Libertarianism Is Still a Mess
Remember Gary Johnson? The former New Mexico governor was supposed to be the rational presidential alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – 2016's respectable choice among the morally compromised. Standard-bearer of the Libertarian Party, Johnson pitched himself as fiscally conservative and socially not giving a damn, a hilariously out-of-touch selling point for a country predominantly composed of socially conservative economic moderates.
Johnson also played the miscast part of an outré ideologue incapable of articulating an ideology well. Unable to locate basic Middle East cities, he wore suits with Nike trainers, like a halfwit intern interviewing for his first job.
It's the least of wonders why Johnson received only 3% of the popular vote in an election year featuring two historically unpopular major party candidates. The man embodied everything wrong with libertarianism: its puritan devotion to abstract concepts, the male-exclusive creepiness, a childlike love of pot. He also lacked its most ennobling traits: bookish brilliance, a sardonic disposition toward politics, and any kind of sophisticated understanding of economics.
It's not little ol' Gary's fault he fumbled his way into failure. The Libertarian Party, despite being organized enough to have a spot on the presidential ballot in all 50 states, is a shambolic organization, complete with overweight men stripping on stage at the national convention. The party leaders don't seem to understand the first intuitive rule in politics: never say what you really think.
Arvin Vohra, vice chairman of the Libertarian National Committee (LNC), recently faced a storm of criticism for reciting libertarian dogma. In a heady Facebook post that would make good fodder for a college discussion group thick in the haze of marijuana smoke, Vohra went full libertarian. From calling U.S. soldiers bought-and-paid-for killers to likening public school teachers to S.S.-Totenkopfverbände, nothing in Vohra's hyperbolic comparisons is surprising to anyone who's read the daily headlines of LewRockwell.com.
Where Vohra crosses libertarianism's faint line is his comments on teenage romance: an area into which no libertarian of any age should venture without adult supervision. On the tricky subject of adult-minor relations, Vohra asks, "Should an adult be allowed to have sex with a teenager?" In true liberty-loving fashion, he answered, "Only the adult, the teenager, and their families/culture should have a say. There is no reason to bring government into it."
It's hard to think of a more quintessential flaw in libertarian thinking than the notion that adults having sex with teenagers is a private matter outside the realm of lawful censure. If you squint your mind's eye hard enough, you can almost understand the libertarian enthusiasm for sanctioned drug use and cutting the military budget to an eighth its current size. But adults macking on teens? In our increasingly standard-less society, thank heavens we haven't totally dismissed our aversion to fully grown men stalking outside the high school gym.
The LNC thinks different. The committee failed to vote Vohra off, not even mustering the support to rebuke him publicly. Vohra's comments stand as a living testament to the libertarian rabbit hole: the dangerous place you fall into when you follow the philosophy to its logical conclusion.
In the age of President Donald Trump, of #MeToo outings of powerful figures, and vertiginous economic dynamism unleashing anxiety among the middle class, philosophical bickering over the age of consent seem quaint, the subject of endless chirping on internet message boards. But that's where organized libertarians find themselves these days, circling the fringes, begging to be let into polite company.
Back in late 2014, when the first rumblings of the 2016 election were heard, the New York Times Magazine asked, "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?" Kentucky senator Rand Paul, son of erstwhile congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, was ascendant. His floppy russet curls graced the cover of Time. Americans, we were told, were tired of state prohibitions on marijuana, fine with redefining marriage, and exhausted with our far-flung foreign policy.
Paul, who inherited his father's enthusiastic following, would champion a new politics, one open to less government intervention in private life and more respect for personal choice.
Then Trump came along, a squall blowing all elitist notions of voters to the periphery. It turns out the country wasn't ready for a libertarian moment. And it certainly wasn't ready to embrace third parties, eccentric and diverse as they may be.
Contra Jonathan Chait, Trump put the libertarian moment to bed, and not too soon.
As a former dyed-in-the-wool Rothbardian, I understand how alluring the idea of totally unencumbered freedom can be. But age and adversity bring wisdom. Libertarianism doesn't work without equal doses of traditionalism and deference for collective decision-making. The individual suffers outside the community. We've known as much since Aristotle.
The Libertarian Party is as ineffectual as it's ever been and has even managed to regress some. Its members have gone all in on social leftism, embracing libertine lifestyles, adopting liberal shibboleths about race and gender, discarding any trace of the cultural conservatism of the party's intellectual forefathers.
What has been the return on this investment? Qualified candidates abandoning the party. Infighting among the ranks. The former president of the leading libertarian think-tank outed as a serial sexual harasser. A total shedding of former principles.
The Libertarian Party lacks a future other than playing the pretend role of a spoiler. An enclave of stoners, sex hounds, basement-dwellers, pagan ritualists, amateur philosophers, goldbugs, and crypto-currency enthusiasts isn't fit to run a laundromat, let alone a country.
If the Republican Party doesn't want to go the way of the Whigs post-Trump, it should continue cultivating the natural constituency already drawn to it. Until the Libertarian Party decides to get up and leave the perpetual graduate seminar, it will remain inconsequential. As it should be.