In my RCP newsletter, I’ve been chronicling Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s recent heroics and ascent within the Republican Party. Paul represents, not just the influence of the Tea Party, but also the growing influence of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, which was so famously represented by his father, Ron Paul.
But if the libertarians are a growing influence within the Republican Party, what is the nature of that influence? What is libertarianism?
Among Objectivists of what you might call the mainstream or “orthodox” school associated with the Ayn Rand Institute, the question seemed to be settled many years ago, with Ayn Rand’s dismissal of the libertarians as “hippies of the right” and with Peter Schwartz’s 1986 essay “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.” But it all became unsettled recently when John Allison, a businessman and free-market advocate closely associated with ARI, was appointed as the new head of the Cato Institute, the leading libertarian think tank.
This caused a certain amount of discomfiture at Cato, particularly after a report on Allison’s comments at a conference of Objectivists implied that he was going to clean house and make Cato “a more Objectivist organization.” This raised a lot of hackles among Cato’s foreign policy staff, which has been staunchly anti-interventionist since the beginning of the War on Terror.
The uproar prompted Allison to issue what is known in this business as a “non-denial denial.” He didn’t deny the reports about what he said at the conference, and he admitted that “I was being ‘grilled’ at the event and will not guarantee that my answers were the best.” But he went on to dismiss this “Internet chatter” and to sniff that “The conspiracy theories that seem important in think tanks appear very odd to me.” This strikes me as a pretty insensitive attitude toward intellectuals who were legitimately concerned about whether they were still going to have jobs in a few months or whether they were going to be fired for ideological reasons. I may not agree with the hippie peaceniks in Cato’s foreign policy shop, but having been in their shoes back at ARI, I sympathize with their professional position.
It turns out they needn’t have been too worried, because it doesn’t look like Allison has undertaken any dramatic changes, which doesn’t surprise me. A big, entrenched institution is very difficult to change, and Allison has always struck me as a cautious fellow who is not inclined to rock the boat.
What makes all of this interesting for advocates of Objectivism, however, is what Allison had to say in his letter to Cato about the relationship between Objectivists and libertarians: “now that I have a deeper understanding about Cato, I believe almost all the name calling between libertarians and objectivists is irrational. I have come to appreciate that all objectivists are libertarians, but not all libertarians are objectivists.”
This is another reason why Cato staffers have little reason to be worried. “All Objectivists are libertarians, but not all libertarians are Objectivists” is a standard libertarian formula I’ve heard for 20 years from guys like—well, like the intellectuals at Cato. So it looks like they won the argument.
(Just to refresh your memory, here is the old Objectivist view on libertarians, as stated by Ayn Rand. It is none too complimentary.)
You may have noticed that in Allison’s statement, particularly the part about how “the name calling between libertarians and Objectivists is irrational,” he is throwing Peter Schwartz under the bus, along with more than a few other Objectivists (myself included). For some months, this pronouncement hung in the air, with no official follow-up or acknowledgement. A very significant change had been made in the mainstream Objectivist movement’s approach to politics. We had gone from opposing libertarianism to suddenly being incorporated within it. And it had all been done without warning or explanation.
None of which is any great surprise to me, because that’s how things tend to be done in ARI circles—from the top down. But that’s not the issue here. I have already stated in full my criticisms of the Ayn Rand Institute and have moved on from worrying too much about the internal fissures within this very small movement. What matters is the bigger issue. Is John Allison right? And what is the ideological identity of libertarianism as a movement? If Rand Paul has now become a leading potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, and if he is the public face of a rising libertarian wing in the Republican Party, is that good or bad?
The old Libertarian Party has suffered the usual fate of a third party movement in our political system. If it fails to gain a large following, it is doomed to futility and irrelevance. If it does gain a large following, it will be co-opted by one of the big parties and absorbed into its ideological coalition. So if Rand Paul is supervising the libertarians’ absorption into the Republicans’ ideological mix, exactly what ideological influence is he bringing?
ARI eventually released a statement—in an oddly understated way, as a Q&A item on its website with no byline—stating its new view on libertarianism. The item begins by declaring firmly that ARI has not changed its view on libertarians—but the actual answer turns out to be: it depends.
