Opinion

The rise and fall and rise again of the libertarian moment

Libertarianism is back, with a new look

Do you remember the "libertarian moment"?

I wouldn't blame you if not. For a few years around the end of the Obama administration, though, it looked as if the right just might coalesce around restrained foreign policy, opposition to electronic surveillance and other threats to civil liberties, and enthusiasm for an innovative economy, very much including the tech industry. Beyond policy, the libertarian turn was associated with a hip affect that signaled comfort with pop culture. Even though they were personally far from cool, The New York Times compared the movement's electoral figureheads, the father-and-son duo Ron and Rand Paul, to grunge bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam. 

In retrospect, those descriptions seem naive. Less than a year after the Times feature was published, the announcement of Donald Trump's presidential campaign sounded the death knell of the libertarian moment (along with Rand Paul's own bid for the presidency). In another unforeseen twist, though, the pendulum seems to now be swinging back toward libertarian instincts.

While in office, Trump had deployed an apocalyptic idiom that clashed dramatically with the libertarians' characteristic optimism. Although personally indifferent to ideas, Trump also inspired a cohort of intellectuals who denounced libertarians' ostensible indifference to the common good and proposed a more assertive role for government in directing economic and social life. 

But as the pandemic has continued, opposition to restrictions on personal conduct, suspicion of expert authority, and free speech for controversial opinions have become dominant themes in center-right argument and activism. The symbolic villain of the new libertarian moment is Anthony Fauci. Its heroes include Joe Rogan, whose podcast has been a platform for vaccine skeptics, advocates of ivermectin and other dubious treatments for COVID, and other challenges to the expert consensus.

Appeals to personal freedom, limited government, and epistemological skepticism against pandemic authorities have some basis in the organized libertarian movement. Early in the pandemic, the American Institute for Economic Research issued the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, which rejected lockdowns and argued (before vaccines became available) that mitigation strategies should be limited to the most vulnerable portion of the population. In the Senate, Paul (Ky.) has been the leading critic of Fauci and the CDC. Long-standing libertarian positions have also been energized by the pandemic. The disruption of public education, for example, has revitalized the school choice movement.

But it would be a mistake to think these appeals succeed because Americans have any newfound appreciation for Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, or other libertarian thinkers. More than any coherent political theory, the libertarian revival draws on inarticulate but powerful currents of anti-authoritarianism in American culture. In a blog post drawing on the work of historian David Hackett Fischer, the writer Tanner Greer argues that this disposition is an inheritance from the Scots-Irish settlers of colonial America. Concentrating on its recent expressions, my predecessor Matthew Walther described the defiant, individualistic, risk-embracing sensibility as "barstool conservatism" after Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, who joins Rogan among its most prominent representatives. 

Whatever its origins, the new quasi-libertarianism is an obstacle to the managerial tendencies that increasingly define the center-left. More than opposition to the government as such, it revolves around opposition to administrative restrictions imposed for one's own good. If the old libertarianism was obsessed with the risk of ideological totalitarianism, the new version concentrates on the influence of human resources bureaucrats, public health officials, and neighborhood busybodies.

Its idealized enemy isn't the commissar. It's the high school guidance counselor. 

That reorientation from philosophical to mundane grievances is key to its demographic appeal. Decades ago, the left benefitted from its association with resistance to busybodies. Think of Frank Zappa and other musicians who opposed efforts to place warning labels on records they considered obscene. Today, outspoken progressives are prominent among those demanding censorship of putative misinformation — including Rogan's removal from the Spotify platform that hosts his podcast. An occasionally juvenile sense of defying petty tyranny helps explain why the libertarian revival appeals so powerfully to young men (and why spokesmen like Rogan and Portnoy often have backgrounds in sports entertainment). Rather than a defense of natural rights, it's an instinctive dislike of being bossed around.

The inchoate libertarian revival isn't just the political equivalent of cutting class, though. The unimpressive performance of schools, the FDA, and other vehicles of public policy have undermined the ambitious goals Democrats hoped to pursue under the Biden Administration. It's hard to make the case for free college, increased educational spending, or single-payer healthcare with the institutions that would have to deliver these benefits seem unwilling or unable to do their current jobs. Progressives don't want to hear it, but the era of big government is probably over again. 

In the past, that conclusion might have been celebrated by conservatives. Today, it's more controversial. During Trump's presidency, some theorists entertained hopes that Republicans might become the "party of the state." In addition to conventional hopes for restricting pornography and halting or reversing the legalization of drugs, that includes proposals for sweeping industrial policies to promote domestic manufacturing and cash benefits for married parents to promote traditional family patterns. Rejecting libertarian confidence in spontaneous order, these intellectuals argued that both the economy and the culture need to be intentionally guided toward the common good.

The New Right's challenge to libertarian optimism — that order, prosperity, or other conservative goals would come about automatically — is often insightful. But it's their hope that the dour and devout can achieve theoretically rational outcomes by capturing and redirecting some of the same institutions that have been discredited during the pandemic that now seems utopian.

Iconoclastic podcasters and the "Freedom Convoy" of truckers protesting vaccine mandates may not have been what journalists and activists had in mind when they spoke of the libertarian moment five years ago. But they're the vanguard of its sequel today. 

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