David Frum has written a very interesting article over at The Atlantic, Why the “Libertarian Moment” Isn’t Really Happening. It is a major push back against this idea that that the country is ready for a libertarian Republican Party. Frum did an excellent job of explaining why this idea is total nonsense. But he’s wrong about why libertarian rhetoric has become so big in the Republican Party since 2009. This is hardly surprising. Frum is a Republican, and as much of a reformer as he may be in some areas, he’s just not willing to admit certain truths about his chosen party.
Before getting to that, let’s lay out the environment, because Frum does such a good job of it. He notes that the idea that young people are turning libertarian is based upon three facts: (1) they are more open to LGBT rights and drug legalization; (2) they aren’t as supportive of Social Security; and (3) they aren’t very fond of either party. If this collection of facts doesn’t sound like libertarianism to you: ding ding ding! You win the prize: you are smarter than a reporter at The New York Times. Frum observed, “[These three facts] reveal (modest) generational self-interest, social liberalism, and political demobilization.”
Frum also noted that the libertarian policies that the Republican Party has been pushing are not the ones that the people want. This is Frum at his absolute best and most insightful:
Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans’ post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. [Actually, they haven’t moved at all. -FM] The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction.
He followed this brilliant insight that (to me) leads clearly to the answer, with a vague argument about the difference between libertarians and conservatives being effectively a matter of degrees. He claimed that the party’s recent flirtation with libertarianism was just a matter of despair. And then, he claimed, “For mainstream conservatives, concerned about the growth of government since 2008, libertarianism can sometimes sound like only a slightly more exuberant version of what they already believe.” Frum really needs to get out more. As Jonathan Chait wrote just this morning:
Public-sector employment has fallen by 700,000 since Obama took office, after having increased by more than a million under each of the five previous presidents.
All the “growth of government” has been due to automatic increases in social safety net programs because we just went through the biggest recession since the Great Depression. Yet Frum just parrots the patently false Republican talking point that the federal government has grown thanks to the secret Kenyan socialist in the White House. No wonder Frum is confused about his party’s recent infatuation with libertarianism.
The issue is very simple. There are big funders who push a one-sided version of libertarianism—most notably the Koch brothers. There is a whole conservative media echo chamber that does the same thing. We must abolish the IRS because of liberty! We must never allow same sex marriage because of religious liberty! The libertarian rhetoric works very well to push the same old Republican desires: cut taxes on the rich, cut benefits for the poor.
But let’s remember back to the start of the Tea Party movement with all its libertarian rhetoric. Remember: it didn’t start because the Bush administration was bailing out the banks. No, it started when the Obama administration decided to use a lot less money to help out middle class homeowners. But the truth is that the movement would have gone nowhere if it hadn’t been for all the money that the Koch brothers put into it and for the constant advertising that Fox News and hate radio did on behalf of it. And when all was said and done, what was the one issue that all these supposed libertarians agreed on: abortion should be illegal. And it is no surprise that the Paul family are libertarians except when it comes to reproductive rights. Because libertarianism in the Republican Party is nothing but a pretense. It is simply a way to make their funneling of money from the poor to the rich look ideologically reasonable.
H/T: Ed Kilgore