Commentary Magazine


Topic: libertarianism

Interventionists and Rand Paul: A Response to Jim Antle

In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

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In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

I should point out that I don’t think Antle is attempting to ascribe to me all the opinions he criticizes. I’m not so vain as to think this entire song is about me. But that’s unclear because of the fact that Antle only mentions me and does not cite by name the other “hawks” he criticizes. Additionally, Antle is a very smart conservative who wrote a very good book on the perils of big government, and he stands out from his AmConMag colleagues by neither shilling for Vladimir Putin nor living in fear of the Israel Lobby hiding in the shadows. As such, it’s worth engaging his arguments.

First, here is Antle’s characterization of my opinion on Rand Paul:

This failure to understand how Republicans like Paul actually view foreign policy was illustrated by a Commentary item last year examining the whole concept of “libertarian foreign policy.” Its author, Seth Mandel, quotes Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash saying some measured things about the just grounds for the Afghan War and how to contain Iran, which Mandel contrasts with “the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA.”

Evidently taking Amash’s nuance to be entirely different from Senator Paul’s approach, Mandel concludes, “if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself—and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.”

This seems to ignore a third possibility: that many on the right who want some degree of “retrenchment from the world,” who have a higher threshold for the use of military force than do most Commentary contributors, are still willing to act militarily against genuine threats to the United States and its interests.

This is a curious bone to pick for a few reasons. First, I was making the point that prominent libertarian figures are not isolationists, and that if Paul wants a “more isolationist foreign policy”–note I do not call Paul an isolationist either, but compare him to other libertarians–he would be an outlier among libertarians. Second, it’s easy to look back on that, which was written in July 2013, and say Paul isn’t a noninterventionist–but that’s because Paul’s position on intervention and on specific threats have changed dramatically as popular opinion has changed. Antle’s criticism of Paul circa summer 2013 should be taken up with Paul, who has since repudiated Paul.

Third, anyone who thinks I’ve tried to write Paul and noninterventionists out of the conservative mainstream quite simply hasn’t read what I’ve written on him. Earlier in 2013, for example, I wrote an entire piece on the fact that Rand Paul’s foreign policy was conservative, and was part of the traditional “spheres of thought” in the conservative movement going back to the emergence of the national security state after World War II. I specifically state (as I have many times) that I didn’t consider Paul to be a military isolationist but rather a throwback to the kind of serious conservative opposition to what many saw as the advent of the national-security version of the New Deal. I just think he’s wrong on the merits.

I’ve also been quite clear that I think Paul, and libertarians in general, have been getting an unfair shake from those who misunderstand libertarianism. So it’s puzzling that Antle, who is usually far more honest in debate, would write verifiably false statements like: “Therefore, libertarians and antiwar conservatives are not simply less hawkish or less interventionist. They must always be described as isolationists, even in cases when they clearly do believe the U.S. has interests outside its own hemisphere.”

But there’s something else in Antle’s piece that deserves some pushback. Antle says hawks were wrong about Iraq (I was in college at the time, and don’t remember taking any kind of public position on the invasion of Iraq, so once again Antle could have found a slightly more relevant–that is to say, relevant at all–example) and therefore should be more welcoming to realists.

Antle here is making a common mistake, which is to arrange the goalposts so that Iraq becomes the prism through which foreign-policy wisdom is measured. This makes sense, because outside of Iraq realists have been wrong on the great foreign-policy challenges of the day. In the Middle East, the realist vision of “stability” lies in smoldering ruins, with nearly 200,000 dead in Syria alone, power-grabs and counter-coups in the rest of the region, and American allies–and thus American strategic imperatives–at risk.

And that does not even cover Russia, on which the realists have fully humiliated themselves. Just today, in fact, the New York Times has another story on Russia violating a key Cold War-era missile treaty. American officials knew this was the case when they negotiated another missile treaty with Russia, New START. Realists pimped New START, hawks warned Putin could not be trusted. The hawks were right, just as they were right about Putin’s designs on regional power, his threat to Europe, and his willingness to outright invade any non-NATO countries in his near-abroad. Realists have beclowned themselves on the issue. They are certainly welcome in the conservative movement and to ply their wares; they just shouldn’t be surprised if, since their credibility is shot, no one’s buying.

Other realists, such as those of the Walt-Mearsheimer variety, have taken to believing in the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory of powerful, disloyal Jews setting American policy according to Israel’s needs. They often claim they have nothing against Israel, it’s just that the relationship with Israel is no longer a strategic two-way street. In other words, these realists are arguing not that they have an irrational bias against Israel, but that they are morons. (They make a compelling case.)

So if realists can’t hit the broad side of a barn on the Middle East or Russia, and clearly don’t understand the basics of geostrategic calculation, it’s not too surprising that they are not immediately back in leadership positions. Perhaps they are rusty, but they are not ready for prime time.

Antle is intellectually capable of grappling seriously with the arguments of those who favor a robust American engagement with the world. Here’s hoping that at some point he–and Senator Paul’s circle of supporters, paleocon writers, and realists hoping to rehabilitate their tattered reputations–will do so.

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Should Rand Paul Embrace or Downplay the Libertarian Label?

About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

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About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

Frayda Levin, a New Jersey libertarian activist and former small-business owner, is a woman of many passions: promoting liberty, ending marijuana prohibition and opposing her state’s recent minimum-wage increase. But Ms. Levin has added another cause as well. At gala benefits for free-market research institutes and at fund-raisers for antitax groups, she has urged like-minded donors to help send Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, to the White House.

“I consider that one of my main goals,” said Ms. Levin, who has met with Mr. Paul several times and in February introduced him at a private conference in Florida hosted by the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “I tell people he’s the Republican of the future. He’s got both the intellectual heft and the emotional understanding.”

A libertarian’s declaration that Paul is the “Republican of the future” is not just good for Paul, but arguably has benefits for the GOP as well. After all, popular libertarian candidates who want to run for president tend to leave the GOP and run on their own ticket. This is, electorally speaking, frustrating for Republicans and counterproductive for libertarians. As staunch libertarian Randy Barnett wrote in 2012, “The Libertarian Party’s effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty, and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty.”

