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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Libertarianism is Not a Source of Political Happiness

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Libertarianism has for decades been the idea of a respectable and moderate version of rightism. But now, to hear some libertarians tell it, rightism itself is a racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, benighted doctrine of chaos. Mr. Trump’s campaign was, to them, a symptom of a general collapse in civilization, as exemplified by the left-right divide and creeping social authoritarianism.

That is, the logic of the left-right divide is an ideology that provides a template of political reality. And that template excludes reasonable people who hold opposing views.

Those who saw Mr. Trump as a down-the-rabbit-hole nutball were right, of course. I didn’t just say that, as I explained in my column last week, my belief was “… a paean to the ideological unity of the left/right and to the winners, the winners, the winners.” No, I called the GOP nominee a “racist, sexist, xenophobic, nativist demagogue” who “engages in nihilistic demagoguery in the style of Bush the Elder and Truman the Younger.”

I wasn’t alone in declaring Mr. Trump dangerous. New York Magazine columnist Frank Rich, Slate’s John Dickerson, and even Ross Douthat, a prominent New York Times conservative columnist, were all warning of the road ahead. Such apocalyptic warnings were accompanied by defense of moderate politics and the general contours of American life. Mr. Douthat often chided the idea that Mr. Trump would do great damage.

But then a couple of weeks ago, a young libertarian scribe announced at a libertarian event that he was dropping off the political spectrum altogether. After winning reelection as a Republican legislator in 2014, Randy Friese went from endorsing conservative and libertarian politicians to rejecting both those parties altogether.

“I want to acknowledge that I’m no longer a Republican,” he said. “But I still want to defeat the Democrats.”

To be sure, Mr. Friese has issues with both parties. Republicans are too corrupt and too intolerant; they are also, he said, “like zombies.” But he now shares libertarian critics of the left as well as of the right. Although he co-authored a Washington Monthly article explaining why libertarian principles still have a lot to offer, he now has reason to fear that even if voters can be duped into acting on their economic interests, they will be swayed by racial prejudices and xenophobia.

Since then, I’ve received dozens of emails from libertarian readers sharing their dismay. The idea that libertarians could ever support Mr. Trump — it turned out to be an exercise in wishful thinking after all — seems to have frightened them so much that they can’t even remember what it was about a conservative and democratic virtue they admired.

It strikes me as odd. If nothing else, The Economist notes, plenty of democratically respectable people prefer neoliberal economics to libertarianism. Some conservatives hold strict anti-Communist views. Others, like Rand Paul, can cite reason after reason why libertarians lack the maturity or the compassion to understand the world. Mr. Dickerson doesn’t support Mr. Trump, yet if he were to choose a president today he’d be in the majority among conservatives — and we couldn’t say he was any worse than Mr. Trump.

The point is, neither the right nor the left is obviously a bad place to look to make sense of a crazy world.

That is why it is disappointing that Mr. Friese’s statement so neatly defines Libertarianism, not as a principled or moving and diverse policy agenda, but as a code for true believers. Libertarians are fighting liberals not only on economic questions but on social questions, on restrictions on religious expression and even on more conventional questions of liberty. Conservatives have been rightly attacked as hostile to nuance and cynicism, but they are not the ones who could in principle but of necessity conclude that a true libertarian must be Donald Trump.

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