When this subjectivist approach to philosophy and politics dominated the libertarian movement in the ’70s and ’80s, ARI refused to cooperate with anyone belonging to it. Such cooperation would have constituted a sanction of the anti-ideology of libertarianism. However, today we see evidence to suggest that there is no longer a cohesive libertarian movement. The movement has become fragmented and leaderless (intellectually as well as organizationally), and the term “libertarian” is progressively losing its former meaning.
Thus when someone or some organization today calls itself, or is called by others, “libertarian,” one should not assume that this means the person or organization is part of the anti-philosophical libertarian movement. What matters, in evaluating these individuals and organizations, are the ideas they actually hold and advocate.
The term “libertarian” has been used increasingly over the last few years to mean a vague leaning toward liberty rather than government control…. [N]one of the three political terms—”liberal,” “conservative,” or “libertarian”—has a clearly defined meaning, because there exist no clearly defined ideologies. Consequently, the fact that today someone calls himself or is called by others a “libertarian” says virtually nothing about his political viewpoint.
This is a curiously agnostic viewpoint, and the best one can say about it is that it serves a practical purpose. It threads a very narrow needle, ostensibly reaffirming ARI’s previous stance on libertarianism, but sparing them from having to denounce one of their major donors and one of the movement’s significant leaders. But you can sense the intellectual abdication in this statement from the fact that it is equally agnostic about “liberals” and “conservatives,” declaring that these movements don’t have a “defined meaning,” either. Is the combined intellectual talent of the Objectivist movement actually incapable of defining the nature of contemporary liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism? This is not a very plausible notion.
To be sure, libertarianism is not a philosophy as clearly and specifically defined as Objectivism. It is a broad movement that encompasses a number of different philosophical strains, which have changed somewhat since the movement’s origins in the late 1960s. But we can certainly identify the outlines of the movement and its unique ideological signature.
Take conservatism as an example. Stated on the simplest level, conservatism is the combination of relatively pro-free-market economics, hawkish foreign policy, and religious traditionalism. Philosophically, behind that, the common strain is traditionalism, the view that traditions built up collectively over decades and centuries are the best guide to truth and the best basis for social institutions. (This is why even conservative Protestants were so excited about the papal conclave: they are mesmerized by “the experience of witnessing an institution that follows tradition going back two millennia,” as National Review‘s Jim Geraghty put it.) So the job of all good people, in the conservative worldview, is to “conserve” our traditions. There are better and worse variations on this view— but that is the general ideological direction, and it is the reason why I don’t call myself a “conservative.”
So what about libertarianism? On the simplest level, it is a combination of radical pro-free-market economics, opposition to regulation of our personal lives, and a strong opposition to foreign intervention, foreign aid, and generally to all American involvement overseas. Philosophically, behind that, the common strain is a hostility and suspicion toward government as such, so that libertarians want to restrict, not only the illegitimate powers of government, but also its legitimate powers. In a way, you can think of today’s libertarians as neo-Anti-Federalists. They regard a central government as inherently oppressive, and they want to give it as little power as possible. So “small government,” to them, includes small national defense.
This, in turn, is often rooted in a subjectivism which causes libertarians to place too much focus on legalization of drugs or of prostitution or other vices, as if freedom for the hippie pothead were a higher priority than freedom for the productive businessman and the technological innovator. Yet Rand Paul represents a new strain of libertarianism that is much better at setting these priorities and picking the right battles, so I agree that as the libertarian movement ages and broadens its appeal, the subjectivist element remains as a wing of the movement but is not its inescapable essence.
Within the libertarian movement there are better and worse strains. The subjectivist wing remains in those who embrace the outright nihilism of anarchy or who repeat the vilest anti-American rhetoric of the left. Ron Paul was conspicuous in making some of these arguments. His son is more judicious, but he still brings the basic libertarian outlook with him into the Republican mainstream, including its misguided views on foreign policy.
Michael Gerson—defending the Bush-era foreign policy, which was not all bad—notes that Paul chose to mount his filibuster on an issue that is relatively uncontroversial and has wide support. But that’s not where Paul’s agenda ends.
His actual target is the war on terrorism, which he regards as unconstitutional and counterproductive.
