brothers' perspective Carlson decries includes support for DACA and liberalized immigration policy more generally. Weird!

Carlson correctly noted Koch support for the First Step Act, but libertarians like yours truly deemed it a limited achievement. Is backing it anyway what it means to be ideologically "inflexible"? And as for free speech, we do tend to be passionate about the First Amendment — which is why, as Carlson said, we prefer having private social media companies self-police their networks instead of letting the state legislate what we can say and do on the internet. Rising GOP stars like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), by contrast, back proposals that would, as National Review's David French put it, "invite an enormous amount of bureaucratic meddling" online.

Even more surprising for me was Graham's disclosure this week that we libertarians also control America's foreign policy. "The Obama-libertarian foreign policy does not make America safe," the hawkish senator tweeted Monday in response to Trump's reshuffling of U.S. troops in Syria. "If ignoring radical Islam made America safe, there would NOT have been a 9/11."

I never would have guessed libertarians dictated U.S. foreign affairs not only from 2008 to 2016 but also in the run-up to 9/11. I thought we were very angry about American foreign policy in those years, always complaining about the blowback, the drone strikes, the unconstitutional executive war-making, the attacks on innocent civilians, the costly and incompetent nation-building efforts, and so on. I thought we were always raising objections to former President Barack Obama's foreign policy on pretty much every possible basis. The most libertarian member of the House of Representatives, the newly nonpartisan Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), thought so too. Little did we know we were Obama's puppet masters all along!

I jest, obviously, but only because it is enormously bizarre to find oneself attacked in wildly inaccurate effigy. The most plausible explanation I can muster for this fiction of libertarian power is that libertarianism is in broad strokes the opposite of the Trumpian GOP's brand of populism.

If we're at the top of the Nolan Chart, they're somewhere near the bottom. I'm not enthusiastic about the "socially liberal and fiscally conservative" shorthand, but in those terms, libertarianism is diametrically opposed to the Republican Party's current mood of state-enforced social conservatism and what Carlson has dubbed "economic patriotism," which we would call protectionism, corporatism, and rank profligacy. On foreign policy, Trump's approach is so incoherent there is sometimes policy overlap with the libertarian agenda, but his militaristic style is decidedly unwelcome in our noninterventionist framework. We quote warnings about the military-industrial complex; he overlooks murder to bolster arms sales.

Libertarians may sometimes punch above our weight in national debate, but when it comes to effectively wielding power in Washington, we're weaklings. I wish Carlson and Graham were right about us running the country. The reality is they're wrong.

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