January 8, 2020 Reading Time: 8 minutes

It’s always an iffy proposition to characterize the public status of a movement, but economist Tyler Cowen is used to making bold moves. In this now-famous statement, he characterizes libertarianism as hollowed out. 

Here is his take. 

Having tracked the libertarian “movement” for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow. One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents. For one thing, it doesn’t seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems, most significantly climate change.  For another, smart people are on the internet, and the internet seems to encourage synthetic and eclectic views, at least among the smart and curious. Unlike the mass culture of the 1970s, it does not tend to breed “capital L Libertarianism.” On top of all that, the out-migration from narrowly libertarian views has been severe, most of all from educated women.

My first reaction is to fight back and refute. There are some contrary data points, and what he characterizes as hollowing out might actually be a sign of maturation and mainstreaming. Who, for example, generally trusts government to do the right thing? About 1 in 10 of us. That’s a huge difference from decades ago. Politically, the Democrats have failed to gain much traction from attacks on markets and Republican calls for more protectionism are always failing to resonate. 

As for eclecticism, that’s an inevitable aspect of public opinion but the general theme of distrust of government pervades nearly all groups. That’s a hugely significant trend, one that undergirds the reality that libertarian impulses are more alive than ever, not only in the U.S. but also around the rest of the developed world. Look at the protests around the world against governments left, right, and center. It’s a growing revolt that knows no bounds. 

That said, there is truth in what he says about a shift in organized libertarianism, at least as regards the delusion that there was somehow building a nationwide movement made up around libertarian postulates embodied in online memes. 

The data-point decline in organized libertarianism (talk about an oxymoron) since the early part of the last decade has been precipitous. Ten years ago, conferences were packed, huge venues were filling up to hear Ron Paul denounce government and the Fed, money was flowing to new libertarian nonprofits, activist organizations, and podcasts were starting by the day. YouTube accounts of indy producers were booming. Big media was paying attention. I even began a new venture designed entirely to facilitate libertarian publishing and discussion. 

Even at the time, I suspected that it was a bubble. It was as early as 2008 when I first saw a YouTube of some rally of political activists claiming to be libertarian. The message was all about taking the red pill, screamed from podiums. The ethos was populist anger – a purely negative message about who we hate and why. There was something about the aesthetic that bugged me: the rationality, calm, and social feeling that Ludwig von Mises said must characterize the liberal movement was all but absent. It didn’t feel right. I was glad not to be part of it. But I wondered what this hot mess would become over time, after their savior failed to gain power. 

A few years later, I recall going to events and talking to people just casually and periodically being shocked at the views told to me in passing. Mostly I encountered extreme rightist thought that could at best be characterized as illiberal, the stuff you can see today at 4chan and 8chan. And I wondered, why do these people assume that I could share their views in this otherwise libertarian environment? Outside my own purview, there was another push in the lefty direction, toward a more welfarist/warfarist rendering of libertarian thought.

After a while, I came to a new realization of the malleability of words, particularly in a political context. There seemed to be many things sailing under the label libertarian. My libertarianism I believed to be the embrace of peace and prosperity through universal human emancipation via the disempowerment of statism at all levels of society, with the purpose of enabling human flourishing.

But there was another view becoming entrenched: libertarianism is nothing more than a demand that the ruling state establishment die the death because it is preventing some people from having the kind of power they want. The power to do what? Maybe you don’t want to know. 

The movement I recall from that period was becoming brutal and entirely too tolerant of hoary and ill-educated belligerence from speakers’ platforms and podcasts. The message seemed to be that if you were mad enough about something, you were a libertarian. And this much I saw coming and predicated: After their guy did not become president (it’s amazing anyone believed it was possible), they moved on to other things. They were still political but things got weird really fast. 

From that point to the present, the change has been dramatic. In every area, the decline is obvious. Conferences are a fraction as big, and they are reaching out ever less. The ones that survive have moved on past economic education and rational discussion toward far-flung concerns over eccentric lifestyles, parenting, eccentric conspiracy theories, and various spiritual longings. Alienation and personal redemption became the theme. To be sure, all of these longings are consistent with the idea of liberty; however, they do not embody the whole of it. Audiences seemed ever more bored by mundane concerns about trade and tax policy, economic logic, or the history of ideas. 

Ten years after the heights of libertarian activism, we see a very different world. What had been built on ebullient political longings was clearly unsustainable. I knew it at the time. There were three general problems that had developed at the time. 

First, political campaigns, whether they intend it or not, even if the candidate is completely earnest, invariably seem to promise a magic bullet to realize one’s aspirations. Want liberty? Just vote for this white knight, he’ll get power, use the executive office, and make the world a better place. No need for slow cultural change through influence or education. No need for the gradualist approach. It’s too late for that. We need executive action now to beat back the enemies of what I believe. 

