Libertarianism's Iron Cage: From Ayn Rand to Rand Paul

By Wolfe, Alan | Commonweal, September 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

Libertarianism's Iron Cage: From Ayn Rand to Rand Paul


Wolfe, Alan, Commonweal


In the past decade, libertarianism in the United States has come in from the cold. Once a fringe political movement associated with cranks, conspiracy theorists, and a few economists, it is now an ascendant force within one of our two major political parties. The change can be measured in the difference between the trajectory of Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who ran for president once as a Libertarian and twice as a Republican, and that of his son Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination. Despite having a devoted following, Paul pere was never a real contender for the White House; he was always an outlier and long shot in the GOP field. Paul fils, by contrast, has been treated as a major player by the GOP establishment and the media alike. Meanwhile, causes long dear to libertarians have become nationally prominent, including same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and opposition to the government's surveillance programs--the last spurred by a self-described libertarian, Edward Snowden. In the United States today, libertarianism is hailed by many as the solution to an economy and society stuck in bureaucratic mud, and candidates of all stripes can be found flirting with libertarian themes.

The movement's growing momentum derives in part from the largesse of the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The latter ran as the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential candidate in 1980, and the two brothers have continued to give generously to libertarian organizations like the Cato Institute, the D.C.-based think tank. The Kochs now spend even more money promoting Republican candidates who lean libertarian, and in the post-Citizens United era, this strategy has given them and their political philosophy enormous influence. But libertarianism has also been attracting converts from left of center, especially among younger voters who find its anti-political, live-and-let-live message a refreshing departure from the meddling of big-government liberalism and culture-war conservatism. Indeed, many advocates of libertarianism present their position as a pure form of liberalism, and describe themselves as "classical liberals," equally committed to economic and civil liberty, and equally opposed to state bureaucracy and the legal enforcement of moral codes.

Given such confusing alignments, it might be useful to sketch in some political terms and pedigrees. Is libertarianism in fact conservative, or liberal? In 1960, Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian-born economist and political philosopher known for his unswerving advocacy of free markets, published an essay titled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." Though Hayek's work in economics has appealed enormously to the American right, his self-assessment was correct: the version of laissez-faire capitalism he promulgated allowed little room for tradition, religion, locality, or other core concepts embraced by conservative thinkers from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott. This is not to say that Hayek's free-market fundamentalism is liberal, however. Where Adam Smith's free market would liberate individuals from the caprices of an inflexible mercantilism, Hayek's would chain individuals to a system of rules over which they have no control and which they cannot, by themselves, fully understand. As political philosophies, the liberal tradition to which Smith belongs, and the libertarian one, which includes Hayek, have little in common--and indeed are often mutually antagonistic.

Let me be clear that in criticizing libertarianism, I'm not dismissing its priorities wholesale. I am not condemning policies that break up monopolies in favor of a greater emphasis on choice, for instance; and while I have some misgivings about school vouchers, I also believe that innercity parents should have the same flexibility of options enjoyed by wealthier, suburban parents. On another subject, there is nothing wrong with, and much right about, relying on private institutions such as churches to help those who cannot help themselves. …

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