But a libertarian(ish) Republican, if effective, does the opposite: he can galvanize support for libertarian policy objectives without splintering the conservative coalition that remains the only hope of standing athwart the statist project yelling stop. But there’s a catch, and here’s where libertarians get justifiably put off by the right: the Republican Party wants someone like Paul to be just popular enough. It’s up to libertarians to convince the party that he should be the GOP’s standard bearer, and it’s not an easy sell.

Which raises the question: is it easier to make that sell if Paul embraces his libertarianism or downplays it? That will be one question the 2016 nomination race seeks to answer. It’s easy to see both sides of it. It’s possible that the GOP just isn’t ready to go full libertarian at the presidential level, and therefore downplaying his libertarian label in favor of a more conservative-Republican tag might settle some nerves. Yet it’s also possible that by avoiding the term “libertarian” Paul is implicitly reinforcing the idea that libertarianism is an idea whose time has yet to arrive, thus justifying the suspicions of the establishment.

But it’s also important to note that whatever Paul chooses to call himself, he has been branded a libertarian and that is how he will be viewed relative to the other candidates. That is, Paul has essentially emerged as the candidate for libertarians, whether or not he calls himself the libertarian candidate.

It is for that reason that the much-feared “establishment” is only a real threat to Paul in the primary if there is no consensus establishment candidate. The conservative grassroots will not, at least in significant numbers, choose Jeb Bush or Chris Christie over Rand Paul. Many non-libertarian conservatives would prefer Paul over a genuinely moderate candidate. So rather than an anyone-but-Paul movement coalescing against him, he would probably benefit from the reverse.

But what if Bush doesn’t run? Well then Paul has a problem, because the “establishment” will support someone, and there are many palatable candidates on offer. The governors, especially Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would probably easily compete with Paul for non-libertarian voters and get establishment backing. Marco Rubio is another candidate who would appeal to establishment figures but also many conservatives–though his support for comprehensive immigration reform presumably makes him less of a threat to Paul’s base of support.

In such a case, Paul’s best hope is to compete for the “constitutional conservative” label, not differentiate himself from it. He has less to lose if he’s up against a 2016 version of Mitt Romney. So is Paul a libertarian? The best guess right now is: It depends.

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Why Bigger Government Does Not Equal More Services

The Democratic group Third Way is releasing the results of a survey on political “moderates,” which deviates from, and is more informative than, surveys on supposed “independents.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has piece discussing the survey as well as a memo Third Way officials gave Ball ahead of time to frame the results. It’s an interesting survey, especially with the parties gearing up for midterm elections. But the survey is undermined by a flaw that pervades such polls with regard to voters’ attitudes toward the size and scope of government.

That particular recurring survey question is rarely if ever challenged, but those who want an honest rendering of Americans’ political and policy preferences shouldn’t let it slide. Or, rather, conservatives shouldn’t let it slide, because the question is dishonestly designed to elicit a more favorable answer for supporters of expanding government. Here’s Ball:

Moderates’ perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

As anyone who knows anything about the government can tell you, this is what our president might call a false choice. The simple fact is that the growth of the modern bureaucratic state is such that the larger government/more services vs. leaner government/fewer services framing is outdated and irrelevant. This type of poll question is trumpeted often by liberals who either don’t fully understand how the government works or who do understand but prefer not to clue their readers in on the con.

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The Democratic group Third Way is releasing the results of a survey on political “moderates,” which deviates from, and is more informative than, surveys on supposed “independents.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has piece discussing the survey as well as a memo Third Way officials gave Ball ahead of time to frame the results. It’s an interesting survey, especially with the parties gearing up for midterm elections. But the survey is undermined by a flaw that pervades such polls with regard to voters’ attitudes toward the size and scope of government.

That particular recurring survey question is rarely if ever challenged, but those who want an honest rendering of Americans’ political and policy preferences shouldn’t let it slide. Or, rather, conservatives shouldn’t let it slide, because the question is dishonestly designed to elicit a more favorable answer for supporters of expanding government. Here’s Ball:

Moderates’ perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

As anyone who knows anything about the government can tell you, this is what our president might call a false choice. The simple fact is that the growth of the modern bureaucratic state is such that the larger government/more services vs. leaner government/fewer services framing is outdated and irrelevant. This type of poll question is trumpeted often by liberals who either don’t fully understand how the government works or who do understand but prefer not to clue their readers in on the con.

For example, during the controversy over Cliven Bundy, the New York Times’s Josh Barro was one of the commentators who sought to use the issue to make the point that limited-government conservatism, and especially libertarianism, can be explained by race. Here’s Barro:

A 2011 National Journal poll found that 42 percent of white respondents agreed with the statement, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Just 17 percent of blacks, 16 percent of Asians and 25 percent of Hispanics agreed. In 2011 and 2012, the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Asian-Americans and fully 75 percent of Hispanic-Americans say they prefer a bigger government providing more services over a smaller one providing fewer services, compared with just 41 percent of the general population.

An obvious problem is the wording of each question. The first question he uses offers two choices: government is either the problem or the solution. The lack of nuance–and, plainly, honesty–helps Barro’s argument but does a great disservice to his readers (though in fairness it’s not as though Barro himself wrote the survey question). The second question is the one that reappears in the Third Way survey.

The truth of the matter is that government has become unmanageably large in many ways, undermining the idea that a larger government necessarily results in more services.

A good resource for those who want the more accurate picture is Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody, which takes aim at the reasons government has, on important issues, ground to a halt. Howard opens with the story of the Bayonne Bridge, which spans the channel that connects New York Harbor to the port of Newark, the largest on the East Coast. The bridge, however, isn’t high enough to accommodate ships built to use the widened Panama Canal, set to be completed next year.

So what’s the solution? Howard notes that the government agency in charge decided the choices were either build a new bridge or dig a tunnel, each costing more than $4 billion. Then a new idea presented itself: raise the existing bridge roadway, at a cost of $1 billion, saving $3 billion. The resolution was “like a miracle.” And it went nowhere. The full story is worth reading and incredibly convoluted (which is Howard’s point), but here’s the gist:

Building anything important in America requires layers of approvals from multiple levels of government—in this project, forty-seven permits from nineteen different governmental entities. Environmental review has evolved into an academic exercise, like a game of who can find the most complications. Balkanization of authority among different agencies and levels of government creates a dynamic of buck-passing. “The process is aimed not at trying to solve problems,” Ms. Papageorgis observed, “but trying to find problems. You can’t get in trouble by saying no.” With any large project, something might go wrong. More studies are done.

