Why a More Libertarian GOP Is Desirable

In “The Party of Sam’s Club,” and later in Grand New Party, Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat argue for a GOP that better represents working class voters, and deem a libertarian turn in the GOP to be substantively undesirable and politically unwise. Circa 2005, they advised Republicans to take “the ‘big-government conservatism’ vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability.” Their book, released in the summer of 2008, offers an astute, rather thorough repudiation of Bush + Rove, and I marveled at how persuasively it crafted its historical narrative of American politics, and even policy proposals I was predisposed to dislike on small government grounds. Weren’t the authors right that the working class is ill-served by prevailing economic trends — that increasing social and economic stratification will turn increasingly anxious people to the Democratic Party if the GOP doesn’t offer them something more?

But I wondered whether their preferred agenda, however prudent in theory, could ever be implemented by the GOP in a way that would actually serve the working class. As Heather Wilhelm wrote in her review of the book, “there may not be much the government can do to stop the forces behind such a major cultural and societal shift.” Put differently, maybe something could be done, but does anyone trust a Republican led Congress, having won a quasi-redistributionist mandate, to do that thing? Better to pursue certain policy changes they advocated as pragmatic, piecemeal reforms, rather than pushing for the kind of overarching project that quickly sees its mandate exploited by political elites for their own ends.

The issues that Grand New Party grappled with endure. David Frum undertook his own “rethinking the GOP” project due to worries that the economic gains of the last couple decades aren’t reaching a large swath of Americans. Jim Manzi worried in National Affairs that staying competitive in a globalized world requires a dynamic economy with free markets and unequal outcomes, but that the kind of deregulated markets and innovations that America requires are certain to threaten the social cohesion “not only essential to a decent and just society, but also to producing the kind of skilled and responsible citizens that free markets ultimately require.” And Mr. Douthat remains persuaded that libertarianism isn’t desirable or politically viable, just last week reiterating his belief that a large constituency for fiscal conservatism and social liberalism is a “delusion of the elite.”

All this was brought to mind by Mark Lilla’s New York Review of Books essay on the Tea Party movement, a piece that made me want to gather him together with the aforementioned writers for a long conversation over carne asada enchiladas. Mr. Lilla is as convinced as anyone that dissatisfaction with the GOP is largely grounded in economic anxiety, but his read on the political history of the last few decades and the present moment is radically different. The mass desire for libertarianism doesn’t strike him as a delusion of the elite so much as a long accomplished fact.

As early as 1998, he writes, “It struck me… that American society was changing in ways conservative and liberal commentators just hadn’t noticed. Conservatives were too busy harping on the cultural revolution of the Sixties, liberals on the Reagan revolution’s ‘culture of greed,’ and all they could agree on was that America was beyond repair.”

The American public, meanwhile, was having no trouble accepting both revolutions and reconciling them in everyday life. This made sense, given that they were inspired by the same political principle: radical individualism. During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). As I wrote then, Americans saw “no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace…and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” Democrats were day-trading, Republicans were divorcing. We were all individualists now.

What happened? People who remember the article sometimes ask me this, and I understand why. George W. Bush, who ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” seemed attuned to the recent social changes. The President Bush who emerged after September 11 took his party and the country back to the divisive politics of earlier decades, giving us seven years of ideological recrimination. By the time of the last presidential campaign, millions were transfixed not by the wisdom or folly of Barack Obama’s policy agenda, but by absurd rumors about his birth certificate and his “socialism.” Now he has been elected president by a healthy majority and is grappling with a wounded economy and two foreign wars he inherited—and what are we talking about? A makeshift Tea Party movement whose activists rage against “government” and “the media,” while the hotheads of talk radio and cable news declare that the conservative counterrevolution has begun.

It hasn’t. We know that the country is divided today, because people say it is divided. In politics, thinking makes it so. Just as obviously, though, the angry demonstrations and organizing campaigns have nothing to do with the archaic right–left battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties. The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike. It was galvanized by three things: a financial collapse that robbed millions of their homes, jobs, and savings; the Obama administration’s decision to pursue health care reform despite the crisis; and personal animosity toward the President himself (racially tinged in some regions) stoked by the right-wing media. But the populist mood has been brewing for decades for reasons unrelated to all this.

