Libertarianism's Growing Appeal

Article excerpt

Americans have lived through the age of liberalism, which peaked in the 1960s, and the age of conservatism, embodied by Ronald Reagan. Is it possible that we are now entering the libertarian era?

In 1996, nearly half a million Americans went to the polls to vote for the presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, even though he had as much chance of winning as I have of dancing with the Joffrey Ballet. Recently, libertarianism earned admiring words from archconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley, who occupied the liberal chair on CNN's "Crossfire," now calls himself a "redistributionist libertarian." The Republican Party even has a "libertarian wing" opposed to the repressive moralism of Pat Buchanan and the Christian Coalition.

Most people don't know quite what the word means, but the truth is that America is essentially a libertarian country: one based on democracy, private property, personal liberty and free markets. We were the first n ation ever founded on those ideals. We were also the first one ever dedicated to a proposition that still strikes some people as dangerous: the right to the pursuit of happiness. In the 19th century, people who favored the expansion of freedom were called "liberals." But eventually, that term became synonymous with large, meddlesome, bureaucratic programs. Conservatives sometimes rhapsodize about liberty, but not consistently. Friedrich Hayek, one of the greatest libertarian thinkers, got so tired of being mislabeled that he titled a chapter in one book "Why I Am Not a Conservative." Those who believe in freedom across the board had to give themselves a new name: libertarians. The vast majority of Americans are at least selectively libertarian. Liberals don't want Jesse Helms composing prayers for their kids to recite in school. Conservatives don't want Hillary Rodham Clinton looking over their doctor's shoulder. The American Civil Liberties Union thinks the government should keep its hands off books and videos. The National Rifle Association thinks it should keep its hands off handguns. Deadheads wish they could smoke dope in peace. Cyberfreaks prefer the Internet to be a wide-open, unregulated medium. Overburdened taxpayers want to keep more of what they earn. …


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