What’s left of libertarianism? (slightly updated)

by John Quiggin on August 9, 2014

The NY Times has a lengthy thumbsucker from Robert Draper, repackaging claims by Nick Gillespie of Reason that the “libertarian moment” has finally arrived. Jonathan Chait takes out the garbage on the dodgy opinion poll that is the primary factual basis for the story. Taking the implicit definition of libertarians as voters who take a hard-right line on economic issues (and are therefore Republicans or Republican-voting independents), but are liberal on drugs and sexual freedom issues, it seems to me that if anything, the chance of a libertarian moment is over. That’s because:

(i) the equal marriage fight has pretty much been won by Democrats, with libertarians mostly on the sidelines or, to the extent that they have been part of the Republican coalition, on the wrong side [^1]

(ii) the same will probably be true for marijuana legalisation, and broader drug law reform before long. The recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington follows a steady expansion of legal access under “medical marijuana” laws. Again, this has been done almost entirely by Democrats. Libertarians were more vocal on this issue than on equal marriage, but they stayed within the Republican coalition, and did nothing much to shift the position of that coalition.

Once the issues of drug law reform and equal marriage are off the table, there’s no obvious distinction between “libertarians” like Nick Gillespie and Republicans in general[^2]. The possibility of a libertarian moment, if it ever existed, has passed.

Update Some libertarian commenters are upset that I didn’t give their side enough credit on drug law reform (no, AFAICT, has made such claims on equal marriage). But bragging rights aren’t really relevant. When equal marriage and legalisation are faits accomplis the fact that some Republicans supported them all along won’t be an important point of difference with those who are still unhappy about it.

Further update A reader on my Facebook post points to this technolibertarian event, in which Nick Gillespie, billed as a “conservatarian”, features, along with Rand Paul and racist homophobe Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Relevantly for this post, the article mentions the tactic of emphasising libertarian support for drug law reform and hiding links to the Republicans. As I’ve argued, this is a tactic which will become obsolete once drug law reform becomes a reality .

[^1]: There’s still a chance of a loss at the Supreme Court, in which case the issue will come down, for the medium term, to whether the Democrats win the 2016 Presidential election and the Senate, thereby getting to replace the inevitable retirements. In this context, anyone who votes Republican, whatever their views on social issues, is effectively opposing equal marriage.
[^2]: On immigration, the libertarian line is much the same as that of big business. As regards scepticism about war, the same is true of the realist school associated with The National Interest (they publish me, and some libertarians as well as old-school realists). Moreover, as Iraq showed, the bulk of self-described libertarians turned out to be shmibertarians when the war drums started beating (see Glenn Reynolds). On gender issues, the libertarians are at best ambivalent (on abortion for example) but more often than not, on the wrong side. Notably, on issues like Hobby Lobby, property rights trump the personal freedom of employees.