Commentary Magazine


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.

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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