The Libertarian Moment Is Not Over
In August 2014, The New York Times pointed to the rise of Rand Paul as a potential signal that the long-awaited “libertarian moment” had finally arrived. Now that the Kentucky senator has dropped out of the presidential race, we can expect the naysayers to come out of the woodwork, declaring triumphantly that such a moment—if it ever existed—is definitively over. To them, I say, “Not so fast.”
To begin with, it’s a mistake to think of political philosophies in terms of “moments,” as discrete instants in time that arrive and then immediately disappear into the past. That’s not how the history of ideas has ever worked. They don’t arrive all at once; they take time—often quite a long time—to sink in and manifest themselves as political change. Neither progressivism, Marxism, nor democratic socialism emerged as fully formed philosophies that immediately translated into action. It took years for these ideologies to gradually insinuate themselves into the consciousness of the people and become political reality. Libertarianism is no different.
Instead of looking for a libertarian moment, we should focus on the libertarian movement as a long march towards something great. It’s not about one candidate; politics is a notorious fickle mistress and electoral successes come and go. It’s about a broader understanding that free men and women can accomplish more through voluntary cooperation than servants to government masters ever will.
There is plenty of evidence that this idea is still burning bright across America. Let’s not forget that Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses while being the only candidate to explicitly denounce ethanol subsidies, a position that was once considered deadly in agricultural states. Cruz proved that you don’t have to pander to special interests if your message is one that resonates with the people. Donald Trump is far from a libertarian, but his meteoric rise illustrates how tired and frustrated voters are with a government that has failed them, time and time again. For all the candidate’s faults, the instinct to reach for a businessman to fix problems created by lawyers, professors, and professional politicians is a fundamentally libertarian one. Marco Rubio’s strong third-place finish in Iowa, far ahead of deep-pocketed dynasty candidate Jeb Bush, demonstrates the same frustrations and desire for something different.
Just because the White House will not be occupied by a libertarian next year doesn’t mean that the movement is no longer relevant. The formation of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 representatives with distinctly libertarian tendencies, proves that the market for pro-liberty ideas is alive and well. In fact, this unique philosophy is becoming a natural part of our political system.
When Ron Paul ran for president in 2012, his message captured the imaginations—and no small number of votes—of people under 30. These are the same people who will eventually be leaders of the Republican Party, and it would be a mistake to dismiss their libertarian inclinations as a flash in the pan. And while Rand didn’t do as well in the presidential election as his dad, it should be remembered that Ronald Reagan finished poorly in 1976 before going on to become one of conservatism’s most cherished heroes. It’s also worth remembering that at that time, Reagan famously said, “[T]he very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”
It’s a mistake to let the political success or failure of one man, in one election, define an entire movement. Rand Paul still has great things ahead of him in the Senate, and potentially in a future presidential run, but the freedom movement is bigger than that. It’s bigger than any one of us, and while I can’t see the future, I have a feeling that it’s only getting started.