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

I’ve never read an essay that I found so insightful and wrongheaded at the same time. On one hand, I want to invoke Mr. Lilla against Mr. Douthat: aren’t there lots of ways that the United States has grown more fiscally conservative and socially liberal in the last several decades?

The exception is huge. Even most Americans who call themselves fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to support the spending cuts necessary to make the other public policy positions they favor sustainable. Still, over the last few decades the right has persuaded a lot of people that low taxes, deregulated industries, free trade, weaker unions, and a larger class of people investing in houses and the stock market are goods, and this has coincided with greater acceptance for gays, liberalizing attitudes toward drugs, widespread tolerance for divorce, etc. Even if the American working class wants the rich to pay marginally higher taxes, demands a slightly expanded social safety net, and reacts socially against the damage caused by the dissolution of the traditional American family — and I agree that all these things are happening — they could still be meaningfully conservative on a lot of fiscal matters, and meaningfully liberal on a lot of social matters, if libertarian-leaning folks manage to meld a persuasive narrative and innovative policy suggestions. Sure, it’d be an uphill climb in many ways, but is it really that much more implausible than the Grand New Party approach to the country’s future taking hold in the GOP? The libertarian narrative is harder to sell, but far easier to implement without being egregiously corrupted.

Perhaps I am missing something important about the politics. Mr. Douthat and Mr. Salam are far more astute analysts of electoral realities than me, and they’d doubtless offer a strong rebuttal.

But forget about the political landscape for a moment, because what I really want to do is defend libertarians on substance against Mr. Douthat, who believes that a libertarian future for the GOP is undesirable, and especially against Mr. Lilla, who basically pins the country’s travails on “the libertarian mob.”

With Mr. Douthat, I’ll be brief: conceding that a more libertarian Republican Party probably wouldn’t have addressed the growing economic inequality in the United States had it come to power after Bill Clinton’s tenure, and that it is important to confront that problem, wouldn’t we be in a much better spot to do so if we a) hadn’t squandered billions of dollars and a terrible number of innocent lives by foolishly invading Iraq; b) didn’t continue to squander billions of dollars on an unwinnable drug war that exacerbates rather than improves upon the intact families so important to your project; c) would’ve improved on health care markets in small but important cost-reducing ways, rather than passing an enormously expensive prescription drug entitlement?

Those missteps, plus what I regard as an immoral policy of detainee torture, illegal spying on American citizens, and other threats to civil liberties are enough to make me shy away from the Weekly Standard Republicans who’d presumably play a large role in a hypothetical Sam’s Club coalition, especially the ones who are willing to support any domestic policy so long as they get their way in foreign affairs.

And while their probable coalition’s foreign policy views don’t discredit the domestic proposals of Mr. Salam and Mr. Douthat in Grand New Party, many of which I’d gladly support, the GOP mainstream’s destructive hawkishness is another reason I am much more comfortable rooting for a more libertarian leaning right-of-center coalition. (Odds are far higher that our next Republican President will damage the country by succumbing to fringe national security hawks than that he’ll succeed in eliminating the federal reserve, or instituting the gold standard, or whatever it is that most scares temperamentally conservative centrists about libertarians.)

Turning my attention to Mr. Lilla: the most troubling aspects of the Tea Party movement aren’t libertarian at all! (Also, populism and libertarianism aren’t the same thing!)

Mr. Lilla writes:

Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

In my experience, the average Tea Party adherent doesn’t have a blanket distrust of institutions — and far from it. He reveres the American military, imagines that American soldiers can successfully establish a functioning democracy in Iraq, doesn’t object when even a Commander-in-Chief he loathes invokes sweeping powers to fight terrorism, generally trusts the criminal justice system to effect fair outcomes, affords police officers the benefit of the doubt when they arrest Harvard professors or suspected drug dealers or especially suspected terrorists, believes that local government officials in Arizona can enforce federal immigration law without unduly impinging on the civil liberties of legal residents and American citizens, wishes that Christian churches played a more influential role in American life, etc. I don’t mean to imply that Tea Party attendees are uniform in their beliefs — there is more intellectual diversity than is commonly supposed — but what I’ve just described are all commonly held views.