The story of the Bayonne Bridge, and others like it–Howard’s book makes for sobering but important reading–is that the larger government got the more it cost while providing fewer services. Howard writes about school systems paralyzed by regulations, the culture of corruption fostered by the inability to navigate all the red tape, the resulting “involuntary noncompliance,” and the government’s erosion of civil society while then failing to provide the services whose responsibility was transferred from the private sphere to the public sector.

Larger government doesn’t just erode freedom. At a certain point, it begins providing fewer services than it did before it ballooned beyond manageability. Howard shows that often the only way around the most absurd bureaucratic extremism is public shaming. That should be applied to the survey questions designed to enable such bad governance as well.

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Stop and Frisk vs. Gun Control

Few issues divide self-described libertarians from self-described conservatives quite as consistently as those related to security and defense. As we’ve seen with the debate over the NSA’s data collection, it isn’t just about foreign intervention either. And the recent ruling on the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactic is the latest episode demonstrating how far apart the two factions can be on policing.

I’ve written numerous times in defense of stop and frisk, and did so again after Judge Shira Scheindlin’s legally incoherent ruling against it. Reason magazine’s A. Barton Hinkle has written a response to one of my recent posts on the topic as well as those of Heather Mac Donald, National Review, and others. Hinkle’s libertarian perspective on the issue is thoughtful and it’s a constructive contribution to the debate, most significantly for his essential reminder that the ends don’t automatically justify the means; when individual liberty is at stake, the means themselves must be just.

I also appreciate that libertarians like Hinkle argue the case on the facts instead of taking the left’s approach to this debate, which is to assume racial animus on the part of anyone supporting the police. But I think Hinkle misfires on a couple of points, which are worth delineating. The title of Hinkle’s column is “Stop and Frisk: How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control,” and he explains early on that conservatives have accepted and parroted the “liberal logic of gun control,” which he defines as follows: “Government should infringe, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.”

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Few issues divide self-described libertarians from self-described conservatives quite as consistently as those related to security and defense. As we’ve seen with the debate over the NSA’s data collection, it isn’t just about foreign intervention either. And the recent ruling on the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactic is the latest episode demonstrating how far apart the two factions can be on policing.

I’ve written numerous times in defense of stop and frisk, and did so again after Judge Shira Scheindlin’s legally incoherent ruling against it. Reason magazine’s A. Barton Hinkle has written a response to one of my recent posts on the topic as well as those of Heather Mac Donald, National Review, and others. Hinkle’s libertarian perspective on the issue is thoughtful and it’s a constructive contribution to the debate, most significantly for his essential reminder that the ends don’t automatically justify the means; when individual liberty is at stake, the means themselves must be just.

I also appreciate that libertarians like Hinkle argue the case on the facts instead of taking the left’s approach to this debate, which is to assume racial animus on the part of anyone supporting the police. But I think Hinkle misfires on a couple of points, which are worth delineating. The title of Hinkle’s column is “Stop and Frisk: How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control,” and he explains early on that conservatives have accepted and parroted the “liberal logic of gun control,” which he defines as follows: “Government should infringe, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.”

He closes the column on a similar note:

In fact, stop-and-frisk is not a tremendous success but a tremendous failure, because such stops turn up contraband only 2 percent of the time. In other words: 98 times out of 100 the officer’s suspicion is unjustified.

If any other program had a 98 percent failure rate, conservatives would hold it up as a shining example of everything that’s wrong with big government. That they’re so eager to defend a failing program when it happens to target minorities makes their professed concern for “the most vulnerable” ring a trifle hollow.

There are a few important points here in response. First, the point of stop and frisk is not ultimately to confiscate guns, and thus its success should not be measured by a target at which it most certainly is not aiming. That is not to say gun confiscation is irrelevant to stop and frisk. But the tactic is not a guessing game to locate guns; it is an evidence-based procedure to prevent crime.

To the extent that there is some form of gun control involved, there is a crucial difference: the police are seeking to control the use of illegal guns, not the possession of legal guns. One can, therefore, support both stop and frisk and a robust respect for the Second Amendment. Yet it is the Fourth Amendment that seems to trouble Hinkle more anyway, and here we get into the thorny issue of profiling. Hinkle writes:

By the same token, just because most perpetrators in New York are black or Hispanic does not mean most blacks or Hispanics are perpetrators. After all, most homicides are committed with guns – but that does not mean most gun owners commit homicide.

Quite right. Then Hinkle adds:

The NYPD’s defenders also contend the police did not stop and frisk minorities at random; they stopped those who acted suspiciously. This is true only if you consider perfectly normal behavior suspicious.

This again omits a crucial aspect of the tactic. “Suspicious” behavior doesn’t mean someone looks like they’re about to commit a crime, however that would look. It also includes people who match the descriptions of suspects. This was something Scheindlin and the press learned when those subjected to the stop and frisk tactic began testifying, ostensibly for the plaintiffs. When they told their stories, a different picture began to emerge, as the New York Times reported in April:

One man was stopped and frisked because of his expensive red leather jacket — similar to one that a murder suspect was wearing in a wanted poster. Another man was stopped after a woman complained to the police that he was following her. Still another was stopped by officers who had watched him jostle the door of a home, trying to get in.

This is basic police work. Take the second case, for example: a woman complained to police that a certain man was following her. The police stopped the man to question him. Hinkle’s grading system rates that stop a “failure” because the man presumably didn’t have an illegal gun on him. Scheindlin made similar mistakes in her finding, which is one reason the city is challenging the ruling.

There is one point on which both conservatives and libertarians can agree: that a tactic is successful or effective doesn’t make it constitutional. Hinkle is right to warn of the slippery slope such a mindset would lead to, and conservatives shouldn’t be hostile toward such reminders. But sometimes it’s worth pointing that libertarians should avoid the reverse fallacy, and remember that just because something is effective doesn’t mean it’s authoritarian or abusive.

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Libertarian Populism’s Emerging Agenda

In the last few months, there has been spirited debate on the right over the electoral viability of what is being called “libertarian populism.” If the term has a definition at all, it owes much to Tim Carney’s advice to conservatives to “Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.” That is a concise-enough snapshot of what COMMENTARY contributor Ben Domenech has elsewhere called a “New Fusionism”: “Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy,” he wrote back in June.

