Beneath the roiling surface of American partisan rivalry is an emerging consensus informed largely by libertarian ideas. The left often borrows from libertarians on social policy while the right is drawn to its emphasis on free enterprise, but neither side is seizing the opportunity to bridge traditional partisan boundaries with libertarian proposals.
Potential exists for that kernel of common interest to form the basis of a new political block, one which would obliterate traditional ideological boundaries and dominate politics for a generation. What’s missing from libertarian politics is a willingness to adapt to real world conditions. If libertarians on the right and left of our policy spectrum ever learn how to compromise to produce concrete, effective policy they could tap into an emerging public consensus, unleashing a revolution in American politics which could bring us a radically more prosperous, free, and peaceful world.
This developing consensus is centered on the notion of personal liberty, but not the fantasy-based “liberty” of the conspiracy kooks that have come to dominate “Libertarian” politainment. The Alex Jones’s and Mark Levins of the world are not about to lead a centrist political revolution. We cannot build an effective policy consensus on a shared suspicion of the Federal Reserve or rejection of the Illuminati.
The libertarianism represented by Ron and Rand Paul has developed into an obstacle blocking efforts to build a consensus that can work. Under the influence of the Pauls, particularly Rand Paul, the libertarian brand has been co-opted by Southern religious fundamentalists and paranoid conspiracy theorists, refashioning the movement into a strange, Neo-Confederate monster.
In an ironic twist, libertarian politics has been deployed as a screen for white nationalists who will accept no political compromise that fails to cripple the ability of a central government to remedy racial and ethnic injustices. The term “libertarian” has become synonymous with “weirdo,” creating serious problems for those who would use libertarian ideas to develop credible policy.
The old Chicago-School libertarianism of Hayek and Friedman was dominated by some very serious thinkers. They were willing to wrestle with the real world to in order to move abstract ideas into practical, workable policies. Hayek’s definition of liberty quoted at the head of this piece speaks volumes. First, he recognizes that threats to liberty do not come exclusively from government. More importantly, his definition is relative, not absolute. He acknowledged that some degree of coercion is inevitable in order to maintain civilized society. Early Chicago School scholars sought to make freedom real under the constraints of the world as we experience it.
What made that older generation of libertarian thinkers particularly potent was their willingness tackle the hard-cases; scenarios like pollution control and poverty which resist obvious libertarian solutions. Ironically, those are the fields where libertarian thought has, over time, had the most influence on policy.
Hayek endorsed labor regulations and the minimum wage. Decades before anyone had imagined Agenda 21 he advocated regulation to insure environmental sustainability. Friedman helped craft legislation that would have created a basic income. For them, ideology informed rather than dictated policy. That kind of pragmatism will be critical if the GOP will once again be more than a support group for resentful aging white men.
Americans recognize that we need the organizing power of government to harness our collective will into action. Without it we would not have schools, roads, airports, a power grid, or the Internet. We would not have police, national defense, or courts. More than that, we are coming to realize that absent the organizing force of government, we will not have a health care system that is reasonably effective or affordable.
At the same time, we want as much freedom to make decisions for ourselves as we can obtain without sacrificing those goals. We want government pushed to the margins of the economy, limited to only the most necessary roles, leaving the widest possible latitude for individuals to control their own lives and own their own fate.
A large majority of Americans, especially among the young, want libertarian social policies paired with a market-capitalist economy that also delivers first-class infrastructure, a robust social safety net and universal health insurance. We can satisfy those seemingly contradictory demands, but it will require us to step outside traditional ideological lines and weaken older political alliances.
Imagine if libertarians actually had to govern and face real world consequences. No more gold standard fantasies or relying on the hand-waving magic of “perfect” markets that do not exist. What policies would libertarians embrace if they were forced to deliver outcomes without excuses?
The best place to observe America’s nascent, cross-partisan libertarian consensus is in Colorado’s experiment in marijuana decriminalization. Colorado’s plan is interesting for the ways it incorporates liberal and conservative priorities over the surface of a fundamentally libertarian policy.
Colorado has not deregulated marijuana. No one is free to simply grow, sell, and consume it without interference. A “liberty” interest in using whatever chemicals one chooses has been limited by Colorado’s government. Conservative social priorities are respected by restrictions on public use and the sale or possession by minors. Liberal interests in health and safety are demonstrated by the close regulation of sale and distribution channels.
Marijuana markets in Colorado are heavily regulated and taxed, not exactly a libertarian textbook strategy. This compromise, however, has the overall effect of expanding personal freedom while protecting the public.
Marijuana decriminalization may or may not prove to be a success in and of itself, but it forms a model for how core libertarian ideas can make their way from imagination to policy. More than that, the cross-partisan consensus developing around this model may form the genesis of a new political block that could disrupt traditional politics.
The civilization that will win the 21st Century is the one that unleashes the creative power of personal liberty to the greatest possible extent while maintaining the core effectiveness of its government institutions. Pragmatic libertarianism, built to expand personal liberty while still respecting the need for government as an organizing and mediating force, may form the core around which a massive new consensus could develop. When the dust settles and the internal fights are over, that is the core around which a potent new Republican majority could be built.