A bit later, Mr. Lilla writes:

Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively. This is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame. Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing.

Perhaps it is a bit rash to say, “your surveys be damned,” but I find it very difficult to avoid dismissing any narrative wherein the citizens of democratic nations are particularly distrustful, or where our institutions are in greater danger of collapse than in some previous era. For heaven’s sake, the nations of Europe warred with one another in the lifetime of my grandparents, Jim Crow laws disgraced an entire region of the United States in the lifetime of my parents, and the Berlin Wall fell when I was in elementary school. The political institutions of the Western world may not be at the height of their success at representing their respective constituents, but they’re pretty damn close to it relative to the scope of Western history — and that is because of gains like the defeat of fascism, the Civil Rights movement, and the fall of the Soviet Union, all events celebrated by today’s libertarians, and supported at the time by everyone worthy of the name.

Mr. Lilla writes, “As the libertarian spirit drifted into American life, first from the left, then from the right, many began disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.” One of the ways this happens, he writes, is that people move:

As the journalist Bill Bishop shows in his eye-opening demographic study The Big Sort, for decades we have been withdrawing into “communities of like-mindedness” where the gap between individual and collective closes. These are places where elective affinities are supplanting electoral politics. People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centers on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states. By voting with their feet, highly mobile Americans are finding representation in local communities where they share their neighbors’ general political outlook and where they can be sure that their voices will be echoed back to them. As Bishop points out, it is significant that at the county level American elections are increasingly being decided by landslides for either Democratic or Republican candidates.

This trend is worth thinking about, and perhaps worth worrying about too, but in a country where since the start we’ve been divided into slave states and free states, farming states and industrial states — and where The Great Migration, segregation, white flight, gated communities, and deliberate extreme gerrymandering happened, it is hard for me to see the division into Red and Blue places as very extreme sorting… or as a consequence of radical individualism, since moving close to people who share your political values isn’t “disinvesting in our political institutions” or “learning to work around them” so much as it is finding communities where investing seems worth while.

Mr. Lilla’s second example of disinvesting in political institutions:

Another way is simply to go it alone. A million and a half students in the United States are now being taught by their parents at home, nearly double the number a decade ago, and representing about fifteen students for every public school in the country. There is nothing remarkable about wanting to escape unsafe schools and incompetent teachers, or to make sure your children are raised within your religious tradition. What’s remarkable is American parents’ confidence that they can do better themselves. Many of the more-educated ones probably do, though they are hardly going it alone; they rely on a national but voluntary virtual school system connecting them online, where they circulate curricula, materials, and research produced by people working in conventional educational institutions. And they are a powerful political lobby, having redirected their energy from local school systems to Washington and state capitals, where their collective appeal to individualism is irresistible. They are the only successful libertarian party in the United States.

Parents banding together to home school their kids may be disinvesting in public schools, but the fact that they are simultaneously connecting with conventional educational institutions and implementing a successful lobbying campaign at the local and national level show that they are doing the opposite of “disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals.” They are working through political institutions as a group!

And the third example?

…as the libertarian spirit has spread to other areas of our lives, along with distrust of elites generally, the damage has mounted. Take health care. Less than half of us say that we have “great confidence” in the medical establishment today, and the proportion of those who have “hardly any” has doubled since the early Seventies.12 There are plenty of things wrong with the way medicine is practiced in the United States, but it does not follow from this that anybody can cure himself. Nonetheless, a growing number of us have become our own doctors and pharmacists, aided by Internet search engines that substitute for refereed medical journals, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control.

The trends are not encouraging. Because of irrational fear-mongering on the Web, the percentage of unvaccinated American children, while thankfully still low, has been rising steadily in the twenty-one states that now allow personal exemptions for unspecified “philosophical and personal reasons.” This is significant: the chance of unvaccinated children getting measles, to take just one example, is twenty-two to thirty-five times higher than that of immunized children. Americans currently spend over four billion dollars a year on unregulated herbal medicines, despite total ignorance about their effectiveness, correct dosage, and side effects. And of course, many dangerous medicines banned in the United States can now be purchased online from abroad, not to mention questionable medical procedures for those who can afford the airfare.

Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.

Mr. Lilla is right to worry about unvaccinated children, though I’d attribute their increase to the success of eradicating the underlying diseases and a simultaneous panic about autism more than “the libertarian spirit” spreading. And aside from vaccinations, it is absurd to suggest that the average Tea Party advocate, or the average American, is averse to expertise and authority in a way that causes them to treat themselves rather than going to the doctor. Whether in Boston, Berkeley, New York City, Midland, Orange County, Portland, The Ocean Reef Club, or Main Street Wasilla, everyone wants quick access to the best doctors — and please, don’t prevent them from visiting the most experienced specialist in the region, the more Ivy League diplomas on his office wall and peer issued awards on his desk the better.

One final paragraph to address:

We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing—though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations. Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have—and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children. We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them.

Agreed that the sexual revolution has its benefits and its costs, and that Americans are in no mood for a counterrevolution. But it is folly to ascribe the catastrophic insanity of American drug policy to “the libertarian eruption”! And our financial ruin isn’t due to a dearth of regulation so much as a mountain of very complex financial regulations captured by an industry that understood them better than anyone — and people in that industry paid in ways that allowed them to make many millions of dollars even if their transactions destroyed rather than created value. Government policy exacerbated the madness too. And the architects of that system? It included far more corporatists, liberals and conservatives than libertarians or extreme individualists.

In this post I have focused on areas where I strongly disagree with Mr. Lilla. The balance of his essay contains many astute insights and is well worth reading in full, as is just about anything by Mr. Douthat, Mr. Salam, and Mr. Manzi, all of whom are trying to grapple with the most pressing problems that the United States faces, and suggest specific solutions, usually ones that are more likely to be taken up by the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.

Surveying the decade between George W. Bush’s election and today, it remains my judgment that a more libertarian GOP would’ve left the country far better off than where we actually find ourselves. And perhaps that insight should affect the coalition we pursue going forward. A GOP with more libertarian leanings would avoid unnecessary foreign wars, preserve civil liberties, check Democratic excesses better than any alternative, and have a hell of a time adequately addressing income inequality — but no worse a time than a Grand New Party coalition attempting to bend government to the interests of the working class without the political and corporate classes turning that easier-to-capture agenda to their own ends.

7 Responses to “Why a More Libertarian GOP Is Desirable”

  1. mfarmer Says:


  2. leonkelly Says:

    It is rare that I read an article on politics that I liked as much as this one. Most writers cannot get past their own redblue predilections. Power and money are being concentrated in the US like never before. The republican and the democratic parties are both complicit in this injustice. Politicians that can read the frustration that the American people have endured under both parties policies will be easily elected. Nice work. Keep it up!

  3. jimkingwood Says:

    “but what I’ve just described are all commonly held views.”

    Oh, really? Commonly held views? Where were the Libertarian protesters when H L Gates was arrested in his home? Where are they when obscenities like this Columbia drug bust take place? Where were they *before* Obama was elected? Absent from view, that’s where.

    No, they can’t handle a negro in the White House, that’s pretty much it Connor.

    Jim Cameron

  4. bobopapal Says:

    It seems that Mr. Lilla makes the mistake of thinking of a Libertarian as a Libertine. A libertine may thrive under libertarianism, but libertine morality has little to nothing to do with libertarian political order. One is a political philosophy and the other is a moral philosophy, and the political doesn’t proscribe or prescribe the moral.

  5. Conor Friedersdorf Says:

    Jim Cameron,

    I don’t think you understood my post.

  6. Sean Nelson Says:

    “(Odds are far higher that our next Republican President will damage the country by succumbing to fringe national security hawks than that he’ll succeed in eliminating the federal reserve, or instituting the gold standard, or whatever it is that most scares temperamentally conservative centrists about libertarians.)”

    Exactly. I spent years on the think-tank right (in and out of DC), thinking that once we got the big wars and police stuff out of the way, the “conservative” GOP coalition would be able to focus on protecting individual rights. But it turns out they’ve never been interested in individual rights, they just wave that flag every two years to get people out to the polls.

  7. Elizabeth Nolan Brown Says:

    You actually made me want to read about this whole Lilla business. Well done, Conor!

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