Since then, the debate has been wide-ranging; here is Reason’s list of links to get various writers’ perspectives on it. Watching from the sidelines of this debate, three lessons stand out thus far from the emergence of the libertarian populists. (It’s a bit of an unwieldy phrase, but I nonetheless fervently hope that Jesse Walker’s abbreviated term, LibPops, never ever catches on. It’s nothing personal, Jesse.) When I say the debate has been conducted “on the right,” I am not exaggerating: liberal commentators have occasionally butted in to lob potted insults and reveal their ignorance of all things libertarian, but never to take constructive part in the debate. The lesson is this: the left is treating libertarians as though they are conservatives, because they are unwelcome on the left.

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In the last few months, there has been spirited debate on the right over the electoral viability of what is being called “libertarian populism.” If the term has a definition at all, it owes much to Tim Carney’s advice to conservatives to “Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.” That is a concise-enough snapshot of what COMMENTARY contributor Ben Domenech has elsewhere called a “New Fusionism”: “Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy,” he wrote back in June.

Since then, the debate has been wide-ranging; here is Reason’s list of links to get various writers’ perspectives on it. Watching from the sidelines of this debate, three lessons stand out thus far from the emergence of the libertarian populists. (It’s a bit of an unwieldy phrase, but I nonetheless fervently hope that Jesse Walker’s abbreviated term, LibPops, never ever catches on. It’s nothing personal, Jesse.) When I say the debate has been conducted “on the right,” I am not exaggerating: liberal commentators have occasionally butted in to lob potted insults and reveal their ignorance of all things libertarian, but never to take constructive part in the debate. The lesson is this: the left is treating libertarians as though they are conservatives, because they are unwelcome on the left.

I’ve written about this before, in comparing the Gary Johnson model of political influence with the Rand Paul model. Johnson, a libertarian, could not convince enough Republicans of the righteousness of his candidacy, and simply bolted the party to run for president as a Libertarian instead of doing something that would have required some measure of cooperation with the GOP but would also have done a great deal to advance libertarianism: run for Senate in his home state of New Mexico.

Rand Paul revealed the folly of the Gary Johnson model, where the candidate blames the voters for his own limitations. Paul ran for Senate, won, and now is considered a plausible first-tier candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Libertarian populism’s emergence is partially indebted to Paul’s success as a Republican, because that is where libertarians (and Libertarians) can find enough sympathetic voters to advance their agenda. In that sense, Domenech is on to something with his Fusionism, though I have two concerns about the ingredients of the mix, and they apply to the other two lessons on my list.

The next lesson has to do with social conservatism. The two highest profile social issues are gay marriage and abortion. Self-described libertarians will simply never sign on to outlawing gay marriage. (That leaves open the question of whether there is a sensible get-the-government-out-of-marriage-altogether compromise, which I think there is.) On the other issue, what is the libertarian position on abortion? Conveniently enough, Reason magazine editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie in 2011 took that as their “ask a libertarian” question of the day and gave a brief video response. They both agreed that, technically, there is no such thing as a “libertarian position on abortion” since there is no litmus test for admission to libertarianism. Well, OK–but how do Welch and Gillespie feel about it? From their answer, it’s clear they think abortion should be at least as legal as it is now.

So what happens when, in Domenech’s formulation, the reliable social conservatives are also the most reliable economic conservatives? In the Reason video, Welch says that about 30 percent or so of self-described libertarians are also pro-life. If he’s right, then 70 percent of them aren’t, and that has to be reconciled. If at least 70 percent of libertarians support abortion and gay marriage, how does libertarian populism survive the contradiction?

More broadly, I ask this question because the two most recognizable libertarians in the U.S. Congress right now are Rand Paul and Congressman Justin Amash–both of whom are staunchly pro-life. Amash told Reason in an interview that abortion violates the unborn child’s Fourteenth Amendment rights, and he seemed to suggest abortion should be legal until no later than three days after conception. I should note that I don’t think this should be a contradiction, it just seems like it is. Amash and Paul are correct: the unborn child is the same human person before and after what we consider “viability,” and they therefore have rights. I’m always baffled by a “libertarian” argument that assigns full human rights only to some people and not others.

The third lesson is that libertarians have been somewhat vague on foreign policy, and there doesn’t currently seem to be a libertarian populist foreign policy. This is to be expected, because the internationalist foreign policy has been dominant in the GOP and conservative movement for some time now, so it makes some sense that libertarians would define their foreign policy prescriptions by what they are against, instead of what they are for. But that question will have to be answered, and we once again return to Paul and Amash.

For an example of the intra-libertarian confusion on this, we can turn to a column in the Daily Caller by John Glaser, headlined “Nonintervention must be part of a ‘libertarian populist’ agenda.” Glaser sings the praises of Justin Amash on bringing the GOP back to where he thinks it belongs on foreign policy. But what does “nonintervention” mean to Glaser? Something very different from what it means to Amash. Glaser says the “bipartisan establishment is already leading America into waging dangerous economic warfare on Iran.” But as I’ve pointed out before, Amash supports that “economic warfare.” He supports sanctions on Iran and has even counseled keeping military action on the table. In Glaser’s definition, Justin Amash is no libertarian populist; he’s a dangerous member of the dreaded bipartisan establishment! Good luck forming a winning electoral coalition on those principles.

I don’t mean to suggest that Glaser speaks for other libertarian populists–I imagine he doesn’t. But back in the Jesse Walker post I linked to, Walker says he interprets libertarian populists as proposing “a new three-legged stool for the GOP: anti-corporatist economics, an anti-imperial foreign policy, and (on the federal level, at least) a defense of privacy and civil liberties.” But “anti-imperial” is an exaggerated response to a straw man. He says nothing else about foreign affairs in that post.

Again, all this seems to be in the formational process, and nobody claims to have all the answers. Additionally, this is a moment when libertarians should be heeded on a host of issues, since their warnings about, say, over-regulation were prescient and their fidelity to constitutional principles is both admirable and necessary. But the prevailing conservative mainstream is pro-life and tends to support an internationalist posture to protect global free trade and America’s traditional postwar role in the world. If libertarians want to provide an alternative to that, it will be a valuable discussion to have; but it will be equally fascinating to discover if and how the current elected libertarians will even have a place in that movement.