Political campaigns can’t raise money usually without leading people to believe there is a prospect for success. That’s understandable but it creates a bad habit of mind, the expectation that one’s hopes for life are best realized through screaming, giving money, agitating, and voting. It’s a matter of outsourcing your ideology to an agent of power. When it doesn’t work, what’s next? Often, it is despair and nihilism stemming from anger that your hopes didn’t pan out. It was for the reason that I fully expected that an ideological recession or depression for libertarians would be next. 

Second, another feature of politics is its reductionist character. That doesn’t really work well for the slow task of restraining the state in every way possible. Libertarianism is not a slogan or a meme or a handful of chants screamed by mobs. It is not even a worldview much less a religion or a tribal creed. It is an intellectual conviction that society, and especially in its commercial realm can manage itself better without overarching authoritarian structures. Therefore it believes in diversity, religious liberty, human rights, cooperation over violence, justice, innovation, and universal freedom. 

Third, the movement lost touch with its history, if the activists even knew there was one. The postwar roots of the term libertarian are indisputable: it was a synonym for a word that had been stolen from that generation by the New Dealers. That word was liberalism; libertarianism as a term was a regrettable substitute, or so believed the 1950s-era architects of the term. Liberalism has a 500-year history that built a gradual conviction that society was best left alone to manage itself without kings, princes, popes, and presidents planning the way society should look. It became a generalized preference for freedom over power, peace over violence, private ownership over collective action, and individual human rights over tribal identity. 

Establishing liberalism as an idea in action – which required extreme limits on state power – was exceedingly difficult to bring about. Reestablishing liberty after a century of statism is also very hard work, not only politically speaking but intellectually speaking. There is no fast-tracking either the education part or the realization part. 

The result of this quick-fix reductionism and historical amnesia amounted to shaving off much of the depth and complications of libertarian theory: its roots, its past achievements, its social aesthetic, its universal applicability, its philosophical richness, and its multifarious implications for an operational liberty in real life. Instead what we got was simple, tweetable slogans that were barren of historical and philosophical understanding. The moment that a person’s newfound ideology bumps into intellectual or political barriers, there is a tendency to bail and find something else more enticing. 

This is precisely what happened. That required those of us who have been involved much longer to dig in, soldier on, work harder, and find new ways to be part of the conversation. However, we had to do it without mobs of paying customers and screaming partisans. I consider this a good thing. It seems to me that we are back on track, without the distractions of short-term thinking and the toxic environment of political campaigns to distract us. 

None of this I would call hollowing out. I would call it the failure of a paradigm whose demise was baked into the strategy. What is replacing it is a more serious effort devoted to historical, philosophical, theoretical, and practical work at all levels. In a sense, this is all to the good. This work is necessary to keep the traditional liberal agenda from veering right and left for purposes of political or strategic expediency. Our guides now are what they have always been, the millions of brilliant thoughts and ideas of the masters (John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, among thousands of great thinkers) as well as the sweep of history that proves again and again that liberty works better than state control. This is the liberal tradition; there is no substitute for learning it and living it.

Some people date the decline and fall of sloganized libertarianism to events following the end of the Cold War, when some libertarians, I among them, imagined that they could form a coalition with aspects of the American conservative movement. It was not an entirely implausible plan at the time. The warfarism of the American right was bound up with anti-Sovietism from 1948 onward; perhaps this would die out and make way for a more consistent anti-statism in the new times. It seemed promising at first. This idea, however, gradually morphed in a few years into something different, mainly because the conservatives (the “paleoconservatives) with whom the libertarians linked up were themselves against market economics. As much as they hated welfare and warfare, they had no affection for modernity or appreciation for commercial society – or even much affection for the idea of individualism and human rights.

Gradually, over the course of a few years, the direction of influence shifted from the libertarians bringing the conservatives around to a pro-market position to the reverse. It was a strange thing to watch taking place. The effort began in 1990; five years later, the promise had turned to dust. Murray Rothbard himself had lost interest in the idea by the time he died in 1995. But ideas have an amazing life that extends far beyond their promoters’ intentions. Twenty years hence, the “paleo coalition” had morphed again into apologias for what became a rightist form of collectivism and too great a tolerance for populist agitation, culminating of course in nationalism, authoritarianism, and worse. 

That entire history is enormously confusing and complex to unravel but the lesson should be clear. There is never advantage to be gained by attempting to game the ideological debate through compromises, odd coalitions, political expediency, and gnostic strategies of influence peddling. In the past, liberalism won the day through arguments made with integrity, truth, conviction, research, patience, and the boldness to say what is true – plus the humility to admit that no ideological package has everything precisely right. Any other path proves unsustainable over time. 

There is nothing hollow about the idea that people should be free, that people should expect to live good lives without having their volition and property invaded by public officials who know much less about real life than the people actually living it. It is for this reason that society should be left alone to take its own course of evolution. This is the path to peace, prosperity, and progress. This is the real libertarian position. It’s a broad conviction that has more presence in today’s world than any point in the last century. 

Becoming a libertarian doesn’t mean leaving your humanity behind; on the contrary, it means embracing it fully and believing that the potential of a free life on earth is far from fully realized.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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