When Paul spoke at last summer’s “We Are the Future” rally in Tampa, he praised his father in particular for raising the issue of “blowback.” “Had he not talked about blowback,” said the younger Paul, “I don’t think anyone ever would have.” This, in the Paulite milieu, is the idea that US policies of aggression and empire provoke terrorist attacks. In his own speech at that rally, Ron Paul claimed that if his non-interventionism had been in force, the 3,000 people killed on 9/11 would still “be alive.”
This idea that we were attacked on September 11 because we did too much in the world—when our reaction to previous al-Qaeda attacks had been to do nothing—is a dangerous delusion. But it is part of what defines libertarianism: a combination of free markets, personal liberty, and anti-interventionist foreign policy, animated by a suspicion of government that encompasses even its legitimate functions.
Obviously, I vehemently disagree with libertarian foreign policy, which is one of the reasons I don’t accept that glib formula about all Objectivists being libertarians. But when it comes to the relationship between Objectivism and libertarianism, I have to admit that it’s not cut and dried, because there is no “Objectivist foreign policy.” That is, there is no one specific foreign policy that can be obviously projected from Objectivist principles. There is a gap between a philosophy and a political program; to go from one to the other requires not just philosophical principles, but specific judgments about the state of the world, about the nature of our allies and enemies, and about diplomatic and military strategy. Ayn Rand herself held a variety of views over the years on the subject of foreign policy and war, and while she was in favor of strongly opposing the Soviet Union during the Cold War, she was also influenced by the anti-interventionists of the 1930s, the very people who were denounced as “isolationists.” So people who accept the same philosophical principles can disagree on their application, and I cannot say that someone who is an Objectivist cannot be an anti-interventionist—only that I strongly disagree with their application of the philosophy in today’s context.
An anti-interventionist Objectivist would fall into the better range of the libertarian spectrum, so the most I can say is that some Objectivists might be libertarians, as the term is used today. But I’m not one of them, and I think we should regard the libertarian foreign policy as a bad influence on the Republican Party.
Fortunately, Senator Paul’s influence on the party will not mean converting everyone to his entire worldview. Other Republicans will tend to take what they want and need from him, and what they want and need right now is an injection of small-government radicalism and a spirit of populist resistance to over-reaching government. This is mostly what is driving the reaction to his filibuster on domestic drone strikes and his excellent statements on the sequester, which made clear that the real problem is that the cuts are too small. Yet while a libertarian rapprochement with the Republican Party will be desirable in some ways, it will also reinforce the neo-“isolationist” turn the party has taken since George W. Bush left office. In my RCP newsletter, for example, I recently mentioned the palpable war-weariness of even such staunch military bloggers as Ace from Ace of Spades, who rose to prominence by arguing against the Democrats’ defeatism during the Iraq War.
This anti-interventionist turn will not be immediately damaging, because there is little point to being a hawk these days. All of the key decisions about foreign policy and war are in the hands of the president, and while congressional power is well designed to stop executive action, it has no real means to force the president to act when he doesn’t want to. And the theme of Obama’s presidency has been a desire not to act, to withdraw from the world, assume a passive stance, and allow events to unfold as they may. It is ironic that Paul was confronting Obama over his reliance on drones for targeted assassinations, because this is just about the only active measure Obama has embraced, as a form of compensation for his inaction elsewhere. It is the administration’s way of saying, look over here, we just blew up the latest #2 man in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy—but meanwhile our diplomats are running interference for the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving Egypt’s liberals high and dry, ignoring a brewing civil war in Iraq, and letting Islamists take over leadership of the Syrian rebellion. And oh, yes, shrugging when our diplomats get murdered in Libya.
So for a while, the Republican rank and file is going to be in a holding pattern on foreign policy, waiting for the next presidential primary—or for a big disaster—before we begin to seriously debate foreign policy again.
The rise of the libertarian influence—and a possible Rand Paul presidential candidacy, which I regard as likely—means we’re going to have to work harder to keep a clear head about the need for vigorous US action overseas, particularly because President Obama is going to leave us with a big international mess to clean up. So we’re going to have to be ready to fight a battle within the right to push back against the libertarian anti-interventionists.
That is one of the big tasks ahead for those of us who are Objectivists but not libertarians.