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Is Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy “Libertarian”?

Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

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Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

Amash was recently profiled by National Review’s John J. Miller, in which Miller noted that Amash was touted by Reason magazine as “the next Ron Paul.” In his interview with Miller, however, Amash made a point of differentiating himself from the elder Paul on issues including foreign policy. (Amash said “Ron Paul was an important educational figure, not a typical politician,” quite far from a ringing endorsement of Paul’s congressional activity.)

In an earlier interview with Reason, Amash provided much more insight into how he views his libertarian foreign policy. Here is a telling series of exchanges between Amash and Reason editor Nick Gillespie:

reason: What about in Afghanistan and Iraq? Because there was an authorization for the use of military force. Is that still binding? What’s wrong with that as a blank check for the president to keep prosecuting the war on terror?

Amash: I think it’s okay for Congress to give authorizations that—it doesn’t have to read “Declaration of War.” I think what the Founders really intended was that Congress would be the starting point for all this. So whether you call it an authorization or a declaration of war is not as big a deal to me. But the war in Afghanistan, that’s the longest war in U.S history, and now—

reason: Should we have invaded Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, at the time. And it should have been for a limited purpose: to take out the terrorists who targeted us on 9/11.

reason: You have been an outspoken critic of the use of drones, particularly in countries we’re not officially at war with. But going after bin Laden in Pakistan, say: Is that legal under the authorization that sanctioned intervening in Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, to go after bin Laden. He was clearly in charge of the operation and I think it was legal to go after him. There are a lot of other situations where it’s more questionable. If we’re going after people who have nothing to do with 9/11, whether they are terrorists or not, it’s the president’s job to come back to Congress and say, “This is who we’re going after and this is why,” and for Congress to give the authorization.

That was Amash justifying the legality of the Iraq War while supporting the invasion of Afghanistan and sending the military into Pakistan to get bin Laden. Elsewhere in that same interview, Amash struck a thoughtful balance on Syria, and gives the following answer when asked about sanctions and military action against Iran:

Iran is a much more real threat. They speak out against the United States on a regular basis; it’s pretty clear they’re trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Sanctions that are directed toward preventing them from getting weapons of mass destruction, I think those sanctions are useful and helpful in the short run. I’m not sure you’d want to use them for 20 years.

But there are other sanctions that are targeted at the people of Iran. Those are not beneficial to the United States. If I felt Iran was a genuine threat to the United States, I would give the president authorization to do what’s necessary.

Amash also spoke about the emotional significance of the 9/11 attacks to him and how the event spurred his increased interest in politics. None of this is to suggest that Amash’s foreign policy priorities are indistinguishable from those of, say, John McCain. But it’s important to understand the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA. It has obvious populist appeal and is well worth the discussion Paul has raised.

But the question of whether Paul’s opposition to drones and wiretapping portends a libertarian shift in GOP foreign policy obscures the more important question: What, exactly, do we mean when we say “libertarian foreign policy”? Rand Paul has been vague enough on his own worldview, aside from the use of drones, to keep this question unanswered. But if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself–and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.

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Libertarians in the Limelight

Despite revelations that racist newsletters were produced in his name, as well as the media’s obvious desire to paint the Republican Party as broadly racist, Ron Paul was often the subject of fascination rather than hostility from the political press during the 2012 Republican primary season. The press was reduced to inventing stories of bigotry to tar the reputations of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, but seemed far less interested in the low-hanging fruit provided by Paul.

The reason for this is not because the mainstream media possessed any sympathy for Paul’s libertarian ideology; the opposite was (and remains) the case. It is because Paul was never viewed as anything more than an insurgent underdog. Paul also provided something else the media appreciated: an eccentric mascot for the libertarian wing of the GOP. And lastly, the newsletters, to those who supported President Obama, had simply surfaced at an inconvenient time. They would be much more useful to Democrats in a general election, not a competitive primary.

That’s why there was a sense of déjà vu when it was revealed that Ron Paul’s son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, had hired Jack Hunter, a neoconfederate shock jock known as the “Southern Avenger,” as an advisor. And now Jim Antle reports that after Rand Paul’s initial defense of Hunter, the latter has resigned from Paul’s office. Antle calls attention to the generational echoes of the controversy.

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Despite revelations that racist newsletters were produced in his name, as well as the media’s obvious desire to paint the Republican Party as broadly racist, Ron Paul was often the subject of fascination rather than hostility from the political press during the 2012 Republican primary season. The press was reduced to inventing stories of bigotry to tar the reputations of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, but seemed far less interested in the low-hanging fruit provided by Paul.

The reason for this is not because the mainstream media possessed any sympathy for Paul’s libertarian ideology; the opposite was (and remains) the case. It is because Paul was never viewed as anything more than an insurgent underdog. Paul also provided something else the media appreciated: an eccentric mascot for the libertarian wing of the GOP. And lastly, the newsletters, to those who supported President Obama, had simply surfaced at an inconvenient time. They would be much more useful to Democrats in a general election, not a competitive primary.

That’s why there was a sense of déjà vu when it was revealed that Ron Paul’s son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, had hired Jack Hunter, a neoconfederate shock jock known as the “Southern Avenger,” as an advisor. And now Jim Antle reports that after Rand Paul’s initial defense of Hunter, the latter has resigned from Paul’s office. Antle calls attention to the generational echoes of the controversy.

As I wrote when the news broke, Hunter’s presence in Rand Paul’s office showed the limits of Paul’s efforts to separate himself from his father in the public’s mind. But even more than the questionable judgment on Paul’s part, the scandal over Hunter went mostly ignored by the national press, serving as a warning sign to Paul. He was getting the “kooky libertarian foil” treatment rather than the one he has carefully, and often skillfully, cultivated: poised presidential frontrunner.

This was Paul’s first major stumble; he flirted with exaggeration during his filibuster, but his drone-Fonda hypothetical resonated with a public growing increasingly uncomfortable with the power and reach of the federal government. Rand Paul can easily occupy the space on the debate stage vacated by his father’s exit from the political arena, but he doesn’t want to be a sideshow. He wants to be president. His credibility, therefore, especially this early in his career, is everything.

