The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America
By Nick Gillespie & Matt Welch
(Public Affairs, 288 pages, $25.99)
In case you need any further evidence that Washington, D.C. is not a normal city, let me supply just one example: In the nation’s capital, young people attend political panel discussions at night — albeit panel discussions at which alcoholic beverages are served — voluntarily for their own entertainment. Six years ago, I was a speaker on such a panel, pondering whether the “marriage” between conservatism and libertarianism could be saved.
One of my sparring partners was the great Leather Jacket of Liberty and Fonzie of Free Markets, Reason editor Nick Gillespie. During the course of the evening, Gillespie acknowledged that government was getting bigger and more powerful all the time. Nevertheless, he claimed libertarianism was advancing. How did he reconcile these two seemingly contradictory observations?
Gillespie claimed that liberty — and therefore libertarianism — has as much to do with tolerance and pluralism as hacking away at the state. One of his examples of how Americans are freer than in 1970 was the greater ability of unmarried people to check into hotel rooms together. “Afterward, I wondered what the hell that had to do with libertarianism,” the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy (our moderator) later recalled, “and a friend cracked that I must have skipped the part about hot-pillow joints in Locke’s Second Treatise.”
This idiosyncratic view of libertarianism pops up throughout the book Gillespie has co-authored with fellow Reason editor Matt Welch, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America. If you find it odd that the two men who run the country’s best and most influential libertarian magazine don’t think our freedom is necessarily measured by the size of the federal budget, you are not alone. But there is something to be said for the Gillespie-Welch way of looking at things.
Even the most avid political junkie must admit that the most important things in life have nothing to do with politics or government. Faith, family, friendships, the songs you know by heart — these are the things that make life worth living. Yet they are also all things that government and politics can destroy if allowed to spin out of control. This realization is the key to rejecting statism and embracing what Welch and Gillespie call “libertarian politics.”
Accordingly, The Declaration of Independents details the major social and technological innovations that have increased personal choice. (In a section of their book, the authors describe this process as “the democratization of everything.”) The major thing that stands in the way of an air-conditioned, Facebooking, craft beer-drinking, 401(k)-using individual from realizing even more freedom is a government that spends too much, regulates too much, goes to war too much, and — as a result of all these things — is about to go completely broke.
“[L]ibertarianism is about a default preference for the freedom to peaceably pursue happiness as we define it without interference from government,” the authors write by way of definition. “It’s the belief that the burden of proof should rest not on the individual who wants to sell lemonade, paint his or her house purple, hop on an airplane, ingest intoxicants, or marry someone from the same sex…but on any government seeking to thwart or control such victimless activities.”
A presumption in favor of the individual rather than the government would indeed be a major improvement over the political class’s incessant need to Do Something — no matter how poorly conceived or even destructive — in the face of any problem, real or imagined. Indeed, Gillespie and Welch are frequently on target when it comes to the big picture.
Free markets already do so many things that improve people’s lives that we ought to be relying on them more, not less, in areas like health care and education. The public sector’s deepening insolvency can only really be solved by limiting what government does. Politics can be “corrosive to a person’s constitution (to say nothing of our nation’s Constitution).” The differences between big-spending bailout machine George W. Bush and bigger-spending bailout booster Barack Obama are not as great as Fox News or MSNBC might have you believe.
BEYOND THAT, the devil is in the details. To usher in a more libertarian era, Welch and Gillespie appear to be relying on two things: independent voters who hate partisan politics and a Marxian withering away of the state courtesy of the “folks who created everything from the Pill, to venti macchiatos, to Wikipedia.”
Independents have swung so massively in just the past three election cycles one would hesitate to draw any broad conclusions about their politics. In 2006, 57 percent voted for Democratic House candidates. Two years later, they went for Obama by an eight-point margin. Come 2010, 55 percent of independents voted for Republican House candidates. That’s a more than 30-point shift in just four years.
Gillespie and Welch recognize how volatile independents have become, but don’t really explain how their apparent contempt for the two parties will yield libertarian results. Independents threw out a big-spending Republican Congress only to elect a bigger-spending Democratic one. They cast ballots for the people who gave us Obamacare and then voted in the Republicans who pledged to repeal Obamacare, only to be among the first to head for the exits when those Republicans made even semi-serious noises about cutting Medicare. Meanwhile, many independents dislike partisanship because they believe bickering Democrats and Republicans cause the government to do too little, not too much.
Alternatively, Welch and Gillespie cite data from David Boaz and David Kirby suggesting that 14 percent of voters are small-l libertarians and another 59 percent are libertarian-leaners. But according to Boaz and Kirby’s numbers, these libertarians gave plurality support to George W. Bush in 2004, majority support to John McCain, and manifested themselves as swing voters primarily by giving 15–16 percent of the vote to John Kerry and Barack Obama. These may be the four least libertarian presidential candidates imaginable.
Libertarians might reasonably quibble over whether it is better to vote for a Republican who supports Social Security privatization but also favors the Patriot Act or a Democrat who is anti-privatization but also anti-Patriot Act. But what’s so libertarian about voting for an anti-privatization, pro-Patriot Act Democrat?
Moreover, are fiscally conservative, socially liberal hybrids necessarily libertarians? I’d wager you could find plenty of people who would accept both labels who would be willing to raise taxes to close the deficit or force Bristol Palin to enroll her child in a government sex education class. At the very least, it is a definition that doesn’t neatly fit the two most successful libertarian politicians in America, Ron and Rand Paul.
The Wikipedia-ing away of the state is even less likely to occur than a swing voter-led libertopia. There are plenty of Pill users who want the government to give them the Pill for free, deregulated microbrew drinkers who want the government to ban smoking from their bars, and Twitter users who tweet like crazy on behalf of pols who support confiscatory tax rates. Individuals can like freedom for themselves without wanting to extend it to others. They can also enjoy the benefits of freedom while wanting to be protected from its costs.
BREEZILY WRITTEN and mostly correct, this book’s biggest flaw is its failure to recognize that “lifestyle libertarianism” does not necessarily lead to the political variety. Consider gay marriage. Certainly, on one level it involves people peacefully pursuing happiness as they define it. But marriage by necessity also limits one’s pursuit of happiness, peaceful or otherwise.
If the police were breaking up gay weddings and throwing both grooms in jail, like a Stonewall riot at the Metropolitan Community Church, libertarians would obviously be correct to fight this injustice. But giving gay couples licenses and benefits from the state, forcing them to hire lawyers when they no longer wish to live together, and using antidiscrimination laws to tell Catholic Charities where they must place children for adoption at the very least raises different questions than letting someone paint their house purple.
Or to return to Gillespie’s earlier example, which society would be more libertarian: one where the prudish innkeeper is free to ban unmarried couples from his hotel rooms or one where such insidious discrimination is illegal? When freedom and tolerance conflict, which is more important?
The question itself helps explain why many people who broadly share Welch and Gillespie’s politics don’t share their optimism that freedom is on the march. (Where have we heard that phrase before?) Despite positive social trends, government is growing. Unmarried couple or not, you can check out anytime you’d like but you can never leave.