And because he wants to be president–and soon–the stakes for libertarianism are high. There has scarcely been a time when the American liberal establishment had more to fear from a credible exposition of libertarian ideology. The Democratic Party has made increasing the size of the federal leviathan the animating feature of its modern dogma. It is not a tool to improve policy; it is the goal in itself. The president’s obsession with federal power is reflected by the rank and file of his party. And the disastrous effects of this obsession are clearer every day.

The moment is ripe, then, for a counterargument that puts individual liberty back in focus. But far too many Americans don’t yet know what to think of libertarianism, and they are not helped by the political class. The American left doesn’t know what libertarianism is, but they know they don’t like it. And they are desperate to define it before it goes mainstream. The emergence of Paul Ryan on the national scene, for example, inspired many liberals to pretend they had read the works of Ayn Rand.

I wrote about President Obama’s fumbling and completely unsuccessful attempt to feign knowledge about Rand here, though it was difficult to outdo the New Republic’s inexplicable and unironic designation of “the Randian paradise that is Russia.” More recently, there was Michael Lind’s widely mocked column in which he asked “why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?” Even the Economist was aghast at the logic at play. Paul Krugman did his best to bail out Lind by publishing an attack on libertarianism just as nonsensical as Lind’s but to a wider audience.

So if the left has no idea what libertarians think, libertarians have a golden opportunity to define their philosophy and make the case for its mainstream applicability. The rise of the Tea Party and the excesses of the Obama administration have also made the broader conservative movement more receptive to limited government than it has been in decades. In COMMENTARY’s January symposium on the future of conservatism, Jonah Goldberg warned about the “fading of conservatism’s libertarian brand.” Goldberg continued:

For good and bad reasons, liberalism has managed to cover itself with a patina of libertarianism. Some of this stems from changing attitudes about sexuality. Conservative opposition to gay marriage sends a powerful cultural signal that makes the GOP seem Comstockish and scary, at least to the elites who shape the culture and to younger voters.

That argument is familiar enough. But what allows the Democrats to seem more libertarian isn’t just cultural marketing, but a widespread acceptance of the idea that positive liberty is more important than negative liberty.

Given the recent spate of columns from the organs of the left, Goldberg’s argument has renewed relevance: if the Democrats don’t even want to pretend to be libertarians, then the label is up for grabs at a time when the libertarian approach to policy has so much to offer the cause of American liberty.

Rand Paul may not have asked for the responsibility of more fully integrating libertarianism within the conservative mainstream, but in many ways that’s the predicament he finds himself in at the moment. Which means he has both far more to gain and far more to lose than his father did in 2012. And so do the party and the nation he hopes to lead.

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Rand Paul, the “Southern Avenger,” and the End of the Benefit of the Doubt

Rand Paul’s political career got off to a rough start. Almost immediately after winning the GOP Senate primary in 2010, and thus becoming the odds-on favorite to win the general election to be Kentucky’s junior senator, he was asked by Rachel Maddow a question he had been asked many times before about the Civil Rights Act. Maddow asked him the question because he has always given a long and winding response to it–something that would crater on a political talk show designed for sound bites regardless of the topic but was particularly egregious given the subject.

Paul’s answer left unforgivably unclear whether he would actually have supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, leading to days of press speculation and inquiries as to where the senator-to-be stood on the landmark piece of civil rights legislation. (He began future answers by stating clearly he would have voted for it.) But this was more than just a case of a rookie politico mishandling a sensitive question from a hostile host; it went to the very heart of whether libertarians could shed an image that is in many cases unfair and exaggerated but continues to put a ceiling of popular support over their heads.

And that image owes much not to libertarians’ political rivals but to their own political figures, like former Congressman Ron Paul, in whose name a racist newsletter was published and whose followers spewed baldly anti-Semitic chants at American politicians. (The politicians in question weren’t Jewish, but no one ever accused the snarling bigots of adhering to logic and reasoning.) Ron Paul, who proclaimed America to blame for the terrorism perpetrated on its soil and elsewhere, is also Rand Paul’s father.

It may be unfair to brand the son with the sins of the father. But as our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman reveals over at the Free Beacon, the son is undermining any argument in favor of giving him the benefit of the doubt:

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Rand Paul’s political career got off to a rough start. Almost immediately after winning the GOP Senate primary in 2010, and thus becoming the odds-on favorite to win the general election to be Kentucky’s junior senator, he was asked by Rachel Maddow a question he had been asked many times before about the Civil Rights Act. Maddow asked him the question because he has always given a long and winding response to it–something that would crater on a political talk show designed for sound bites regardless of the topic but was particularly egregious given the subject.

Paul’s answer left unforgivably unclear whether he would actually have supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, leading to days of press speculation and inquiries as to where the senator-to-be stood on the landmark piece of civil rights legislation. (He began future answers by stating clearly he would have voted for it.) But this was more than just a case of a rookie politico mishandling a sensitive question from a hostile host; it went to the very heart of whether libertarians could shed an image that is in many cases unfair and exaggerated but continues to put a ceiling of popular support over their heads.

And that image owes much not to libertarians’ political rivals but to their own political figures, like former Congressman Ron Paul, in whose name a racist newsletter was published and whose followers spewed baldly anti-Semitic chants at American politicians. (The politicians in question weren’t Jewish, but no one ever accused the snarling bigots of adhering to logic and reasoning.) Ron Paul, who proclaimed America to blame for the terrorism perpetrated on its soil and elsewhere, is also Rand Paul’s father.

It may be unfair to brand the son with the sins of the father. But as our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman reveals over at the Free Beacon, the son is undermining any argument in favor of giving him the benefit of the doubt:

A close aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) who co-wrote the senator’s 2011 book spent years working as a pro-secessionist radio pundit and neo-Confederate activist, raising questions about whether Paul will be able to transcend the same fringe-figure associations that dogged his father’s political career.

Paul hired Jack Hunter, 39, to help write his book The Tea Party Goes to Washington during his 2010 Senate run. Hunter joined Paul’s office as his social media director in August 2012.

From 1999 to 2012, Hunter was a South Carolina radio shock jock known as the “Southern Avenger.” He has weighed in on issues such as racial pride and Hispanic immigration, and stated his support for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

During public appearances, Hunter often wore a mask on which was printed a Confederate flag.

Prior to his radio career, while in his 20s, Hunter was a chairman in the League of the South, which “advocates the secession and subsequent independence of the Southern States from this forced union and the formation of a Southern republic.”

There is much more at the link, including comments from Hunter himself in an interview with the Beacon.

During the George W. Bush years, one surefire way to tell someone had a conspiratorial view of foreign policy was if they would whine wild-eyed about the Jewish “neocons” who supposedly steered American foreign policy according to Israel’s wishes. The far left and Ron Paul’s followers on the right were particularly obsessed with this idea, and they retained this psychosis long after Bush left office. The inane among them still talk this way, and apparently that category includes Hunter–the man who speaks for Rand Paul’s social media apparatus:

randpaultweet

It should go without saying that this is a silly way for a United States senator to talk, not least because Americans would like to believe their representatives are above this sort of thing. But I suppose it’s nice to know at least that the voice behind this asininity is Hunter’s, not Paul’s. But if the best thing you can say about Paul in this regard is that he hired a dim neoconfederate clown to speak for him, that doesn’t reflect all too well on Paul, does it?

Rand Paul seems to surround himself with the same sort of people you had the unfortunate experience of encountering around Ron Paul. And according to Goodman’s article on Hunter, Rand Paul’s staff are under the impression that Rand agrees with Ron on policy, but is just willing to “play the game” (i.e. mislead the public) better than Paul the elder. Perhaps that means it’s time for Rand Paul to make perfectly clear where he stands on all these issues, rather than issuing vague pronouncements and letting the public guess.

Rand Paul is widely respected even by those with whom he often disagrees as being a straight-talking man of principle. But his close advisor and sometime spokesman suggests Rand is really just a less honest version of Ron. If Rand thinks he’s worthy not just of a Senate seat but of the Oval Office, he’s going to have to do a hell of a lot better than that.

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Rand Paul, Gary Johnson, and Libertarians in the GOP

Rand Paul’s filibuster has already taken on legendary status and been championed as a libertarian challenge to the Republican Party’s conservative establishment. But what is often ignored is how much of a challenge it was to Paul’s own libertarian following. Paul’s triumph was by its own success also a keen declaration of libertarian failure. To understand why, you’d have to have noticed a tweet in support of Paul that came at nearly 9 p.m., toward the tail end of the filibuster. Using the #StandWithRand hashtag, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson tweeted the following:

garyjohnson

Johnson has close to 117,000 Twitter followers, and that tweet was retweeted almost 3,000 times. Yet I wonder how many noticed the irony. Johnson’s Twitter biography reads: “I am the Honorary Chairman of the Our America Initiative, two-term Governor of New Mexico, and was the 2012 Libertarian candidate for President.” It is that last part that tells the story of how Rand Paul is changing conservative politics.

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Rand Paul’s filibuster has already taken on legendary status and been championed as a libertarian challenge to the Republican Party’s conservative establishment. But what is often ignored is how much of a challenge it was to Paul’s own libertarian following. Paul’s triumph was by its own success also a keen declaration of libertarian failure. To understand why, you’d have to have noticed a tweet in support of Paul that came at nearly 9 p.m., toward the tail end of the filibuster. Using the #StandWithRand hashtag, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson tweeted the following:

garyjohnson

Johnson has close to 117,000 Twitter followers, and that tweet was retweeted almost 3,000 times. Yet I wonder how many noticed the irony. Johnson’s Twitter biography reads: “I am the Honorary Chairman of the Our America Initiative, two-term Governor of New Mexico, and was the 2012 Libertarian candidate for President.” It is that last part that tells the story of how Rand Paul is changing conservative politics.

Johnson ran as a third-party candidate for president, against the GOP after first attempting to win the GOP nomination and being generally ignored. But Johnson had another option in 2012: instead of running for president as a third party to take away votes from the Republican ticket, he could have run for Senate in his home state of New Mexico. Johnson was a popular two-term governor of the state and there was an open seat in the 2012 elections, which the Democratic candidate won. In 2011, Johnson was asked by a libertarian blogger why he wouldn’t consider running for the Senate seat. Here is that blogger’s write-up of the response:

Gary told me he would not consider making a Senate bid because he considers the role of Senators to “shoulder up to the trough” and bring home money to their constituents. He says they’re part of the problem, and that he doesn’t think he can make a difference in that position like he could as president.

Paul effectively proved him wrong. Johnson is marginalized now instead of possibly having been able to join Paul in his filibuster from the Senate floor. Not only is Paul a leading libertarian voice in the Senate on an array of issues on which he doesn’t hesitate to challenge party leadership, but he is also considered a frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That is, it would not be shocking for this libertarian contrarian to be crowned as the Republican Party’s standard-bearer three years from now.

Working within the GOP is the surest way for libertarians to influence national policy and politics. That may sound obvious–and it should. The GOP may not have a spotless record on libertarian issues, but of the two major parties it is the only place for someone like Rand Paul, who is a pro-life libertarian. Liberals consider such a politician to be at once a raging theocrat and Ayn Randian anarchist-lite. Rand Paul’s very existence is a source of horror and confusion to most Democrats. And a Senator Gary Johnson would have been justly welcomed by the national GOP. Indeed, Johnson’s–and other libertarians’–insistence on the White House as the only path to power in American politics shows he has fallen prey to what libertarians themselves rightly call the “cult of the presidency.”

Just before November’s presidential election, libertarian Randy Barnett wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the creation of the Libertarian Party was a mistake. He made the correct point that Libertarian Party voters only make it more likely that a Democrat will be elected, and that since the Republicans have more in common with libertarians, the latter’s success will mean pro-libertarian policies become less likely. I find idealism, especially in Washington, to be an often-admirable antidote to modern political cynicism, but libertarians of all people should have a handle on the real-world unintended consequences of quixotic political action.

In his latest column, James Antle points out the extent to which attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference–not necessarily representative of the GOP overall but certainly a barometer of grassroots enthusiasm–agreed with Rand Paul on a whole host of issues. Paul seems to have reminded libertarians of a basic rule of politics: you can, and must, win the argument. Antle makes a key point when he writes:

It’s easy to see how this libertarian moment could be undone: elect a sufficiently hawkish Republican president and much of this sentiment on the right could recede. It’s also possible that this wing of the party tries to rise too fast for its own good. If Justin Amash were to run for Michigan’s open Senate seat next year and lose, followed by Rand Paul pushing forward with a competitive but unsuccessful presidential campaign rather than running for senate reelection in 2016, the movement could be without its two most prominent elected leaders.

There still may be a ceiling over the heads of libertarians in the GOP, which is staunchly pro-life and generally socially conservative, not to mention more hawkish on foreign affairs than Rand Paul (and much more so than his father’s legion of followers). That’s to the GOP’s credit. But if libertarians want influence in the party and on the national stage, they’ll need to work to elect libertarian voices to offices besides the presidency. Just ask Gary Johnson.

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The Intellectual Evolution of George Will

In an elegant and erudite speech (see here and here) at Washington University on December 4, 2012, the conservative columnist George Will, in speaking about America’s political philosophy, said this:

And these [natural] rights are the foundation of limited government – government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.

A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions – private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones – that supply the conditions for liberty.

Will went on to postulate this:

A nation such as ours, steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics… Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limiting purpose of securing natural rights.

A conservative, equally elegant and erudite, offered quite a different understanding of things:

A purpose of politics is to facilitate, as much as is prudent, the existence of worthy passions and the achievement of worthy aims. It is to help persons want what they ought to want. Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passion.

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In an elegant and erudite speech (see here and here) at Washington University on December 4, 2012, the conservative columnist George Will, in speaking about America’s political philosophy, said this:

And these [natural] rights are the foundation of limited government – government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.

A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions – private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones – that supply the conditions for liberty.

Will went on to postulate this:

A nation such as ours, steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics… Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limiting purpose of securing natural rights.

A conservative, equally elegant and erudite, offered quite a different understanding of things:

A purpose of politics is to facilitate, as much as is prudent, the existence of worthy passions and the achievement of worthy aims. It is to help persons want what they ought to want. Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passion.

This conservative went on to say this:

we need a public philosophy that can rectify the current imbalance between the political order’s meticulous concern for material well-being and its fastidious withdrawal from concern for the inner lives and moral character of citizens… we must rethink today’s constricted notion of the legitimate uses of law.

And this:

The institutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individualism – family, church, voluntary associations, town governments – with collective concerns have come to seem more peripheral. Using government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives… If conservatives do not want to use government power in behalf of their values, why do they waste their time running for office? Have they no value other than hostility to government? … National character is a real thing, molded in part by law and politics, and it is not made of marble.

The conservative who said these words was also George Will. He wrote them in 1983, in a book titled Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does.  

My point in juxtaposing George Will then v. George Will now is not to be critical of him. In fact, I admire Will. His writings, especially Statecraft As Soulcraft, had a significant shaping influence on me and on several of my closest friends and colleagues. And the fact that Will’s views have changed over the years may reflect well, not poorly, on him, demonstrating a mind that is open to a new interpretation of things.

What I do hope is that before too long, Mr. Will does what I don’t think he has done, which is to help us understand his journey from what he called “strong government conservatism” to a much more libertarian view of things.

I will admit that my own intellectual sympathies are more with the early Will than the current one. Over the years our laws–on civil rights, drug use, smoking, crime and incarceration, welfare, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, genocide, apartheid, the size of government, and much else–have helped shape the dispositions and habits of the polity. “Much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres in life,” Will wrote 30 years ago. He argued that desegregation explicitly and successfully changed individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. “The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people.” Perhaps a new book or speech by Will, on why statecraft should not be soulcraft, will cause me to reexamine things. 

But whether it would or not, I hope Will–one of modern conservatism’s most significant and exceptional conservative writers and thinkers–directly addresses his intellectual evolution. I for one would be fascinated to know why Will today holds views philosophically at odds with Will circa 1983. And I imagine others would as well.

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Ron Paul’s Farewell Address

Some old stalwarts—Gary Ackerman and Howard Berman, for example—are leaving the U.S. House of Representatives, Ackerman voluntarily and Berman after an election defeat. The 112th Congress will also see the departure of some its most eccentric members: Dennis Kucinich lost a bitter primary battle, and Ron Paul is retiring. On November 14, Paul gave his farewell address, and it was vintage Paul. While I’m sympathetic to his libertarian approach on social issues, value individual liberty, and embrace the concept of a small, lean government, I also believe in the necessity of a strong military. Paul’s rambling conspiracies regarding AIPAC and his fierce isolationism have always turned me off as have, frankly, the even nuttier approaches of some of his followers.

Still, Paul’s address should be a must-read. As Alana Goodman pointed out, his son, Senator Rand Paul, is a likely presidential candidate in 2016 and wants very much to revamp the Republican Party. Paul can count on his father’s supporters, and then some, as he understands how to package himself as a mainstream candidate without any of his father’s “crazy uncle” excesses.

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Some old stalwarts—Gary Ackerman and Howard Berman, for example—are leaving the U.S. House of Representatives, Ackerman voluntarily and Berman after an election defeat. The 112th Congress will also see the departure of some its most eccentric members: Dennis Kucinich lost a bitter primary battle, and Ron Paul is retiring. On November 14, Paul gave his farewell address, and it was vintage Paul. While I’m sympathetic to his libertarian approach on social issues, value individual liberty, and embrace the concept of a small, lean government, I also believe in the necessity of a strong military. Paul’s rambling conspiracies regarding AIPAC and his fierce isolationism have always turned me off as have, frankly, the even nuttier approaches of some of his followers.

Still, Paul’s address should be a must-read. As Alana Goodman pointed out, his son, Senator Rand Paul, is a likely presidential candidate in 2016 and wants very much to revamp the Republican Party. Paul can count on his father’s supporters, and then some, as he understands how to package himself as a mainstream candidate without any of his father’s “crazy uncle” excesses.

President Obama’s re-election only delays the inevitable: economic reality is going to hit, and hit hard. Ultimately, the Republicans—and frankly the country—will have to choose between two camps: A Paul Ryan-type embrace of fiscal realism, or a Ron Paul-like melding of libertarianism, isolationism, and conspiratorial ramblings about those who do not agree that isolationism is in American national interests. Ron Paul was courteous enough to pose dozens of questions. Perhaps it is not too early to push Rand to answer them and stake out clear positions early on his father’s most conspiratorial beliefs, especially when it comes to insinuations of his opponents’ lack of patriotism and dual loyalty.

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